Valued at a staggering $12 billion, Pinterest is one of the digital world’s most successful platforms.
Yet somehow, the image-sharing app has managed to sidestep the pitfalls that have tripped up some of Silicon Valley’s other big players, such as Twitter and its trolls, Facebook and its fake news and YouTube and its filter failures.
Pinterest, for those who aren’t familiar, is a visual search tool that works like a digital pin board, allowing users to save images (“pins”) to their own collections (“boards”). So, for example, a user might have a board called “meal ideas” full of images of different recipes.
The platform prides itself on its happy user base. That might seem like low-hanging fruit for an app with such a high valuation, but perhaps not given the mounting concern these days about depression and burnout caused by our fixation on social media.
Pinterest has faced its own problems in the past, such as when it had to ban “thinspiration” pins in 2012 because users were chasing unhealthy body ideals with pro-anorexia boards, but more recently, the platform has managed to avoid major controversies like those dogging its bigger rivals.
So, what is Pinterest doing differently?
Well, for starters, it doesn’t call itself a social network. It’s easy to think of Pinterest along the same lines as other image-sharing apps such as Snapchat and Instagram, but the company’s head of product, Lawrence Ripsher, describes it as a visual discovery tool.
In that sense, Pinterest is more of a utility, like a search engine, than a social network.
“It’s not really about connecting and sharing with friends, as much as it is a resource for your own interests,” Ripsher says.
If you save a new hairstyle to try, or place to visit, you’re not waiting for likes or for people to respond to it. You’re saving it for yourself.
“Our goal,” he says, “is to build products that complement people’s lives, and help them try something new.”
So, if Instagram is where you might go to share a curated selection of your best vacation photos, Pinterest is more where you plan the vacation. Or find a recipe to cook for dinner, or a project to do with your kids, or inspiration for your kitchen renovation.
The app reverses social media’s connection between the offline and online worlds by encouraging people to build things, cook things and make things, instead of just sharing their results in a photo or a status update.
“Image sharing on Instagram and Snapchat is for the purpose of self-image and identity construction,” says Rebecca Brown, the Toronto-based head of content at advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, Canada.
She says on those platforms, people are sharing carefully crafted images that reflect the way they want to be perceived and seeking approval from their peers.
Those apps train users to crave this approval through a validation feedback loop, she says, “a scenario that easily lends itself to forms of disapproval like trolling, flaming, shaming.”
On Pinterest, users aren’t seeking validation or feedback the same way.
“I’m not sharing opinions, values or personal anecdotes,” Brown says of her own use of Pinterest. “I’m collecting ideas for personal projects. And I’m not asking you to approve or disapprove of the recipe I saved to my winter meals pin board. Trolling someone’s pinned soup recipe would just be weird and inappropriate.”
Even if someone wanted to stir up trouble, there just aren’t opportunities to easily troll other users, says Jade Davis, associate director of digital learning projects at LaGuardia Community College in New York City.
And that’s by design.
“While you can leave comments,” she said, “they are a bit tricky to get to.”
Unlike social media apps in which commenting is a central feature, comments on Pinterest are less of a focal point, buried lower on the page.
It’s also worth noting that 70 per cent of Pinterest users are female, which could help explain why the app doesn’t have the same gender-based toxicity plaguing platforms such as Twitter.
‘Ideal selling environment’
Those demographics also make the platform an advertiser’s dream, Brown says. Targeting moms has always been big business because they often make many of the purchasing decisions for the family.
Because so much of the Pinterest experience is about discovery, brands can connect with users in ways that seem more organic, and less creepy, than having an ad pop up on Google or Facebook based on your online activity.
“It’s an ideal selling environment, where advertisers can answer the consumer’s interest instead of being interruptive,” says Brown, who laments that “Pinterest’s biggest problem is that it’s eclipsed by Facebook and Instagram, so advertisers and marketers don’t consider, understand or budget for it.”
While critics claim Pinterest is an aspirational pastime, full of picture-perfect “pins” that people don’t actually try to replicate on their own, a recent Nielsen study commissioned by Pinterest showed that 98 per cent of users report trying new things they find on the site.
And in an environment of social media fatigue, that connection to the real world is a valuable differentiator
Many users visit Pinterest in order to make their offline lives a little bit better, instead of doing things offline just to have a better status update.