There’s a scene in Girls, Lena Dunham’s “voice of her generation” HBO series, where the dweeby Shoshanna sits on the floor of her Elizabeth Street bedroom, surrounded by magazines. Jessa, her worldlier cousin, pulls off her headphones long enough to inquire what she’s getting up to.
“It’s my manifestation board,” Shoshanna explains, “I use it for inspiration. Like when I’m not feeling inspired I just look at it.”
A riff on “vision boards,” an Oprah-endorsed self-help method from The Secret, the pastime signaled her character’s naïveté, of a kind with her pink velour sweatsuit and Sex and the City worship. A scrapbook for the life one wishes one had, the “vision board” has been mocked by everyone from Barbara Ehrenreich to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But aspirational scrapbooking lives on, nowhere more so than on Pinterest, the image-sharing site that exploded early this year to reach more than 10 million users.
Since then, much has been made of Pinterest’s girliness. Its most active users are overwhelmingly female, and the content they share suggests that, although women now get more bachelor’s degrees than men, the female hive mind is still preoccupied with the prerequisites for the MRS degree. It’s all wedding invitation stationery, clever uses for old wine corks and gluten-free versions of your comfort-food favorites.
It seems like femininity for the pre-Bridesmaids era, but then, not even Girls has totally outgrown it. (“Can I make one?” Jessa asks, puffing on a joint.) Or think of Zooey Deschanel’s Jess, in the New Girl. “I have touched glitter in the past 24 hours,” she triumphantly declares. “that doesn’t mean I’m not tough or smart or strong.”
If she doesn’t have a Pinterest she should.
Kelly Alfieri, Martha Stewart Living digital editorial director, thinks there’s something in the air. Between locavore dining and Etsyism, the Martha Way has filtered throughout the culture. “Pinterest is a way to reach that audience digitally.”
Pinterest’s domestic mania makes it an easy target for the blogger class (BuzzFeed offers “21 Signs Pinterest Has Made Your Girlfriend Crazy and Unstable”). It also makes it the most important front in women’s lifestyle magazines’ ongoing fight to stay influential and relevant across new media.
But as with most digital media experiments, it’s hard to say whether there’s any money in Pinterest. Several magazines told The Observer they met with representatives of the company, suddenly Silicon Valley’s $200 million sweetheart, and discussed ways to work together down the line, including sponsored content and affiliate marketing. (Pinterest itself briefly experimented with affiliate marketing, using Skimlinks, but stopped around the time reporters caught on.) The magazines said that the 21-person start-up, still reeling from its sudden boom, was focusing on improving user experience first.
Still, Pinterest has quickly toppled Facebook and Twitter as the top social media referrer to magazines like Cooking Light and Martha Stewart Living. For Real Simple, it’s second only to Google. So for now, magazine editors are eagerly following Pinterest’s lead.
“I know our reader spends 23 hours a week online, looking at images,” said Anne Fulenwider, editor in chief of Brides. “The more we can make Brides.com a part of that conversation the better.”
Across Pinterest’s horizontal layout, the already faint lines between magazine stories, user-generated content and advertisements all but disappear. The mosaic has a democratizing effect, pitting lifestyle magazines like Real Simple against retailers like West Elm and personalities like fitness guru Jillian Michaels in a daily contest for the most pinnable image.
“We’re enabling people to create a customized experience of our content,” said Alanna Stang, editor in chief of Whole Living.
Of course, no one got into the magazine business to offer personalized newsletters to Great Plains housewives. Flipping through a glossy is a little like taking a professionally guided lifestyle tour, whereas a visit to Pinterest is more of a zigzagging odyssey into the mind of a woman who wants a Hunger Games-themed manicure and a Marie Antoinette-themed wedding. And vice versa!
But with a user base heavily situated in the flyover states (founder and CEO Ben Silbermann hails from Des Moines), Pinterest gives editors a window outside the Manhattan media bubble, like it or not.
“Pink weddings are having a moment,” said Martha Stewart Weddings editor Elizabeth Graves. “Weird, right?”
But once they know, it’s hard to forget. Even if editors and photographers are sick to death of, say, rustic receptions, they may want to try and eke out a few more cute details to please the pinners.
“They want that mason jar,” Ms. Graves explained. “We just need to show them a fresh way to use it.”
Weddings have quickly emerged as a perfect storm of pinning, the Venn center where some of Pinterest’s top drivers—food, fashion, craft and sentimentality—tend to converge in an orgy of aspiration and consumerism. The top Pinterest user is Chrissy Ott’s bridal blog, the Perfect Palette, which seems to have piqued the interest of readers who might be years away from a trip down the aisle. There’s no harm in pinning for later.
“I know one person, she’s planning her daughter’s wedding,” Ms. Graves said. “Her daughter’s 4 years old. The Pinboard is called, ‘Is it too soon?’”
Brides have long used digital inspiration boards, Ms. Fulenwider said, but she hopes Pinterest’s ubiquity will be a powerful marketing tool for the brand update and magazine redesign launching next week.
“Even the people on my staff find it addictive,” she said.
Indeed, a user might set out looking for tips on dyeing Easter eggs, only to enter a rabbit hole of image referrals and find herself, 45 minutes later, reading inspirational quotes from Mormon leader Dieter F. Uchdorf’s address at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ annual conference.
“Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”
Amen and repin!
Without any Pinterest analytics in place, magazine editors are left to play it by ear. At times, the pinners’ appetites are a bit baffling.
Real Simple’s Pinterest calling card is “New Uses for Old Things” photos, said Kristin Appenbrink, of RealSimple.com. Ideas for empty toilet paper rolls perform well; an old ketchup bottle squeezing pancake batter into a skillet was repinned 2,000 times.
“I would have expected show-stopping desserts and adorable crafts to be really popular, but sometimes there are surprises,” said Martha Stewart’s Ms. Alfieri. “Like we had this one, roasted Napa cabbage, that did really well.” Experimenting with more Napa cabbage stories showed the crucifer to be a reliable winner.
“I feel like it might be the next kale,” she said.
Whole Living’s Alanna Stang had a similar experience recently, watching a whole wheat orzo, broccoli and pine nut salad take off.
“It wasn’t our most gorgeous healthy salad,” she confessed.
Maybe the pinners were just hungry. Ms. Appenbrink, of Real Simple, said she sees more interaction when she times posts before lunch and during the mid-afternoon lull, when one might begin to plan dinner.
For now, the biggest obstacle Pinterest faces is copyright. In its early days, Pinterest’s published user guidelines, the ladylike “Pin Etiquette,” aimed to keep Pinterest’s focus on people, not corporations, warning members to “avoid self promotion.” But once Pinterest came under fire from photographers for its users’ rampant, alleged copyright violations, a catch-22 emerged.
Kirsten Kowalski, a photographer who happens to also be a lawyer, illustrated the conundrum in a blog post called “Why I Tearfully Deleted My Pinterest Inspiration Boards.” If one couldn’t use Pinterest to pin one’s own photographs, which would be self-promotion, she explained, and one couldn’t use it to promote another person’s photographs, which would be a copyright violation, what was there left to pin?
Well, magazine content, if they’ll give it to us! And why wouldn’t they? On Pinterest, the gorgeous photography that magazines specialize in gets a second life. Magazine editors can cull their archives for evergreen stories in the name of brand awareness and enjoy any click-through traffic that flows from it. On their own sites, increasingly ubiquitous and convenient “Pin it” buttons make it easier to properly share than to steal.
“We’ve cultivated a community of food stylists, photographers, and recipe developers,” said Bon Appetit assistant editor Hannah Sullivan, who runs the magazine’s Pinterest account. “It’s nice just to have that talent being recognized.”
Outside the worlds of shelter, style, food and weddings, Pinterest’s utility for media companies remains cloudy. For instance, a quick glance at the Huffington Post Style’s Pinterest shows that what’s clickable isn’t necessarily pinnable. On Twitter, The Observer couldn’t resist clicking over to “Invisible Nipples!”—a slideshow of busty magazine covers from which nipples are conspicuously absent—but we can easily resist pinning them up alongside our dream kitchen and fave formal hairstyles. The news, a noble photographic parade of ickiness and bummers, doesn’t pin well, but history does, Newsweek’s archive board suggests.
Even magazines that deal exclusively in the dream life that we desperately strive to pin together for ourselves must be careful to spare us the gory details of domestic self-improvement.
“We have to be very careful with what content we put where,” explained Ms. Appenbrink. “Like cleaning your toilet. On Twitter you can just have a tip and a link. But we don’t want to see a photo of that on Pinterest.”