SXSWi Panel Recap: Pinterest Explained, a Q&A with co-founder Ben Silbermann

Who's behind the curtain at the online bookmarking social media site?

SXSWi Panel Recap: Pinterest Explained, a Q&A with co-founder Ben Silbermann

On Tuesday morning, blogger/entrepreneur Christopher Dixon sat down with Ben Silbermann, the co-founder of the insanely popular social networking/online collection organizer website Pinterest.

Silbermann was visibly nervous, staring at his lap and making very little eye contact with his interlocutor as he explained Pinterest’s beginnings back in 2009. After brainstorming a number of products, he explained, he turned to his own passion for collecting and pursued that idea because “there wasn't a way to do your collecting (like shoes, art) online, nothing built around discrete collections built for you.” From there, he and his team spent a very long time working on the design, which is simple, clean, and elegant. “If your collections didn't look awesome,” pondered Silbermann, “why would anyone spend time building them?”

Silbermann explained that he has been very gratified by the ways that people use the site: “The people who were using Pinterest really early on were using it for offline activity. Pinning recipes that they would then cook for dinner that night; saving a piece of furniture, then going out and buying that piece.”

“There have been a lot of people who have used it in ways that we didn’t expect,” he added. “For example, satire boards like Fake Mitt Romney, with a bunch of pictures of yachts. There are a whole bunch of museums who have joined, like the San Francisco MoMA. Their mission is to share art with the world. For them to be able to show these collections [on Pinterest] gets me really jazzed.”

While it was very interesting to hear Silbermann’s thoughts on how people use Pinterest and the site’s beginnings, the very real legal and ethical implications of the site were glossed over rather quickly. When Dixon brought up the issue of copyright violations (see here for a useful explanation of the problem), Silbermann maintained that “copyright is fundamental to what we do,” and insisted that driving traffic to the originating site is very important to the company. “On the other hand,” he said, the “Pin It” button used by many websites who see Pinterest as a way to drive traffic to their sites “is driving a lot of content onto the boards.” The takeaway seems to be that many sites see Pinterest as a way to attract clicks, which could have monetization potential for the company.

Monetization is the other controversy surrounding the young company, specifically its quiet use of affiliate links. Silbermann brushed off this particular concern by explaining that he and his team had installed those links as a way to assess whether users were using the site the way he had hoped, which was to discover new things on the Internet. “The affiliate links were an experiment,” he explained, “but are not part of the long-term monetization goal. “f there’s one problem I think Pinterest can solve, it’s helping people discover things they didn’t know they wanted.”

Pinterest users can expect changes in the coming weeks and months. For one, Silbermann said, the company will soon roll out a new profile design that is both beautiful and provides a snapshot of who the user is. Another new feature will parse a network of influences; while most people repin from their friends’ collections, oftentimes, people repin from other users they have no connection to. Additionally, Silbermann and his team are looking into expanding the number of things you can pin, things like videos from Vimeo and Hulu and Netflix. Most importantly, they are looking to make proper attribution of content and images is easier and easier.

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Pinterest, Ben Silbermann, Chris Dixon

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