The promise and problem with Pinterest

Lately, social media mavens have pinned their hopes on Pinterest as the next big thing in remote engagement because of the site’s stated goal to “connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting.”

Pinterest, its name an amalgamation of the words “pin” and “interest,” which you probably could have guessed, launched in 2009 and gained traction after its invitation-only wall came down in 2010 and prospective members were allowed to ask the site to join. Since then, Pinterest has garnered Facebook-level traffic, approaching 12 million new visitors a month.

The attraction: Pinterest is a picture-driven, digital cork board, a place for visual expression with themed “pin-up” boards where users can put up just about any digitized image or video they like. Member “followers” can also re-pin images and videos posted by others, thus trumpeting and spreading their interests and vision.

Certainly, Pinterest’s key attraction is its eye-candy appeal, but the site sports some versatility of a kind journalists may find useful. Among the ideas possible through Pinterest:

Breaking news and advancing stories — Journalists can pin on-scene images and video clips via iPhone to themed news boards, which can be linked to websites and other social media. Pinterest also works well as a place to post advances for upcoming news coverage.

Trend stories — Users have created themed boards on subjects ranging from fashion to pets to favorite jokes. The general topics are broad but Pinterest permits creation of narrowly focused boards. Even Pinterest’s traffic portends to trends — its chief demographic groups to date appear to be women, who make up about 58 percent of users, and people ages 25 to 44, who make up about 59 percent.

Storyboards — Pinterest’s boards can be rearranged, besides being customizable, so photographers, film editors and spot-news editors can organize their content into sequences that tell stories or send messages.

Portfolios and showcases — Pinterest can serve as a place to store, organize and display images for job applications, or as a storefront for selling those images. It’s also a good place to spotlight a publication’s best recent work.

Of course, everything that shows up online could show up on Pinterest regardless of whether anyone wants it pinned there, and this has stirred criticism that the site violates copyright law despite a “safe harbor” opening in that law. In the safe harbor, legal liability is limited or waived if a site either performs in “good faith” or adheres to agreed-upon standards.

Pinterest allegedly has received copyright challenges, but so far no one has pulled the pin in part because the site hasn’t taken egregious liberties with contributor content, like reselling it behind contributors’ backs. However, Pinterest seems to have found a way to turn re-pins into profit by modifying links to pins for commercial content, so that the pins link back to the image source. If the site has an affiliate-marketing program and Pinterest is part of it, then Pinterest profits from relinking to the affiliate, and the affiliate in turn gains a broader audience.

Pinterest has managed to avoid assessing fees, including sidebar ads, or allowing sponsored pins. But as Pinterest evolves, so too could its perception of fair use and right to reuse to pinned content unless members opt out, akin to Facebook. Prospective users should consider this before making Pinterest into a platform for their businesses.

Pinterest is a visual medium unlike any we’ve seen, but it’s still in a nascent state. Journalists should be careful: all the promise it holds has time yet to turn prickly.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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