Social media criticism should focus on whether a service works, not the people who use it.
I don’t use Pinterest. In fact, when I first learned about the service, I mocked it. But in recent weeks, I’ve been surprised at the level of nasty internet backlash over what is essentially a bookmarking service for content that can be presented via jpg. And I've noticed that Pinterest’s critics tend to harp on one particular aspect of the service.
See the latest dig from I Love Charts:
There is no right way to do social. Pinterest is not Tumblr (a blogging platform with the social features of Twitter and Facebook). It’s not a social link-based bookmarking service like Delicious or, my preferred site, Pinboard. I’ll be the first to say that Pinterest’s platform doesn’t appeal to me right now—my visual social sharing tends to happen through original content on Instagram, rather than via third-party images.
But for many people, it works: Mashable reported yesterday that it drives more traffic than Google+ and LinkedIn combined and beats Reddit as a referrer. The commentary around Pinterest has mean-spiritedly focused on the types of people who are using it (and the content they share), at the expense of any engagement with how the service works—or doesn’t—for its community.
I’m all for critiquing a social network and even the type of sharing that it encourages. You know what social network I find ridiculous? Foursquare! You want me to sign up for a service where I’d volunteer to tell others that I’m getting a cocktail at the one decent, empty bar in Farragut North? You feel safe telling me the location of your house, and that you have arrived home for the evening? But then, I’ve had friends explain that it’s terribly useful for networking at conferences, or for getting half-off meals and free parking. Eventually, I joined, too. (Good luck getting me to check in at my apartment building, though).
I have to think deeper about social networks than most people do: I spend a good portion of my day job thinking about how the social web fits in with the work of reporting and disseminating the news. Snarking about the wedding dresses and cooking wares and artfully messy French-braids that populate Pinterest ignores the fact that these users are finding utility in how that site lets them share that content. Maybe it’s not the best showcase for your 2,000 word investigative piece on mortgage rates among 20-somethings. But for your slideshow of couples tying the knot at city hall, or collection of campaign memorabilia, it’s perfect.
It’s not enough to defend Pinterest on traffic numbers alone. But traffic does indicate that some not-small number of people are finding it an engaging network. It may not be beloved of the social media power user, and that’s ok. Not all networks need serve everyone. But social sharers would be wise to consider why one big group of internet users—many of them women—are flocking to this service, even if you ultimately decide that the resulting content and community is not to your taste.
There’s plenty to dive into about the usability of Pinterest, and I’m happy to have that debate. But please, let’s refrain from trashing the kitchen utensil pinners, or the brides-to-be.