The Real Reason Pinterest Is So Popular

I’m not an active Pinterest user, but its popularity at this precise moment is undeniable.  (If you’ve never used Pinterest either, here’s one gent’s handy guide on what to expect from your first time using Pinterest.)

At its most basic, Pinterest is visual bookmarking, in a “Delicious-meets-Tumblr” sense.  You see something you like online, and you “pin” it to your Pinterest board, which eventually comes to resemble a virtual bulletin board of “found oddities,” or whatever else you happen to think is worth sharing.

And apparently, what people really like sharing is pictures of things they want to buy.

This makes Pinterest seem like a haven for materialistic desperadoes living out their consumerist dreams.  But why is a service whose chief value proposition amounts to “Hey, look at all this shit I can’t afford BUT WANT SO MUCH!!!” becoming so popular?

I think it’s because we all subconsciously miss the mall.

My Parents Are Picking Me Up Outside J. C. Penney at 5

For the children of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, commercialism is irrevocably burned into our brains.

From the time we were old enough to watch TV, we’ve been watching cartoons about toys and buying toys about cartoons.  Then, when we reached a certain age (somewhere between 13 and 18), our Saturday mornings evolved, and instead of vegetating in front of a TV set, we were finally set free… to go vegetate at the mall.

I remember weekend after weekend of my parents dropping me off at the (famously gun-shaped) Millcreek Mall in Erie, PA (my hometown), around 10 or 11 most Saturday mornings, where I’d spend all day hanging out with friends in video game arcades, eating fast food and window shopping for all the cool shit I couldn’t afford.

To get to all those “cool” stores (like Spencer’s and Record Den), we had to walk past all the stores we didn’t care about at the time but which I now find myself looking back on fondly 20 years later, like mental landmarks from my childhood.  (I wonder whatever happened to all the college-aged dudes I saw shopping at Chess King.  At the time, I wondered what the right age was to start shopping there.  As it turned out, that answer was “never.”)

Little did we know then that the Internet would render malls nearly obsolete by the time we were finally old enough to buy something at Dahlkemper’s or Mace Electronics (if those stores had still existed).

And while we still have malls today, their vibe has evolved from a collection of mostly-local chains and stand-alone stores into a cookie-cutter collection of national chains.  (Have you been in a mall lately that didn’t have an American Eagle, GAP, Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s and Bath & Body Works?)  Gone are the peculiarities of the malls we grew up with, and in.

And that’s one reason why I think Pinterest is so popular: it lets each user create a modern mall of her / his dreams, from scratch.  It turns each of us into a retail executive, living out our purchase-curation fantasies and allowing us to show off our mercantile taste to the world in a way that shopping in the same stores that everyone else shops in can’t.

Is this a good thing?  Maybe not from a productivity standpoint.  But then again, some people wonder if Pinterest can satisfy the urge to impulse buy, which actually could be productive from a money-saving point of view.

And, if nothing else, at least all your Pinterest friends can see what awesome taste you have (or don’t).  And that’s as true today as it was when you were sporting your high-top fades and hairsprayed poof-mullets outside Orange Julius all those many years ago.

Now, if only Pinterest had a video arcade…

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  • Anonymous

    I think you are being far too nice calling it virtual mall, although that isn’t inaccurate. I think people really love the idea of pinning things, and pictures require very little brain power, so it is a nice way to day dream. It is also voyeuristic- given that you can see what your friends are pinning, and you don’t have to read anything (unlike Twitter)!

    After dealing with Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, I was at first intrigued by Pinterest, but it wasn’t abundantly clear how or why I would use it. Then I found I had a bunch of people begin to follow me on it, even though I hadn’t pinned anything at all.  

    I’m more interested in text content so I doubt that Pinterest will be big for me. I think I may use it as an inspiration board for photography and art inspiration, but every time I try to do that, I feel like I’d rather grab my camera and get out in the real world instead.

    I’ve started to have folks who do love Pinterest, show me how they are using it. Been a few interesting conversations so far- looking forward to more.

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  • Jessica Stewart

    I can only speak for myself on this one, but as an avid Pinterest user, I think that it’s more of an inspiration board than anything. I find new recipes and new DIY projects for just about everything. I collect art inspirations as well. I think that many users like me have in fact always been doing this in the form of making “idea” books from torn pages of magazines. 

    I think it was just something that if you were already doing, Pinterest made a whole lot of sense, and saved so much space! See you later paper magazines!