The Key To Social Network Success: Rip Off Pinterest?

Your social network has fallen from its 2006-era prime. You need to reposition yourself and regain the attention of users who have long since moved on. What do you do? Take a page from the Pinterest playbook.

This week is apparently the week to do exactly that. First, MySpace previewed its next iteration, which moves away from traditional profiles and social streams in favor of a grid-based layout showcasing media content shared by users. Sound familiar?

The very next day, StumbleUpon launched a beta redesign that also bears a visual similarity to Pinterest. 

MySpace and StumbleUpon aren't the first companies to take cues from Pinterest's design approach. The design of the explosively popular social scrapbooking service has been widely mimicked in recent months. Its tiled layout, based on the widely-used Masonry jQuery layout plugin, has begat countless Wordpress and Tumblr themes.

Sites using this visual approach are too numerous to name. StumbleUpon and MySpace stand out because they are both once-beloved social networks from a half decade ago that have declined in usership and relevance. Meanwhile, Pinterest has become the latest social media phenomenon, even as many in the broad public struggle to understand why on Earth they should use it. It's hard to say how long Pinterest's growth will last or whether it will find a viable business model, but for now its success has given other contenders in the social space something to emulate, sometimes shamelessly.

Take Chill, for example. The social video-sharing service originally sprang out of the group-listening hype generated last summer by music startup Turntable.fm. In early 2012, the company shifted its focus from real-time group video watching and content discovery. Today, Chill bears a striking resemblance to Pinterest, from its Masonry-style layout to the placement of its dark pink, handwritten-looking logo. 

People are ripping off Pinterest's design for one simple reason: it works. In 30 months (much of which was a closed beta period), the service's subscriber list has ballooned to more than 20 million users who have generated 1.9 billion monthly page views and spend an average of about 15 minutes pinning and browsing. In terms of registered users, that's not quite Instagram-level growth, but it's still remarkable. 

A feature in the September issue of Fast Company explains the origin of Pinterest's design: 

As they sketched out Pinterest, [cofounders] Silberman and Sharp cast aside many then-predominant orthodoxies of Web design. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and many other content-driven websites were organized around "feeds," lines of text or images that ran from top to bottom by time… The idea was to remove the rigid organizational strictures that the Web imposed - directories, timestamps, pagination - and replace them with a grid of images that would feel more like visiting a store or a museum. 

The result was what we see on Pinterest today: pleasing images of attractive people, delicious-looking confections, stylish accessories and awe-inspiring scenes laid out on a fixed-width grid with no bottom. That infinite scroll is part of what makes Pinterest so addictive - and helps boost the coveted time-on-site metric. 

Unlike most hot social startups, Pinterest even has the beginnings of a non-advertising-based business model within reach. The service is already driving tons of traffic to online retailers as its users lust after many of the products pinned there. The company is not officially implementing any particular monetization strategy yet, but many of the components of one are sitting there waiting to be picked up and built into a cash cow. 

Of course, half of that potential future equation is a massive user base, which Pinterest has. Other sites can borrow from its design all they want, but whether or not they can win over users on such an immense scale is another story altogether.