Making money from social media is tricky business. When it comes to profiting off what people share, there's a line between tasteful and tacky, between inspired and creepy. Although Pinterest is proceeding cautiously on this front—and with good reason—some of its knockoffs are racing to commoditize people's lives and mementos.
That's right: We've hit a new stage in which people can not only share their heartfelt moments and treasured images with friends, but also turn them into shopping portals that let everyone they know copy their tastes.
Looks like the line between inspired and creepy just got a little fuzzier.
Bitch Stole My Look
My friends Jane and Tanya were pals. They'd known each other for five years and frequented the same social circles, in real life, as well as online. But Jane started noticing a bizarre pattern. Every time she bought a new scarf, sweater or bag, Tanya would show up a week later with the same item.
Aspirations are powerful, and no one knows that better than Pinterest. It's the secret sauce in the 3-year-old online photo pinboard's popularity. The site's 40 million users use it to save recipes they hope to cook, styles they want to test, or projects they'd love to try. And when it comes to sharing items from e-commerce sites, Pinterest has actually lapped social juggernaut Facebook. Adding retail to this environment would make perfect sense.
Even so, Pinterest moves carefully, and wisely so. “We’re trying to do something where the average person … feels that it makes the experience better,” CEO Ben Silberman said at D11: All Things D conference last May. He explained the company doesn't want to "commodify someone’s passions."
That same month, the site debuted "rich pins"—snippets that give extra information, such as ingredients (for recipes) and, yes, retail links for certain products or stores. But Pinterest has a key differentiating factor. Because its pins are usually aspirational, it's not necessarily selling users' current lifestyles.
Compare that to MyStorey, a Los Angeles-based startup that turns people's own photos into shopping portals. The network—now in the middle of a limited beta test—is like a mash-up of Flickr, Pinterest and Fab. Users share their own images (like Flickr) in a pinboard format (like Pinterest), and tag those photos with prices and retail links, so followers can buy the featured clothes, accessories and other goods (like Fab).
I'm not sure what the motivation is for users, since they don't earn money from the sales. I wondered if it was the cachet of being a trendsetter, so I conducted an unofficial, completely unscientific survey of a few friends.
Here's what I found: Half of them thought this was a great idea. They love sharing deals and steals anyway, and some couldn't wait to follow certain people they know and admire. Those in the other half, however, were appalled—as if they faced the prospect of Joan Rivers' "Bitch Stole My Look" jumping off E!'s Fashion Police and landing in their own lives.
I'm with the latter group. I took MyStorey for a spin last month, and after uploading one pic—of my brand-new mid-century modern sofa—a thought flashed through my mind. I suddenly imagined my beloved sofa sitting in the homes of everyone I know. Then I pictured all of my friends and family wearing the same thing, eating at the same restaurants and living in carbon copy homes.
I immediately decided not to upload another pic.
My Closet Is Not Your Store
Soon, people started referring to Jane and Tanya as "the twins." Jane wasn't pleased. In fact, she was dying to put her foot down, but how? She was the one who first turned Tanya on to some of her favorite shops and brands. She had no idea that her friend would start mimicking her style.
In itself, the notion of social network–fueled shopping—or "we-commerce"—isn't wrong-headed. It's not even anything new. Personal recommendations from friends have always carried more weight for consumers than slick marketing materials or promotional pushes. It also piggybacks on the same human nature that drives us to tell friends about a big clearance sale or where we got that amazing new stand mixer for half the price.
But telling a friend or two about a hot discount or a fabulous purchase is different from showing all your contacts how to clone your closet or house. Some sites may want us all to feel like celebrities endorsing products, but this doesn't appeal to everyone. Maybe that would change if everyone had bodyguards and security personnel to deal with wayward followers.
Indeed, some people go to freaky extremes, both offline and on. Anecdotes about Facebook stalking have become cautionary tales—there's even a WikiHow for dealing with it—and now LinkedIn stalking has been getting attention. Add the allure of a social network that puts users' lives on sale, and we could have a nation of Jennifer Jason Leighs going all Single White Female on people.
Once again, I shudder.
The Right Way To Share Social Retail
I urged Jane to have a heart to heart with her friend and gently tell her what she was feeling. And Jane succeeded in getting her point across. Tanya eventually found her own style. Actually, it belonged to a local boutique a neighbor turned her on to. She started buying whole outfits as they appeared in its window.
That's not to say retail and social networking don't make for a great partnership. In fact, a few sites are actually getting it right. Fab, for instance—which just dropped its "Hurry now!" flash-sale approach in favor of letting customers follow tastemakers—works because it's a store first and a social site second.
In a similar vein, Fancy, which positions itself as more of a wish list, also manages to sell products without selling people's personal memories, mementos and special moments. There are no photos of baby's first steps visually marred by price tags promoting retail links for that adorable rattle or bib.
The retail industry is finding its legs in this new social media-driven world. Meanwhile, social sites are clearly experimenting with ways to turn a profit. I have no doubt they will figure it out. I just have no idea if they'll be able to do it without turning the act of "sharing" into a tacky pursuit powered by wannabes and followers, or creeping people out in the process.
As for my friends Jane and Tanya, they remain friendly, though they're not as close as they used to be. But I learned something from their situation: There's a difference between admiring someone's taste and ripping it off. I have fingers crossed that this social distinction will survive social media and its push for monetization.
Feature image courtesy of MyStorey. Image of identical toys/figurines courtesy of Flickr user Thom. Images of Fashion Police and Single White Female screen captured from YouTube via E! Entertainment and movieclips, respectively.