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How We Will Read: Clay Shirky
This post is part of “How We Will Read,” an interview series exploring the future of books from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. Read our kickoff post with Steven Johnson here. And check out our new homepage, a captivating new way to explore Findings.
This week, we were extremely honored to speak to Internet intellectual Clay Shirky, writer, teacher, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. Clay is a professor at the renowned Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and author of two books, most recently Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.
Clay is one of the foremost minds studying the evolution of Internet culture. He is also a dedicated writer and reader, and it was natural that we would ask him to contribute to our series to hear what he could teach us about social reading. Clay is both brilliant and witty, able to weave in quotes from Robert Frost in one breath and drop a “ZOMG” in the next. So sit down and take notes: Professor Shirky’s about to speak.
How is publishing changing?
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a Wordpress install.
The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. Will we have a movie-studio kind of setup, where you have one class of cinematographers over here and another class of art directors over there, and you hire them and put them together for different projects, or is all of that stuff going to be bundled under one roof? We don’t know yet. But the publishing apparatus is gone. Even if people want a physical artifact — pipe the PDF to a printing machine. We’ve already seen it happen with newspapers and the printer. It is now, or soon, when more people will print the New York Times holding down the “print” button than buy a physical copy.
The original promise of the e-book was not a promise to the reader, it was a promise to the publisher: “We will design something that appears on a screen, but it will be as inconvenient as if it were a physical object.” This is the promise of the portable document format, where data goes to die, as well.
Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.
What is the future of reading? How can we make it more social?
One of the things that bugs me about the Kindle Fire is that for all that I didn’t like the original Kindle, one of its greatest features was that you couldn’t get your email on it. There was an old saying in the 1980s and 1990s that all applications expand to the point at which they can read email. An old geek text editor, eMacs, had added a capability to read email inside your text editor. Another sign of the end times, as if more were needed. In a way, this is happening with hardware. Everything that goes into your pocket expands until it can read email.
But a book is a “momentary stay against confusion.” This is something quoted approvingly by Nick Carr, the great scholar of digital confusion. The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was ten years ago because it’s rarer. I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”
It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.
The social piece of reading is a kind of penumbra. It’s something that forms around the text and after the fact. The feature of “highlight this passage and immediately see how many other people have highlighted it”? I mean, ZOMG, no. I want my own thoughts rendered as the most recent entry in the constant, long-running popularity contest that is the Internet – in real-time. Pick it up and do anything you like with it. Tell me later who else liked it. Show them to me, introduce them to me, whatever — not right now. Right now I’m reading.
When people hear “social reading,” they think that it is proximate sociability on the device in real-time. But let’s not necessarily jam the social bit into the experience of reading. The explosion of conversation around those kinds of works is best done after the fact. The phrase “social reading” often causes people to misunderstand what it is.
So, what is it?
“Social reading,” the way I’ve always interpreted the phrase, is reading that recognizes that you’re not just a consumer, you’re a user. You’re going to do something with this, and that something is going to involve a group of other people. Read a book. The very next thing you’re going to do, if it was at all interesting, is talk to someone about it. Book groups and discussion lists are social reading. Because so much of our media in the 20th century was delivered in real-time, with very little subsequent ability to share, save, shift, store, we separated the consumption from the reproduction and use of media. We don’t actually think of ourselves as users of media, when in fact we are.
How are you annotating? When you are annotating, what do you do with those clips?
Because of the Kindle Fire’s touchscreen, it’s finally easier to annotate electronic texts than it is to annotate physical texts. Just grabbing and dragging. And that has changed my pattern around books. The minute it becomes something where I say, “I want to annotate this, I want to remember my own reactions to this,” I have now come to rely on the Kindle more because of this dragability.
You can highlight or you can do something else to add your own words, and the fact that I don’t know what it’s called should tell you exactly how much I use it. When you go down to a secondhand bookstore, you’ll find books with notes in the margins. Someone will underline or highlight a passage, and then what do they write in the margin? “Important exclamation point!” There are these stories of books passing from hand-to-hand with annotations in them. That sense of a book as a repository for collective conversational wisdom is wonderful, but I don’t actually see it reflected in annotation patterns. It’s certainly not reflected in my own annotation patterns.
Really? So then, why annotate?
You annotate because that’s the part you want to keep. There’s the experiential value and there’s the extractive value from books. The experiential value of reading Bruno LaTour’s Reassembling the Social was the character of LaTour’s thought at the particular point in his career. Having had that, because I don’t teach classes on the sociology of science, what I now need from that book is the extractive bit, so if I ever teach that topic, or write about it, I can start where I left off rather than having to take the book down from the shelf.
Everything I do is geared toward some form of talking out loud, as a writer, as a teacher, as a consultant, whatever. I end up doing something active with maybe one annotation out of 20. But what I love about Findings is that it takes the logic of Flickr — when you default to social and give people the opportunity to withdraw, what you’re really hashing out is, what are you doing with the 80 percent of stuff people don’t care about one way or the other?
That is one of the potential shifts in social reading: Can I create value for other people by saying that I found this passage by Bruno LaTour striking — even if I never look at it again? That’s an amazing act of what I called “frozen sharing” in my last book. Being generous about things when you are offering it out to the public, without it being either in a specific time frame or for a specific target.
What I’m saying is — as I was reading it I was struck by this passage. And that sentiment is freeze-dried. Maybe no one ever defrosts it. Maybe it just sits there as an informative piece of meta-data. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference to anybody. But maybe, the fact that I picked out that passage causes it to surface in someone else’s search. Or I could see everybody that picked out that passage. Or I could do a search where I filter for everyone who cared about that passage and show me the other passages they agreed about to get the commonality of the books they read. The point is, by switching to default public, the aggregate value of that information is so much larger than anybody believed it would be in the 1990s.
What is the potential for social reading? Where can it go from here?
Well, it can go any place reading is. There’s a quote from Robert Frost, and I’m not going to get it exactly right, but basically, Men work together, whether they work alone or together. That sentiment, that understanding, is slowly penetrating society.
Social reading doesn’t create a new category. People excerpt and annotate and share and argue and quote and remix. All these things happen all the time. Social reading introduces the idea of text as a usable object. The idea that I’d read it and then do something about it — those actions were always connected, but we pretended they weren’t because the book didn’t have those features. Social reading goes any place where a group of people cares about a particular text.
What I’m hearing is that social reading is already happening.
Yes. And the work social reading is doing now is making text visible, and extending the radius and the half-life of its value.
Lastly — I know that you’re very invested in collective action. How can social reading connect to activism?
Books are historically lousy calls to action because they tend not only to be produced slowly but consumed slowly. The role of longform writing in collective action is much more about synchronization than coordination. Whenever you read the book and whenever I read the book can be years apart, but when we both show up to the same place, we have that shared background.
You could have groups that synchronize around these texts that don’t necessarily call themselves subcultures. The number of people who’ve read, say, The Coming Insurrection is tiny. But it used to be impossible for us to find each other, and now it’s easy. So — if you go to Occupy, and if I go to Occupy, and we’ve both read David Graeber… that sensibility suffuses the crowd, and that crowd is better able to act than it would have been previously. And that synchronizing effect, not so much of time but of shared awareness, that’s a big part of the present change, and one that’s going to be amplified in the future.
Find Clay online at his personal website, his blog, and on Twitter.
(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)
Ranked: Don Draper's Relationships On Mad Men, From Most To Least Dysfunctional
Bear in mind, with this guy, it's all relative.
by Sonia Saraiya
As a woman who loves Mad Men, which returns to AMC this Sunday, I'm both besotted with and disgusted by Don Draper, who somehow manages to be both tenderly flawed and nakedly brutal at the same time. Don burns through women faster than some people change socks. Some of those women try to change him (and fail). Some try to redeem him (and fail). Some try to find some spark of humanity in him to connect with (and fail disastrously). Many have amazing sex with him, but so far, none have saved him. Don and his women are often so damaged by their encounters that we thought it would be interesting to rank these relationships by how healthy they are for both players. Below, Don Draper's sexual relationships, ranked from most to least dysfunctional.
This relationship was a trainwreck we saw coming from a mile away: the shy, devastatingly innocent secretary overwhelmed by Don's lust and good looks. True, Don is single (and drunk) when he casually wrecks her illusions about men, the safety of her workplace, and her self-worth, all in one fell swoop. But his almost perfunctory advance on her, seemingly from a need to feel power over something female in the fallout of his divorce, represents the worst kind of rebound sex. It's all about him; she just happens to be there. And she lets him do it out of a misguided sense of affection that he'll never pay back — or even really understand.
8. Bobbie Barrett
Don's sexual violation of Bobbie while at dinner with his wife might be the most reprehensible thing he's done in four seasons of reprehensible things. It's not consensual or sexy, and the most dysfunctional thing about it is that Bobbie is strangely enthralled by his hate-sex, revealing an intensely jaded woman so used to dealing with powerful men that she embraces their misbehavior and even revels in it. Both of them are fucked up, but they seem almost mutually fucked up, and unlike Allison, Bobbie seems to go into her fling with Don with eyes wide open. She knows exactly how terrible he is, and disturbingly, that appeals to her.
7. Betty Draper/Francis
In some sense, the entirety of Mad Men is about unpacking Don and Betty's relationship — the perfect 1950s relationship that looks immaculate from far away but reveals its fissures as you zoom in. Betty buys into the illusion Don Draper tries to live, but as she slowly realizes that the man who reinforces her self-image is a sham, she herself begins to implode. She and Don eventually force each other to confront the other's illusions, and destroy their life together. The whole thing rates pretty high in terms of dysfunction.
6. Suzanne Farrell
Don has a strange relationship with beatniks, hippies, and other free spirits: he's drawn to them, but he also holds himself above them as a realist. It's just bad news to get involved with your kid's teacher, but Suzanne seems to embrace Don as readily as the complications of her own life. Don even seems willing to take his affair with her further, but the plot cuts it off. Not super emotionally healthy — I mean, cheating on your wife with your daughter's third-grade teacher, right? — but on the Draper scale, that's not even that bad. (It's also, like much of the third season, not that interesting.)
Those California girls, they're undeniable (I'm told). As her name suggests, Joy is less a full-fledged character than an escape for Don, who uses her to disappear from his life for a few weeks in California. There's not much else to say about this seemingly carefree young woman. Both she and Don seem to know what they want from each other from the get-go, and manage to have a fun, no-strings-attached vacation together. No harm, no foul — except to Betty, who remarks pointedly,
Catharsis Through Netflix – Watching Atonement
Sonia Saraiya bio ↓ · February 17th, 2012 · filed under film, rumpus original
On the first day of June, I found myself crying over my dinner while watching Atonement. It was thunderstorming outside, and the rain roared as it pounded on the pavement. Outside my window the street was lit up by paparazzi lightning. Thunder was a slow, constant boom in the background, rising and falling. I remember thinking that it sounded like a plane was circling over ahead, always advancing or receding.
Sirens were floating above the barrage of noise. I found out later that tornadoes touched down in other parts of the state, and FEMA came in to respond to the damage. But at the time I didn’t notice. I was eating a dinner of leftovers alone after entertaining my visiting parents over the weekend. They had helped me do my laundry. And my boyfriend — correction, my ex-boyfriend— had gone out to dinner with us, helped me carry home a table, and then left town. He had been my boyfriend yesterday, but today he was not.
Benjamin and I had dated for over four years, with several heated breakups throughout, but we always got back together. In February I had tried to call it off again, but by April we were back together. He was moving away from Boston on May 31, I reasoned to myself. Either way, when he left, it would be over.
I always used to sort my Netflix queue by what we might both like to watch. In the last days of May, we talked about watching The Kids Are All Right, an unconventional comedy that had good reviews in The New York Times. The day I dropped it in the mailbox, I fiddled around with my queue at work, wondering what I’d like to watch next, when Benjamin and my parents would both be gone. Atonement had been waiting on my Netflix queue for months, silently reproaching me for not finishing the book. (I read half of it, got to the part where it began to be clear how depressing the rest it would be, and quit. In this manner I also quit Lolita and 1984.) I moved it to the top of my list.
At the time I was working for a Massachusetts state senator, as an interim legislative aide. I answered phones, sorted mail, and ran her Outlook schedule with a precision I did not bring to anything else in my life. But the staff was hesitant to bring me on full-time, entirely because I was not from the senator’s district — not even from Massachusetts, originally. They kept renewing my contract for 30 days more, promising to make a decision about my future soon. They were supposed to decide my fate by June 1. All spring, that date was a hard stop in my mind. My college reunion, my parents’ visit, and Benjamin’s move were before it. The future, whatever that would look like, was on the other.
What the future looked like, at least in the short run, was another day of work. A few days before June, after a harrowing period of wondering if I would be able to pay rent, the chief of staff called me into her office and offered me 30 more days. They hadn’t even started looking at other candidates, and as she reminded me again, because they were a political office, they had to be careful to hold a full hiring process so as to discourage any appearance of bias.
So after months of waiting, June 1 was a workday like any other. I paid my rent. I went to work, where I fielded phone calls and ate lunch at my desk. On the way home the clouds were darkening. Commuters on the red line crowded in and out of cars in the busy post-work rush, warily eyeing the darkening sky. I dashed home, ditched my Tupperware and business formal, checked my email, and warmed up my mother’s leftovers. Without the steady chatter of my parents and the warm presence of Benjamin, my sublet room was a very quiet place. My latest Netflix had been abandoned in a pile of unread mail and papers, waiting for a quiet evening. I slipped it out of its neat red sleeve and popped it into my DVD player.
Generally speaking, it’s not surprising that I would cry during a movie. Though I can never predict exactly what will make me cry (Moulin Rouge! left me dry-eyed, but I wept three separate times during Gladiator), I do cry. What’s more surprising is that when I finished Atonement, teary-eyed and hollow, I was taken aback by my own reaction. I felt that the movie had crept insidiously into me and then left, taking something with it. I felt empty; I honestly could not believe it had affected me so much. But later, as I thought about it, I realized that I had deliberately chosen a film I knew would bring me to tears. Unconsciously, yes, but deliberate nonetheless.
An adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel by the same name, Atonement follows a young girl named Briony, who misinterprets what she sees transpire between her older sister Cecilia and the gardener Robbie. They are falling in love, but Briony sees a crime. When an actual crime is committed, and the police investigate, she swears the culprit is Robbie. The police take her word for it, and Robbie and Cecilia are parted. Though they try to fight the injustice of his imprisonment, first the law and then World War II keep them apart. In no way does this sound like it’s going to end well. In fact, as I said earlier, I had even realized while reading the novel that it wasn’t going to end well. Furthermore, the lead roles of Robbie and Briony are played by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Oh dear.
I have a soft spot for James McAvoy. (In fact, I once convinced my sister to make out with a boy primarily because he looked like James McAvoy.) James McAvoy is many things — Scottish, married, Professor X — but most important to me, he is my “type.” I often find myself attracted to short (well, not short, but not tall), muscular men, slim and upright. And now that I thought about it — on the first day of June — James McAvoy looks and behaves a little bit like my ex-boyfriend Benjamin.
I do not, meanwhile, look or behave remotely like Keira Knightley, but I do have a bit of a complex about her. She’s only six months older than me, death-defyingly skinny, and played Elizabeth Bennett, after all. Even though I get snippy about her in clever conversations at cocktail parties, I often empathize with the characters she plays: emotionally expressive and whipsmart women somehow blind to their own charms.
So of course this romance played games with me. A movie with a dynamic, kind young man and a saucy, brazen young woman who fall for each other so quickly, so dramatically, so stupidly. Of course it plucked at my heartstrings and left me feeling hollow. It was a simulacrum of the narrative I had for my relationship with Benjamin.
Critically, Atonement is a good, but not great, movie. An extraordinarily tragic romance, it caters too much to the vagaries of viewers like me — bookish, narcissistic, Anglophilic romantics. In its attempt to maintain literary fidelity it sacrifices filmic quality, which is understandable, but unfortunate. The extended scene of Robbie stranded on the beach at Dunkirk is horrifically accurate, but the significance does not translate from page to screen. Yet something about that opening scene with the young lovers twisted inside me, and left me in a malaise. Despite its directorial faults, the film is extremely well acted and visually lush. The camera caresses the wartime hospital, Cecilia’s striking green dress, and the objets-d’art in the mansion with equal weight.
And that is enough. Though it is useful to respond to films critically, sometimes, a response is mostly pathos — and pathos is different for each member of the audience. Mine fixated on the actors and who they represented, on the scenery so vivid I could sink into it, on the fever-pitch of emotion running through the plot. It reminded me of great love, love that was no longer attainable in my relationship. It also reminded me that for all of the love and drama and passion that was in the biggest relationship of my life to date, it always sounded better on paper than it did in practice. Atonement’s trailer hints at a long-running passion, but in the movie, that burning passion, which ignites with great effect once, never ignites again, leaving the audience bereft.
When the movie was over I tried to finish my dinner and amuse myself with googled images of James McAvoy, but it was hard to shake off the terrible sadness I was feeling. At the time, the only thing that made sense was a fragment of a line from the movie. Robbie writes to Cecilia that he would like to start over with her, to live the life they were meant to live together. He calls himself “the man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you.” Watching an on-screen relationship, the issues seem so surmountable, the differences easily explained. In real life, we don’t have that lens. We’re in the middle of it, and can’t see outside ourselves. If I had ever wanted anything for my relationship with Benjamin, in that moment, what I wanted was the clarity of passion. A love that knew no doubts. A path with no obstacles. A future fixed like a beacon, attainable and knowable. A relationship not defined by confusion and miscommunication, but by a brightly burning flame. That fragment of dialogue was solid. I felt like I could hold it. It was the truth I’d made myself a vessel for.
I didn’t cry when Benjamin left, because it was easier to cry at something on screen, something contained to 123 minutes and 27 inches. And this terrible emptiness was a longing for what might have been with Benjamin, more than for Benjamin himself. If only it made so much sense, as it did in the film. We had a great trailer, but the film never worked right.
My Pins, My Self: Getting Pinned and Liking It
I work in tech, and over the past few weeks I’ve found myself in various conversations about the resounding success of Pinterest. The site just reached 10 million users, and is growing rapidly. But something I’ve repeatedly been hearing from my male colleagues is that they don’t quite get it. They have accounts, and they’ve played around with it, but they don’t understand why it’s so appealing. Meanwhile, I have to impose an embargo on Pinterest during work, because if I start, I won’t be able to stop. So their confusion, in turn, puzzled me. What’s to get?
A sample pin.
Pinterest users are overwhelmingly female. What you see, when you go on Pinterest, is mostly retail. Clothes, shoes, and home goods are a huge category. Another is food. Wedding pins are a huge subset, as are children’s accessories. Travel photos, crafts, jewelry, and design are other common pins. It’s head-scratchingly stereotypically female. Which led me to wonder: Is Pinterest fundamentally feminine in some way?
The answer is no. Pinterest isn’t feminine. Pinterest is a natural offshoot of reading women’s magazines.
I’m not going to dissect the evolution of women’s magazines better than n+1’s Molly Fischer, who traced writing for women from the flawed vehicle of women’s magazines to the differently flawed, but still flawed, vehicle of mainstream “ladyblogs.” Whether or not her criticisms are valid, I think that she accurately and importantly identifies a community of women who used to read magazines voraciously and now exist mainly on the Internet. Perhaps ladyblogs (like this one) have become the new, better forums for community engagement and writing for women. Pinterest, meanwhile, has turned itself into the arm of women’s magazines that I believe we had a more complicated relationship with — those gorgeous layouts and photoshoots that depicted the world we wanted to live in. And significantly, that world was often based in retail goods. As I thought back to how I used to read magazines, it struck me that the process was very similar to how I use Pinterest today.
Buying a magazine was not just about reading what was inside, after all — it was also an opportunity to define yourself by its niche, and to be influenced by the tastemakers who created it. And so if you read Vogue you were a certain kind of woman; if Cosmo, another. But all of these magazines, if they had a visual component, sold something. Not just through their advertisements, but through their features and editorials. Sometimes they sold actual things, like clothes, makeup, books, accessories, and home goods. But the products were often astronomically priced, far out of reach for most people. Though the magazine layouts featured salable goods, mostly they sold a lifestyle. They sold feelings and beliefs, ideals and values. They sold romance, and they sold dreams.
Like many of you, I grew up reading women’s magazines. There was a brief golden period of frequent flier miles when you could trade in miles for magazine subscriptions. Through this I got Vanity Fair, Vogue, Food and Wine, and InStyle delivered to my house at one time or another. I supplemented these with a heavy rotation of grocery-store impulse buys: Jane was my favorite, but I’d settle for Seventeen or Cosmopolitan in a pinch. (I still have all of these magazines shoved into a closet in my parents’ house. It’s a surprisingly comprehensive timeline of the decline of women’s magazines, from 1998 to 2004.)
By the time I was in high school, the way I would read these was almost formulaic. I’d settle down in front of the television, rewatching a Julia Roberts movie, and I would tear an entire magazine apart. I might give it a quick scan first, but the point of having the magazine was to cut it into pieces. I’d rip out interesting articles from time to time, but it was far more important to tear out pictures: fashion shoots, travel destinations, interior design, food porn. Pull-quotes overlaid prettily on charming photos of Europe. Advertisements and original content were equally interesting, if they caught the eye. When the process was over, the magazine was just binding, glue, and discarded images. I’d harvested what was most important into a pile of my own pictures, which often included the cover.
Very representative of the type of advertisement I would pull from a magazine. (Fatima Siad for BCBG Max Azria)
In my experience, the girls I knew had different ways of handling their hoard of clips. Some might go into scrapbooks or inside lockers. I knew some people who would modge-podge magazine cutouts onto their class notebooks. My clippings went on my walls. I’d never thought about it this way before, but you could even argue that I had different boards, because different sections of my room were devoted to different topics. There was a whole section of anime, of course. In high school, the wall over my dresser became a Hollywood board, with movie stars and stills from film. The back of my door ended up becoming eye-catching magazine photography. My closet doors were almost entirely interesting advertisements. I had a few smaller collections: people who I thought looked like fictional characters, the Backstreet Boys, the Lord of the Rings (yikes). I even had a whole section from bridal magazines. Neither the clipping nor the organizing itself was well thought-out. In fact, the more I did think it through, the less my clips meant to me. I was looking for something, and I found it in that moment.
What was I looking for? It could have been anything, really. The way a dress draped over a model’s body. Black-and-white photos of starlets in exotic locales. Interesting one-page columns, like “How to dress like Alias’ Sydney Bristow” or “Silver bracelets from around the world.” “57 Things Every Woman Should Know” — written by a man, of course. Candid photographs of Johnny Depp. Stills from my favorite movies. I was looking for photos, layouts, or quotes that would strike a chord within me — that would resonate with some romantic idea of who I wanted to be. Because I was 15 or 16 when I was going through these magazines, when I saw a photo of a model ascending an airstair wearing a voluminous Michael Kors violet gown, I knew that someday my life would look like that. I wasn’t sure how or when, but it was very clear to me that this vision of femininity was what I wanted. It was the same feeling I got watching Friends or listening to Enya (double yikes) or reading Marian Keyes books. A vision of being an older, more capable woman, financially comfortable, drinking cocktails and going on dates and decorating my apartment in Manhattan.
Fast-forward ten years, and the realities of the economy and rents in Manhattan made much of this vision not true. But that was okay. Because magazines were so passé, anyway. This packaged lifestyle they were selling us — whose life was that, really? Could anyone afford any of these clothes? Was anyone so privileged as to be walking up an airstair in a Michael Kors gown at the age of 22? Was it even possible to clamber up those stairs in a ball gown? As I grew up, magazines could no longer sustain those lifestyle fantasy.
Perhaps that’s just a byproduct of growing up, but I do think the coming of age of the Internet had something to do with it. As online publications flourished and the Internet came of age, taste decentralized. Now the editors of Vogue aren’t the only people that will tell you what to wear; Tavi Gevinson and Bebe Zeva will, too. They might pull stuff from Vogue, but that won’t be the only publication they’re looking at. We aren’t limited to the magazines we get in the mail — we can see all the things, to quote Allie Brosh. There is this sense that we are better than being told what to care about. We no longer have to pay Vogue five dollars to have Anna Wintour tell you what to think about fashion — we can read a blog for free, or better yet, publish our opinions ourselves.
I’m very happy with this stance, by and large. That obsessive magazine reading created expectations for my life that it was going to be impossible to fulfill, especially in the worst recession since the Great Depression. It was nice, as I got older, to feel like I’d intercepted that constant striving towards some sort of beauty or lifestyle ideal I wasn’t going to achieve, and could channel it towards making my own life rewarding, on its own terms.
And then Pinterest came along — and I liked it.
pinterest screenshotWhat I do with Pinterest is arguably almost exactly what I did with magazines growing up. A crucial difference is that I don’t know where the content comes from, though much of it looks like professional catalog or fashion photography. But I feverishly add to my boards with the same diligence I papered the walls of my bedroom — to reflect some idea of who I am, and further, who I want to be.*
The success of Pinterest suggests that it’s not just me who is drawn to this aspirational expression. But I’ve noticed something interesting about the Pinterest community: There’s a self-awareness to this aspiration, too. A common type of pin that floats around from time to time reads something like this: “Pinterest: to plan the weddings we can’t afford, to raise the children we don’t have, and decorate the houses we don’t live in.”
It seems like most of us on Pinterest are in on the joke — we’re buying into a fantasy lifestyle, and selling it to each other. Some of us may be using our boards to plan a real-life event, or to give us ideas for a concrete occurrence, but I think most of us are updating our dream scrapbooks — fully aware those dreams may never happen, but indulging in the fantasy anyway.
But: A little voice in the back of my head says, “Pinterest is how you express yourself… through stuff.” And it’s true that at times Pinterest feels like aggressive Internet window-shopping.
Pinterest the business, I believe, is hoping to leverage on the stuff. It puts pricetags on pins when it can detect a dollar sign, and it gives you the option to search for “Gifts” with different price ranges when you’re browsing. As fun as it is to express yourself, Pinterest is here to make money. Further, it seems like this is exactly what the women’s magazines have primed me for: to express myself through my purchasing power, to bind up inextricably my sense of my future self with my sense of my future things.
But it’s interesting that so many of the pins on Pinterest aren’t attached to a pricetag. They’re more about the idea of the product, or what can be done with the product, than the product itself. I do not pretend to argue that with our pinboards we are not buying into a culture of stuff. But we buy into a culture of stuff by doing a lot of other things, too.
In other words, readers, I can’t really decide if Pinterest is a materialistic retail vehicle, an extremely fun way to shop for shoes, a torturous promoter of a life I’ll never live, or an Internet scrapbook to keep tabs on what I’m excited about. What do you think, readers? Do you have Pinterest accounts? What do you use it for? How does it work for you?
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