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Pinterest guide: What it is, how to start and who to follow

Katie Collins presents her guide to Pinterest -- and explains why it's going to be the next big social networking sensation in the UK.

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New social networks spring up all the time and are usually taken with a pinch of salt here at CNET UK. People will always vote with their feet -- or fingertips in this case -- and until they do, any pretender to Facebook's throne will remain about as relevant as Goth Passions.

Pinterest, though, is already massive in the US and is starting to take off here in the UK too. It's been banging about in beta, attracting cross-stitching grannies from South Carolina since 2010, but has recently gained momentum in a big way and now boasts over 12 million unique monthly users -- remarkable considering it's currently still invite-only.

Here's why I think it's going to be the next big social networking sensation in the UK, and will have you cooing over adorable baby sloths and lolling at geeky infographics until the cows come home.

What the heck is Pinterest exactly?

Pinterest works like a virtual pinboard -- a carefully curated scrapbook of all the delightful, witty and clever pictures and ideas that you've discovered and gathered from around the web. It's been compared to other social sites such as StumbleUpon and Tumblr, and the buzz surrounding it right now is intense.

Take a look at CNET's Pinterest board for an example of how the layout works. We've created boards on all our favourite technology subjects and pinned much shiny gadgetry and other things that have tickled us.

CNET Pinterest page

Surfing the CNET boards -- look at all the cool tech in our carefully curated categories.

To get started, create a board on any subject that interests you and then cast your eyes around the site and get pinning. In the Pinterest Goodies tab you'll find a 'Pin It' shortcut to drag and drop on to your favourites bar -- it allows you to seamlessly pin as you surf.

The social aspect of the site allows you to follow other users, as well as to like, comment on, or repin what they post. If you and a friend share a passion for, let's say, Ryan Gosling, then you can also tag them in your post with an '@' before their name, or you can opt to allow them access to a board which you can then jointly curate as a mini Gosling fanzine.

A list of guidelines, or 'Pin Etiquette', is provided to help you make sure you don't commit a pinning faux pas, such as not crediting a source, or promoting yourself too much instead of engaging with the wider community. Its rule number one, "Be nice", tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the site. Whether this warning will be enough to keep the YouTube trolls in check, it's hard to say.

Why the sudden interest in Pinterest?

Experian Hitwise now has Pinterest rated as a top 10 social site, receiving nearly 11 million visits in the week that ended 17 December, reports. It may be all pretty and retro to look at, but don't be fooled into thinking it's not ready to take on the big dogs -- Experian reports that Pinterest is the fastest-growing site for referral traffic, its 3.6 per cent share putting it on par with the likes of Twitter.

While that made me sit up and take notice, what I really wanted to know was whether the word-of-mouth rave reviews I was hearing about Pinterest's addictive qualities were true. Let's just say that after some very thorough research, I had to employ immense willpower to drag myself away from Pinterest long enough to actually write about it.

Not generally one for jumping on bandwagons, I was sceptical at first, but after taking a look around, a foraging instinct quickly kicked in, as well as a natural human impulse to organise and categorise. Before I knew it, I'd spent half a day indulging my various passions for maps, micro pigs and extravagant cakes.

Pinterest cake board

Mmmm cake. So magnificent, so tasty.

The clean, retro design of the site and the level of detail with which you can curate your interests make Pinterest the ultimate vehicle for self-expression. Adding new boards to your profile is like adding new layers and dimensions to the way your personality is represented online. You can express your sense of humour, your thoughts on what constitutes beauty, your plans for the weekend and your hopes for the future, all in individual but adjacent collages.

Don't be put off if it sounds a bit arty for your tastes -- Pinterest's appeal, and probably much of its success, lies in how simple it is to use.

Have a browse around and you'll be heartened by the atmosphere of positivity within which strangers are interacting and collaborating. Creating your own boards may be absorbing, but it's equally as fascinating to take a look around and gain an insight into other people's lives, and discover obscure, beautiful and hilarious things you never knew existed.

Isn't Pinterest just for girls?

Like many social networks in their infancy, Pinterest has garnered a reputation for appealing to a specific demographic -- in this case bored housewives.

Admittedly, there are echoes of the American tradition of communal quilting in the patchworks of accumulated pins. The logo and look of the site also have a cutesy craft feel to them, and Pinterest does little to help itself dispel the myth. On the 'About' page it suggests creating boards to help you redecorate your house, gather your favourite recipes and even plan your wedding. Not typically masculine interests, perhaps -- although we would hate to stereotype.

My own Pinterest boards are based on fairly gender-neutral pursuits (books, travelling, movies), but I must admit that I do find that most of the repins, likes and comments I get are from other women.

There are some suspect inflated stats floating around about the exact proportion of female Pinterest users, but according to Experian Hitwise, 58 per cent of the visitors to the site in the past three months were women. That's not a radical divide of the sexes by any means, and only replicates a trend which is fairly common across other social networks (except Google+, which is dominated by men).

Pinterest's user base is expanding quickly, which is massively diversifying the range of content on the site. In the UK, where Pinterest is relatively new on the scene and has less of a craft 'n' weddings rep, it's estimated that 58 per cent of the users are actually male.

Pinterest only for girls

You've got to be in it to pin it, gents. The more men join Pinterest, the more diverse the content will be.

I personally feel that regardless of your gender, if you've ever made a Christmas list, indulged in window shopping or collected anything from stamps to tattoos to Star Wars action figures, then Pinterest is for you. If you're a chap and you're still not convinced, then check out this collection of Menterest boards, which might help to sway your opinion.

How bright is Pinterest's future?

I'm convinced of Pinterest's appeal as a user, and the stats for its growth and popularity speak for themselves. Even Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook fame has signed up (we're looking forward to his 'Animals I'd love to kill' board), perhaps demonstrating that he sees Pinterest as a serious competitor.

Popular networking sites of the past such as Myspace and Bebo were the preserve of the yoof, but Pinterest differs dramatically in that its original users tend to be older (practically middle-aged!), but as the site grows, so the core demographic is spreading away from its roots in all directions.

Most would see a wider range of content and people with which to interact as a good thing, but not everyone will think so. Just as many students got the hump when their parents and younger siblings started friending them on Facebook and commenting on their pub-crawl photos, now that the Wild Wendys are wading into Pinterest with their salty language and risque humour, some of the stalwart Sensible Susans have started to take offence.

The Susans will stay, but they'll also have to make way and make allowances for the fact that Pinterest will eventually open its doors to all and sundry, and when the hordes flock in, there's no telling what their tastes may be.

If you're wondering how Pinterest will measure up against other social networks in terms of longevity, it's honestly too soon to say. People now have long-standing relationships with their Facebook accounts that are based on years of photo albums full of tags and re-formed friendships with otherwise MIA acquaintances.

Twitter and LinkedIn have become established networking tools that have allowed people to form professional bonds, and construct ongoing dialogues about, well, pretty much everything. How Pinterest will evolve when it's opened up to all, how businesses and brands will adapt to using it and whether people will feel as possessive over their pins and boards several years down the line is hard to tell.

One school of thought, expressed by blogger Elad Gil, is that social media is moving beyond status-message networks like Facebook and Twitter to push-button posting, typified by Twitter's 'retweet' button or Pinterest's 're-pin', and careful social content curation. It makes sense that a successful new social network would, in the manner of Pinterest, allow us to increase the level of complexity we use to express ourselves, while making it easier for us to do so.

Many of the personal blogs dotted around the Internet are full of posts that collect and list desired items or ideas that people have spied elsewhere online and Pinterest exploits this trend, making pictures easier to gather, and providing a wider and more accessible audience with which to share them.

It also can't be a complete coincidence that Pinterest's rise in popularity has mirrored a slip in consumer confidence. As a society of consumers who perhaps don't have access to the same resources to express ourselves through what we wear and what we possess as we once did, Pinterest provides an alternate reality through which we can let everyone know that we still have taste -- that our individuality is still intact.

It's worth briefly mentioning that there's currently some debate over whether Pinterest is making money by adding affiliate links to user-added pins. While not necessarily problematic in itself, the fact that it has chosen not to publicly disclose very much information on the matter is hardly consistent with its 'Be Nice' policy, and it's getting people's backs up somewhat.

Pinterest is currently invite only, but it's already generating a huge amount of traffic and looks set to take off in a big way when it throws open its doors to the world. If you want to get in on the action at this point in time, you'll have to get your mum to send you an invite (she's probably been on it for months now).

Who to follow on Pinterest

  • 1. CNET - The place to go for your hourly fix of gadgetry and geek culture.
  • 2. rupinjapan - Has our eternal love and respect for creating the sloth babies board.
  • 3. BuzzFeed - A hotbed of hilarious social content. Excellent Ryan Gosling resource.
  • 4. ZDNetUK - Our sister site, for even more tech goodness.
  • 5. Etsy - Vintage and handmade marketplace brand.
  • 6. Menterest - Huntin' and fishin' and shootin'. Man stuff for men's men.
  • 7. Sharon Vaknin - how-to heavyweight and all-round authority on Pinterest.
  • 8. reneekn - Original poster of controversial swearing child in a toy car photo.
  • 9. isabelleoc - Has a board of orthopaedic shoes. Could be destined for Pinterest greatness.
  • 10. Katie Collins - I mostly like tigers, tech, travel and toasted snacks.

Is Pinterest the future of social networking or just a flash in the Internet pan? Let us know your thoughts and tell us about your experiences of using Pinterest in the comments below, or over on our Facebook page.