Last fall, my cousin Jen introduced me to Pinterest, a new social network organized around “idea boards.” Users “pin” inspirational photos, designs, and fabrics they like and group them into themed boards, like “Bedrooms for Little Girls” or “Crafts With Kids,” to share them with friends and perfect strangers. Jen is a party planner who loves matching napkins and plates. As a mom and a blogger, my clothing alternates between pajamas and old jeans from the Gap. (If I’m getting fancy, I’ll add bracelets and boots), so I initially ignored her suggestion. But last week, buried under a mountain of post-vacation dirty laundry and a long grocery list, I felt like procrastinating enough to finally sign up.
When I logged on, Pinterest suggested that I set up my own boards with titles like “Favorite Places & Spaces,” “My Style,” and “Books Worth Reading.” The site’s sample board, “Products I Like,” grated on me. Did they want me to provide free advertising for peanut butter and cleaning equipment? Faced with the earnest overload, my first impulse was to create evil idea boards, like “Obscure Diseases I Think I Have” or “Strange Stinks in My House.”
But soon I had assembled a board of lovely pictures from a recent Vogue article about the new Islamic art exhibit in the Met. Then, I made a board of clothes I thought a professional writer would wear. “Cool Vacation Spots” came next. It was fun to create a prettier world for myself. And the adrenaline hit that came from others “liking” my boards fueled the desire to make more and more.
Pinterest’s lethal combination of social media competition and escapism helps explain its massive popularity—10 million members and 1.36 million visits per day. In January, 11.7 million visitors came to look at the pictures of Easter eggs, impossibly high heels, and hamburger recipes; 68 percent of them were female. According to Ignite, the typical Pinterest user is a middle-aged woman with some college education and a household income between $25,000 and $75,000. But even among my Ph.D.- and master's degree-educated personal network, Pinterest boards abound.
For overworked professionals and parents like us, Pinterest provides a type of personal gratification we don’t get elsewhere. Even if we’re working 60 hour days or sleepily carting the kids to soccer practice, it lets us slip easily into the role of handy, happy housewife. I’ve felt this rush of feminine validation before: When I was a grad student living in a cramped New York City apartment, I filled that void with a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. I’d spend hours paging through Martha's ideas for potted African violets and fun things to do with orzo. Did I ever actually pot African violets or cook up sautéed mushrooms with my tiny pasta? No. My apartment was too small for company, and I was too busy studying for exams. Instead, I ate egg sandwiches from the corner Korean deli, drank a lot of beer, and read Martha to satisfy my longing for a backyard garden, bountiful meals, and dinner guests in pastel-colored sweaters.
Pinterest—like Martha Stewart, Etsy, or newspaper articles expounding on the joys of artisanal pickles—allows us to quickly satisfy those typically feminine, domestic expectations that our careers and schoolwork have rendered impossible. Pinterest makes us feel like we’re actually doing something, even though few of us will actually act on any of our idea boards—just as I never left a potted violet by my one window in my New York apartment.
Why are we so hungry for the flowery dresses on Pinterest and the brew kits on Etsy? We’re busy and burned out. Some of us, like my husband and our friends, are putting in 60 to 80 hours a week at the office under the constant fear that they’ll be fired if they head home early. Others, like me, face dismal laundry piles and soccer schedules without a spouse to share the burden. We’re either increasingly alienated from domestic life, or beaten down by its monotonous realities.
As our free time shrinks, we turn to Pinterest to fantasize about having the time to grow organic tomatoes and create sparkling castles for our children's bedrooms. We long to walk away from our office computers and minivan wheels and make things with our hands. So we pin images of women floating through gardens in flowery dresses, and approve of our friends who share in the fantasy, too. We may never make that bucolic scene a reality, but in the meantime, Pinterest is making big money off letting adults play make-believe.