Features Published 3 September 2012

A Point of Pinterest

Young critics dig deep into the social media site.

Catherine Love

Catherine Love: Image sharing network Pinterest, while largely being adopted as an aspirational and materialist lifestyle statement, has opened up serious consideration of the role that images might play in the construction of criticism in the digital age. There is a natural assumption that words can allow cerebral, considered analysis, whereas a response created through the use of images is much more immediate and visceral, but I wonder if this is necessarily true. Is there a way in which images can be curated and linked to provide greater depth of analysis?

While Pinterest is inherently limited in its lack of flexibility, as Daniel has previously discussed, the image-based mode of criticism that it enables poses intriguing possibilities. The use of images as one component of the review – particularly using the Pinterest model of ‘pinning’ images from elsewhere on the web – could allow for a more horizontal form of criticism that looks to other influences and art forms, reconnecting theatre with a wider, inter-linked cultural ecosystem.

I also wonder whether Pinterest and its like might be better suited to certain productions or events rather than being broadly applied to the whole theatrical spectrum. It certainly lends itself to the festival experience, as I found when creating my Pulse pin board, and could also be a helpful way of conveying particularly visual elements of the theatrical experience. Perhaps we should not be thinking of Pinterest as an isolated form of criticism, but as one part of the critic’s toolkit?

Dan Hutton: I’ve so far created seven Pinterest reviews (if indeed that’s the right word?) and one festival round-up, and still I feel I’m learning about the best ways to use the medium. Just as the young critic has to learn how best to use prose to get her point across and spends a good while discovering a style, so too must we take time to learn how to use Pinterest to best cater to our needs. I think Pinterest is best used as a sort of mood-board to portray general feelings about a production rather than a careful, considered analysis. In an image-based culture, Pinterest boards can get across broad ideas about a show far quicker and more effectively than a 500-word review, and this should be embraced rather than attempting to weave the two different forms together. Daniel, though your Pinterest board of “Boys” was far more involved and in depth than mine, I’m not sure the attempt to write a review within it paid off; the images should be used to tell the story and the words to back them up, not vice versa. Do you think you may try it again but with fewer words?

Daniel B. Yates: I love Twitter dearly, which is distributed in such a way as merge mainstream and niche, semi-private and semi-public, and creates a pretty astonishing opposing formation which is directly contesting the media it is superceding. There have been all sorts of crazy porous micro-cultures that have emerged on that truly convivial medium, as opposed to Facebook which always seems much more narrowly domesticated: all brags, cats, and hangovers. What struck me about Pinterest, as an early venture-capital backed attempt to turn into social media the non-alienated experience that we have in producing and editing images on our computers, was how close it remained to the visual order of advertising.  One of the first suggestions for a board theme for new users is “products that I like”, it’s full of aspirational furniture, contexts for the design it shows don’t usually extend further than the catalogue loft living room, and it seems pretty heavily scripted by some sort of idea of lifestyle journalism which is parroted throughout the user-base.

So Dan, I agree very much with your critique of my Boys review above, the text didn’t work. It was wedged-in in some vain attempt to load it with enough signification to break free of the lifestyle grain – dogged by Deleuze’s observation that writing isn’t really capitalism’s thing, and my thinking that Pinterest really was. I couldn’t really find an authorial presence, or an “aura” that would suit a critical expression. I couldn’t get the images to glue around the play. It wasn’t that I was wedded to accuracy, fairness, or rigour or anything like that – I just couldn’t satisfy any of my own ideas of a critical response.  I like what Diana Damian does, as a sort of curated glossy of scene illustrations, and perhaps that’s more successful way to appropriate the medium than a review based method, I don’t know.

One can give a good sense of the visual make-up of a play through its production stills – but how would a selection of images become anything different from a production image gallery that a PR could upload to the site? What is the critical element that Pinterest could afford?  I agree with Catherine that we can exercise formal judgement as to what type of theatrical event lends itself to being responded to on Pinterest, and begin to work out our own formal rules for the “space”.  And I think there is something really healthy in just beginning to think about this at a point where the broadsheet shortform review is coming under considerable strain and its circumscriptions about what it means to be critical about theatre in a public context are beginning to unravel: these new formats are potentially quite liberating of the critic’s craft.

As you rightly point out Catherine, it seems to me that the primary point of the thing, and what separates it from a collage, is the fact it’s a social media.  So as well as connecting to different cultural eco-systems as you put it, one of the central questions becomes for me, what can be critical within the act of sharing itself? And this touches on what happens to us as critics when we use social media: what are these informational performative selves (which Dan Rebellato has discussed in relation to dramatic character)? Are they transforming criticism into a social thing, in which one is no longer a “professional theatre critic” with a separate private life, but rather integrated critical people and beings signifying through various technologies? You look at something like Ian Shuttleworth’s website, lightyears ahead of its time in 1996, and you almost envy the way in which he was able to control the division between public and private self-presentation. Peering into the horizontal horizon I wonder whether a shared, interruptive, “distributed” criticism, as social networks increasingly become remediators of our lives, is something ahead of us.

DH: I agree that Pinterest feels extraordinarily geared towards an attempt to aid commercial ventures, and the fact it is already being used by large corporations as a way of selling their products proves this. But then, Twitter and Facebook have gone down the same paths; the only reason they’re able to stay afloat is because their platforms are able to sell us billions of dollars worth of products. There are those of us, however, who have found a way in which to eschew those impulses and use them as a democratic means of disseminating information and igniting debate; why can’t Pinterest be played with in the same way?

Naturally, the obvious answer to that would be that we are not able to be so critical due to the lack of words on image-centric Pinterest, but I’m not sure that’s entirely the case. It’s all about ownership; if we can commandeer this form to best effect and work in opposition to the ‘right’ way of doing it, then the space can be reclaimed and images can begin to be something which aren’t just owned by capitalism. Pinterest can be a space for counter-cultural debate just as billboards became a space for revolutionaries to satirise and argue all those years ago.

So, onto theatre criticism specifically. The reasons why I continue to use Pinterest to review plays are numerous. Firstly, I’m still learning and don’t like giving up on a challenge. Secondly, because I feel it can offer a different experience of reviewing which, with tweaking, could be incredibly effective. I also think that, for better or for worse, the use of images means the review will be more universal; someone with no grasp on my language can understand the points I am trying to put across. Note also that I always write a traditional prose review with every Pinterest board – it’s not enough on its own but can be useful for getting a feel of a play. I’ve avoided using too many production stills as I think Pinterest can best be used as the critic second-guessing what the rehearsal room boards may be filled with; they are putting across a ‘feel’ of the production just like these Pinterest boards.

Pinterest can be critical because it can place a piece in social and historical contexts with far fewer words and far more effectively than a prose review; all we need to demonstrate a play’s reference to student riots is that famous image of the student kicking a window in. All we need to show it’s a play about the Tudors is a picture of Henry VIII. And so on. It’s more difficult to say whether something works or not, but these clarifications can be included in the short blurb beneath each picture.

And yes, Pinterest is (or will be) important because it’s a social space; I think that at the moment the online theatrical community should be reclaiming as many mediums as possible to discover new forms of criticism. Many of the forms which have come before (Facebook, Twitter, blogging) were all useful to capitalism, but a way was found to use them for the ‘greater good’. Many of the forms which are only just starting out or which haven’t even been creating yet (geotagging, augmented reality) will also be successful only if they make money for people, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be experimenting, tweaking and playing just as with Pinterest.

DBY: Ultimately I’m happy to admit it’s a failure of my imagination.  There are things I really like about your review of Doran’s Julius Caesar, Dan, and Catherine your Pulse response is a riot of intelligent references.

And yes we do have to work within freemium, as the arts editor at The New Inquiry Jessie Darling puts it, we’re all making hay on other people’s land (she’s also rather wonderfully called animated gifs “populist political theatre for the micro-modular age” but that’s another discussion). So we’re all negotiating the power and circumscription which makes Aaaarg.org different from Scribd, or Twitter different than Menshn.

But then for our purposes – creating a journalistic media in the freemium landscape – I think it’s possible to reserve the right to select one’s neighbourhood: that is to say, you can choose the conditions not-of-one’s-choosing in which to make your hay.

And, in its present incarnation at least, Pinterest feels to me like being trapped in a barren farmville which grows eyecandy by the industrial truckload. A sort of socially-gamified semi-ironic exercise in taste: a monstrous sprawling issue of Ideal Homes curated by a benignly stupid postmodern god.  I honestly find it slightly dystopian. I go there and it’s like everyone’s kind of mute, governed by some internalised ghost of an estate agent’s photoshoot or vintage postcard. And I don’t think it is an interesting place in which to feel: all that wallpaper leaves me numb (and either that goes or I do).

If part of the digital theatre critic’s remit is an understanding of the specificities of place and presence – which I think it is – then I’m one-starring Pinterest as a botched attempt to realise our creative agency with images, and waiting for a better production. For all the sustained challenges they provide for the mainstream media, as these sort of start-ups begin to command the capital and resources disappearing from newspapers, they come and go (remember Myspace?) these quintessences of pixels.

CL: The ground has been fairly comprehensively covered at this stage, but there are just a couple of points that I’d like to make to conclude. Firstly, I’m happy to admit complete failure when it comes to my own appropriation of Pinterest as a critical platform; despite encouraging others to embrace the possibilities of new forms (an encouragement that Dan has followed far more intelligently than I’ve managed to do myself), I’ve resigned myself to hypocritical inaction after just one attempt. This can be attributed to any number of reasons, including sheer laziness, but among these was the feeling that while the horizontal connections allowed by the form were an appropriate reflection of the horizontality and messiness of a festival, it was a much greater challenge to follow this up with an intelligent assessment of a single production.

I agree with Daniel that the main problem posed by Pinterest is its inextricable association with the mechanisms of marketing and advertising. Theatres are now unsurprisingly seizing on this social network as a visually pleasing way of promoting their shows, creating yet another formal structure that criticism must then wrestle to break free of. Form is perhaps the principal restraint currently on Pinterest as a channel for criticism, as it has proved to have – unlike say Twitter – an extremely rigid structure that makes taking ownership, as Dan puts it, difficult if not impossible.

What Pinterest does have going for it, however, and what it makes it of particular interest as a new model for criticism, is the social networking element. I’m fascinated by Daniel’s point about how sharing can become a critical act and how this sharing might shift our perception of the critical persona. I think this also relates to the popular fallacy of objectivity; when the critic exists only in the form of an inconspicuous byline, it is much easier to perpetuate the illusion that this mysterious individual approaches each and every production from a strange, superhuman perspective of detachment. There is no personality contained within that collection of printed characters.

A form of criticism that is also a form of social media, however, immediately suggests certain characteristics. The sites and references that critics choose to link to say something about their preferences, capturing a snapshot of their online footprint, while a searchable bank of previous links is immediately accessible. Social media also requires you, as Dan Rebellato puts it, “to force your personality through tiny holes”, producing something inherently performative. As such, critics have the opportunity to choose how they construct their online selves, a choice that as Daniel suggested can be critical in itself, as well as smashing the notion that critics are unburdened by likes, dislikes and personal experiences. It’s not yet clear how this might work or what impact it might have, but it is a compelling possibility.

The main barrier we now face is the rigidity of Pinterest as a platform, a rigidity that essentially precludes such possibilities. Perhaps, as Daniel proposes, it’s time to reject our critical experimentation with Pinterest as an embryonic but essentially failed attempt to harness images as an element of our critical vocabulary and wait for a more appropriate form to emerge from the digital haze. Or perhaps it’s up to us to shape that form ourselves, to find our own way of releasing images from capitalist commodification and use them to make incisive and intelligent critical comments that form part of a more creative, connected and horizontal model of theatre criticism.

Exeunt is currently developing its 3.0 site revision on Pinterest.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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