NEW YORK, United States — The history of the internet is a story of two counter-balancing forces: the explosive growth of information and the rise of new systems that help us sift and make sense of this information. Back in the early 1990s, human editors at companies like Yahoo! compiled curated lists and directories of useful information. As the rising volume of information overwhelmed these human filters, hand-curation gave way to algorithmic search à la Google. But today, as consumers become their own media outlets, producing staggering amounts of user-generated content every day, and savvy marketers reverse-engineer Google’s algorithm to game the search results, separating signal from noise is once again becoming difficult.
“Search results in many categories are now honey pots embedded in ruined landscapes — traps for the unwary,” wrote investor, writer and entrepreneur Paul Kedroksy. As a result, we’re seeing a shift back towards human filtering and hand-curation. But this time around, instead of professional editors — who could never hope to sift through the quantities of content the world currently creates — it’s consumers themselves who are doing the curating.
Over the last couple of years, popular consumer web services have added “crowd curation” features. “I’m a big fan of curation in these services,” wrote Fred Wilson of venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. “Twitter has lists. Etsy has favorites. Tumblr has tag pages.”
But now, a new generation of niche social curation services is on the rise, offering discerning consumers a way to discover quality content and product selections, handpicked by others and unpolluted by content farms and SEO spam.
Founded in late 2010 in Palo Alto, California, and still in private beta, Pinterest is a virtual pinboard where users can create collections of things they find interesting — images, products, recipes, quotes — and “follow” collections created by others whose tastes they like. “Imagine picking up a catalogue where every single item is handpicked by someone you find interesting,” said Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann.
Focused squarely on products, Svpply is Pinterest’s primary competitor. Often described as Tumblr meets Amazon, the platform — which was reimagined in the summer of 2010 and has since attracted a $550,000 seed-round investment led by Spark Capital and Founder Collective, along with high-profile angel investors like Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley and former MySpace co-president Jason Hirschhorn — lets users blog the products they like and browse a personal feed of products hand-selected by the people and stores they find interesting. Unlike task-oriented shopping on sites like Amazon, using Svpply feels more like online window shopping at a store full of products you like. Importantly, consumers can also click through to buy, as each product added to Svpply is automatically linked back to the page where it was found.
Part microblogs, part social bookmarking tools, Pinterest and Svpply (alongside similar sites like Fancy and Wanelo) have hit on a powerful formula: the hand-curated quality of a magazine plus the speed of a blog plus the personal relevance of a social network.
Interestingly, fashion has emerged as one of the most popular categories on these sites and even sparked specialist services. “Right now it’s hard to discover fashion online,” said Chris Morton, CEO of Lyst, a social curation site that focuses specifically on fashion. Having quietly established a core community in its private beta, Lyst will have its official launch next week. “The space is becoming increasingly fragmented: every day there are new online retailers, designers and blogs, making it even harder to sift through all the noise.”
Like Pinterest and Svpply, Lyst, which recently raised seed-round investment from top-tier VC Accel Partners, is curated by hand. “Through sites like Last.fm and Pandora, we were discovering great new songs and bands,” said Morton. “We wanted to build a tool that let people discover amazing fashion products and designers, but we didn’t believe that discovery process could be done purely algorithmically.”
In part, Morton’s confidence that fashion consumers could be harnessed to voluntarily curate products for others to browse and shop was rooted in an interesting observation: “We kept coming across the act of ‘faux shopping’ …. This is when a user goes to a site like Net-a-Porter, puts together an amazing shopping cart, but instead of checking out, just sighs wistfully and closes the browser,” he said. “We were conscious that users were effectively creating rich content and expressing their style, but then destroying it afterwards. With Lyst, we wanted to build a service where users could keep those items for as long as they liked and share their style.”
As with other social media verticals, scale will ultimately determine the success of social curation sites like Pinterest, Svpply and Lyst — and sharing personal tastes in order to signal values, earn status and get feedback from a community of likeminded people is the primary incentive these sites are counting on to drive consumer engagement. “Lysting items is a form of self-expression,” said Morton. “It’s akin to writing a blog,” he continued. “The act of publishing their lysts also enables users to build their reputation within the online fashion world.”
“The reward people get for using Pinterest is feedback from people they care about on their taste,” said Silbermann, who stressed the importance of building a genuine community. “The site has a feeling of authenticity because users are interacting with not only people who share their tastes, but also their real friends, co-workers and family members,” he continued. Because the service uses Facebook Connect as its primary method of authentication, most of the people on Pinterest use their real name and picture.
So far, the strategy seems to be working. “Millions of people are visiting Pinterest each month,” said Silbermann, who would not disclose specific engagement metrics. Meanwhile, Lyst, which is still in private alpha with a small number of registered users, currently attracts around 250,000 visitors per month, a 510 percent increase over the last quarter of 2010.
But while Pinterest and Svpply let users add content and products from all over the internet using bookmarklets, Lyst takes a more controlled approach, plugging directly into a range of partners, from American designers like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch to European retailers like Harrods, Net-a-Porter and Colette. “We partner with hundreds of handpicked luxury retailers and designers from around the world, bringing their inventory onto Lyst in real-time,” said Morton. “As a result, our users can add products to their ‘lysts’ from our inventory of hundreds of thousands of fashion items, while brands can be reassured that the quality of content on the site is being respected.”
While brands like Club Monaco have set up profiles on Pinterest, where they share their products as part of curated collections, the site’s founders are still thinking through how to partner with these brands to drive revenue. “Right now, we’re focused on helping people share their authentic taste with the world,” said Silbermann. “We’ll be piloting a ‘pin it’ button for brand websites in the next few months,” he continued, emphasizing that, at least initially, this feature would not be broadly available.
In contrast, Lyst was designed from scratch to serve the needs of brands and retailers, as well as consumers. “We’ve created a communication channel for designers, boutiques and publishers to share products they designed, bought or discovered directly with their fans — this channel exists primarily to drive sales,” said Morton. Indeed, Lyst encourages users to follow the fashion designers with whom it partners and takes a commission on the sales it generates using a standard CPA (cost-per-action) pricing model. Lyst also provides partners with valuable data on trends, popular products and rising fashion influencers.
But the rise of social curation is also part of a wider shift, from one-size-fits-all messaging to personalised information streams. “We believe the future of advertising is personal recommendation,” said Morton. “People are much more likely to act on a recommendation than a broadcast message, and Lyst is rapidly becoming the channel for people and brands to send and receive fashion recommendations.”
Alongside quality, personalised recommendations are at the heart of the social curation trend. “We want to make Pinterest feel like a completely personalised catalogue,” said Silbermann. And while algorithmic recommendation engines are getting better at delivering relevant content, what they currently lack is meaningful context and commentary on why a particular product or piece of content may be relevant.
In a sector like fashion, where taste is highly subjective, value is often socially defined, and the origin of a stylistic point of view is as crucial as the point of view itself, we think the role of virtual curators is set to become increasingly important.
But in the long run, hand-curation by your social network may not offer a complete answer to the personal relevance problem. At the recent Abu Dhabi Media Summit, Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, whose company, Digital Sky Technologies (DST), has put money into Facebook, Zynga and Groupon, was quoted as saying: “The question is, ‘How do you select what’s relevant for you?’ And my guess is that it’s probably going to be 50% driven by your network and 50% driven by algorithms.”
Looking ahead, the question becomes, who in fashion will be the first to meld machine-based predictions with the power of social curation to help solve that timeless problem: what should I wear today?
Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion