On Pinterest folk

In the Start-up section of the March 11, 2012 issue of The New York Times, I glanced at an article devoted to Pinterest. The headline runs: “Pinterest Aims at the Collector Hidden Inside All of Us.” According to its website, Pinterest is a “virtual pinboard,” a place where you can grab and pin up photos, images, color swatches–hence, a publicly visible scrapbook or commonplace book of sorts. Strikingly, Pinterest was a company that I’d only heard existed the day before, but I was now coming to find that it was, as Jenna Wortham of the NYT was informing me, being touted as one of the hottest start-ups of 2012. Indeed, it was the darling of South by Southwest. If there is an It Girl and an It Drink, then there should also be an It Start-up. The pun alone makes it worth it.

Reader, I am already leading you astray because my focus actually lies elsewhere. My attention was caught not by the conceit of the start-up but by the founder’s remarks about folks. Quoting:

“We showed it to folks from all walks of life, lifestyle bloggers, crafters and hobbyists,” said Ben Silbermann, a founder and the chief executive of Pinterest. “The early people were from the area where I grew up, in Des Moines, and the site grew very organically from there.”

A few paragraphs later, more folksy Ben:

“It’s like, when you go to a friend’s house, you’re always excited to see what’s on their bookshelf,” he said. “Behind Pinterest was the idea that if you can put that online, it’d be really exciting for folks.”

Hey, they’re those folks again!, those folks getting excited about collecting things and being folksy and whatnot. But who are those folks anyway? By this, I don’t mean: what consumers make up Pinterest’s target market, and I don’t have in mind how the start-up will manage to become monetizable or achieve scale. My philosophical question, rather, is: what are folks anyway?

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To find out, I took a trip to Palo Alto, California, the rural outpost of Folksyville. When I got there, Ben was dressed in a flannel shirt and a beard. I sat down with him, and we spent the afternoon talking, over our lunch of hearty potatoes, about his growing up in Des Moines and my growing up in rural Wisconsin. We spoke about our fond memories of hay bailing and apple picking. Afterward, as I consulted my notes at the home where I was being hosted, I thought how uncanny it was how much Ben and I had in common.

I kid. I didn’t meet Ben or Mr. Silbermann in Palo Alto, and I don’t know how much flannel he is wearing these days. I write to you from my urban tree house in NYC.

It is true, however, that Pinterest is based in Palo Alto, and it is worth noting that the latter, alongside Austin, Boulder, Portland, Seattle, and Brooklyn, is a start-up hub. I ask: how could there be anything folksy about Palo Alto (or Brooklyn or Seattle)? And what would explain our desire to speak, for those who (I’ll argue) aren’t folks at all, in folksy terms?

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When I think of “folk,” a few characteristics come to mind. (I am not sure whether these qualify as necessary or sufficient conditions. I am only thinking aloud.)

1. Folk live in the country, in a rural setting, in a small town.

2. Folk are commoners and laypersons.

3. Folk have kith and kin. A nice quote, from 1833, in the Oxford English Dictionary speaks to this sense of folk: “Your young folks are flourishing, I hope.”

What is especially revealing about the above list is that most of us don’t embody any of these characteristics. To wit,

1. Most people live in the city, in an urban setting, in a metropolis. (Think of Richard Florida’s many references to the “creative class.”) According to the latest statistics, only 1% of the US population today is involved in or associated with farming.

2. We are “elites.” I am reminded of Judith Shklar’s book Ordinary Vices. Her list of modern democratic vices includes cruelty, hypocrisy, betrayal, misanthropy, and snobbery. With regard to the last, her question is, “What is wrong with snobbery?” The wrap is that snobs reject the very idea of mass democracy, reinvoking or holding fast to outmoded aristocratic notions of social distinction, rank, and birth in order to shore up a sense of power. Granted. Yet another sense of “elites” would simply key into the fact that most of us are college-educated and engaged in some professional (not I, said the fox, but most) activities.

3. Most of us no longer have, in the blood sense invoked above, “kith and kin.” We have friends, acquaintances, co-workers. Most of these attachments we “acquired” over time. Few of us have hay bailing neighbors.

It follows that we’re simply not folks. So what gives?

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My first inclination is to appeal to Marx’s early notion of ideology as false consciousness. We are calling ourselves “the folks” in order to hide from ourselves the extent to which we are not folks. My second inclination, however and more in keeping with the spirit of Hegel, is to ask what we yen for, what we desire ownmost when we call ourselves folks. What about being folks is appealing to us and what, by implication, is wanting in our social lives?

Not knowing much about the history of folks, I speculate rather freely, as is my wont. I imagine that–again, I’m thumbing through the OED, fairly rapidly at that–words like folk, folksy, folklore, folk-music, folk-song, folk-dance, folk-blues, and folkfest (in the 60s and 70s) were evocative of a time (or of times) of great social unease and of great social cohesion. Some prima facie evidence: Google Ngram Viewer indicates that, from 1900-2008, the word folk was used most frequently in the 1930s. If this is right, then it implies that American citizens living through the Depression would have had reason enough to conceive of themselves as folk: they were indeed countrified, they were quite poor, they were mostly commoners, and they had, and stood by, their kith and kin.

As a pin-up note: we could imagine the hippie movements in the 60s and 70s as drawing on this tradition, though now in an “alchemized” and “spiritualized” form.

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Why folk now, why now during the beginning of the second decade of the 21st C.? I think our folk fantasy bespeaks our sense of social alienation and our nostalgic yearnings (from the Greek: a desire for home) for meaningful social bonds. The trouble is that we can’t return to “folk talk,” as if saying made us so, as if social reality were so malleable as to bend to our language and our will. In addition, by invoking “folk,” by engaging in conceptual deformation, we shortcircuit the heady philosophical inquiry into what would be necessary for us to re-imagine forms of togetherness that would be “post-traditional” but just as closely knit. We need “metaphysical compensation” for the social unraveling; we yearn, and rightly so, for this.

Let us try to be candid, honest, and courageous. Let us look social reality in the face. There is no such thing as city folk, and there is no such animal as Pinterest folk. Let’s get over this, get over all this nonsensical folksy talk, so that we can start working toward bringing into reality a more fitting understanding of our shared social experience.

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