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The social-bookmarking site Pinterest has been around since 2010, but if you're on Facebook you have probably noticed an upswing in people "pinning" things – that is, posting found images under their names, in folders like "Clothes I'd Like to Own" or "Places I'd Like to Visit." If you are a woman you are much more likely to have heard of it, as women so far have been its primary users. But business magazines are calling it the fastest-growing site ever: It now has 12 million unique visitors. With so much momentum, it is unlikely that women will hang on to it as their little secret for much longer.

Pinterest's enthusiastic proponents say that there is nothing new about making collages of pictures that express our personalities: Most of us did it with cut-up magazines as children. But I think there is also something entirely contemporary about the kind of collecting that seems to dominate this site.

Pinterest is many things. It can be just a way of arranging one's Internet bookmarks for one's personal use – simple online data storage that happens to be public. I know an artist who uses it this way, as a place to store images that inspire her. But most people are keener on the public part of it. They want to share ideas of an attractive life. So far Pinterest is an almost purely materialist place. Its home page looks exactly like a glossy lifestyle magazine: Here is a nice pink dress, a cool coffee table, and roast Cornish game hen on lentil-garlic mash. They are images of desirable living.

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But a lifestyle magazine researches these images and then sells advertising to pay for its labour. What do the unpaid compilers of Pinterest get out of their intensive Net-combing? I tried it myself, to see how it works. I thought, what material objects do I crave? So I went online and Googled pictures of bespoke tweed suits. I posted my favourite ones. That process took about a half-hour, which is time I felt passing with some anxiety. But it worked – some people immediately repinned some of my images. Great! And that's it. That's all that happens. I did not feel the satisfaction that I am guessing I am supposed to. I didn't really feel that I was involved with communication. Maybe I am just too verbal.

Actually, most posts on Pinterest are "repins" – that is, they are taken from someone else on Pinterest. So there are communication and community at work. I'm sure the motivations of the posters are genuinely generous desires to share ideas for how to make a prettier world. But there is also of course ego and competition. Carefully working at compiling albums of tasteful images displays one's great taste; it creates a sort of advertisement for one's aesthetic sense, and is good at conveying an arch kind of whimsy ("Here are my favourite pre-1970 staplers").

It's also the creation of a fantasy landscape – fantasy house and wardrobe, usually – that's not unlike the amassing of virtual possessions or money on World of Warcraft or Second Life. It's virtual materialism. And why not? I imagine owning a collection of photographs of vintage rifles could be almost as comforting as an actual collection of vintage rifles.

It is true that the variety of images is growing and is beginning to include non-object categories: People are collecting and sharing their favourite images of book covers or film directors. I am not sure exactly what pleasure is to be had in perusing an assortment of pictures of Woody Allen – I see a picture of Woody Allen and I crave text about Woody Allen. But I'm text-addicted and should try to get over it.

One more thing: It may be all illegal. Yes, Pinterest names the source of each image, but some lawyers have claimed that users may still be vulnerable to claims of copyright infringement. Pinterest is trying to allay fears – it has released a piece of "opt-out" code that you can put on your website that will prevent pinning of your images – but the legal debate continues. Most photographers are still thrilled to have their work circulated as long as they are credited. And most users will continue to enjoy creating a whole community of entirely visual communication, like a vast city of beautiful mutes.

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