The Walking Dead isn’t About Zombies

The cast of The Walking Dead work in formation to kill Zombies.

Slate’s culture blog Browbeat ran an article last July that aimed to convince viewers not to “binge-watch” television shows. Its somewhat convincing premise is that watching too much of a series too quickly ruins the experience. I’m not sure that I totally agree that binge-watching ruins a good show (and it’s hard to be in total agreement with somebody who includes “TV characters should be a regular part of our lives” as one of the five pillars of his argument). But I would definitely say that watching a season, or several seasons, in a short period changes the way that the viewer perceives many aspects of the narrative. Presumably the effect is different with different shows. I can’t imagine that 24, for example, is best viewed in huge doses, both because the conceit falls apart and because the level of stress that Jack Bauer’s days bring to the screen would be overwhelming. But then again The Brady Bunch has proven imminently watchable to me, and I’ve only ever seen it when it was on network tv re-run marathons.

The Walking Dead, however, appears to be improved by binge-watching. Or at least by watching an episode or two a night for a couple of weeks, as my husband and I just did with season 2. We went into the season knowing that critics in the US had complained, bitterly, about how slow and meandering the second season was. “Where is the action? Where are the zombies? And why can’t Lori and Carl just die already?” they asked. We had the opposite reaction. The character development and conflict between characters was more than enough tension, and the threat of walkers in the woods, coupled with the knowledge that the arrival of a herd must be inevitable, injected a lot of tension into the respite of the Green’s farm. The second season is character driven, not a thriller or an action movie. I can see how that would seem boring if it was drawn out over a few months, and especially if the audience really wants and expects a high-paced and scary show. However, we actually enjoyed the focus on character development. As did the Atlantic’s J.J. Gould, who apparently also binge-watched his way through season 2. As he puts it in this recap (second section) of the first episode of Season 3, the zombies are a major device moving the plot along, but they don’t have to be the central all of the time. “The Walking Dead wasn’t just reinterpreting a genre; it was displacing the role of that genre in the overall story—putting zombies at the center of the narrative but moving them to the periphery of the action.”

This focus on the human characters, who are now struggling to learn how to survive a world riddled with walkers, is what makes The Walking Dead so interesting. To quote Fakko, a commenter on the Atlantic’s recap, “Zombies have always been a vehicle for exploring our social structure, to lay it bare. Just as good sci-fi is less about the aliens and the technology and more about how humanity reacts to it (Contact) or employs it (Gattaca).” It’s not about how they deal with the zombies. If humans survive long enough the walkers will all either rot away or be put down. The real question is how the humans survive each other. This is the central conceit of all post-apocalyptic narratives, from The Giver to Resident Evil (although I make no claims for equal adeptness at manipulating the conceit). It’s what makes them particularly interesting, not the survival techniques the characters use or how many walkers die. Zombie narratives are particularly “action-y” because there are dead things trying to eat everybody. But the central question will still be, how do these people re-constitute their society?

Season 2 was about how Rick’s group worked out leadership and how it values human life. These issues were worked out through Lori’s pregnancy and the Randall sub-plots, and obviously the major Shane-Rick rivalry and the less explosive Rick-Hershel rivalry. Presumably season 3 is going to show us what happens when the Ricktatorship comes into contact with other groups of survivors. There may be more walkers jumping out of dark corners to please people clamoring for more action. But what will keep me interested in the storyline is how the humans help or hinder each other through their survival efforts.


There are Still Whiny Teenagers in the Apocalypse

My husband and I have been catching up on the second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead while simultaneously watching Revolution, NBC’s new show about the post-apocalyptic world after “the power” mysteriously goes out. Revolution has been mocked for numerous reasons, not least for its ridiculous 5th-grade understanding of basic physics and chemistry. However, for me the most annoying aspect of the show is its young characters, especially the portrayal of its heroine, Tracy Spiridakos’s Charlie Matheson.

Slate called out Charlie, even before the season began, as Katniss-lite, and argued that she represents a weak attempt to paint a strong female character because the show is trying to capture the elusive audience that normally gravitates to the CW. This comes at the expense of the much more interesting grown ups populating post-apocalyptic Illinois (alas, Maggie, a particularly fascinating character was killed last night to little fanfare and less narrative sense). However, I think the real problem lies with the fact that Charlie is an unbelievable character. She isn’t actually bland. She has backbone, “spunk,” shows a clear moral outlook, but is also willing to put herself on the line when she realizes that a task needs to get done. She has her flaws, not least that she is whiny and entitled, prone to a certain amount of moodiness, and headstrong. Basically, she’s your typical modern American teen.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except for the huge problem that Charlie isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, your typical modern American teen. She grew up during the apocalypse for crying out loud. Her mother shot a dude right in front of her when she was like 4 years old. Most everybody she knew as a child, including her mother (at least so Charlie believes at this point), probably died terrible deaths. She probably saw some of them die. She’s gone hungry, cold, and slept on the grounds for probably years. Despite the terrible costuming in the show, a real Charlie would never have been able to shop at The GAP. Instead she and her family have learned to forage or grow their own food, sew their own clothing, build fires and shelters, and generally rough it. Don’t get me started on the terrible medical conditions that have developed, even with a character like Maggie around to bring a little bit of modern medical knowledge into the apocalypse. Danny, her brother, probably shouldn’t even be alive given how bad his asthma is.

I think this disconnect between what we honestly know a post-apocalyptic teenager like Charlie should be, compared to the unrealistic portrayal of her, is what ruins the character. Instead of the jaded, strong, and pragmatic young woman we expect, we instead discover an 18 year-old acting as though she’s been transported to the apocalypse from the mall. I’d compare her to Lori and Carl from The Walking Dead, both of whom have received a lot of criticism and fan hate. The trouble with Lori is that she can’t adapt to the necessities of life in the zombie apocalypse. She knows that certain nasty things need to be done, in order for the safety of the group or her family to be preserved, but she can’t really bring herself around to stomaching them. She’s the one who objects to a group of abandoned cars being ransacked for supplies, she tells Rick to kill his friend Shane, but then can’t deal with the reality of Shane’s death – even after he tried to murder her husband. Every time the group chooses the lesser of two evils, it’s Lori questioning their decisions.

But Lori’s character makes a lot of sense. She’s a modern American woman who grew up in comfort. She was married to a Sherrif’s deputy, picked her son up from school everyday, and kept her house Pinterest worthy. When the apocalypse hits, she grabs the photo albums instead of anything useful, because she’s developed in a world where emotional connections are far more important concerns than where your next meal is coming from, much less protecting that meal from bands of other people trying to steal it, and protecting yourself from becoming the meal of half-rotted corpses roving through Georgia. Lori is what Charlie will be like in about ten years. Which makes no sense, because Charlie did not grow up with that kind of life. This is why Charlie is an annoying and bland character.

Instead, Charlie should be a bit more like Carl. Carl’s character has received a lot of criticism as well, mostly because he fails to do what his parents say and constantly puts himself in unnecessary danger. “Stay in the house Carl” is the most uttered and most defied phrase on the show. And viewers blame him for the death of Dale, one of the most popular characters. But Carl’s character, even though he’s annoying because he’s a little kid, makes a lot of sense. My husband actually thinks the development he is going through is one of the most interesting on the show. Because we’re watching what happens when a previously sheltered child begins to process the collapse of life as he knows it.

Given that Charlie was even younger than Carl when her version of the apocalypse hits, it makes no sense at all that she hasn’t gone through Carl’s development. Sure, her dad is an altruist who was lucky to make it 15 years into the future without electricity. But he still wouldn’t have been able to shelter his kids from the kinds of changes that they would necessarily go through. And yes, no-electricity apocalypse is not as bad as zombie apocalypse. But Charlie saw her mother kill a dude, remember? The same dude threatened to kill her if her parents didn’t give him all their supplies. Presumably she has seen lots and lots of other nasty deaths over the years. She’s witnessed the behavior of the militias. She hunts for her own food, can apparently fight, and takes care of her weaker brother.

If Charlie is going to be less annoying, her character needs to become a lot more believable within her own context. She can still be an altruist, she just needs to be a lot more like Dale, and a lot less like Lori.

Liberal Arts Degrees Need Better PR

Recently a “Latenight Rant” by Peter Wirzbicki was posted onto Ph.D. Octopus taking to task the mounting pile of “don’t go to grad school” articles that have proliferated everywhere from academic blogs to the Chronicle of Higher Education to major national magazines. Wirzbicki is tired of hearing about what a terrible decision he made, especially since the people telling him that are mostly people who made that same decision and who had the luxury of making it when the economic outlook wasn’t a re-run of the Great Depression. Wirzbicki argues that these negative-Nelly academics are writing these articles to assuage consciences that are guilty of not taking proactive steps to help their students. Although Wirzbicki’s solutions are political, I think there is something even simpler and more proactive that these professors should be doing to help their students. Professors need to start explaining to the world why a graduate education is important and what value it has outside of academia. They need to start providing grad school with some positive PR.

This is something that has become increasingly important – and dare I say obvious – in the past few years, as the economic situation has forced the academic world to start grappling with the fact that far more students enter PhD programs than will ever receive a faculty appointment. This realization has suddenly dawned on the academy, especially in the liberal arts, but the irony is that this has been the case almost exclusively for the past thirty years (for example, see this chart and article about professional historians). Yet, during this time, there has been little effort to prepare students for alternative careers or to investigate what benefits they would bring. There has been absolutely no attempt, so far as I have seen, to explain to the business world why these students would make strong employees. And this also goes for the undergraduates choosing a liberal arts degree as opposed to a “safe” science degree. There is no sense that anybody – professors, career offices, university administrators – is actually articulating to the public why these degrees are valuable. And don’t get me started on the fact that we can’t all be science majors. There are all sorts of people in the world and all sorts of jobs in the world, and liberal arts majors are actually necessary.

I won’t mount a full argument for this here, but there are certainly many extremely important qualities that educations in the liberal arts provides. There are even more useful skills that come out of the process of going to graduate school and meeting the requirements of a degree program. To start with the obvious, as Matthew Iglesias argued in Slate, anybody who receives a degree in a field based in reading, writing, and arguing in the English language (or any other language), has proved a basic ability to read, research, plan, and write. Even better if that person has gotten good grades in their program. As Iglesias says,

If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans.

These abilities are exactly what comes out of a liberal arts education, even one in a “useless” area like English or art history, just at the basic level of the undergrad degree.

I would argue further that graduate students, people with master’s degrees or PhDs, have all of these qualities but that the qualities have been sharpened even more. Add to that a critical thinking ability that is stronger than most people’s. These are just the basics. Somebody who has written a Master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation while teaching classes has proven their time-management skills, a certain level of managerial experience, the ability to function on a team (and hopefully to deliver useful but tactful criticism), perhaps the ability to budget, in all likelihood proficiency in at least one foreign language. The list actually goes on.

These benefits are, however, never talked about within academia. Career centers don’t tell students about these abilities, or how to market them to employers. Professors and other grad students don’t try to explain these benefits to the outside world. This needs to stop. Instead of writing “don’t go to grad school” articles, professors and other professionals at universities need to start articulating all of the reasons that their work is creating a skilled workforce for the future.

Pinterest: Finding the Content You Want

Pinterest Logo

Pinterest’s logo, courtesy of Pinterest

Currently I have been thinking a lot about Pinterest. You can find my first two posts on Pinterest here and here.

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a request asking if somebody could help her figure out how to use Pinterest. It turns out, perhaps of course, that she didn’t really need help figuring out Pinterest. In fact, she sounds like she’s got it mostly figured out already. You have boards, you pin stuff to them, all is lovely and pink and probably topped with a bow. However, she isn’t just looking to pin things. She wants Pinterest to help her actually do things by helping her find new ideas for specific projects. And none of her friends, me included, could really give her any suggestions for that. It turns out, Pinterest is terrible for this, and the more specific you need things, the worse it is. This got me thinking a bit about what Pinterest is, who uses it, and how I use it to actually find content that interests me.

First, there is a conceptual problem with the way that most of us think about Pinterest. Even though we think of Pinterest as being all about pins, isn’t only about pins, and Pinterest isn’t designed to help you find specific pins. Instead, to quote the way that Pinterest describes itself,

Pinterest is a virtual pinboard. Pinterest allows you to organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. You can browse pinboards created by other people to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests.

People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and share their favorite recipes. [emphasis added]

What that means is that Pinterest isn’t really about the individual pins. Instead, it’s about the collection of those pins onto specific boards. It’s like the old phrase, “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” The pinboards are the forests, and the pins are the trees. If somebody goes onto Pinterest expecting to find lots of pins, the way that casual users do, you will not be disappointed. But if that person wants the aggregate of the pins to help them toward a goal, without a lot of sifting and searching, Pinterest isn’t going to be much help. Because Pinterest isn’t designed to give its users specific pins, it is designed to help them organize their own pins onto pinboards. But then, how does a serious user, somebody who wants to achieve some goal, harness Pinterest? Read More

Government Should Fund Scientific Advancement

A few months ago I sent this meme to a friend of mine, an engineer who works for NASA. It’s the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, with the caption “We got here with a camera less powerful than your cell phone.” I thought it was both amusing and mind-boggling. Needless to say, today the calculations that go into all parts of a space mission, from conception to execution, are almost all carried out on extremely advanced computers. My friend, however, saw something completely different in the image. His first response was, “It tells you that space exploration is a political will problem being sold as a technical problem.” And I think he is right, in a very important way. Extremely complex technical problems could be solved if only there was the political backing to propel us to the solutions.

We all have some idea of the national narrative of space exploration during the Cold War. The “space race” is a recognizable phenomenon that brings to mind Sputnik, the Apollo missions, and a national direction of energy, money, and imagination toward space. NASA, Space, and “the future” were exciting and there was a national narrative that looked forward to American dominance of the starry skies, backed by positive public opinion and strong government support. The political highlight may have been Kennedy’s backing of a “moon race,” saying “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” There was also, at least so we remember, a turning of the american imagination toward space and the future of technology, represented then by movies and television series like The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and a proliferation of B horror and sci-fi movies about space exploration and aliens.

Popular support for the space missions and, especially, the funding of NASA, was not  as strong as we like to remember. In fact, almost all of the enthusiasm for the new space program may have been generated by children, who were eager to play with space-based toys and imagine themselves as astronauts, while their more practical parents worried about the huge expenditures that were devoted to NASA in a foolhardy race toward a rock a few hundred thousand miles away.  Public opinion polling showed support for NASA at less than 35% for most of the 1960’s. Despite this negative public opinion, the fact is that the government and nation did decide to turn their attention strongly and resolutely toward the solution of a scientific problem, and that decision resulted in huge advances in many fields of technology, science, mathematics, and engineering.

Of course, NASA and space exploration do not necessarily remain the most important direction of today’s political will-power. That is not to say that I think NASA should lose its federal support. The percentage of NASA’s budget within the total national budget is less than 1% which is not a cause for major consternation, and the program still provides important scientific and economic development. But new, major directions in government funding for science and innovation, especially in areas that have major economic importance, should be seriously considered.

There are several areas that could warrant a new focus from our political leaders, new medical research and new energy policies for instance, but, unfortunately, none of them are as sexy as space travel, moon landings, or jet-packs. It is hard to imagine a group of kindergartners playing at being hydro-electric engineers or photovoltaic technologies experts. Designing new genetic therapies while considering their ethical application isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. And this only speaks to the children. New advances in technology, and the money it takes to achieve them, are viewed by adults with less enthusiasm than hostility.

The counter-argument to this is that the adults are right, the government should keep out of scientific development and the new advances that will prove profitable will be supported by corporations. As Fred Kaplan argues in a piece on bio-fuel and the military, sometimes the government is the best point for the initial development of new technologies. This is because corporations are all, necessarily, looking out for their bottom lines, sometimes without the ability to turn their organizations in radically new directions that may or may not pay off. Research and development is an expensive proposition, and the government can help cover some of those necessary expenses. As Kaplan says,

But some of modern history’s most revolutionary devices started out as too expensive; and they would have stayed that way—they might never have got off the ground—had the federal government not created the market. And since, in American politics, the military and space programs have been the federal government’s only sources of manufacturing, it’s the Pentagon and NASA that have created those markets.

The solution to this needs to be a political leadership that cuts through a lot of the political opposition to new technologies, and instead brings us forward. Instead of politicians who are worried about public perception, we need leaders who recognize new areas that need to be explored and who are unafraid to chart a course toward them. Ultimately, the solutions will validate the struggle to achieve them.

My Thoughts on Pinterest, Part 2

Front Page of Pinterest

The Front Page of Pinterest

Challenges Pinterest Faces

You can read the first part here. These are some of the more negative sides of Pinterest that I think need to be considered seriously as Pinterest continues growing, and certainly as more people and companies begin interacting with it. I don’t have solutions for all of the issues that I raise, but I hope that Pinterest itself is considering them and coming up with solutions.

Legal Issues

The legal issues that Pinterest faces have been explored far better by people who are not me, many of whom have law degrees and understand the issues far better than I ever will. However, I can say briefly that I think Pinterest needs to put much more of a priority on exploring and explaining these issues. Currently the service has a Terms of Service and a Privacy Policy that follow the typical social network format for these things. We’ve all seen how many problems a disregard for strong, clear policies, especially privacy policies, has caused for Facebook and Google (remember Buzz?), and to a lesser extent a lot of smaller web startups. Pinterest should learn from their mistakes and put together a solid set of policies, and then clearly explain them to its users. This may be particularly important if it begins interacting with larger companies, who will not be amused if all of the legal risks of the service are passed on to them. Pinterest does seem to be taking more interest in the concerns of its users, and I hope it doesn’t follow in Facebook’s footsteps but instead becomes more open.

Pins Become Oversaturated

While the average pinner may remember fondly the time that a pin was repinned fifteen or twenty times, some pins go on to become super-pins, re-cycling through the site hundreds or even thousands of times. That’s not bad in and of itself. But the site has a tendency to re-hash the same pins over and over and over. This can be boring for regular visitors, especially if a lot of their connections are constant re-pinners but not new-content pinners. A girl can only see that creative idea for a fruit plate shaped like a rainbow so many times before she wants it out of the stream of pins she sees every time she logs on.

Pinterest’s Limited Aesthetic May Halt its Growth

Although I wrote previously that Pinterest still has tremendous room for growth, its very well developed user base may block it from achieving that. Most pinners hail from a very limited range of aesthetic tastes, and they produce and perpetuate almost all of the site’s content. If cupcakes are your thing, you will find plenty to love on Pinterest. Ditto pictures of shirtless actors like Ryan Gosling, especially with clever sayings. Bows are in full force, as are soft colors. Home décor is almost exclusively in soft colors, and beautiful flower arrangements are often also in soft colors. Even the dessert recipes tend to be in soft colors! Women whose personal tastes aren’t quite as stereotypically feminine will find far less of interest on the site. And this doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the large groups of people (such as more stereotypically masculine men) with no interest in those things at all.

Of course, the aesthetic of Pinterest, even that of its main demographic, can very easily change as larger cultural trends change. Maybe Pinterest will even hasten the change as everything gets older even faster. But in the meantime plenty of people are signing up for Pinterest, being turned off by an overabundance of pastel, and leaving their accounts dormant rather than trying to search out pins of interest to them, or adding their own.

There are several ways that Pinterest could solve this. First, attempting to deliver some pins that match a user’s obvious interests would go a long way in helping users feel more interested. Users can enter parts of the site that cater to particular types of pins, for example design, clothing, food. Now it seems like these boards are a constantly updating set of all things that all pinners have added. Pinterest needs to figure out how to curate these boards. Pinterest could also try to court more big-name pinners from areas that are underrepresented, and then try to match them with members. Classic car detailers, designers for outdoor sporting goods companies, artists with bold (not pastel!) style? These people need to be welcomed onto Pinterest.

Nobody Really Knows How Pinterest Works

This is potentially Pinterest’s biggest problem (after its potential for being sued for encouraging and enabling systematic copyright violations, of course). By “how it works” I don’t mean how pins get added and shared, but the behind the scenes parts of the service. How come some pins get re-pinned twenty times, others are never seen by anybody, and yet others have 6,457 re-pins and 262 likes? How does a pin get onto its main category page? Is every pin there for fifteen seconds before being booted off by the never ending stream of pins? Does Pinterest try to selectively place pins up there? Are pins only shown once, or do re-pinned pins get re-pinned to the category board? How come some users (surprisingly, usually fairly anonymous people) suddenly get thousands of followers? Why do some users only attract a few? Even the big-time pinners have no idea how this happens.

Pinterest also doesn’t seem to have decided who to reward. Nearly every user on the site is really a re-pinner. Almost uniformly, users with hundreds of pins have re-pinned upwards of 75% of them. Some, maybe even most, have never added a single pin to the site, they just regurgitate other people’s content. However, some of these users are still the most popular, even  Pinterest needs to decide whether they prefer that, or whether pinners who are interacting with the community but also constantly bringing new content into the site should get some kind of bump.

This probably has little practical meaning for the vast majority of pinners. Although the idea of being a famous Pinterest taste-maker might be a vaguely appealing goal, most users just want to share their pins and not manage a Pinterest empire. However, to people trying to do something with Pinterest, promote their brand, sell their products, make their art more popular, this is a big deal. It is already obvious that Pinterest offers huge potential marketing benefits. Whether it will turn into a great boost to sales for companies remains to be seen, but we do know that it is a huge traffic generator. But how can people who want to use Pinterest purposefully use it if they don’t know how it works? Is it worth creating content for it if that content languishes with only a few re-pins? How do new Pinterest profiles go about successfully attracting followers? Pinterest will need to answer a lot of these questions if it expects to make a profit by helping people make a profit.

My Thoughts on Pinterest

Pinterest Logo

Pinterest’s logo, courtesy of Pinterest

Just past its second birthday, Pinterest has managed to grow from a baby website to a social-networking behemoth with a steadily expanding user base. It seems like every major news source has done at least one report on the site, and everybody is waiting to see how its business plan will develop. Or, to translate that, we all want to know how Pinterest will incorporate advertising or some other “corporate” angle into its authentic world of images. A sub-question also exists, how will Pinterest’s users, individuals and companies, use the site to make money for themselves?

I don’t pretend to have the answer to those questions. I’m not privy to the Pinterst team’s interior discussions, and harnessing Pinterest’s outside money-making potential is a complex process that a lot of people are working on from multiple angles. I do have some thoughts on the particular strengths and weaknesses of Pinterest and how the site’s character  will affect these goals.

Pinterest’s Unique Aspects

These are a few of the characteristics of Pinterest that I think are the most basic to the site. They are not all good or all bad. In some cases they represent a huge strength, in others a potential strength if the kinks are worked out.

Pinterest is Aspirational

This is the most obvious and integral part of Pinterest, and it’s what sets it apart from other photo-sharing sites. Users are encouraged to create “pin boards” where they collect images related to some specific project or theme. At its base, this is the practical use of Pinterest. Remodeling your kitchen? Collect ideas on a board. Want to spruce up your wardrobe? Plan out your new outfits on a board. However, it’s also the starting point for more than a few flights of fancy. Not everybody with wedding planning pin boards is currently planning a wedding. There are plenty of college age girls collecting dozens of images of beautiful master bedroom ideas from the bunk beds of their dorm rooms.

This is Pinterest’s great appeal and great strength to its users. Collecting eye-candy of the way they wish they live, dress, craft, cook, etc. is a hugely enjoyable experience. And Pinterest also functions as the modern-day, social version of clipping magazine or newspapers photos and articles and storing them away in folders, as several of the Pinterest super-users explain in these interviews. Plus, Pinterest is a way to have this style, especially a style that users aspire to but can’t yet realize, validated. Every time another user repins or likes a pin, it tells the original pinner that she chose a particularly stylish, or clever, or pretty, or yummy image.

Pinterest Mimics Window Shopping

This is a key point for retailers who, now or in the future, will be making money through the site. It is especially true of the online window shopping experience. In fact, Pinterest’s layout is very similar to the usual layout for online retail stores, including everything from Macy’s to Anthropologie to Etsy. This is another source of enjoyment for Pinterest’s users. Anybody who enjoys shopping will enjoy Pinterest, especially if part of their enjoyment derives from the visual feast that the shopping experience provides. The best part about Pinterest is that, just like window shopping, it is easy for consumers to go directly from the images, which they may have encountered in a browsing mode, to the companies’ websites and an active shopping mode.

That this makes it easier for retailers to link their products and customers together is potentially a plus of the service. That Pinterst isn’t being more up-front about how it is trying to manage this link is a bit concerning, not least because their silence on the subject may indicate that they are not trying to manage the link at all. Pinterest, like any other service, product, etc. eventually needs to make money. This is the most obvious pathway, and if it’s neglected they will have done themselves a serious disservice. Pinterest could definitely do a lot more to ensure a direct connection from linked items to their points of origin (banning pins originating from google or bing image searches, rather than just discouraging them, for example).

Another big problem is that silence will look like deception to users. It is essentially inevitable that Pinterest’s content will become increasingly monetized, but the monetization will be much better handled if it occurs in a way that users find acceptable. Paid ads making a sudden, surprise appearance amongst the pins will not go over well with users. On the other hand, if Pinterest appears to be offering guidance to companies as they begin utilizing the service and makes some attempts to understand its pinners’ views on how  this process should work, it will win points with both its user base and the companies it wants to attract.

Pinterest Still Has a Lot of Room for New Pinners

Although Pinterest originally attracted attention because of its unusually quick growth, it is still relatively small by social networking standards. It is also plagued by an imbalance in its user base, as it is still mostly used by women within a certain age group. This phenomenon isn’t totally true, there are men on Pinterest, but there could certainly be a lot more. A less reported issue is the lack of international users. Pinterest currently seems to be largely a phenomenon of the English speaking world, but is far, far less prevalent amongst non-English speaking pinners. This is actually a strength of the site, because it still has lots of room to grow, and as new pinners from under-represented demographics show up they should have lots of space to adapt Pinterest to their own needs and interests.

Pinterest’s Social Mechanism is Different from Other Social Networks

This is a strength in a way, because the network is very divorced from the usual “friends” network that is found on most social networking sites. Therefore it avoids the drama that can fester on those networks. The “super-users” often described Pinterest as feeling very quiet, and therefore more relaxed and private. The lack of constant commenting and status updating can feel like a retreat.

Unfortunately, this is also a weakness. Unlike other social networks, there isn’t a clear mechanism for users to establish a network of followers, or to choose who to follow. After the beginning, when Pinterest first matches users to friends in their Facebook or Twitter networks and suggests a few highly popular pinners for them to follow, finding users with both similar interests and worthwhile content becomes an opaque process. Because the service is freed from some of the usual demands of social networks, it is only a short step toward users connecting with other not-from-real life users. However, the network does little to support this, and users typically do not see repeated content from non-friend users. Pinterst would do well to expand the options that pinners have to search for and connect with like-minded users outside of their real-life social networks and to encourage these types of interactions.

How Not to Carry a Large Object Up Stairs

I was intending to start writing some more serious posts, but I’ve been so bogged down with school that I don’t have the time (and I’d feel guilty).  However, I can still post the occasional funny Youtube video.  I think this may be from a commercial or something, but it’s still funny.  I was surprised by just how catastrophic it was.

New Embroidery Project

As part of my internship with a historian at Caltech, I have been scanning microfilm of 9th century French manuscripts.  One of them had some very intriguing (if amateurish) pictures of birds, and they inspired me to try and embroider one of them.  I normally only do embroidery from pre-packaged kits, so this process is going to be very experimental.

Here’s a picture of the original image in the manuscript, it’s supposed to be a capital letter ‘Q,’ the start of the latin word quod, which means “because.”Quod




The bird at the bottom looked to some people like it was dead, and to others like it was really a lizard.  I decided to rehabilitate it by getting rid of its claw (intended to be a wing by the original scribe, I believe) and replacing it with wings, as well as by fixing its head.  I traced the whole thing onto a new piece of paper to do that.Bird Tracing







I then traced the whole thing onto a piece of muslin (the color is somewhat like velum, and it’s a cheap fabric) with water soluble ink.Bird Pattern






I’ve decided that the hoop is going to be brown (probably with gold outline) and the upper bird is going to be a combination of reds and oranges.Materials