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Eugene Robinson

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Opinion columnist Eugene Robinson took questions on politics and his latest column.

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She the People
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Posted at 04:37 PM ET, 03/08/2012

Pinterest is a female ghetto, but that's not the problem

Pinterest, a visual bookmarking site, is both beloved and maligned as a closed society of women planning their weddings, or wishing they still were. Even as I created an account, I contributed to the mockery: What's with all the tutorials on tying a celtic knot? Never in my life have I felt the need for such a skill.

Along with the wedding dresses were pictures of food and lots of colorful, impractical shoes. Also, way too many platitudes (in helvetica font plastered on unremarkable photos) of some version of “Be nice” or “Believe in yourself.”

At first, Pinterest looked like a wasteland to me. But then I unfollowed anything resembing the category “my style.” I kept the animals. Also landscapes and architecture. Recipes? OK, maybe they'll inspire me.

It didn’t take long for Pinterest to grow on me. The site felt more zen than other social media, probably because it’s less newsy and political than my feeds on other sites. Indeed, the whole point of “pins” is to sum up who you are. On Twitter and Facebook, posted links soon get buried. Not on Pinterest.

Some photographers had shown up on Pinterest, which made sense. Photography is a visual medium and Pinterest is all about images. Some, categorized under “nature” or “places I want to go,” were extraordinary. As for the female-centric quality of Pinterest: So what?

One could argue that women's sense of community has been damaged by modern life. All you have to do is read Thornton Wilder's “Our Town.” A century ago, women would walk outside to tend their gardens. They may start out talking about chickens and peas, but they end up discussing their children, their marriages and their unfulfilled dreams.

Perhaps some of the fascination with polygamy (a la “Big Love” and “Sister Wives”) even derives from the loss of large families and a tight-knit community.

Air-conditioned houses make staying inside more comfortable than sitting in the front porch swing and watching your neighbors stroll by. Cheap bedding manufactured in China long ago replaced the quilting bee, where souls could be unburdened in a trusted circle of friends.

Perhaps the Internet has simply restored the back-fence culture of female support that's existed since time began. Companies have certainly taken note (How Pinterest’s Female Audience Is Changing Social Marketing).

But the female focus and meteoric popularity is not what has put Pinterest in the news lately. People are beginning to wonder whether all the fun is worth the risk. A user named Kirsten Kowalski blogged that she is both a photographer and a lawyer — and had actually read the Pinterest Terms of Use agreement forms that we mere mortals affirm without much more than a glance. 

What she read alarmed her. Why I Tearfully Deleted My Pinterest Inspiration Boards, published Feb. 24, caused such a stir that her site crashed the following night. The next morning the site was back up, and Pinterest fans could read the grim facts for themselves. 

In a nutshell: If anyone sues anyone, you must pay to defend yourself, and also to defend Pinterest. You must pay all damages. And Pinterest might press charges against you. All the risk is yours.

Some Pinterest fans have expressed skepticism, saying that until the Supreme Court weighs in, they’re not going to worry about sharing pretty pictures. But it may not take a court to cast a pall over some of the most innocuous Web activity in which social media types engage every day.

Author and media genius Clay Shirky contends that it won't require a copyright infringement lawsuit. Just the threat of one will do, as he explained when the bill known as Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA were in the news.

On the video Why SOPA is a bad idea, from the popular TED: Ideas Worth Spreading series, Shirky asserts that the proponents of SOPA and PIPA want to “raise the cost of copyright compliance to the point where people simply get out of the business of offering it as a capability to amateurs. ... The real effects of SOPA and PIPA are going to be different than the proposed effects.

“The threat, in fact, is this inversion of the burden of proof, where we suddenly are all treated like thieves at every moment we're given the freedom to create, to produce or to share. And the people who provide those capabilities to us — the YouTubes, the Facebooks, the Twitters and TEDs — are in the business of having to police us, or being on the hook for contributory infringement."

The Internet as we know it was built on civil disobedience. A few days ago, someone (who probably does not have permission) uploaded a remix from the soundtrack of “The Lord of the Rings.” YouTube viewers, 53,000 and counting, are thrilled. But this is an outlaw artform, and no one can say how long the video will remain before it gets pulled for copyright infringement.

If the supporters of SOPA and PIPA get their way (due to public outcry, the bills were shelved, for now), the creators of remixes and even a video of a teenager singing her favorite song, could more easily be prosecuted.

So far, most of the concern about copyright infringement has come from large content producers — movie and music companies. One-woman-shop photographers and individual craftsmen haven't had much to say, till now. And that makes the current Pinterest controversy interesting, says Anthony Kosner. As technology advances and new devices allow for ever-higher resolutions, we will keep coming back to the copyright issue.

Renowned photographer Trey Ratcliff has dealt with the issue by giving the store away and hoping for the best: Why Photographers Should Stop Complaining and Embrace Pinterest.

Dissenters point out that that’s easy for Ratcliff to say, since he’s already made his mark in the world. What about emerging photographers? How are they going to pay for meals, much less their next lens purchase, if people don’t buy their photographs because they can get them for free? It’s question that troubles a lot of creative people, not just photographers. 

I doubt that the women now sharing pictures of salads, flowers and unwearable shoes on Pinterest will suffer anything more serious than information overload. Even so, I deleted my boards. Not tearfully, as Kirsten Kowalski did. Maybe a bit wistfully. My “Ah l'amour” board had been fun to assemble. 

One of my fellow pinners had posted on Facebook: “Enough already with the Audrey Hepburn and Eiffel Tower pins!” Which tells you something right there: Pinterest was not such a bad place to hang out in a world as scary as ours.

Donna Trussell is poet, fiction writer and native Texan. She lives in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @DonnaTrussell.

By Donna Trussell  |  04:37 PM ET, 03/08/2012

Tags:  pinterest, sopa, pipa, copyright, photography, etsy

 
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