Pinterest - Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)

Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)

Chapter 11. Pinterest


Pinterest is a relatively newcomer to the social media scene, but it is quickly becoming one of the most prominent sites in terms of driving traffic and holding users' attention. The site's premise is simple: it's a visual bookmarking tool. It replicates a more oldfashioned concept; people would cut out pictures or articles from magazines and pin them onto a bulletin board (hence the name pinterest) or organize them in folders. Pinterest does the same thing for the Web. Users can create a post, called a pin, from any site. This chapter presents an overview of the different types of information people share on the site and how to find those people.


Social media

Social networks


Description of the Site

Pinterest is a relative newcomer to the social media scene, but it is quickly becoming one of the most prominent sites in terms of driving traffic and holding users' attention.


The site's premise is simple: it's a visual bookmarking tool. It replicates a more old-fashioned concept; people would cut out pictures or articles from magazines and pin them onto a bulletin board (hence the name pinterest) or organize them in folders. Pinterest does the same thing for the web. Users can create a post, called a pin, from any site. The pin must be an image. Users can add a caption and the image will have a link back to the original site. Pins are organized on thematic boards.

Figure 11.1 shows an example of an image pinned on Pinterest. It includes information about the top with a button that allows the user currently looking at it to add the image to one of his own boards, a number showing how many other people have pinned the image, and options to like the image, visit the link, or share it.


FIGURE 11.1 An example of a single pinned image on the Pinterest site.


A Pinterest board is a collection of pins. Figure 11.2 shows a board with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Clicking on an image will bring up a larger version, such as what is seen in Figure 11.1.


FIGURE 11.2 The first images on a Pinterest board dedicated to the Hubble telescope. Scrolling down will reveal all the other images on the board.

Users can create as many boards as they like on Pinterest. Boards do not need to follow any organizational structure, but they tend to each have a specific theme. Figure 11.3 shows what a user's list of boards might look like. This is the main view of a user's page on Pinterest as well. Clicking on a board will bring you to a page of photos, like in Figure 11.2.


FIGURE 11.3 A list of boards on a user's main page on Pinterest.

Adding Pins

People generally add pins to their boards in one of two ways: They repin posts from other users that they find within Pinterest; or they pin content from external sites.

Via Repinning

Figure 11.1 shows the red “Pin” button at the top of a post, which allows anyone to repin that photo (with its accompanying link) to their own board.

Pictures and links to external sites can be added in a couple major ways. First, many sites now have built-in functionality to share an item on Pinterest within their own sites. Figure 11.4 shows an example from the J.Crew website. Note the Pinterest icon in the lower right (found in the red box, which is added for emphasis).


FIGURE 11.4 A T-shirt on the J.Crew website with a Pinterest icon at the bottom (boxed in red) to allow users to easily add it to Pinterest.

Clicking the Pinterest icon there brings up a window to create the pin, shown in Figure 11.5. This window is actually part of Pinterest (you can see in the address bar at the top of the page). Once the user clicks the red “Pin it” button, the image is added to the board they have selected.


FIGURE 11.5 The pin window that appears when a user clicks the Pinterest icon shown in Figure 11.4.

Via New Pins

The second way people can add images from external sites is by using a Pinterest “bookmarklet” or browser extension. Users can add this extension from the Pinterest site or through their browser's extension marketplace.

Figure 11.6 shows this browser extension at work. It appears as a Pinterest icon to the right of the address bar (a red circle with a curly “P” in it). If users click that, they see a list of all the images on the page. They can choose the one they want and pin it much in the same way as is shown in Figure 11.5.


FIGURE 11.6 The Pinterest browser extension appears as a button to the right of the address bar. When clicked, all the pinnable images on the page appear so the user can select which he or she wants to add to a board.

Users can also upload their own photos from their computer, but this is a much less common way of adding content to the site.

Following Users

The social aspect of Pinterest is in following others. Following on Pinterest works in much the same way as it does on Twitter; users can follow one another, and it is a one-way relationship (i.e., it doesn't require approval or “following back”). When this occurs, any pins from the followed person are displayed on the home page. A person can follow all of another user's boards or select particular boards.

Influence on Traffic

The power Pinterest is assuming in the social media space is because of its ability to drive traffic to other sites. Because it is based on the idea of sharing images that link to other places, every pin is a link. Sites have started creating interesting, beautiful, or attention grabbing images specifically to be attractive for sharing on Pinterest. This sharing gets links to their content in front of a large audience.

As of early 2014, Pinterest was only second to Facebook in the amount of web traffic they were responsible for. Over 3% of every click on the web that took people to another site came from Pinterest. It drives more traffic than Twitter, LinkedIn, reddit, and Google + combined.

In terms of investigation, it is also a place where users spend a lot of time curating content that they believe reflects their personality and interests. As such, it can reveal a lot about a person even though there is no personal text or location information, as is so important on other sites.

User Demographics

Pinterest has about 70 million users. It is quite popular in the United States, with around 21% of US internet users on Pinterest. The most distinguishing characteristic of Pinterest is that the vast majority of its users (≈ 80%) are women.

Pinterest users tend to be white, well educated, and with higher incomes. Age is not a big factor on Pinterest. Younger users ages 18-29 make up around 20% of the Pinterest population as do users ages 30-49.

Finding People

As with many of the social networking sites we have seen, there are two major ways to find people on Pinterest: a direct search for their name and through social connections.

Via Search

At the top left of each Pinterest page, as you can see in Figures 11.2 and 11.3, is a search box. This is a universal search for pins, boards, and people. You can search for a person by their actual name or by their username. When you search, you will see three tabs toward the top of the window on the left: Pins, Boards, and Pinners. This is shown in Figure 11.7. Clicking the Pinners tab will take you to a list of users who match your search term. While full names and usernames will work here, email addresses will not.


FIGURE 11.7 A search results page on Pinterest.

Via User Profiles

If you cannot find someone through a direct search for their real name or username, you might try looking at their profile. For any individual user, you can see the full list of people whom they follow and who follow them. On a person's page, there are tabs for both of these groups, shown in Figure 11.8. If you know or can find the Pinterest page for an associate of your target, you may find the target's profile in one of these lists.


FIGURE 11.8 The lower right of this image shows the tabs that link to lists of people who follow the user and who the user is following.

Obtaining Data

To investigate a target on Pinterest, his main page will be the primary source of information. The boards they have will reveal their interests and tastes, as will the individual pins on them.

For example, consider Figures 11.9-11.12. These show the first fifteen boards of four randomly selected Pinterest users. You should be able to develop a profile for each user with very little additional information; all four users have quite distinct interests.


FIGURE 11.9 A random user's Pinterest boards. What can you guess about this user from the boards and pins?


FIGURE 11.10 Another random user's Pinterest boards. This reveals a very different profile of user from Figure 11.9.


FIGURE 11.11 A third random user's Pinterest boards, again showing a different set of interests.


FIGURE 11.12 A final random Pinterest user's boards, showing someone with a particular focus of content on the site.

In fact, the ability of Pinterest to reveal private insights into users' life events is actually something that has been documented in the media on occasion.1 Because Pinterest allows users to easily collect ideas for planning life events—the two of the most popular search terms on Pinterest are “wedding” and “baby shower”—the creation of boards on a topic has signaled events to friends who follow a person on the site. Good Morning America reports many stories of women who started boards on Pinterest to plan their wedding or pregnancy and who received messages in response from friends or family who found out about the upcoming event through the board.

Privacy Levels and Access

Privacy on Pinterest is quite straightforward. By default, all boards and pins are public. The only way to change that is to create a “secret” board. These boards can be shared with individual users. Many people can be part of a secret board, but they need to be invited individually. There is no way to create boards visible only to “friends,” for example. Secret boards do not show up for anyone other than the user and those invited to the board, so their existence can't be discovered by anyone not authorized to see them.

Since most content is posted from external sites, rather than being personal information uploaded directly, there tends to be less sensitive information shared on Pinterest. As a result, the vast majority of content is public.

Case Studies

Aside from the examples of pregnancy and marriage described above, there are examples of where Pinterest has revealed insights into targets' state of mind or criminal interests.

Shannon Conley

A 19-year-old American girl, Shannon Conley, was arrested on terrorism charges after a six-month dramatic transformation2. The girl had met her 32-year-old Tunisian “boyfriend” online at that point and quickly turned to extremist Islam. Her social media interests went from pretty typical teen postings to violent Islamist posts. Her parents had contacted authorities a number of times over the 6 months of her change. She was eventually arrested as she boarded a flight to Turkey, where said she planned to join ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), sponsored by her boyfriend.

While her Facebook and Pinterest pages were not used to discover her terrorist activities, they did illustrate the shift in her interests. She posted pictures of herself in a burka and quotes and images promoting violent jihad and that were anti-Christian and Jewish.

Rebecca Shaw

Contact through Pinterest has also led to legal problems for some people. In 2013, Rebecca Shaw was arrested for violating a restraining order because she followed her estranged daughter on Pinterest.3 Whether or not this was an actual violation of the order is a tricky question. When the mother followed the daughter, Pinterest automatically sent a message informing the daughter of the new follower. The mother did not intentionally contact her daughter. However, the action of following could send a message of “I am watching you,” which can be considered threatening. This kind of issue is one that will have to work its way through the courts.

Paul Weiser

Pinterest revealed similar things about Paul Weiser.4 He had written to advice-columnist Dear Abby in 2012 about his sexual interest in children. She reported him and he spent several years in prison for possession of child pornography. After his release, he was listed in the Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry.

He fell under suspicion again when he tried to order dolls designed for little girls. Investigators looked at his Pinterest page that included one board called “Things I Love.” That board was a collection of photos of open-mouthed preadolescent girls. The Department of Justice eventually discovered he had been recording and photographing children in his neighborhood, and he was rearrested and sent to jail. While the Pinterest pictures themselves were not illegal, they indicated to police that Weiser was still pursuing his sexual interest in children.


Pinterest is a fast-growing social media site dedicated to visual bookmarking. Users post pins, individual photos that link back to their source website. Pins are collected on boards that generally have a common theme. Users can follow other people's boards to keep up to date on what they are pinning.

The vast majority of Pinterest users are women, and they use the site for many purposes, including planning life events. This is one insight you may be able to obtain through a Pinterest investigation. Overall, it is also an excellent reflection of a person's interests and aspirations, allowing you to develop a good understanding of a target's personality and hobbies.

1 Effron, Lauren. 2013. “Is Pinterest Revealing Your Secrets, Future Plans Before You Do?.” ABC News.

2 Parrish, Robin. 2014. “Colorado Nurse Arrested After Plotting Terrorism with Fiancé on Social Networks.” Tech Times.


4 Sanchick, Myra. 2014. “Back in Jail: Years Ago, a Sex Offender Wrote ‘Dear Abby’ about His Fantasies, so What Now? |” Fox 6 Now.