The latest poster child for social sharing sites is Pinterest, which has seen hockey-stick growth over the past four months and is the topic du jour for discussion on tech blogs. Recent Hitwise statistics have Pinterest among the top 10 social networking sites, and other data suggests Pinterest generates referral traffic that rivals Twitter, topping YouTube, Google Plus, Reddit and LinkedIn combined. People are talking about how Pinterest may have cracked the social shopping nut that Facebook and others have been pursuing for years. Pinterest is just the shiniest example of image sharing sites; everyone seems to be jumping on this bandwagon (see Pinspire, Gentlemint and Tastespotting for the most obvious clones).
Putting aside the accolades and buzz, why are sites like Pinterest so popular? The answer to many is obvious: they’re fun and beautiful, allow you to discover new things, and connect you with people with shared interests (there’s actually a Quora thread on Pinterest growth worth reading). On top of that, they let you find and share cool stuff, beautiful images, products you might want to buy. What could be better?
The flip side to these arguments doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s worth discussing. These shiny new image-sharing sites reflect a potentially troubling trend: we have less and less time to consume more and more content, which leads us to progressively shallower interactions and to consuming the information that’s easiest to swallow.
The rise of effortless consumption
The Internet is a brilliant medium for information consumption, and it has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years since the first web browsers came onto the scene.
The first wave of the Internet saw an explosion in corporate and personal web sites vying for our attentions. It was a brave new world, where anything was possible, and an explosion of creativity led to the dot.com boom and bust. In these days, publishing and transactional sites were limited to those who had the means and technical savvy to make it happen, which meant there weren’t that many of them, relatively speaking.
And then came the second wave with blogging platforms like Blogger, MovableType and Typepad. Publishing online got easier and easier, and was opened up to a broader audience. A new wealth of content came into being. It became hard to get the good stuff, but search engines magically helped us find those diamonds in the rough. Every year, blogging became easier and easier, with new personal-publishing platforms sprouting like mushrooms. WordPress became a tool for everyone, microblogging services like Twitter gained steam, and lightweight blogging platforms like Tumblr made sharing less about long-form writing, and more about brief thoughts, moments in time.
As blogging evolved into more rapid-fire publishing, the third wave of information sharing blossomed; Twitter and Facebook and YouTube made it easy to get at progressively smaller bits of information. Suddenly, it was all about real-time, about what you could cram into an easily digestible status message or update or 30-second video. A thousand bite-sized chunks of information now flow past us every day, tidbits of interest, slices of people’s lives and thoughts.
The progression is clear: the information provided for our consumption has changed in character, and the volume of information has gone through the roof. It used to come in bigger chunks. Those big meaty bits are still out there, but now they’re swimming in a sea of tiny tidbits. We’ve got limited time for more and more digital stuff, and something’s gotta give, which in most cases means taking the easiest path: lots of information appetizers, but only one or two meals.
Enter Pinterest and its image-sharing brethren.
The new wave of image-sharing sites just reflects the latest evolutionary step in information sharing. With these new sites, consumption has become absolutely effortless. It’s the digital equivalent of crack cocaine: easy consumption, quick high, short-term payoff, no effort. All you have to do is click. You don’t have to read (that takes time). You don’t have to think (that takes effort). All you have to do is bathe in the sea of beautiful, interesting, funny, sexy images that flow past you.
It’s no wonder that many people describe Pinterest as addictive. It IS addictive. It allows us to be lazy, to maximize our return on temporal investment, to minimize the amount we need to think, and to reap several ancillary benefits in the process: connecting with people and maybe looking cool along the way.
Shallow sharing and interaction
Consumption is dead simple on Pinterest, and sharing isn’t much harder. Bookmarklets and "Pin It" buttons make it easy to pin and share images from anywhere on the Web. The act of sharing on Pinterest is about the smallest creative act one can perform; it’s the equivalent of saying "This is pretty…Check it out!", and all it takes is a click.
Of course, one thing that people like to share is beautiful images of products they own or want to buy, which makes Pinterest a marketer’s dream. Many brands are taking note (see a few examples here), and the rush is on to capitalize on the latest craze in sharing and word-of-mouth marketing.
Once something has been shared, the interaction that can go on around it is limited to a basic comment stream. More tidbits, no depth. You won’t find detailed discussions or product reviews or analysis of why something is "Pinteresting" to the person who posted it. Of course, it would be easy to add functionality to Pinterest to support richer interaction and sharing, but I wonder if people would use it. After all, aren’t there other places to do that? The sharing of things on Pinterest (whether posting images, "Likes," or comments) has to be easy enough that people will do it by the millions. Otherwise it’s not sticky and it doesn’t work in our time- and attention-starved times.
If less is more, what happens to more?
In a world where more and more eyeballs are drawn to low-calorie information, where sharing doesn’t take much thought, what happens to our richer interactions? Will the popularity of long-form digital content continue to wane? Will attention get even more fragmented? Will our interpersonal relationships get shallower?
Only time will tell, and if past is prologue, it’s hard to predict what will happen with online sharing and consumption. After all, wasn’t Friendster going to be the next great thing?
It may seem like a big leap to get from Pinterest to deeper questions about the nature of human relationships, but our technologies and how we use them reflect us and our desires. We would be wise to never be afraid to look in the mirror and ask if we like what we see.