Years ago, in my penurious and somewhat traumatic 20s, I got into the habit of collecting interior-design magazines. My parents were splitting, and my family was scattering, and one day I picked up a copy of Elle Decor at an airport and suddenly felt as though I were teleported to Narnia. I didn’t have a house or even the disposable income to purchase nonessentials that cost much more than magazines. But my family moved often when I was growing up, and my mother tried to mitigate this upheaval by reproducing our last house in each new house, while rigorously maintaining a standard of perpetual “magazine readiness.” I guess it had a lingering effect.
A few years later, I reluctantly lent my collection of magazines to a (now former) friend. He had just bought a house that he had no idea what to do with. I, on the other hand, had nothing but ideas. O.K., they weren’t strictly mine, in the sense that these ideas were acquired, arranged, styled, photographed, published and distributed by entities bearing no relation to me whatsoever. They were mine because I internalized them. I gradually convinced myself that they were me.
Of course, I didn’t realize any of this until my friend returned my magazines to me with dozens of pages torn out, having either forgotten or ignored my admittedly ridiculous request that he make photocopies instead. I felt gutted, but I was much too ashamed to admit it. How could I, without sounding crazy? It was better, ultimately, to let the friendship slide into estrangement.
The whole embarrassing situation could have been avoided if Pinterest existed then. Pinterest is a social-media Web site on which users compile collections of pictures they find on the Internet or just browse the collections of others. The site’s name combines the words “interest” and “pin,” in reference to “pin boards,” which are also known in various creative professions as inspiration boards or mood boards — basically a large board onto which appropriated images (torn from magazines!) are juxtaposed to evoke in the viewer a certain feeling, atmosphere or mood. Once the exclusive province of advertising art directors, designers and teenage girls in boarding-school dormitories, mood boards and their electronic equivalents have exploded online. Not just on Pinterest, but also in the form of dopamine-boosting street-fashion blogs and cryptically named Tumblr blogs devoted to the wordless and explanation-free juxtaposition of, say, cupcakes and teapots and shoes with shots of starched shirts and J.F.K.
This kind of visual catch-bin blog has become disconcertingly common, for reasons that a cultural theorist like Walter Benjamin would perhaps be hard pressed to explain. Who knew there was such a large, mainstream market for artfully arranged pictures of other people’s stuff? Or that “curation,” that rarefied and highly specialized skill, would all of a sudden go viral? Pinterest went online in 2010, and by the end of that year it had 10,000 unique users. By January 2012, that number had increased to 11.7 million, making it the fastest site in history to break through the 10-million unique-visitor mark, according to TechCrunch. For this, it has been valued at $1.5 billion.
I’m not a big Pinterest user (more of a lurker, really), but the over-the-top monetary valuation doesn’t entirely surprise me. Long before I heard of Pinterest, I was already spending too much time on “curated” (read: reblogged) design/fashion/image/inspiration blogs. For me, it’s sites like Apartment Therapy, Ffffound, Poppytalk, Oh Joy and dozens and dozens of obscure, exquisite, utterly pointless but oddly compelling Tumblrs. (Some, like the addictive street-fashion blog The Sartorialist, are made up of original photos, but this is more the exception than the rule.)
In fact, in the past half-decade, I’ve probably spent more time fighting the urge to satiate my visual addictions — addictions formed in the process of satiating them, no doubt — than I have actually browsing through magazines. Not because I don’t like magazines. In many ways, I like them better. But they’re too grounded in space and time, too organized and linear, too collaborative and professional to deliver the synaptic frisson available from the stream-of-consciousness image blog.
I used to think this obsession was mine alone. But now nearly everyone I know — and by that I mean everyone who spends vast, barren tundras of time at her computer — goes to Web sites like these to escape, destress, perk up, calm down, feel something, not feel something, distract themselves and (they don’t call it “lifestyle pornography” for nothing) modulate pleasure and arousal. A friend of a friend calls his addiction to sites like these “avenues for procrastination,” but I think there’s something else involved. Like other forms of pastiche — the mix tape, the playlist, the mash-up — these sites force you to engage and derive meaning or at least significance or at the very least pleasure from a random grouping of pictures. Why not dive into an alternative world full of beauty and novelty and emotion and the hard-to-put-your-finger-on feeling that there’s something more, somewhere, where you’re not chained to your laptop, half dead from monotony, frustration and boredom?
Perhaps there’s a neurological component to all this; to the sudden rise of the mood board as mood regulator, a kind of low-dose visual lithium. And have no fear, the new field of neuroaesthetics, which investigates the neural basis for aesthetic experience, is all over it. One theory, for example, holds that if we’re rewarded in choosing one type of aesthetic experience over another, we will learn to respond to the particular characteristics of that experience. V. S. Ramachandran, in his book “The Tell-Tale Brain,” likened this to a behavioral experiment: if a rat is rewarded for choosing a rectangle over a square, it will learn to respond to “rectangularity” and start to favor rectangles in general. So maybe we are like the rats, and what we’re seeking while idly yet compulsively cruising Pinterest is really just the reliably unpredictable jumble of emotions that their wistful, quirky juxtapositions evoke. Maybe that is our rectangularity.
There’s a German word for it, of course: Sehnsucht, which translates as “addictive yearning.” This is, I think, what these sites evoke: the feeling of being addicted to longing for something; specifically being addicted to the feeling that something is missing or incomplete. The point is not the thing that is being longed for, but the feeling of longing for the thing. And that feeling is necessarily ambivalent, combining both positive and negative emotions.
A paper titled “What Is It We Are Longing For?” published in The Journal of Research in Personality, breaks down these “life longings” into essential characteristics. They target aspects of our lives that “are incomplete or imperfect”; involve “overly positive, idealized, utopian imaginations of these missing aspects”; focus on “incompleteness on the one hand and fantasies about ideal, alternative realities on the other hand”; result in a “temporarily complex experience” combining “memories of the past, reflections on the imperfect present and fantasies about an idealized future” (this is called “tritime focus”); and that “make individuals reflect on and evaluate their life, comparing the status quo with ideals or successful others.”
In other words, your average Pinterest board or inspiration Tumblr basically functions as a longing machine.
Pinterest’s sudden and spectacular rise has been met with some skepticism, and it’s often talked about in that particular dismissive way reserved for things that have the temerity to seem both frivolous and feminine. Not surprisingly, some of this loathing is internalized. Someone on Pinterest once posted a slide that read: “Pinterest: Where women go to plan imaginary weddings, dress children that don’t exist and decorate homes we can’t afford.” But to focus on the “aspirational” aspect is to miss the point. People don’t post stuff because they wish they owned it, but because they think they are it, and they long to be understood, which is different.
Pinterest didn’t create this urge to use visual evocations for little pleasure jolts; in fact, its success lies precisely in being behind the curve. The site’s co-founder, Ben Silbermann, has said that in creating the site, he was just picking up on something people were already doing — i.e., collecting beautiful things and using them as a way to express who they are to the world — and making it easier for them to do it. What the company provides is a clean, well-lighted place to collect found images and share them with others. In fact, the company discourages people from posting images they have created themselves, preferring that they venture out into the wilds of the Internet looking for beautiful things to bring back to the cave.
Silbermann suggests that collecting online is a form of self-expression for people who don’t create. “If you walk around Brooklyn and ask people how they express themselves,” he said in a speech at New York University, “everyone’s a musician or an artist or a filmmaker. But most of us aren’t that interesting. Most of us are just consumers of that. And when we collect things and when we share those collections with people, that’s how we show who we are in the world.”
Not everyone buys into this, of course. Here’s The Awl’s co-editor, Choire Sicha, for instance, on the subject of rebloggers who fancy themselves curators: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation. Call it what you like: aggregating? Blogging? Choosing? Copyright infringing sometimes? But it’s not actually curation, or anything like it. . . .” To which a commenter added: “My Tumblr isn’t so much curated space as it is a symptom of deeper pathologies made manifest.”
“Curation” does imply something far more deliberate than these inspiration blogs, whose very point is to put the viewer into an aesthetic reverie unencumbered by thought or analysis. These sites are not meant (as curation is) to make us more conscious, but less so. That might be O.K., but it also means they have a lot more in common with advertising than they do with curation. After all, advertising trains us to keep our desire always at the ready, nurturing that feeling that something is missing, then redirecting it toward a tangible product. In the end, all that pent-up yearning needs a place to go, and now it has that place online. But products are no longer the point. The feeling is the point. And now we can create that feeling for ourselves, then pass it around like a photo album of the life we think we were meant to have but don’t, the people we think we should be but aren’t.