“I’m still trying to understand the whole thing but there must be something to it. It’s really popular!”
That’s my sister-in-law writing on Facebook in late January about Pinterest – one of the real up-and-comers in the world of social media.
In case you haven’t succumbed, Pinterest is a virtual pinboard or scrapbook to which users ‘pin’ images, video, or snippets of text from other websites, or content they’ve uploaded themselves.
Those pins can then be organised into categories (cooking, sport, etc).
Users can comment on or share the pins, and other people can pin them to their personal Pinterest boards as well.
Sound simple? It is. Sound like yet another social bookmarking site? It is.
Despite not being unique, and currently still being invite-only, Pinterest is 2012’s breakout social media marketing darling.
Social media fatigue
Every new social media service faces two related forms of user resistance. The first is the ‘tool for task’ problem: "What will service X do that service Y doesn’t do?" The second is the ‘friend silo’ problem: "Why do I need service X when all my friends are in service Y?"
But Pinterest seems to have hit a Web 2.0 sweet spot, providing compelling answers to both questions. It delivers highly revisitable, personal collections that have high social interest and are extremely easy to share.
Sure, Pinterest resembles any number of ‘social collection’ services. It combines online bookmarking (like Delicious), online photography (like Flickr), and social news (like Facebook). But the way it combines these features makes for a valuable new addition to the social media landscape.
Me first, others second
An individual’s Pinterest site has both individual and social qualities. Users collect things for themselves with a view to returning to the collection themselves.
That desire to return and see the collection grow, to compare and contrast an ever larger but relevant set of things is a huge part of Pinterest’s success.
The fact other friends are not on Pinterest is no barrier to use because the service has value to the individual first. This is in stark contrast to a service such as Google+ or Facebook that, without friends to follow, offers a less-than-complete experience.
Of course online photography sites such as Flickr could also act the same way, but such sites tend to be about uploading one’s own content rather than collecting material while online.
And while online bookmarking sites such as Delicious (or del.icio.us, as it was) made collecting links possible almost a decade ago, the online bookmarking process is almost an end-point – ‘I’ll get to that later’ – or is often just private hoarding, with the online-ness for backup, not sharing.
Many online bookmarkers do share, of course, but those services are not driving referral traffic around the internet with anywhere near the power of Pinterest.
Tumblr blogs represent somewhat of a link between online bookmarking and Pinterest. My Tumblr-using students collect images, videos, songs, and inspirational sayings on Tumblr for their own enjoyment.
While their Tumblr blogs may be public, my students report not sharing either the full link or specific posts with others. Pinterest users, though, seem to treat sharing as a matter of course.
Why is this? After all, if a "me-first" collection is established, there needs to be something that pushes users to want to share part or all of their collection with friends.
The secret ingredient: comparison and contrast
Part of the reason could be Pinterest’s user interface. Pinterest is credited as having a very elegant version of both a wide and deep vertical masonry style of image display.
This is very different to Facebook, Tumblr, and other standardised single reverse-chronological “waterfall” displays of material – that is, sites that display the most recent content at the top with older content cascading from there.
But the difference is more than skin deep. Simple sharing is just giving one thing to someone else. Complex sharing involves comparison and contrast.
As the site’s original investor, Brian Cohen, argues, Pinterest excels at comparison and contrast, and the use-cases that go along with it.
Pinterest has become very popular for wedding planning for just these reasons. The planner collects pins to have a range of ideas and options for individual use, to solicit the opinions of others, and ultimately to have a single place to return to for reference.
In other words, we’ve added "come-with-me" to "me-first".
Since Pinterest pins can be shared through other services – such as Facebook – there is no need to invite friends to join Pinterest to enjoy the benefits (at least at first).
In this sense, the friend silos of individual social networks become irrelevant. Pinterest users can also find and re-pin other Pinterest users’ pins, which allows for the development of the kind of communities of interest that have long driven internet service popularity.
As is the case with many successful services, Pinterest was not first to market on a range of fronts. Rather, it has captured mindshare through excellent execution and, most importantly, a thorough understanding of the reasons and ways people share, not just the ability to share.
Sean Rintel is a lecturer in strategic communication at the University of Queensland.
This article first appeared at The Conversation.