Having noticed Pinterest making a dent in my social media streams, I’ve been exploring the site over the past couple of weeks. Is it something of value for museums? There’s certainly some potential. So this is the first in a series of posts about the site. Part 2 will cover what museums are currently doing, Part 3 will examine the potential future of Pinterest for museums, and Part 4 will be some link love to what others have written.
Pinterest is an online pinboard. That’s all well and good, as far as it goes, but to me it doesn’t really get to what the site is. So to get a bit deeper, it’s a sharing mechanism that’s heavily graphics-focused. Everything posted to the site is a picture or video, albeit with descriptions attached.
Those who post pins can and do organize them into boards by topic or concept. (Mine are “Museums” “Funny Stuff,” and “Butterflies and other Animals“, at least to start.) It is possible to follow boards that you’re interested in, or all of a user’s boards. You can also repin someone else’s pin onto one of your boards; doing so makes the picture and info show up on your board, but it links back to the original pinner as well as the original source.
Letter vs. Spirit
And there we reach one bit of site culture that’s worth being aware of. It’s possible to load a photo from your computer to one of your boards, but it’s also easy to pin a photo from a website. The latter seems to be somewhat encouraged–as the “What is Pinterest?” page says, “Pinterest lets you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web.” The site’s etiquette guidelines also ask users not to make it a tool purely for self-promotion.
On the other hand, the site also welcomes business accounts, and there’s even a function where stores can pin one of their products and add a price to it. So Pinterest obviously doesn’t intend to exist completely outside the world of commerce.
So while the letter of the rules discourages self-promotion, the spirit allows it under certain circumstances–most of which museums would fall under. The site’s spirit really seems to be about shared interests and visualizations of ideas for them. So while sharing a museum artifact or a product from the museum’s store might have the ultimate goal of promoting the museum, it also probably meets the site’s mission because of the inherent interestingness of that item.
Using the site
What’s it like using Pinterest? It’s a bit overwhelming, really. The site is a bit more meanderable than searchable. Searching “museum exhibits,” for example, gives a few exhibits, some museum logos, and a bunch of pictures of museums. Some very specific searches that I’ve tried are better, although they don’t capture everything. There are also some categories for boards, but they’re quite broad and have the same issues as the search function.
But is it that big an issue? Pinterest’s format makes it pretty easy to scroll through a bunch of content and quickly find what you want and skip over what you don’t want. A search for “butterflies” brings up models with butterflies, butterfly art, butterfly shapes on cake, pinned butterfly specimens, and not a whole lot of the pictures of actual live butterflies that I actually wanted. But when I do find one–which takes under a minute, even though it’s a full 12 scrolls down the page, the real finding starts.
That’s because the board that has one pin of an item you’re looking for is pretty commonly devoted to that item. And if that’s the case, people who repin from the board usually have more of what you want on their boards. And so on and so on.
The site gets repinning right. It’s easy (a total of four clicks: one to bring up the repinning menu, one to bring up the menu of which board you want to repin to, one to select the board, and one to actually repin) and encouraged. My first batch of uploaded butterfly photos had 17 repins before I had even finished loading, and that’s without having followers yet.
So it’s a place where it’s possible to reach people. The next installment in this series will examine how museums are doing so.