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When is the social curation bubble going to burst?

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You just can’t move for social curation services right now. The biggest noise might be coming from Pinterest, which is growing like a weed — but whether it’s the new-look Delicious, Switzerland’s Paperli, shopping curation site Svpply, image service Mlkshk or another site, the fact is that almost everybody seems to want to help you save and sort and share the things you find on the web right now.

With this swirl of activity, then, it’s no surprise to hear that Parisian service Pearltrees — slogan “collect, organize, discover” — has just raised another $6 million of funding, led by local conglomerate Groupe Accueil.

The company, which has been running in public since 2009, welcomed the injection of funds as a way to help expand and scale up its system for bookmarking and organizing, which is based around a clustered visual interface.

And it needs that scale. Right now Pearltrees is small and has moderate momentum, building up 350,000 users in the past three years. Pinterest, by comparison, has achieved around registered 10 million in the same sort of time — and one study suggests it is now one of the web’s biggest drivers of traffic.

When I made the comparison between the two services, however, Pearltrees’ marketing chief François Rocaboy objected.

“The two services are really different,” he said, reasoning that Pearltrees bookmarks web pages, is used for organization and operates a Freemium model.

And it’s true, those are all things that Pinterest doesn’t get used for much of these things today. But the reality is that not every company in this space can succeed because they are all competing for the same sorts of attention patterns.

Just before Christmas I wrote about the Italian recommendation service Circleme, and wondered whether it could convince people to keep all of their interests and passions listed in one place. Social curation exists in a complex space for organization and discovery that overlaps with everything from to-do lists to tagging, from bookmarking to recommendations… and, of course, big sharing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. To say it’s a competitive area is an understatement.

But there’s an extra difficulty, too, for this new breed of social curation services. Getting something out of them requires some significant effort from users, because they have to explicitly engage with the product to get the most out of it. For the most part, the quality of information you can get out of a service like Pearltrees is directly correlated to the amount of effort you put in — a spin on the idea of participation inequality better known as “1 percent rule”.

Creation is very difficult. Curation is hard. Consumption, on the other hand, is relatively easy. That’s why a site like Tumblr can go crazy, because it balances each element of that pyramid perfectly.

And it’s why I can’t help feeling that there is a bubble here, as everyone speculates on an idea in the hope of backing a big winner. The balance just feels out of kilter.

It’s understandable, of course, that this is an enticing market. The tools available now are extremely powerful, and they connect to vast amounts of data that pour out of the Web. Combine that with the fact that the social layer is now pretty mature, and there’s very good reason why the next level of ideas are all about how to make the information better.

But is there really enough appetite to satisfy the supply? Is the one percent enough? Is the ten percent? Are there enough neat freaks and hyper-organized users in the world to support all of these businesses?

Pinterest has reached the scale of millions partly because it understands the attention pyramid — but I’m not sure everyone fighting it out in this arena does.

13 Responses to “When is the social curation bubble going to burst?”

  1. Sally Thibault

    Great article Bobbi I am reminded lately of the ‘dotcom’ bubble of the late 1990’s, where everybody was putting their money into shares of internet start-ups, and nobody could see the end. Until the end came with such vengeance that many were wiped out overnight. Last week my 18 year old daughter, who has been an avid Facebook user since she was 15 said “I am getting sick of Facebook, I don’t even post anymore!”. I love social media and all that it entails and use it widely to market my business, however I am also old enough to have seen many booms and busts in the last 30 years. Most people still use social media to interact and keep in touch with friends. Google+ which claims such high uptake rates – still is not used widely by the majority of the population, and is mostly ‘tech and marketer’ heavy. Whilst I don’t believe that social media is going to end any time soon, we must as marketers remember that the majority of the population still only have 24 hours in a day – and they are going to be very selective in their social media channel usage. Last week I did a social media presentation to 300 teachers and parents… not one single person had heard of Pinterest, nor were they even slightly interested in finding out about it. I would think we need to be very wary of getting too excited about new social media start ups – I agree with Bobbie, it very much feels like the balance is out of kilter.

  2. David Evans

    Wonder when they are going to start sharing revenue with curators instead of Pintrest taking all the cash? Most people using Pintrest have no idea how to join an affiliate network. Skimlinks should create links for every single word on a page so matter what you click someone gets paid;-) A web of links indeed, sigh.

  3. The term “bubble” is over-used, applied to anything that gets popular or higher in price. I think the more likely outcome is an equilibrium of co-existence amongst may of these players. Today’s most popular curation engines are likely to dominate for some time to come.

    • The “copyrighted material” is free advertising and a driver of traffic and revenue to the owners of the copyrighted material. This is precisely why these sites are so valuable to them and that exposure is welcomed with open arms.

  4. I feel that the curation craze is focusing on wrong part of the innovation. The believe is that people like to curate and spend their energy on tedious taskof curation for free. And are happily to recommend brands on platforms who collect all the benefits.

    The real innovation happens on the field of “how can we return money or other benefits to people”. Your ability to do meaningful curation is raised highly in this case.

    Teppo Hudson

  5. François Rocaboy

    Bobbie, Thanks for your questions and the great Twitter discussion. There is indeed a lot of buzz and and a huge number of new players in the curation field. In our view, it means “social curation” is a very large field and may create a lot of separated markets. Focus on organization vs sharing, on photos vs Web pages, etc… As you rightly mentioned, Pearltrees holds a unique position in this field. Its strength are the intensity of its use (30M page/view month, 1M uniques for 350k contributors) and its carefully crafted interest graph. As you said “those are all things that Pinterest doesn’t get used for much of these things today”. I think those very different benefits bring very different type of users and create fully distinct communities. I would go even further: we may see a lot of different benefits, “social system”, and visualization style in the future. The curation field is only in its infancy!
    Related to this question, you may also be interested by a text written two years ago by Pearltrees CEO called the third frontier of the web:

  6. John Ramirez

    The Contributors will be there as my hunch is that these are people with motive. By either marketing, selling or commissioning items in their pin-ups, they have motive/incentive to do so. The more people are becoming aware that Pinterest is a avenue for marketing, a core base of pin-up suppliers will utilize it for such. I’m seeing more and more articles about how to use Pinterest to market yourself or your brand and I’m sure this is being pushed out from Pinterest itself. It makes perfect sense to promote it as a marketing platform to lure a base of contributors.

    I have barely used the site, but I would agree with Danielle Dellafiore in that there is no long-lasting relevance or value to these pin-ups which leaves them vunerable to be a trend themselves. As soon as the next hot interest web app appears, those Suppliers will move away from Pinterest just as fast as they came. A VC would say that they don’t really have a “market advantage”, but that’s apparently not stoping them from throwing money at the company… Not to mention this SkimLinks revenue model – yikes!

  7. Daniele Dellafiore

    All these services gaining traction are so generalist that in the end, people tend to forget as soon as they’re not trending anymore. Generalists often mean less useful: was a great service, that started really lean and grow after a real customer requests. Now bought by delicious, everything is washy and then, again, useless.

    Also I think the biggest mistake is to create services where “social” is the first ingredient while should be a commodity. If the focus was “curation”, then people would find themself with a precious personal collection of stuff, that eventually they can share.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Good points, and I agree for the most part. Of course, all curation is social to a significant degree — otherwise it’s really just collecting. The question is how it’s integrated.