Pinterest is kind of having a moment right now. The social network is just two years old and has already attracted major brands (hello, Whole Foods and Nike) and more than 12 million users eager to share their favorite photos of damn-near anything. And its new importance goes beyond the digital world; the platform is impacting how we find and share our opinions on food.

A quick search around Pinterest will turn up images of wedding dresses, cool tech, moody celebrities, and — of course — lots and lots of food. There are whole boards filled with “pins” of cakes and avocados, fresh salads, or fried chicken. Greatist is no slouch when it comes to Pinterest (check out our recipes and resources), but we are part of a new group of publishers who understand food and health has gone digital. Pinterest is a playground, especially for foodies looking for inspiration (or just a little food porn). One of the influential voices of this new movement is David-Michel Davies. A former intern at Napster, Davies is now the executive director of the Webby Awards and the co-founder of Internet Week. We spoke to him about the future of food, Pinterest, and his top five must-follow Pinning brands.

Getting Emotional About Healthy Food

Pinterest isn’t just a playpen for food-based brands, but a platform built on visceral emotions. “I was raised with a focus on food,” Davies said on a phonecall in early December, a date sandwiched between Thanksgiving leftovers and Christmas holiday feasts. “We made food all the time. My mother came from France and that was just the culture. For me, the growth of Pinterest is exciting to see… I don’t think the ‘food porn’ stuff is so much about the quality of the pictures as it is about the experience they’re sharing.”

That kind of positive memory helps explain why food shares so well on the social network. “A picture of apple pie or a dessert is really emotional, it brings up memories of our lives, or a nice moment,” Davies says. The Internet is organized around photography, and people enjoy looking at pictures of food. Pinterest is the great enabler.

It’d be nice, however, if people had those strong memories around something healthier than cupcakes or bacon (two popular foods on Pinterest). Fortunately, healthy food is also having a bit of moment as people start to care more about what they’re eating and where their food comes from. “It’s going to be hard to create a picture of kale that stimulates the same enjoyment as a picture of bacon or apple pie,” Davies says, “but I don’t think the goal of healthy eating is to aspire to the same reaction. I don’t think they need to be compared. A lot of people out there are trying to make good food for themselves and they do care what it looks like and where it came from. Seeing a beautiful picture might inspire them to make it.”

Whole Foods and Businesses Online

With so many images and boards, however, Pinterest can feel a bit like chaos. It’s a Wild West with plenty of gold for businesses and brands that know how to navigate it. “Brands, whether they be restaurants or soda companies or movie theaters, have to become some sort of publisher,” Davies says. “There are a million reasons for that phenomenon, one is that these social platforms give [businesses] access to customers which they normally didn’t have. Where they used to have to run a commercial or TV spot, they can now go on Pinterest and talk to them.”

One of the companies that’s benefited from the lower barriers to entry is Whole Foods. With more than 85,000 followers, it’s a good case study, Davies explains. People shop at Whole Foods because they believe the food is better for them and they buy into that kind of food choice. The company showcases those values in how they name their boards (“How Does Your Garden Grow?” “Cheese Is the Bee’s Knees,” “Eat Your Veggies”) with bright and appealing photographs. Have a good product, represent it well: It’s a simple lesson but one that can be hard to put into practice. “All those tricks aren’t going to do anything for something with no substance. There are a lot of boards that have a good sense of “brand” but don’t have the execution down.”

For now, the secret sauce of execution comes down to honesty — knowing what a company stands for and presenting it in a fun and useful way. Check out Davies top five must-follow Pinners at the bottom of this story for more stand-out examples.

The Future of Food on Pinterest

It’s easy to find lots of food on Pinterest. A search for “sushi,” for example, turns up hundreds of images, each slice of raw fish a small gem. But it’s not especially helpful if you, say, want to find a place to eat sushi. The the next frontier for Pinterest is to convert its vast stores of stunning pictures into something practical. Davies predicts the next step will be finding individual Pinners as “food curators,” individuals with a strong sense of place and a good sense of taste. The same way we ask our friends where to eat in new cities, we might come to trust individual Pinterest foodies with their visual food recommendations. “It’s a great way of finding new places I might want to go,” Davies says. “If I follow you, for example, I could be inspired to find and try new things.”

Pinterest has already proven to be a place where users can be innovative, and our societal interest in food is only going to grow as our collective health comes more into focus. “If I’m looking at a board of kale salads, I’m probably going to do something about it,” Davies jokes. “If I just wanted to make my brain happy I’d look at a board for ice cream.”

That is part of the challenge for the Pinterest food community, to both appeal to our happy, emotional memories while also promoting healthier choices and smarter food choices. Either way, food has a certain power over us, with the ability to trigger vivd sense memories or even, possibly, convince us to put the camera down and just enjoy it: “It’s one of the great things still about restaurants,” says Davies. “It’s still mostly not cool to still be on your phone in a restaurant. It’s certainly a place where you’re allowed to put it down and enjoy. It’s a meal.”

5 Must-Follow Boards on Pinterest

Need some new favorite Pinners? Davies picked five accounts that are fun, cool, and using Pinterest the right way.

  1. The New Yorker.Big fan of their work as a whole! Their Pinterest boards are the perfect mix of informative (“This Week’s Issue” board) and whimsical (“Talk of the Town” board), plus who wouldn’t like board dedicated to Cartoons, a New Yorker staple.
  2. Saveur.Traveling around the globe these past couple months on our Webby Talks World Tour, we’ve had our share of interesting and exciting cuisines. Saveur has a Pinterest food/travel diary inspired Pinterest board — think I may have to do the same.
  3. Food Network. Great mix of how-to, seasonally themed, and everything in between boards. Fun to get lost in their boards every now and again.
  4. Smithsonian. Like a virtual tour of the Smithsonian. Great example of traditional media and arts leveraging new media — see also the Getty Museum.
  5. The Onion.Always good for a midday laugh break.

Have social media site like Pinterest changed the way we see food? Share your thoughts in the comments or tweet the author at @zsniderman.

Photos by ShardsOfBlue