Pinterest. Waste Of Time? Or, Brilliant, Social Age Market Research Tool?

At first glance, Pinterest seems silly.  Some say it’s a wast of time, and that it’s a place where women are continually planning a wedding – a wedding they probably already had – 15 years ago.  I mean, who cares?  Pinterest seems even more idiotic and trivial than Tweets about what I just had for lunch, or Facebook Wall posts from the Zoo.

But, if you step back and take an archaeological view (or a marketing view), you suddenly realize that therein lies a rich trove of marketing data about our culture and the ways in which people (mainly women) like to present themselves. Because it’s so easy to use, and how simply it organizes your mental filing, it’s easy to understand its rapid growth.

How it works.

Pinterest  supplies categories like “Stuff,” “Home,” “Travel,” “My Style.” The idea is to fill these categories with images. We find something online we like, clip the URL, and enter it under “pin” and, hey presto, the images appear in the general stream and our own Pinterest page. We have “pinned” an image to a “board.” (There’s no theft of intellectual or creative property. Pinterest preserves the link and gives an acknowledgement.)


Not all of this is (p)interesting. As I write this, some knucklehead has just discovered Pinterest and has posted pictures of himself at the gym. Dude, get a shirt. (Adrian Chen at Gawker recently wondered whether Pinterest can survive the wave of “crudeness” that awaits it.) Other people appear to be finding the most obvious images they can. Under “Home,” they put a generic image of a kitchen. It’s not a test!

Pinterest is like filing in public. What used to be a file folder on your desktop is now a display space in the world. Yes, it’s self-promotional, but I believe the deal here is that if you are interesting enough in what you pin, if you create as much value as you extract, then all is forgiven and Bob is your uncle. Notice how Estelle Metayer gently tells us about the projects she is working on. It’s a very soft sell.

Categories are interesting to marketeers. They are the “buckets” into which they organize the world. More exactly, they are the buckets with which they read the world. We have a bucket called “bird.” Inside that is a bucket called “Robin.” As spring approaches, we see winged creatures on our lawn and the buckets leap to the ready. Robin! Bird! Spring! This is culture in action.

From this point of view, Pinterest is a treasure. It’s a chance to see American culture as if from a glass-bottom boat. Yes, some of it is a little reductive. But sometimes what people stuff into the categories is a chance for us to see exactly what they mean. Pinterest is a little Rosetta Stone, a table of equivalencies. Oh, so that’s what YOU mean by home. Here’s what I mean. In a culture that flowers with an increasingly diverse variety, this is useful.

Pinterest also lets us use our own categories. Susan Mazur-Stommen has a category called “Hacks” in which she collects innovations. As she puts it: “I have been collecting stuff on Google Reader for 2-3 years, but I think Pinterest may be exactly what I have been looking for — a great visual set of reminders of ideas I like!”

Isabelle O’Connor uses the following categories: Guilty pleasures, Fashun (sic), Awesome women, Dickheads, Spaces, 90s, Choker, Orthopedic shoes. I am sure there are many other categories that organize her world, but if we were to follow up each of these, we would have a useful map of the things that matter to her. A lot of anthropology, ethnography, and market research is a search for the categories in people’s heads, so this is research for free, and the scholarly and commercial applications are extraordinary. Pinterest founders Ben Silbermann, and Evan Sharp are mapping American culture. Mapping not just the categories but the movements of our culture.

For some time now, and certainly since Clay Shirky’s great work, we have been on notice that the new digital technology makes new categories and new cultural order possible. Pinterest helps us build and share these categories and to specify what we mean in a medium more telling than language. And this makes Pinterest an observation platform from which to study a culture that becomes ever more liquid, responsive, crowd-sourced and generally speaking, dynamic. And this potentially makes Pinterest a place to detect early changes and to get early warnings, a pretty useful thing as our culture accelerates.

There has been some regrettable chatter online that Phoebe Connelly characterizes as “hating on the ladies.” Specifically, some appear to think that Pinterest is a consumer wish list for women. One hater goes so far as to suggest that Pinterest is for “women who wish they were still planning their wedding.” This is sexist drivel and deserves the contempt Connelly shows for it. It misses much of what makes Pinterest exceptional and especially the way it can serve users as an opportunity for self-exploration/self-expression and the rest of us as a particularly rich view of a culture under construction. Of course, if you just want to dork around and tell the world what kinds of stuff you like, then Pinterest is perfect for you.

Acknowledgments: thanks to anthropologist Susan Mazur-Stommen for several useful links.


About Steve King

iPeopleFINANCE™ Chief Operating Officer. Former CEO of Endymion Systems, Inc. a $36m Information Systems Services company. Co-founder of the Cambridge Systems Group, the creator of ACF2, the leading IBM Mainframe Data Center Security product; acquired by Computer Associates. IBM, seeCommerce, marchFIRST, Connectandsell alumni. UC Berkeley alumni. View all posts by Steve King

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