Pinterest's recent success, which flies in the face of so much speculation about social media fatigue and information overload, holds an important lesson: It's not social media we're frustrated with. It's with one another.
The two-year-old, Palo Alto-based photo-sharing site allows users to "pin" images they find while browsing the Web or pictures they snap themselves onto a virtual bulletin board for friends to peruse and enjoy. It recently reached the 10 million monthly visitors mark, the fastest of any standalone site to do so. It already sends more traffic to other sites than LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+ combined.
Tech pundits attribute Pinterest's rapid ascent from merely popular to phenomenon to its emphasis on images and ease of use. Napkin Labs CEO Riley Gibson calls it as the "Apple of social networks." Indeed, it "just works," to borrow a Steve Jobs phrase. Sure, these elements are crucial, but that alone can't explain Pinterest's uptick. There are a slew of other simple social sites chock full of beautiful images, such as Instragram, Tumblr, Path and even Flickr.
What sets Pinterest apart and makes it so appealing is its focus on who we want to be -- not on what we're doing, where we've gone, how important we are or how beloved. While much of the content shared on existing social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare screams, "Look at me," Pinterest posts urge, "Look at this." At least for now, the site offers a refreshing haven away from the boosterism and boasting that plague so many sites.
Consider this snapshot view of Facebook and Pinterest. The most recent posts from my friends on Facebook could be summed up as a lot of "was on this TV show," "wrote this article," "read this intelligent op-ed" and "ate this." On Pinterest, the pinners I follow have just shared a nail-art idea, inspiration for a disco-inspired outfit, a colorful guide to manual photography and an entrancing knee-length blue dress. It's hardly insight into the European debt crisis, but it's entertaining news I can use.
A great deal of the content that we share on social networking sites focuses not only on ourselves but (even worse!) it depicts a carefully curated version of ourselves hobnobbing at exclusive parties, distilling current events into 140-character witticisms, snapping artfully aged photos of flowers and sunsets, and finagling a dinner reservation at New York's most exclusive new restaurant last Saturday.
To be sure, not all sharing is self-aggrandizing noise: Twitter is my first source for news in the morning, and Facebook has numerous virtues. Yet the tooting of horns can be a big distraction from the good stuff and a major turnoff. Facebook photo albums are filled with carefully edited fictions, while the frequency of Twitter-based boasting has spawned a popular hashtag, #humblebrag, that's so successful it's made the migration from online meme to real-world slang. I scrupulously avoided Twitter for a week last month for fear of a nervous breakdown induced by stumbling across yet one more tweet about a Davos party's playlist.
In short, too many of our posts come with the silent subtext "Here's how great I am." On Pinterest, the tone seems to be "Wouldn't this be great?"
The stream of pictures on Pinterest will look different to every user depending on whom they follow, but much of the most popular content thus far has been decorating tips, fashion ideas, recipes, DIY projects and wedding inspiration. The top four posts on the site currently include a photo of a belted skirt, a snapshot of rainbow fruit kabobs, and two text-heavy images, one poking fun at teenagers and another declaring, "I work out because I know I would've been the first to die in the Hunger Games." It's about this, this and this -- not me, me, me.
Of course, everything we share on any social network is a cry for attention, and in this sense Pinterest is no different: It involves sharing because doing so makes us feel good.
Yet the nature of the content on Pinterest so far seems to succeed at both satisfying the needs of those posting it as well as those of the people perusing it. Too often I leave Facebook feeling fat, friendless and a failure -- and studies show I'm not alone. Instead of feeding my FOMO (fear of missing out), Pinterest has taught me things, like how to make a leek-based pasta sauce or pair a striped sweater with a plaid shirt.
This sharing of things rather than personal updates, while deeply consumerist, enables Pinterest to connect strangers in ways that Facebook hasn't yet perfected. While Facebook pioneered the concept of the social graph that allows us to peruse a Web personalized by all the people we know, Pinterest may be paving the way for an interest graph, whereby we can discover and connect with people whose tastes we share, but whom we've never looked in the eye.
Through Facebook friends, we discover new content and products based on recommendations from people we trust. We also know which tips to disregard because we know which of our friends don't share our taste in food, hotels, music and clothes.
Both Pinterest and Facebook are extremely powerful ways of linking people together. Pinterest has an opportunity to branch into still unconquered territory and exploit a Facebook weak spot by helping people "meet" and connect over their shared love for, say, shabby chic.
Pinterest is still in its early stages, however, and risks losing its unique feel as more diverse audiences sign up. Unlike most social networking sites, Pinterest's first, most ardent supporters came from outside the Silicon Valley scene and only now am I beginning to see my techie friends trickling on. It remains to be seen whether the arrival of corporate users, like Newsweek, Whole Foods, Cabot Cheese and GE, along with a more mixed crowd of individual users, will change the nature of what's shared.
Already, I'm seeing more Instagram photos of people's swanky meals, ski vacations and cooking feats on the site. Please, make it stop. I'm not pinterested.