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Pinterest as Free Market Research

Pinterest as Free Market Research

Grant McCracken is a research affiliate at MIT and the author of Chief Culture Officer. His most recent book, Culturematic, is forthcoming this May from Harvard Business Review Press.

My first reaction was panic. You know how it goes. First I heard about Pinterest. Then I heard that it grew 429% from September to December 2011. And I thought, Oh, my god, the future is preparing to leave without me…again.

So I raced to have a look. Pinterest was lots of images. Contained in several boxes. Lots of images, several boxes. OK, so this is … what?

This is a critical moment. Do we stay and dig in? Or cut and run? The temptation is to cut and run because, well, what if we waste 20 minutes figuring out that this is nothing? What if we unwrap this package and there’s nothing inside?

My theory, these days, is that the only real way to assess something in the digital world is to use it. And this means spending enough time dorking around to get the hang of it.

I use “dorking around” deliberately because you know how this goes too.

We don’t really grasp what we are looking at, so we are obliged to proceed fitfully and awkwardly, trying this, trying that. And of course, there’s always the small fear that we are about to do something stupid, as in the early days of email, when your colleague actually managed to message “Philips is a complete tool” to everyone in the company.

So it’s a double bind. Refuse to use the technology and we end up behind the curve. Use the technology and we risk wasting our time or, worse, embarrassing ourselves.

I pressed on, because, as I say, you can’t know unless you do. Pinterest makes things easy. It 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.)

pinterest.jpg

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!

I filled in a couple of categories, trying just about anything. I actually made a category called “cats.” I know. Then I did one called “places and spaces” and that was fun. Then I did “People I Admire” and put in Stewart Brand because really this guy is some combination of Waldo and Dr. Who, and has the astounding ability to turn up in exactly the right place at the exactly the right time.

And then I found a more original purpose. In May, I’m publishing a book called Culturematic. The manuscript is locked up but I am still finding examples. Pinterest proves to be the perfect place to put them. It’s like filing in public. What used to be a file folder on my 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 anthropologists. They are the “buckets” into which we organize the world. More exactly, they are the buckets with which we 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, andEvan 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 thispotentially 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.

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

SOURCE: Blogs.HBR.org

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