Pinterest: Realistic Expectations and the Sharing of Failure


As a somewhat reluctant Pinterest user, I knew two things going in.

  1. Pinterest is full of inspiring pictures.
  2. Those pictures lead to some very unrealistic expectations.

The photographs are beautiful, and every recipe, DIY project and exercise plan is described as “easy”.


The first thing I tried was this recipe for a salad in a Mason jar.  It promises everything that Pinterest is supposed to be: DIY, healthy, quick, make my life easier.  On the right is the pin I followed.  On the left is the salad I made.  While the salad I made tasted great, you can’t see flavor, you can only see appearance, and the appearance is pretty lacking.

IMG_1157  salad


Now, I honestly don’t much care what my lunch looks like, so I wasn’t too surprised or disappointed.  But the expectations that are set by the perfect images can be much more problematic for one of the most popular types of pins: weight loss and exercise.


If you search Pinterest for “weight loss” you’ll find literally hundreds of pins.  In the first 200 pins that came up I saw 1 “normal” woman encouraging everyone to love their body, 2 men (one of whom was Dr. Oz and his latest miracle weight loss diet), and about 80 hyper-fit women.

caloriesSome of the recipes, plans and suggestions in these pins seem totally reasonable (I am neither a nutritionist nor an exercise physiologist), but some of them seem dangerously unrealistic even to a layperson.

The 1200 calorie diet, the lemon juice fast, and the “lose 10 pounds in a week” aren’t anything new, but the medium is.


When I see these weight loss ideas in a magazine, next to a picture of a fantastically fit and skinny woman, I know that she was professionally photographed, and may have nothing to do with the article in question.  But when I see these things on Pinterest, where everything is posted by “regular people” (other users), then I might think that these are realistic and achievable expectations.  And that can cause a world of hurt and disappointment.



pinterest-craft-fails-15But then another aspect of Pinterest comes to the rescue.  One of the great things about the Pinterest community is that they’re happy to acknowledge and embrace failure.  It’s even got it’s own name: “Pinterest Fails” (creative, no, descriptive, yes).  People willingly post their failed attempts to re-create Pinterest projects, so others can laugh, or commiserate.  With this outlet for failures, the barriers to trying something new are greatly reduced.  If you try something and it works, great!  If it doesn’t work, well, it can go on Pinterest fails and hopefully people will find it instructive (how not to do X) or at least funny.

Clay Shirky describes in “Here Comes Everybody” how communities with a high tolerance for failure can generate great creativity and productivity.  Is everything on Pinterest or Youtube great?  No, most of it is terrible.  But because the barriers to entry are so low, and the cost of failure is minimal, many more people are willing to try.  What it means for consumers is that you have to be prepared to spend time filtering pins to find what works.


By balancing the generous display of failures against the unrealistic expectations of weight loss photos, Pinterest becomes more than the sum of its parts.


5 thoughts on “Pinterest: Realistic Expectations and the Sharing of Failure

  1. I enjoy reading your posts because your writing style has a friendly tone. It feels like I’m engaging with a well-informed friend. Your mason jar salad didn’t look too bad 🙂 I like how you incorporated your personal experience into the post. The Pinterest Fails sight is too funny. I like how it encourages people to try new things and be creative but doesn’t expect perfection. Organizations shouldn’t expect to get things right on the first try. In Social Media for Social Good, Health Mansfield writes it can take months to find your voice and figure out what works and what doesn’t. The point is one shouldn’t be afraid to try. I think it’s great how lessons learned are summed up in the “Next time I will…” section of each Pinterest Fails post. People sum up what didn’t work (although it’s obvious from the photos) and why and explain what they will do to improve in future attempts. This drives home the message that just being on social media isn’t enough. Health organization have to see what works for them given their goals. One of the lessons learned on Twitter is that hashtags can be used by many (not just a single organization) to strategically to build momentum for a cause. Organizations should consider what other organizations with similar goals and other key players in their field are doing. What hashtags are they using? It is better to join a successful movement by incorporating a popular hashtag than to start from scratch by creating your own.

  2. I agree with Jill, your posts are always a really enjoyable read. This was interesting to me, because I haven’t really had any experience of Pinterest before. A couple of times a Google search turned up a Pinterest page in response to my query, but I couldn’t be bothered to create a login to get any further with it. Being able to look at pages and pages of other people’s pictures reminded me of those interminable slide shows that neighbours used to show when they invited us round to show off about their supposedly exotic holiday. But, like you, I love the idea of the Pinterest fails. One thing that we often fail to do is take the time to reflect on it when a project doesn’t work. Adding the “next time I would do…” forces people to reflect at least a bit and comments from others could reinforce or add to the learning. It’s almost like an online action learning set –

    Picking up on your title “Realistic Expectations and the Sharing of Failure”, I suspect that most of the pins about weight are posted by people with unrealistic expectations – that they’ll overcome decades of (if not centuries) of social conditioning and mass marketing pressure – and are possibly reinforcing some of the ideals and negative stereotypes about people at either end of the bathroom scales. There’s been an interesting social media movement here in the past week or two, that caused a major retailer to backdown and apologise about reinforcing the thin ideal with its store mannequins: and see Zoe Williams comment in The Guardian Thought provoking.

  3. Hi Margot, Great post – so engaging and conversational! The mason jar salad was not a fail, though! Looked great:-). I like how you used your own photo – that definitely increased engagement for me. The other images you used were also good. Cookie monster fail was hilarious – which is always helpful. And I love the idea of sharing failure as an extreme bonding technique. And permission to keep trying regardless.
    One issue that I took away from your post is the idea that any quack can post anything they want on these sites and people read them (just as you did in your researching).While social media is great for connecting people and providing support…etc., it’s important for people to know what sources can be trusted and which should be disregarded. What you call “unrealistic expectations” might at times be quite dangerous messages – propagating eating disorders, body image and self-esteem issues, and compromising health. I think it is probably up to people like us to figure out how to label sites as legitimate or not so that especially people with low education levels, low health literacy, or who are particularly vulnerable will not be harmed.
    Very nice post!

    • Liana, You’re very right about the issue of who to trust/believe online. Clay Shirky describes it as “publish, then filter”, but it’s also a lot of “don’t believe everything you see on TV/read on the Internet”. I think that was even the theme of a series of car insurance commercials a few years ago, “they can’t put it on the Internet if it isn’t true” (which it obviously wasn’t).

      I was tempted to search Pinterest for some Pro-Ana type material, but I decided not to. Partly because I didn’t want to have that kind of thing in my searches as “suggested” pins, and because I was pretty sure it would be too depressing for words.

      I know that Google had a program recently to filter health (and science?) search results to favor places like the CDC, NIH and NASA over the popular-but-wrong conspiracy sites. I don’t know if it is still running, but it was specifically designed to help people who don’t have a lot of experience sorting the good from the bad.

  4. Margot – what an enjoyable post. Thank you for putting a post together that informs, educates, and entertains. It’s a rare combination, and so helpful for learners when content is delivered this way! I think you make a great point that just because a Pinterest post is successful doesn’t necessarily mean it conveys accurate information, or realistic expectations. So while the auto-filtering of “failed” efforts are in place, as discussed by Shirky, what rises to the top may not actually be what “good” should look like. From a public health standpoint, this is somewhat concerning. How does one run a public health campaign using something like Pinterest when it has to compete with the top 200 pins of superfit skinny “normal” women? The CDC has fully embraced social media, and I wanted to share one that they have on “Tips from former smokers” The images are gritty, and not likely to make the top 200 Pinterest list, in fact, there is only 24 pins. One wonders how or if any of these images have scared anyone into successful smoking cessation. I have no answers, but think that we do need to consider incorporating these forms of social media into health promotion campaigns for targeted groups, and really try to evaluate their how they can be most effectively used.

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