Pinterest: test-driving the latest self-expression engine

edits this blog. Twitter: @chblm

Last week Liz Heron, social media editor of The New York Times, told a London conference she was looking closely at Pinterest, implying that it might somehow be added to Times journalists' current activities on Facebook and Twitter.

Pinterest is an image-based social network which allows users to assemble collections of pictures from other websites on their own 'boards' under different themes and share them with friends and the public. So is it a name we'll all be familiar with in a year's time?

Well, for plenty of people it's already something of an obsession. Back in October, TechCrunch was already claiming that "Pinterest joins Twitter and Facebook as the newest self-expression engine" - the latter category including young Turks such as Instagram, Foursquare, Tumblr and Quora.

As writer Alex Tsotsis explained in the article, "Self-expression engines essentially function as elaborate forms that let users fill in the blanks with what they like or, more pointedly and accurately, would buy more of."

In other words, for the companies behind these services the business model centres on collecting data that can be used by advertisers. Which may be why Pinterest has already attracted almost $40 million of venture capital without any demonstrable form of money-making.

But it's easy to see the commercial potential because a Pinterest page is a kind of consumerist fantasy - an endless stream of cute or elegant images, each chosen by a user.

Discussion of Pinterest often centres on the idea that it appeals strongly to women. So, in answer to a Quora question about why some people find Pinterest "maddeningly addictive", self-confessed geek Justin Lowery writes: 

"I talk to my wife all the time about tech. Often she just smiles and nods, not knowing or caring about anything having to do with technology. She's a late adopter for sure. But I actually heard about Pinterest from her, and she heard about it because all of her girlfriends were talking about it non-stop."

Lowery concludes that "Pinterest reaches out to the other half of the human race in a world where nearly everything on the web has failed to do so."

But whether or not that's true, just as Facebook began with students and then spread through other demographics, there's no reason why Pinterest should rely on its appeal to one gender or age of user.

It would be easy for the company to adjust its direction simply by changing the list of categories it offer users. Today, for instance, the list includes Wedding & Events, Fitness and Home Décor, but there's no Politics, News, Environment or Causes. Searches for Romney or Santorum turn up only a handful of references, whereas the results for "necklace" scroll down for miles.

And there's potential to extend in other directions too. While it looks like Pinterest will always be strong visually and provide easy social connections, it now offers the chance to add video as well as stills. If it's on YouTube it can be put on Pinterest.

And there's a Gifts category showing products you can buy on other sites (at no cost to the sellers, for the moment). Understandably, there's growing interest in this feature from the PR business, with emerging advice on how to make the most of it.   

Pinterest may have found a sweet spot between shopping and collecting (which, in terms of gender stereotypes, is a great place to be). It combines the pleasure of expressing your tastes through selection with the satisfaction of building up a public gallery of your choices - and all for free.

I've had a quick try, launching my own board of 'Places as they used to be' (category: History). It already consists of a rather pleasing page - though I say so myself - of old prints 'pinned' from other people's websites (although you can choose to simply upload an image). Links to the original sites are preserved so users can always click through to them, stopping their owners from feeling their content has been appropriated without so much as a by your leave.

Since yesterday evening I've received a little collection of emails telling me that other Pinterest users have 're-pinned' my images (well, other people's images), which gives me a small glow of affirmation. As with Facebook's 'Like' button, Pinterest's designers have come up with a form of one-click social interaction to oil the wheels of sharing.

So what does all this have to do with news? Is it really relevant to The New York Times or the BBC?

Well, imagine if people contributed pictures relating to some kind of social campaign - housing problems, pollution or whatever. Or if a broadcasting organisation created a gallery for pictures on a particular subject that they had invited their audience to send in. Very soon those pictures, linking through to the broadcaster's own website, might be shared among Pinterest users, which would be as worthwhile to the media business as the retweeting of attached links or the sharing of links on Facebook. Getting content passed around is no longer an add-on for big media businesses.  

Just for the hell of it, I've shared the images from this blog as a new board on Pinterest. Feel free to re-pin - and maybe more people will click back here.

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