Trying Really Hard To Like Pinterest

A power-pinner tries to convince a skeptic to start using the visual social network.

Pinterest, the “virtual pinboard” website where users post images of everything from iPod cozies to beautifully designed skylights, is the hottest social network of 2012. The site had more than 10 million unique users in January, and cultural commentators are scrambling to explain its epic appeal. Even though Pinterest is gaining users every day, it still confounds the nonpinning public. In this conversation, Slate Web designer and Pinterest enthusiast Holly Allen tries to explain the site’s charms to Slate senior editor and Pinterest skeptic Jessica Grose.

I’m a nonvisual person by nature, and no matter how many times I try to noodle around on Pinterest, I still don’t get it on a fundamental level—whenever I go to the site the main page just looks festooned with ribbons and everyone seems obsessed with nail art. Can you explain to me why I should be grabbing photos from around the Web and sticking them on a virtual pinboard?

I don’t get what’s not to get. I wonder if those of you who don’t get it aren’t aware of Pinterest’s two parts. Most people seem to know that you can pull up the site and search for things that other people have pinned, and also repin the things you like. But do you know about the part that lives in your browser? By adding the “pin it” button to your browser toolbar, you can use Pinterest to save anything that has an image—what to have for dinner, where to visit on vacation, cute haircuts, awesome infographics, books you want to read.

Say you’re looking for a new apartment and you see two things on Craigslist and four on random real estate sites. Instead of bookmarking six pages you can just click “pin it.” That action brings up all the images on whatever page you’re browsing, allowing you to click your favorite image, write up a little caption, and select which of your Pinterest boards to pin it to. Later, you can go to Pinterest and see all the pictures from your apartment hunt in one place. And the added value is that if you then click that picture, it brings you back to the original Web page with all the nitty-gritty info. See how this has legs?

Jess: I understand how it’s appealing to visual people, but if you prefer text to visuals—photos don’t jar your memory, they don’t excite your senses—how is it more helpful than just adding a regular old bookmark to a browser?

Holly: I think because the visual is a cue—it does jog your memory. You can see at a glance what lies behind the bookmark, if that makes sense. Say you and your husband wanted to renovate your bathroom, and you decided that you really wanted Carrera marble in there and he was on the fence. To prove to him that you were right, you could find a bunch of sites that said Carrera marble is the best thing ever. If you just bookmarked the pages you’d have to weed through a lot of stuff like this:

Marble Bathroom Floor Tiles | House & Home
bathrooms – décor pad
bathrooms - carrera marble luxurious bathroom carrera marble master bath
Installing the Carrera marble backsplash 247reno.

Now quick—tell me which of those bookmarks was the one that had the awesome clawfoot bathtub. You probably can’t. But if you’d used Pinterest, you could. Instead of generating a list of random words in a dropdown menu, Pinterest allows you to find that one at a glance. It’s a way to avoid a lot of, “No, wait. That’s not what I wanted to show you.”

Jess: That certainly makes sense (though I had no idea what Carrera marble was before we began this chat). But I’m confused by something else. In the United States, Pinterest users are mostly women whose interests are crafts, décor, and fashion. But I was intrigued to discover that in the U.K., the majority of Pinterest users are dudes, and their interests don’t really seem visual—according to the website AG Beat, British male users are into “venture capital, public relations, Web stats, SEO, and marketing.” How do you even use Pinterest to display those obsessions?

If you’re pinning graphs, charts, or reports it makes sense. Also, there is opportunity for discussion, feedback, and input there. You can have a conversation recorded right there on your pin.

Jess: Some of our co-workers who shall-not-be-named are uncomfortable with the fact that all pins are public. What if you want to use Pinterest to collect images of cupcakes/wedding dresses/fetish whips but you don’t want the universe to think you’re incurably girly/marriage-obsessed/into kinky sex stuff? How do you get around that?

Yeah, you can’t. All of Pinterest is public facing. If you really wanted to pin girly/wedding/kinky stuff and didn’t want to claim it as your own, I’d suggest getting a little sneaky and titling your pin board something like “Research for Work”—then nobody would suspect a thing. I sometimes “hide” gifts I’m thinking of getting people that way—pin it for later so I don’t forget. See that arrow? It’s pointing to a laser-cut robot clock—a hidden gift I later bought for my sons.

Jess: OK, you’ve convinced me I should put more time into this Pinterest project. But I’m not currently redesigning anything or looking for a specific item of clothing or trying to collect ideas for a specific project. My only Pinterest obsession so far has been Ann Romney’s mesmerizing, granola-filled pin page. What’s a good way for a beginner like me to start using the site?

I’d start simply with a pin board called “Things I Like” or something like that. Start pinning things that you want—ballet flats or a piece of art or a new book or duvet cover or puppy. At the very least, making a wish list with a trail of breadcrumbs back to the source will make it really easy for your hubby to buy your next birthday present.

Corgi-husky hybrid, you will be mine!