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How sociologists (and other social scientists) can use Pinterest



22 June 2012

I have recently discovered Pinterest, a social media platform which has recently become very popular. The concept of Pinterest is overwhelmingly visual and draws upon the idea of older techniques of collage or scrapbooking: collecting interesting images, grouping them together under a theme and displaying them to others.

As a visual bookmarking site, self-described as a 'virtual pinboard', Pinterest allows users to 'pin', or transfer digital images to an interest 'board', or webpage that they make themselves and give a title to. The images are then collected together on this board and made available for others to see. Users may 'repin' images from other people's boards, pin images they have found on other websites or use images of their own (their own photographs or infographics, for example). A wealth of high-quality and diverse images are available to use for Pinterest purposes.

One important feature of the site is that each pinned image has a commentary box below it which allows the user to provide details of the image or comment on it. There is quite a bit of space provided for such commentary: up to 500 characters. The website is set up so that pinning or repining is extremely quick and easy. Users can install a 'Pin It' button (bookmarklet) on their computer so that when they come across an image they wish to use it is simply a matter of clicking on the button and the image is added to one of their specified boards. Other people may 'follow' boards, comment on them and may be invited to contribute pins to them.

It seems that few academics are using Pinterest at the moment, or have even heard of it. But closer inspection and reflection on the capacities of the platform led me to think that Pininterest had the potential to be a very useful tool for sociological research and teaching (as well as for other academics in the humanities and social sciences).

Because of its emphasis on the visual, it is most relevant for the purposes of curating and displaying images that are related to the subject matter one is researching or teaching about. Pinterest boards can be used by sociologists for the following purposes:

• To display images which are related to the topic of a book or research article you have published. The weblink for the relevant board can be given in the article or book so that interested readers can view the images which you have collected on that topic. The commentary box allows you to provide some analysis or contextualising material under each image.

• To display infographics: data represented as graphs, tables, social maps, flow-charts and figures relevant to the board topic.

• As a repository for images you have collected that can be used and analysed as part of a current or planned research project.

• To display images of book covers written by others on topics related to your boards that you have found especially useful or interesting.

• Boards can be used to publicise and promote your own academic writing. This only really works with books and blog posts or website pages, given that Pinterest is overwhelmingly a visual medium and has limited space for text. However if you wanted to promote your research article, you could include an image of the journal's cover and give the title of your article in the commentary box below, along with a link to its online version.

• Universities or individual academic departments or research groups can set up their own Pinterest sites and use boards to promote research and teaching initiatives.

Some ideas for university teaching include:

• Giving your students access to a set of images that are related to the unit subject are teaching. The images can be displayed on your computer during class-time, or the link can be provided to students for them to view the boards out of class time. You can use your own boards or others' boards. (If there is a good board already existing on a particular topic there is probably no point replicating yourself unless you curate a substantially different set of images or one specifically tailored to the content of the subjects you are teaching.)

• Engaging students and promoting their understanding of the visual and cultural dimensions of a topic by asking them to make their own boards and curate images relevant to a topic, or together contribute to one big shared board. Part of this activity could be asking students to provide analytical commentary for images, or to write an accompanying essay that analyses the images or contextualises them in relation to academic scholarship on the topic.

• Collaborating with other academics to share ideas and resources for teaching.

Last, there is the opportunity for sociologists and other social scientists who are interested in researching digital cultures or commodity culture to use Pinterest boards that others put together as a source of research data. The questions of why Pinterest is currently so popular, what types of photographs and topics are selected by users and what all this may imply for concepts of identity and the presentation of the self, media use, social relations and so on offer great potential for academic research.

Further information about Pinterest for beginners can be found here:

• 'Know your internet: what is Pinterest and why should I care?":

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Contact: Kate Mayor

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