Pinterest: Finding the Content You Want

Pinterest Logo

Pinterest’s logo, courtesy of Pinterest

Currently I have been thinking a lot about Pinterest. You can find my first two posts on Pinterest here and here.

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a request asking if somebody could help her figure out how to use Pinterest. It turns out, perhaps of course, that she didn’t really need help figuring out Pinterest. In fact, she sounds like she’s got it mostly figured out already. You have boards, you pin stuff to them, all is lovely and pink and probably topped with a bow. However, she isn’t just looking to pin things. She wants Pinterest to help her actually do things by helping her find new ideas for specific projects. And none of her friends, me included, could really give her any suggestions for that. It turns out, Pinterest is terrible for this, and the more specific you need things, the worse it is. This got me thinking a bit about what Pinterest is, who uses it, and how I use it to actually find content that interests me.

First, there is a conceptual problem with the way that most of us think about Pinterest. Even though we think of Pinterest as being all about pins, isn’t only about pins, and Pinterest isn’t designed to help you find specific pins. Instead, to quote the way that Pinterest describes itself,

Pinterest is a virtual pinboard. Pinterest allows you to organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. You can browse pinboards created by other people to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests.

People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and share their favorite recipes. [emphasis added]

What that means is that Pinterest isn’t really about the individual pins. Instead, it’s about the collection of those pins onto specific boards. It’s like the old phrase, “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” The pinboards are the forests, and the pins are the trees. If somebody goes onto Pinterest expecting to find lots of pins, the way that casual users do, you will not be disappointed. But if that person wants the aggregate of the pins to help them toward a goal, without a lot of sifting and searching, Pinterest isn’t going to be much help. Because Pinterest isn’t designed to give its users specific pins, it is designed to help them organize their own pins onto pinboards. But then, how does a serious user, somebody who wants to achieve some goal, harness Pinterest? Read More

My Thoughts on Pinterest, Part 2

Front Page of Pinterest

The Front Page of Pinterest

Challenges Pinterest Faces

You can read the first part here. These are some of the more negative sides of Pinterest that I think need to be considered seriously as Pinterest continues growing, and certainly as more people and companies begin interacting with it. I don’t have solutions for all of the issues that I raise, but I hope that Pinterest itself is considering them and coming up with solutions.

Legal Issues

The legal issues that Pinterest faces have been explored far better by people who are not me, many of whom have law degrees and understand the issues far better than I ever will. However, I can say briefly that I think Pinterest needs to put much more of a priority on exploring and explaining these issues. Currently the service has a Terms of Service and a Privacy Policy that follow the typical social network format for these things. We’ve all seen how many problems a disregard for strong, clear policies, especially privacy policies, has caused for Facebook and Google (remember Buzz?), and to a lesser extent a lot of smaller web startups. Pinterest should learn from their mistakes and put together a solid set of policies, and then clearly explain them to its users. This may be particularly important if it begins interacting with larger companies, who will not be amused if all of the legal risks of the service are passed on to them. Pinterest does seem to be taking more interest in the concerns of its users, and I hope it doesn’t follow in Facebook’s footsteps but instead becomes more open.

Pins Become Oversaturated

While the average pinner may remember fondly the time that a pin was repinned fifteen or twenty times, some pins go on to become super-pins, re-cycling through the site hundreds or even thousands of times. That’s not bad in and of itself. But the site has a tendency to re-hash the same pins over and over and over. This can be boring for regular visitors, especially if a lot of their connections are constant re-pinners but not new-content pinners. A girl can only see that creative idea for a fruit plate shaped like a rainbow so many times before she wants it out of the stream of pins she sees every time she logs on.

Pinterest’s Limited Aesthetic May Halt its Growth

Although I wrote previously that Pinterest still has tremendous room for growth, its very well developed user base may block it from achieving that. Most pinners hail from a very limited range of aesthetic tastes, and they produce and perpetuate almost all of the site’s content. If cupcakes are your thing, you will find plenty to love on Pinterest. Ditto pictures of shirtless actors like Ryan Gosling, especially with clever sayings. Bows are in full force, as are soft colors. Home décor is almost exclusively in soft colors, and beautiful flower arrangements are often also in soft colors. Even the dessert recipes tend to be in soft colors! Women whose personal tastes aren’t quite as stereotypically feminine will find far less of interest on the site. And this doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the large groups of people (such as more stereotypically masculine men) with no interest in those things at all.

Of course, the aesthetic of Pinterest, even that of its main demographic, can very easily change as larger cultural trends change. Maybe Pinterest will even hasten the change as everything gets older even faster. But in the meantime plenty of people are signing up for Pinterest, being turned off by an overabundance of pastel, and leaving their accounts dormant rather than trying to search out pins of interest to them, or adding their own.

There are several ways that Pinterest could solve this. First, attempting to deliver some pins that match a user’s obvious interests would go a long way in helping users feel more interested. Users can enter parts of the site that cater to particular types of pins, for example design, clothing, food. Now it seems like these boards are a constantly updating set of all things that all pinners have added. Pinterest needs to figure out how to curate these boards. Pinterest could also try to court more big-name pinners from areas that are underrepresented, and then try to match them with members. Classic car detailers, designers for outdoor sporting goods companies, artists with bold (not pastel!) style? These people need to be welcomed onto Pinterest.

Nobody Really Knows How Pinterest Works

This is potentially Pinterest’s biggest problem (after its potential for being sued for encouraging and enabling systematic copyright violations, of course). By “how it works” I don’t mean how pins get added and shared, but the behind the scenes parts of the service. How come some pins get re-pinned twenty times, others are never seen by anybody, and yet others have 6,457 re-pins and 262 likes? How does a pin get onto its main category page? Is every pin there for fifteen seconds before being booted off by the never ending stream of pins? Does Pinterest try to selectively place pins up there? Are pins only shown once, or do re-pinned pins get re-pinned to the category board? How come some users (surprisingly, usually fairly anonymous people) suddenly get thousands of followers? Why do some users only attract a few? Even the big-time pinners have no idea how this happens.

Pinterest also doesn’t seem to have decided who to reward. Nearly every user on the site is really a re-pinner. Almost uniformly, users with hundreds of pins have re-pinned upwards of 75% of them. Some, maybe even most, have never added a single pin to the site, they just regurgitate other people’s content. However, some of these users are still the most popular, even  Pinterest needs to decide whether they prefer that, or whether pinners who are interacting with the community but also constantly bringing new content into the site should get some kind of bump.

This probably has little practical meaning for the vast majority of pinners. Although the idea of being a famous Pinterest taste-maker might be a vaguely appealing goal, most users just want to share their pins and not manage a Pinterest empire. However, to people trying to do something with Pinterest, promote their brand, sell their products, make their art more popular, this is a big deal. It is already obvious that Pinterest offers huge potential marketing benefits. Whether it will turn into a great boost to sales for companies remains to be seen, but we do know that it is a huge traffic generator. But how can people who want to use Pinterest purposefully use it if they don’t know how it works? Is it worth creating content for it if that content languishes with only a few re-pins? How do new Pinterest profiles go about successfully attracting followers? Pinterest will need to answer a lot of these questions if it expects to make a profit by helping people make a profit.

My Thoughts on Pinterest

Pinterest Logo

Pinterest’s logo, courtesy of Pinterest

Just past its second birthday, Pinterest has managed to grow from a baby website to a social-networking behemoth with a steadily expanding user base. It seems like every major news source has done at least one report on the site, and everybody is waiting to see how its business plan will develop. Or, to translate that, we all want to know how Pinterest will incorporate advertising or some other “corporate” angle into its authentic world of images. A sub-question also exists, how will Pinterest’s users, individuals and companies, use the site to make money for themselves?

I don’t pretend to have the answer to those questions. I’m not privy to the Pinterst team’s interior discussions, and harnessing Pinterest’s outside money-making potential is a complex process that a lot of people are working on from multiple angles. I do have some thoughts on the particular strengths and weaknesses of Pinterest and how the site’s character  will affect these goals.

Pinterest’s Unique Aspects

These are a few of the characteristics of Pinterest that I think are the most basic to the site. They are not all good or all bad. In some cases they represent a huge strength, in others a potential strength if the kinks are worked out.

Pinterest is Aspirational

This is the most obvious and integral part of Pinterest, and it’s what sets it apart from other photo-sharing sites. Users are encouraged to create “pin boards” where they collect images related to some specific project or theme. At its base, this is the practical use of Pinterest. Remodeling your kitchen? Collect ideas on a board. Want to spruce up your wardrobe? Plan out your new outfits on a board. However, it’s also the starting point for more than a few flights of fancy. Not everybody with wedding planning pin boards is currently planning a wedding. There are plenty of college age girls collecting dozens of images of beautiful master bedroom ideas from the bunk beds of their dorm rooms.

This is Pinterest’s great appeal and great strength to its users. Collecting eye-candy of the way they wish they live, dress, craft, cook, etc. is a hugely enjoyable experience. And Pinterest also functions as the modern-day, social version of clipping magazine or newspapers photos and articles and storing them away in folders, as several of the Pinterest super-users explain in these interviews. Plus, Pinterest is a way to have this style, especially a style that users aspire to but can’t yet realize, validated. Every time another user repins or likes a pin, it tells the original pinner that she chose a particularly stylish, or clever, or pretty, or yummy image.

Pinterest Mimics Window Shopping

This is a key point for retailers who, now or in the future, will be making money through the site. It is especially true of the online window shopping experience. In fact, Pinterest’s layout is very similar to the usual layout for online retail stores, including everything from Macy’s to Anthropologie to Etsy. This is another source of enjoyment for Pinterest’s users. Anybody who enjoys shopping will enjoy Pinterest, especially if part of their enjoyment derives from the visual feast that the shopping experience provides. The best part about Pinterest is that, just like window shopping, it is easy for consumers to go directly from the images, which they may have encountered in a browsing mode, to the companies’ websites and an active shopping mode.

That this makes it easier for retailers to link their products and customers together is potentially a plus of the service. That Pinterst isn’t being more up-front about how it is trying to manage this link is a bit concerning, not least because their silence on the subject may indicate that they are not trying to manage the link at all. Pinterest, like any other service, product, etc. eventually needs to make money. This is the most obvious pathway, and if it’s neglected they will have done themselves a serious disservice. Pinterest could definitely do a lot more to ensure a direct connection from linked items to their points of origin (banning pins originating from google or bing image searches, rather than just discouraging them, for example).

Another big problem is that silence will look like deception to users. It is essentially inevitable that Pinterest’s content will become increasingly monetized, but the monetization will be much better handled if it occurs in a way that users find acceptable. Paid ads making a sudden, surprise appearance amongst the pins will not go over well with users. On the other hand, if Pinterest appears to be offering guidance to companies as they begin utilizing the service and makes some attempts to understand its pinners’ views on how  this process should work, it will win points with both its user base and the companies it wants to attract.

Pinterest Still Has a Lot of Room for New Pinners

Although Pinterest originally attracted attention because of its unusually quick growth, it is still relatively small by social networking standards. It is also plagued by an imbalance in its user base, as it is still mostly used by women within a certain age group. This phenomenon isn’t totally true, there are men on Pinterest, but there could certainly be a lot more. A less reported issue is the lack of international users. Pinterest currently seems to be largely a phenomenon of the English speaking world, but is far, far less prevalent amongst non-English speaking pinners. This is actually a strength of the site, because it still has lots of room to grow, and as new pinners from under-represented demographics show up they should have lots of space to adapt Pinterest to their own needs and interests.

Pinterest’s Social Mechanism is Different from Other Social Networks

This is a strength in a way, because the network is very divorced from the usual “friends” network that is found on most social networking sites. Therefore it avoids the drama that can fester on those networks. The “super-users” often described Pinterest as feeling very quiet, and therefore more relaxed and private. The lack of constant commenting and status updating can feel like a retreat.

Unfortunately, this is also a weakness. Unlike other social networks, there isn’t a clear mechanism for users to establish a network of followers, or to choose who to follow. After the beginning, when Pinterest first matches users to friends in their Facebook or Twitter networks and suggests a few highly popular pinners for them to follow, finding users with both similar interests and worthwhile content becomes an opaque process. Because the service is freed from some of the usual demands of social networks, it is only a short step toward users connecting with other not-from-real life users. However, the network does little to support this, and users typically do not see repeated content from non-friend users. Pinterst would do well to expand the options that pinners have to search for and connect with like-minded users outside of their real-life social networks and to encourage these types of interactions.