Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Does Pinterest Have An Image Problem?

I am not an extreme early-adopter of new technology. I tend to wait until some of my other friends start using a new invention before I jump on the bandwagon. There is a certain tipping point, however, when several of my early-adopter friends are using a service, that it makes sense for me to join in.

A few days ago, that moment arrived with Pinterest. I had been hearing rumblings about this new social media phenomenon for a while, but when a close friend began singing Pinterest's praises, saying it was going to be the "next big thing," I opened an account. In any event, it is good practice to secure one's preferred username on any new service that is becoming popular.

Having explored the site, I can say that Pinterest does indeed offer something unique in the realm of social networks. While Facebook aims for an all-encompassing social experience, and Twitter makes its mark by providing compact bites of information, Pinterest leans all of its weight on the visual format - showcasing primarily images. The result is the most aesthetically pleasing social network I have yet encountered.

The idea with Pinterest is to collect a variety of images from across the internet, as well as from ones own personal gallery of photographs, artwork and video. These images are grouped together into "boards," where they are "pinned" together. In essence, the user creates a variety of electronic scrapbooks, displaying a collage of images by category. The results are often gorgeous, even hypnotizing.

But there is a dark side to Pinterest. Aesthetic beauty can be used to uplift or to enslave. It can draw us into mystery, awe and wonder, or it can lure us to adopt the values of a corrupt order. From what I have observed so far, I am concerned that Pinterest could be a place where our sense of aesthetic beauty is used to take us hostage to the values of consumerism and the idolatry of wealth.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, beautiful artwork is employed as a pathway to union with the Divine. The beauty of Orthodox iconography can have the effect of drawing us into the holy life that they depict, luring us into a deeper relationship with God. In mainstream culture, however, carefully crafted, beautiful imagery is used to draw us away from God's presence. The art of consumer advertising - bankrolled by the wealthy elite and their corporations - employ thousands and spend billions, all with the objective of taking our minds captive to a consumerist worldview.

Few of us today have religious icons in our homes, but virtually all of us have corporate icons. Pepsi and Coke; Mac and PC; various brands vying for our attention and devotion. And though these corporate images are apparently in competition with one another, they in fact share one ultimate goal: To draw our minds away from the love of God in the present moment. Instead, they seek to make us hungry, thirsty, frightened and envious. They encourage us to yearn for what we do not have, and ignore the beauty of those things that we do have.

Pinterest, by its very nature as a social network based in images, presents a great danger of further colonizing our minds. If we are not careful, Pinterest could be one of the most powerful tools for the forces of consumerism and greed to warp our worldview. Ironically, aesthetic beauty can be used to draw us into a downward spiral of despair and self-loathing. Beauty can be used to dominate us, to tell us time and again that we are not good enough, our possessions not beautiful enough, our relationships not potent enough. The image industry pushes us to be perpetually starving for whatever product might bring us closer to the unattainable beauty that is held out before us.

Though I will continue to experiment with Pinterest, I feel a strong sense of caution. There are already so many competing images that seek to draw me out of the love and presence of God, and I should take great care in the images that I invite in. Because images, especially beautiful ones, deliver a message. I need to make sure that I am absorbing the right messages. Rather than allowing myself to be steeped in the iconography of selfish greed and despair, I will seek to have my mind transformed by a radical awareness of the present moment - of its blessings, its challenges, and of opportunities to be of service to others. May my life become an image that invites others into a deeper relationship with the Truth.

6 comments:

Magdalena Perks said...

I have the same cautions about pinterest, but I use it daily. I do find art images with which I have lost touch, and lots of ideas for the garden and simplifying home life. But it is alluring in other ways - I can't scan for images of kitchen storage without scrolling through pages of images of luxurious bathrooms, for instance.

Bill Samuel said...

On the radio this morning they said that 98% of the Pinterest accounts are held by women. So it's not a good service if you want to relate to both genders.

Bill Samuel said...

I remembered the figure wrong. WTOP said approximately 97% of users are women, not 98%.

Matt Hisrich said...

I guess the question that comes to mind after reading your comments on Pinterest is, “Couldn’t much of the same be said about taking a walk?” In other words, if the concern is about objects of desire drawing our minds away from the love of God in the present moment, couldn’t almost anything do just that? By engaging in the world in any way we expose ourselves to potential objects of consumption from bikes and cars and homes and technology, but also an array of other non-market objects of desire that could distract us from the love of God in the present moment – individuals, relationships, nature, etc. Even if all marketing were to cease, we would not eliminate human desire and the capacity of humans to desire that which they should not seek.

Growing up the culture of Evangelical Friends of which I was a part included a heavy emphasis on guarding the mind from Satan’s influence, which could sneak in from any variety of seemingly innocent activities. I eventually came to a place where I felt I didn’t have to live in fear of all the forces trying to control my mind and heart, and have much greater peace as a result. A focus on uncovering all the evil in the world can actually be an obstacle to focusing on what is good and what is God.

A recent sermon I heard expressed similar ideas. The message shared was not that evil doesn’t exist, but that too often we have a tendency give evil too much power and in the process we abdicate our own responsibility. Satan doesn’t have to be a demonic figure, though. We can make satans out of almost anything. Whereas I might be tempted to do this with the state, others might do so with culture or corporations. Can we truly trust that God is greater than any false gods humans create?

Micah Bales said...

@Matt - I think you're totally right. We humans are capable of turning anything into an idol, and we need to cultivate a constant awareness of God's presence and love in our lives.

I'm also empathetic with your upbringing in the Evangelical Church, and I am sure that my words come across a particular way given that background. In my own case, I am coming from a background that assumed, perhaps, too much innate goodness in people, and sometimes ignored our propensity for sin. Our different upbringings probably play a big role in how each of us reads (or writes) this post.

All that being said, I do not think that Pinterest (and all the other tools of marketing, such as television) are equivalent to what goes on when I take a walk. I think it is important to acknowledge that, in fact, marketing is designed to meet particular objectives, and that these objectives may often run counter to our calling as followers of Jesus. I feel that we should be aware of these objectives, and not imagine that these new ways of marketing are somehow "neutral."

Thanks for your comment, Matt. Even if we don't agree, I'm glad that you are giving me the opening to emphasize that I am not critical of beauty or humanity as a whole - I'm just cautious of the ways in which human beings often manipulate one another for the sake of short-term profit.

Matt Hisrich said...

Thanks for the quick response, Micah! I guess as long as we're clarifying positions I should say that I don't necessarily think that Pinterest or any other form of marketing is "neutral." I just want to be careful not to assign more control over to those tools than they actually have, and to acknowledge that to do so may provide the forces of consumerism and greed with an opportunity to warp our worldview in more subtle ways than we might first imagine.