Pinterest - hot new network or another Quora?

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

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After a decade of struggle, the social networking battlefield has quietened down. Facebook is the undisputed champion, while Twitter serves for instant news and comment. Google+ tries hard but, as one wag put it, it's like the gym - we all join but nobody uses it. But could there be another challenger - a visual network where people share images on a virtual pinboard?

Pinterest has been around for a couple of years, a place with a largely female and American audience, where people share ideas on design, fashion, travel, books - or anything else you can think of - by "pinning" photos to their various boards.

Over the past few weeks, it has suddenly become the hottest property on the web. In its monthly report on web activity, the ratings firm Comscore revealed that Pinterest was the third fastest growing site in the United States, with its audience rising from 7.5 million unique visitors in December to 11.7 million in January.

Those figures, coupled with a few articles in the tech blogs, have created a tremendous amount of buzz around the network. Over the past week I've noticed that a lot of my friends have joined, and that everywhere I go online the name Pinterest seems to crop up. So no doubt next month's Comscore figures will show even more rapid growth in the site's users.

It is all reminiscent of the hype a while back about another network, Quora. This site where you could ask and answer questions, often about technology, was very fashionable amongst the digerati at the end of 2010, with heady talk of it overtaking Twitter. I even wrote a piece asking whether it was going to be the next big thing in 2011.

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image captionWomen - not geeks - are Pinterest's early adopters

Well that did not happen, and Quora remains a useful but niche forum with few signs of catching the attention of a mainstream audience.

So will the same thing happen to Pinterest, with a blaze of excitement followed by a return to obscurity? Perhaps not. What is different about this network is that the early adopters appear to have been women with mainstream interests - design, fashion, travel - rather than the geeky guys who peopled Quora, and may have proved intimidating to later arrivals.

When newcomers arrive, they will find the site both attractive to look at and easy to use. Whether they will stick with it is another matter - but if they do, you can also see a business model emerging rather more rapidly than on some other networks.

Much of the content on Pinterest is about products - furniture, clothes, books - and in many ways it is more like browsing through a very attractive catalogue than having a social experience. It is not hard to see how this could be attractive to advertisers, and already some pinboards are beginning to contain links to retailers such as Amazon.

There are plenty of questions about Pinterest. Will it face a backlash from media owners over a somewhat hazy attitude to copyright? Will there be privacy concerns over the way the network seems to force you to follow your Facebook friends the minute you link the two networks? And do enough people really have time to spend on yet another social network?

Like any social network, Pinterest will only be useful if the people who come to it bring interesting content. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this one will not be a flash in the pan, perhaps because, along with the countless pictures of cats, cakes and curtains, I've found some boards which appeal to me.

There is this collection of pictures of old newsrooms, for instance; another devoted to "fun, geeky things".

And then there's this board about the most notable companies of the month, compiled by someone calling himself Mark Zuckerberg.

If it really is the founder of Facebook, it appears he is keeping a close eye on a new neighbour. Tiny Pinterest is run from Palo Alto, a few miles from the sprawling new headquarters of the biggest social network the world has ever seen. It's unlikely that the upstart will have any impact on the growth of Mr Zuckerberg's business - but, as they say in Silicon Valley, only the paranoid survive.