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  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 what it does is that 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 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, checked into movie theaters and went to dinner with them. We sent people birthday cards. Of course, then came the Internet and we had WordPress, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Foursquare.

Back when I was young, my cousins would cut out photos, ads and visuals from fashion 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 had 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 becoming very visual and 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 “hyper-personalization.” We are living in a society that is so homogenized that it is hard to standout.

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 standout in this massive mass of humanity. We do this in different ways. In tribal cultures, features, bones and colors help everyone standout. 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 standout. 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 Fab.com is doing something similar on its inspiration wall and combining it with commerce.

I wrote about this in one of my earliest Om Says newsletter: 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 Instagr.am 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 Instagr.am 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 500Px.com. Martin’s visual experiment perfectly sums up the idea of self expression through curation and sharing online.

Photo courtesy of Tracy Martin via 500px

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