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.