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You are what you curate: why Pinterest is hawt

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Evolution of social media by Elad Gill (graphic courtesy of Elad Gill)

Updated: The new hot social thing on the web these days is a Palo Alto, Calif.–based company started by Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp. (I incorrectly described this group as ex-Facebookers. My apologies for the error.) It is called Pinterest and it is about the concept of curation — a much abused phrase in Silicon Valley. Essentially it allows you to create visual collections of things that you like and find on the web. It is especially popular with young women. Some smart folks such as serial entrepreneur Elad Gill have started talking about “social content curation” and point to the evolution of online content. They even have a graph to show it all. Gill writes on his blog:

2012 will likely see an acceleration of structured, push button, social curation across the web. Why? Because most users don’t want to take much effort to produce content, and consuming content in a structured manner (especially photos) is also much faster.  Just as the first wave of social media has transformed the consumption of information, this next wave of social curation will fundamentally change how users find and interact with content over time.

The way I see it, Pinterest is yet another example of basic human behavior’s being transposed on to the web. Long before the Internet, we had newsletters and diaries. We had real friends. We used to go meet them in person, write letters to them, check out movie theaters and go to dinner with them. We sent people birthday cards. Of course, then came the Internet and we had WordPress, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.

Back when I was young, my cousins would cut out photos, ads and visuals from fashion and lifestyle magazines and create collages. We boys would create collages of scantily clad girls, cars, musicians and sometimes movie stars. We would buy used magazines for a few pennies to get the right image. We would put the clippings together and then stick them on the bedroom walls and feel very cool, because being able to create an awesome, colorful collage showed a little something about you. Now we have Tumblr and Pinterest and dozens of other such services.

In 2005, David Galbraith, a friend of mine who has a nasty habit of predicting the future before everyone else, built a service called Wists. It was Pinterest, just six years too early. He was the guy who co-founded Moreover (with Nick Denton) to aggregate news, a trend that went mainstream thanks to the likes of Yahoo. He was also the guy who came up with the idea (and the name) for Yelp. And in 2005 he explained to me that the web will have to move away from being text-centric to become very visual and will revolve around the idea of collecting. See, being an architect, he isn’t nerdy enough to come up with a phrase: curate.

Well, since everyone is using “curate,” why don’t we? Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr — these are all services that are about a major societal trend called hyperpersonalization. We are living in a society that is so homogenized that it is hard to stand out.

From the foods we eat, the drinks we chug, the jeans we wear, the bags we buy, the shoes we run in — they are pretty universal. As a result, we all want to stand out in this massive mass of humanity. We do this in different ways. In tribal cultures, features, bones and colors help everyone stand out. In modern society we do this by wearing earrings, bracelets, buying a certain brand of clothes or living a certain lifestyle. Like being vegan! One of the most extreme form of standing out — tattoos — is a way of self-expression.

The online world is even worse: Everything looks so similar that we do need to do something to stand out. And you can do that by building a carefully curated image of yourself that you are trying to project onto the world. My colleague Ryan Kim says that is doing something similar on its inspiration wall and is combining it with commerce.

I wrote about this in one of my earliest Om Says newsletters: “Now starring you, in a movie about you”:

Many of the photos I take are actually pretty mundane, but thanks to filters, they become magical. These tools add a certain mystique and drama to these photos and our lives, making them look more interesting, more like movies.

In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention. Narcissistic? Perhaps, but we’re living in this century and defining the ethos for the new Internet-connected age as we go along.

What I can tell you is that the technology companies that benefit from these big trends are those who provide platforms for sharing our lives.

SixApart’s MoveableType, Flickr and Blogger were early proponents of sharing, but they never really got to realize their full potential because they grew up in an era limited by relatively low broadband penetration and lack of mobility-driven computing.

Subsequent platforms — YouTube, WordPress and Tumblr — have had more success, thanks to faster, cheaper broadband connections. Twitter and Facebook are the big winners of this sharing.

The emergence and growing popularity of San Francisco-based is yet another sign that in the end, this cultural shift benefits the platform providers.Next time you are thinking about building a product, evaluating a company or just wondering why early adopters are so crazy about or Quora, keep in mind we’re playing a role in a movie: edited, directed and starring us.

I am sure we are going to hear more about Pinterest and other curation-centric companies in the months to come. But before I go, I want to leave you with this photo by Tracy Martin, who has shared it on Martin’s visual experiment perfectly sums up the idea of self-expression through curation and sharing online.

Photo courtesy of Tracy Martin via 500px

35 Responses to “You are what you curate: why Pinterest is hawt”

  1. Amy Anderson

    The discussion of ownership is very interesting. Pinterest is huge with the college crowd, and they have a very different concept of ownership than previous generations. Also, on the topic of ownership: back in the old days, if you really liked someone, you made them a cassette tape. It took a lot more effort than making playlist, it was a labor of love. Sometimes you owned all the songs and sometimes you borrowed an album or two from a friend and sometimes you even captured a song off the radio. But when you were done, you had a collection that meant sometime more than the sum of its parts. We didn’t worry too much about the ownership part.

  2. Ellen Chance

    love the concept but had issues with pintrest invites (waiting 2 months, not cool) and the fact you can’t make anything private so i went with instead. now i’m addicted to thing. love posting things and sending crafty things to my mom. but it also lets me create private boards so that i can plan events without everyone seeing what im doing.

  3. Ian Barkley

    Pinterest is really nothing new.. just a better GUI and a little more disregard for image/content copyright than its predecessors. Modern browsers and better UX have opened up opportunities for things like photo message boards to be a bit sexier and with better monetization components (your personal data). 4chan and thousands of old warez sites were the origin of this movement.. Pinterest just added that extra marketability that allowed it to catch fire. I applaud them for dusting off an old, but good idea and taking it mainstream.

  4. This is all fine and good. I like reading about the progression of these things. I find the comparison to collaging interesting.

    But sadly none of this will matter if Lamar Smith and SOPA are allowed into play.

    Say bye bye to pintrest and tumbler. Their services that allow the exchange of intellectual property wihout permission(pirating) will be outlawed and potentialy censored out of the US internet sphere. Even if you are positively sharing and sponsoring those products you pin and post.

  5. Pinterest is my favorite daily discovery adventure, which now replaces Stumble and, to a large degree, FB. I love being able to categorize interests and have a central location to revisit my pins. I am an artist so the most important benefit to me is the ability to tap into (and enjoy) the vast creativity of so many people, who probably would not be ‘discovered’ if it were not for platforms like Pinterest. I just think it’s awesome.

  6. Amrita Mathur

    Disagree. Curation is hot, sure. As its always been. But Pininterest and other platforms that simply allow “anyone” to curate, is in theory no different than Facebook or more verticalized applications like PaperLi. What really is the different and why would anyone care? Pininterest appears cool and has appeal because as kids we’ve created scrapbooks and stuff. But dont those scrapbooks just get thrown away? Seriously, no one ever looks at them. Not because they’re not cool but because they have to go to yet another place to view. Pininterest is no different. And while it might appear that I’m hating on Pininterest, what i am is really bringing to light that good curation = hot, not applications that simply support curation.

  7. Shyam Subramanyan

    The slow move to structured content from relatively unstructured blogs is on. Curation (both individual and collaborative) will drive the change from “throw away” content to one that evolves as people consume it.

    Structured content makes it much easier to programmatically analyze content, profiles and drive better advertising (duh!).

    While blogs won’t go away, I see more and more structured, curated content take up the space between the title and the footnotes.

  8. Guillaume Decugis

    The simplification of expression clearly is an underlying trend. But I think there’s another one that is closely linked to curation : the shift from a people-centric model on social media (I follow or friend people) to a topic-centric one. The social graph is covered; the interest graph is what’s at stake now. This move to topics brings meaning and sense to the social media noise. It’s been a great driver of success for us at (disc: I’m the CEO & co-founder), where users curate online magazines on their favorite topics and this more easily find an audience sharing similar interest.

  9. UKNetMonitor

    Great piece. You used to be defined by the junk mail you received. With social curation you can certainly define yourself, but social platforms will increasingly define you by the company you keep.

  10. Andrew Brackin

    I think we’re going into an age of Discovery and Curation. There’s so much data on the web and now Startups like Hipmunk and Flipboard are using it for powerful applications. I think this is going to be a huge trend. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

  11. Kerry Cotter

    Does the conversation of curation really mean discovery? FB Pages were cool, but how can I easily discover what my friends like based on categories (not high level categories like Retail)? Pinterest, Instagram and the like are the real threats to FB. It’s great when people ‘like’ a bunch of shit and it streams across FB, but is it really easy to sort out a week later? Wait til someone big does a really cool feature like curation integrated with Urban Airship location based auto notifications.

    In 3 years, will FB look like Yahoo does today? Hope not, but Pinterest like thought leaders may make it so.

  12. Mike Pierce

    Unclear if you are saying it is the tool/method or the act, though your article seems to construe the two interchangeably. Pinterest seems like a better mousetrap for displaying your preferences albeit with an artistic flair. It doesn’t fundamentally alter the act of sharing preference data, but simply allows the sharer to personalize the display (e.g. Did you like the gold or green monochrome TRS-80 screen setting?).

  13. 7 Days A Geek

    One theme that remains the same (for me) in all of these sights over time is that everyone is so caught up in creating their own image that they don’t care about other people’s images. That’s why I hardly ever tweet and ceased checking in places. I didn’t “choose” to quit, it just naturally happened over time because it seems like everyone is trying to yell loudest, so nobody is really listening.

    • Great point and I do agree that we are at a point where as a society we don’t listen. We scream and shout but we don’t see different points of view. I think I actively look for non-conformist POV, especially ones that make me uncomfortable and make me think.

      Actually at times, it is just simple to tune out the “loudest.”

  14. Rebecca Thorman

    I think the conversation about Pinterest and curation is missing a key element that has been alluded to, but hasn’t been said straight-out yet.

    Curation isn’t just the collecting of items, it isn’t just a vision board or a pretty collage, it’s the ownership of those items. Just because you can’t own an Eames lounger in real life doesn’t mean you can’t own it online, and be known for your fantastic taste as a result. By collecting or curating what we enjoy online, we’re alleviated of the bother and expense of owning them in real life.

    One of my favorite design bloggers, one that leads all other design bloggers, admitted as much and confessed that she is often paralyzed when trying to buy items for her home and so she doesn’t have that great of a house. And yet her taste and style is revered and imitated. She is a master curator.

    Phrases like “online consumption” or “consuming content” then take on a whole new meaning, because curating is a form of ownership.

    Of course we’re all familiar with how the Internet allows users to create lives that don’t resemble their real lives, but services like Pinterest take that to a new level. It’s not real life, but it still somehow bestows all the benefits (Repins, followers and likes replace the, “Oh, I love that couch/art/scarf where did you get it?”). Unlike blogs which have a high barrier to entry for the average lurker, and unlike Facebook where you have to put up real photos of yourself to create/curate/edit a picture-perfect life, Pinterest eliminates that issue all together. You no longer has to be included, but you can still be revered.

    • Rebecca

      I think you are making the same point as I am. I think the act of creating collages was a way of owning/projecting before the Internet and now it is Pinterest that is capturing that emotion.

      THe point I am making is that people see curation as a singular activity. I see it more as a collective image and projection of that image.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Rebecca Thorman

        Fair enough. Owning and projecting are very different terms to me, however. When I made collages, it wasn’t ownership – no one could see those collages and my great taste – they were private, so that’s a big difference. Collages were projection. Pinterest/curation is ownership. Pinterest allows others to join in and follow you and say how great you are, which makes those selections quite a bit more important and from a lot of experience using Pinterest, I can say the more repins or likes a pin gets, the closer that pin feels to my heart. Yes, you’re projecting an image of how you define your life and taste, but you’re also getting constant reinforcement. And that’s a more accurate reflection of real life today, right? Not collages. I own a library card file and it’s so unique that it gets commented on every time someone comes to our place. I will never get rid of it because of that. I really like our dining table too, but no one ever says anything about it. The SOCIAL curation bit of Pinterest is important that way… if I’m making sense.

        • Rebecca

          I am not disagreeing with you, though my idea of ownership is different from yours and perhaps that is where we are not syncing up. My problem might be generational or my background as to where I grew up, but the idea of ownership is different from desire to own something. I am guessing you don’t think of ownership in those terms.

      • …The conversation around “Ownership” and “Desire” is very interesting. …in this case Pinrest is using social physiology to collect users “Desires” and “Sentiments” . Pinrest becomes the “Owner” of these “Desires” and “Sentiments” and more than likely has the option to sell/market them to third parties without out letting the end user know who there are selling them to or the price that has been paid. Certainly Pinrest will also move to become a platform via integrating an api…This will also put them in a postion to be an arbitrator for content that was added by a “Community” but that they now have the ability to leverage for revenue…

    • We’re in a world where window shopping suddenly has a tangible value associated with it. An army of tastemakers and curators help filter the world for us.

      Long live the revered!

      • Amy Hylden Anderson

        Pinterest is huge with the college crowd, and they have a very different view of ownership than my generation does. Also, thinking about ownership and curation reminds me of the olden days when we used to make cassette tapes for people we really, really liked. It was a lot more effort than making a play list, and it involved using records you owned, but also records you borrowed and sometimes songs you taped off the radio. The point was that when you finished the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. We didn’t think about curation, ownership, or narcissism then. We were thinking about sharing a part of ourselves. Sappy, but true, and speaks to the same human tendencies that drive things like Pinterest.