Blessed Are The Online Tastemakers

15 Mar, 2012

To have good taste, George Bernard Shaw once suggested, is to lack originality.

If so, then it has never been easier to show off your good taste online. A group of fast-growing websites, led by companies such as Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest, is benefiting from what has become one of the most prevalent forms of internet behaviour: a desire simply to echo – and re-echo "the words, images and videos produced by someone else.

Bathing in the reflected creativity of others has never been easier. But what this means for the ability to make money from producing original content – and for spreading advertising messages across the web – is only just starting to sink in.

Behind this new trend in taste-setting are a few ingredients that seem to have become essential components of all new consumer internet services.

One is the "follow" button: having created a personal profile, users invite others to track their future online activities. Another ingredient is the "reuse" button, which lets followers pick up content from someone they follow and copy it on to their own page, or profile.

This reuse takes different forms, depending on the service. Twitter's users were among the first to take to the idea, with "retweets" – passing on messages from other users to their own circle of followers. This served to amplify important messages and rubbed off on the reputation of the retweeter, who was cast in the new role of significant opinion-former.

In the case of Tumblr, this has become the "reblog". With its short posts and ability to show images, Tumblr took off last year: copying and mixing from other users is now a central part of the service.

Pinterest, meanwhile – this year's leading contender for the title of Hot New Thing – has added its own spin. A site for copying images found around the web, Pinterest lets its users "pin" pictures they find online on to interest-specific "boards" the create: others can then "repin" those pictures on to their own pages.

With all this focus on reuse, "frictionless" has become the internet buzzword of the moment. Making it easy to pass on valuable nuggets of information with as little effort as possible is the goal.

Plagiarism? Perhaps, but the practice has been ennobled with its own term: curation. To select from the myriad fragments that have been filtered from the web by other people, according to this view, is the ultimate expression of personal taste. What, though, does it mean for businesses that seek to make money from content online – either by selling it, or using it to generate advertising?

Re-posting may amplify the impact of a thought or an image, but it also serves to distance it from its creator. According to the head of one leading internet site, the re-blogging craze leads to between five and eight instances of reuse for any piece of content that has been picked up, depending on the service. Often, only the first use of a piece of content links back to the original: producers get no direct benefit from the later amplification.

Among other things, this raises thorny legal issues for websites that make it too easy for their users to copy content from others. Generally, sites are protected from legal challenge as long as they remove copyrighted content when asked to do so by the owner. But that defence won't hold up for any site whose main purpose is judged to involve copyright infringement.

Pinterest, mindful of the risk, recently released a piece of code that other websites can use to block Pinterest users from "borrowing" their images. Yet this leaves websites with a difficult choice. Pinterest's influence is growing quickly – it has more than 15m monthly users, according to Nielsen – so turning off the tap of traffic referrals might prove costly.

Smart advertisers, meanwhile, are already learning how to turn their messages into content that can be re-posted through these new networks. Much product advertising lends itself to tasteful images, making Pinterest a natural network for spreading such messages.

As with much of the new online "sharing" – a harmless-sounding word that hides a million sins "the losers will be those who fail to strike the right balance between protecting valuable content and giving internet users enough incentive to generate valuable referrals.

The winners, on the other hand, will be those who tap into the new tastemakers to amplify a commercial message that can carry far and wide. As with joggers who proudly sport Nike or Adidas logos on their running vests, you might call this the ultimate expression of good taste.

Or you might conclude that they've been co-opted by a commercial system that always seems capable of adapting to the latest new medium.