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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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The Acquisitive Gaze

This is the text from a talk I gave at the New Museum Triennial on April 25. It’s a revision of this post from 2012.

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1. In its early mission statement, Pinterest described itself as primarily a social network that was “connecting people all over the world based on shared tastes and interests.” But as the site grew, it became more clear that users were less interested in being connected to people than to stuff itself. Now Pinterest describes itself as “a place to discover ideas for all your projects and interests, hand-picked by people like you.”

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Recent reports that Pinterest intends to introduce a “Buy” button suggest that the site is not content to let users rest with “discovering ideas” but instead would like to convert idea-discovery into a mere precursor for purchases rather than an end in itself.

Pinterest has emerged as a para-retailing apparatus for “social shopping,” in which users add value for retailers by organizing consumer desire into various moods and themes on boards. Some users have been able to earn commissions through this work, but Pinterest has moved to suppress third-party marketing links in advance of its “buy button,” which will reserve commissions for that platform itself.

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2. In certain ways, Pinterest’s move to disenfranchise users is an attempt to protect its status as a forum for a kind of self-expression that reads as “authentic.” If users profit by their curation, it detracts from the “authenticity” of their desire, making it seem mercenary. At the heart of Pinterest’s viability is its reputation as a space of genuine consumer desire: The pinner’s sincerity is what generates the economic value of the act of pinning, what allows the construction of boards to add associative value to the objects pinned. It allows pinning to appear as something other than just an obvious form of word-of-mouth marketing.

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3. Pinterest built its user base by seeming to offer a space that allowed an escape from the creeping imperative that users produce original content for social media sites (for free). It seemed to allow us to be straightforward consumers again, finding “inspiration” instead of the demand to build out a personal brand through our innovation and creativity.

Early on, the site was critiqued for failing to afford a space for rich personal expression. Sociologist Bon Stewart argued in 2012 that Pinterest, since it explicitly discourages self-promotion and relies entirely on the appropriation of someone else’s creative expression, turns curation into passive consumerism; it allows for the construction and circulation of a bland sanitized identity. “Its express purpose,” she wrote, “is to free us from the awkwardness of self-expression and keep us safely in the realm of the pre-chewed, the market-filtered.”

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4. But it’s not that Pinterest prohibits self-expression; it limits self-expression to the surface of found images, which are organized and deployed to convey one’s aspirations or moods or desires or ingenuity. This mirrors the processes of consumerism generally, in which mass-market products are bought and consumed not merely for their use value but for what they can be seen to be saying about the sort of person you want to seem to be. Vast ideological apparatuses are employed to teach us how to read out of images the various characteristics and attributes and traits (“beauty,” “cool,” “fashionability,” “cleanliness,” “health,” etc.) we seek to embody ourselves.

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5. In “The Consuming Vision,” an essay about novelist Henry James, of all things, Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that the consumerist culture emerging in James’s time was a “world constructed by and for a consuming vision,” an “imagined world … in which imagination itself strives to gild, glaze, and ultimately commodify its objects.” This consuming vision becomes hegemonic in a world that comes to be seen as made entirely of commodities. “What modern consumer culture produces,” Agnew argues, “is not so much a way of being as a way of seeing — a way best characterized as visually acquisitive. In short, modern consumer culture holds up the cognitive appetite as the model and engine of its reproductive process.”

Agnew points out that the churn of markets assures that these sorts of characteristics are never stable in any given commodity or experience. Consumerism posits such meanings as free-floating, redeployable, highly contingent and not intrinsic to a good’s use value. (Soap might make me objectively clean, but will it make me feel clean, which is ultimately more important?)

Thus those meanings are always socially determined to a degree, and always require further labor to affix them to goods. Advertising has traditionally served the purpose of attaching the affective associations with products; social media now enlists the members of one’s social networks to assist in this process. We aid in the building of such ad hoc associations between feelings and goods (we are “prosuming,” making our consumption productive of symbolic meaning by broadcasting it), but this serves also to reinforce that the overall sense that the meanings are applied and withdrawn at social whim.

Pinterest is geared toward stimulating this acquisitive appetite for images without sating it. Every pin we post is not merely self-expression, but a useful amount of taxonomic and organizational labor that enriches the value of Pinterest’s network as a whole, as well as the specific goods pictured and classified and invested with new potential meanings. It remains productive, even if that productivity is masked from the producer. Consumerism is not ever passive, if passive is meant as the opposite of creative or expressive; rather it offers a coherent system for expressing the self through commodities. But it comes at the expense of the possibility of an uncommodified self.

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6. As Agnew pointed out, the meaning of the images circulating as signs are unstable; Pinterest intensifies this instability. When we can’t know for sure what contexts we are getting with a particular good — when we don’t know how long it will continue to signify what we believe it does at this moment — we may become filled with an anxious need to try to do something to shore those meanings up, to salvage our investment in certain goods.

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7. Agnew: “Under such conditions, it is extraordinarily difficult to sort out needs and wants. One motive that an advertisement or commercial can be said to call out in every instance is a cognitive one: the desire to master the bewildering and predatory imperatives of the market by an acquisitive or possessive gesture of mind. Here, cultural orientation becomes one with cultural appropriation.”

Pinterest speaks to that “possessive gesture of mind” by which we seek to fix the meanings of things, and in the process fix the nature of our desires, of who we are trying to become. Literal digital appropriation becomes a means to generating a sense of orientation in a culture in which everything that is solid melts into air, as Marx famously declared: “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Only that moment of sober clarity never comes because we keep ourselves inebriated on images; we keep busy pinning things.

More than just affording us serial opportunities to try to pin down the meanings of things, Pinterest invites us to view all the images the internet offers as advertisements. We are asked to scrutinize them for the bundle of affects they might contain, and then to perform the work that will liberate those qualities and allow them to circulate more freely as detached signifieds. It permits us to let an accumulative, shopping mentality govern everything we do online.

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8. Consumerism once limited this sort of self-expression to what one can afford. But with Pinterest, users can simulate the acquisition of things and experience similar gratification. Pinterest’s great advance seems to be that it lets users shop for images over the sprawl of the internet, turning it into a endless visual shopping mall in which one never runs out of money. And because it is virtual, no one has to “wastefully consume” products that they want merely for the status implications. It allows for, in Nathan Jurgenson’s phrase, “consumerism without consumption.”

Writing at the Atlantic, Chris Tackett went so far as to argue that sites like Pinterest are actually “anti-consumerist” because they allow people the instant gratification of choosing things without actually having to buy them or spend much time on the fantasy of it. Rather than a deep and protracted engagement in the consumerist drama of how a product will change you or convey something integral yet new about you, Pinterest allows you to culminate the appropriation efficiently and move on.

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9. Pinterest users can simply add desired goods to a board and instantaneously indulge the fantasy that some part of the site’s user base will see it and draw the appropriate conclusions. The gesture immediately circulates. This fantasy need not climax with a purchase or seek appropriate occasions to display it. And it need not be terminated by the disillusionment that comes with actual ownership, when an affectively inert thing takes its place amid the mounting slag pile of one’s emotionally spent objects — objects that no longer say anything about you and have become merely useful at best, objects that sit there taunting you with your discarded ideas of who you were trying to be, and for whom, and when.

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10. On Pinterest, there are apparently no such physical stakes, no contexts that are fixed at a point of purchase and then outgrown; one can keep on pinning and never know the disillusionment of possession. The evidence of how one’s pins circulate amid unanticipated contexts will continue to trickle in, authorizing new fantasies about the self and what your pin might mean to these strangers, in the alien context of their pinboards. Algorithmically driven recommendations of “related pins” further recontextualize one’s pinning gestures, dismantling any pretense of their uniqueness and situating every image within an ocean of similar images, as seen from the point of view of the machine.

These ways that one’s pins are processed seem to invite you to leave the game of conspicuous consumption and enter into the game of virality. Who you are — the revealed nature of your identity — can become less a matter of what you try to specifically communicate with your selected pins but how widely those pins are promulgated, and by whom.

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11. Perhaps that is what Tackett meant by calling Pinterest “anticonsumerist.” But by overcoming the sources of friction inhibiting users from shopping — financial limits, the lack of occasion for conspicuous display — Pinterest accelerates users’ cycling through consumerist fantasies, bringing on what might be seen as hyperconsumerism. The affordances of Pinterest demand that we never stop shopping. We can be continually signifying identity with images, without limit, with an audience for these gestures always implicitly present.

Pinterest unleashes unlimited sign production, laying the basis for unlimited aspiration among users. The more you pin to express yourself, the more your self-expression becomes tentative and incomplete, contingent on all the other signs interlaced with one another within Pinterest’s web.

That is, Pinterest allows for the purest expression of what Jean Baudrillard called the “passion for the code” that we’ve yet seen. We accumulate and sort images, trying to extract their essences, and in the process reduce ourselves to a similar image, a similar agglomeration of putative qualities that can be read out of a surface. We become images ourselves rather than one speaking through them. Pinterest may turn words into images, but on Pinterest, users are obliged to use images as words.

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12. Pinterest encourages the fantasy of solitary self-creation, with the assessing audience always assumed to be present but at a remove, available on one’s own terms, as free as the images proliferating online. But by building in immediate public display into every consumerist fantasy, into every desire to express personality through consumer choices, Pinterest undermines the idea that solitary fantasizing might also be considered private. The efficacy of the fantasy comes to depend entirely on social validation rather than the potency of the personal imagination.

Any activity that online media platforms succeed in rendering “social” ultimately ends up being depersonalized, drained of spontaneity and injected instead into the ongoing collective elaboration of the code.

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13. Pinterest gets to the heart of the ambivalence of so-called social shopping. Making things “social” is supposed to lend the stability of one’s social network to the contexts of consuming, but instead multiplies the instability of meaning, raises the cognitive calculations involved in what a good might possibly mean another exponential level. Pinning something on Pinterest plots that desire on a “social graph” that has countless dimensions, so the clarity one might have hoped the gesture would bring is immediately invalidated and must be reiterated in an endless string of corrective amendments, additional pinnings to further clarify what we really mean to communicate, to further demonstrate our tastes of the moment, to further clarify who we are.

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