Just as the world of sports has recently been subsumed by Linsanity, over the past few weeks, the tech world has been similarly gripped by Pinsanity--a sudden pash for Pinterest, an image-sharing social media site that allows users to create pinboards, or collections of images organised around themes of their choosing. As discussed in last week's Babbage podcast, the site gets more than 10m unique visitors a month, making it one of the fastest-growing sites in history, if not the fastest. It's also become a major driver of referral traffic, behind Facebook and Tumblr. It's been beribboned with awards, and attracted some $37m in venture funding last year.

Notably, Pinterest is not actually that new. Millions of women--the vast majority of its users are women--have been using it for months. The fact that it had a low profile until this month may be an idiosyncracy that explains itself; I wrote last year, social media has some hidden gender biases. Another explanation would be that industry observers are simply overwhelmed by social media startups. "Once you’re on Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and Google Plus and Tumblr and LinkedIn and Instagram and Reddit and Path — when, exactly, do you have time left over for a life?" asks David Pogue, in a generally positive review at the New York Times. A third explanation would be that people haven't been taking Pinterest seriously because it doesn't seem like a serious business. As the Wall Street Journal explains, although at least one investor informally valued the site at about $200m, its plan for making money is not clear. "Pinterest's monetization strategy isn't in the oven and it's not even off the baking table," said one board member, earning a tetchy rebuke from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, who points out that Pinterest could potentially make an awful lot of money by taking a cut of any sales that are inspired by its toothsome pinboards.

In any case, Pinterest is here, and it is in a good position, being both innovative and useful. As with most social media sites, Pinterest has echoes of its antecedents. It encourages users to connect on the basis of common interests, like Facebook; like Twitter or Tumblr, it encourages people to pass along each other's thoughts, in this case with a one-click 'repinning' feature. But Pinterest is interesting because of the ways that it builds on those earlier experiments, and breaks from previous assumptions about online behaviour. 

One of Pinterest's innovations is that it is forward-looking. Social media typically has a performative dimension, as indeed does most social behaviour. Often, however, the positioning is based on past experience: this is where I went to school, these are my friends, this is what I said about it at the time. Facebook's new Timeline feature, for example, reinforces that site's tendency to act as an autobiography or social CV. Pinterest, by contrast, is largely disinterested what users have done. It's geared toward what they are interested in and what they might do. The suggestions that the site offers about what it can be used for--redecorate your home, perhaps, or plan a wedding--emphasise plans, goals, daydreams. A related point is that Pinterest dispenses with concerns about privacy and sharing. There arguably is no need for privacy on Pinterest. You can upload your own photos, but most of the content is simply pinned from other sites. Accordingly, there is no privacy on Pinterest. Anyone can look at anyone else's pinboards.

The greatest difference between Pinterest and other social media sites is that most of its content is visual. This is unusual because although it's clearly possible to communicate without words people typically mediate their thoughts through language, especially if they're trying to explain themselves to other people. Pinterest doesn't bother. While you can describe what a pinboard is for, the images you've posted are more important. That may, actually, be a minor reason that Pinterest has been far more popular with women than with men. It's not that women are more visual than men; in some contexts, neurologists say the opposite is true. But women probably have more experience with ad-hoc semiotics. Fashion spreads are often structured as mood boards, for example; another big site that you rarely hear people talk about is Polyvore, which allows people to put together outfit ideas and solicit feedback from other visitors. To give another example, women's magazines sometimes advise readers to keep a "vision board" as a way to unearth subconscious feelings or aspirations.

The more significant reason for the gender imbalance on Pinterest, however, probably has to do with the fact that women control the majority of the world's consumer spending. So if Pinterest is presenting itself as a way to help you plan a party, or to bookmark cooking ideas you want to try, or to highlight looks you liked from London Fashion Week, you would expect it to be more popular with women than with men. Women make more of those decisions than men do. That being the case, Pinterest is actually offering quite a useful service, and one that hasn't really been done before. If they can figure out the business side of the operation, they should be here for a while.
 


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