Three truths about the visual web we can learn from We Heart It

Last week, a San Francisco-based social network announced that it raised millions in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firms to build a site that’s focused on visually inspiring images. The site’s users are primarily young and female, and they’re growing in number as they share images of fashion and travel and beauty on the site’s grid-like design.
But no, the site was not Pinterest. It wasn’t Wanelo. It wasn’t Fab, Tumblr, Ideeli, Need Supply Co. or Poshmark. Instead, we learned last week that the funding and users are headed to We Heart It, a social network that got started back in 2007 but only incorporated in the U.S. in 2011. The site, which is on desktop and mobile, now sees 20 million active users every month. And it’s possible that you’ve never even heard of it.
We’ve been writing about the rise of the visual web for years now, from Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram to the Pinterest-ization of e-commerce to the compelling nature of Snapchat’s disapearing pics.
But as the rise of We Heart It — from seemingly out of the blue — shows that even something as clear-cut and popular as Pinterest might not have a hold on the market it’s carved out. Suddenly, a grid of inspiring photos seems too all-purpose for many users, and Pinterest’s basic idea can be splintered into a multittude of different services. Driven by massive teen adoption of social media and improvements in smartphone and network technology, sites like We Heart It and Wanelo are just getting started. Here are three things we can learn about the visual web from their popularity:
We Heart It social network grid images

1. The grid of photos is here to stay

Om was writing about the trend of “Pinterest-ization” of e-commerce companies back in October when he pointed out that all of a sudden, everyone was displaying their products online in a grid design. But that trend has moved beyond e-commerce, with everything from photography sites to Twitter Music going for the grid look.
pinterest sites grid designAnd it’s for a good reason: Everyone wants to be a design-oriented company right now, an idea we’ll be exploring at our Roadmap conference in November, and right now the grid design is a way to show that you’re a modern web company. But more importantly, the endless scroll of images creates a user experience that’s never over. You can never hit the end of Pinterest, so why not keep scrolling?
We Heart It says its 20 million monthly active users are spending 16 minutes per session on the site, and Wanelo says its users are spending 50 minutes per day (far more than the 30 minutes a day people spend on Facebook.) No doubt this is due to engaging content, but also the never-ending scrolling experience the two sites have adopted.

2. It doesn’t take long to become the “old story”

People love debating whether Facebook is dying, or whether teens are using Facebook anymore. But I’ve been surprised to hear recently that startups are already taking aim at Pinterest, calling it stuffy or old news when it comes to social media.
Yes, Pinterest is now fairly mainstream — Comscore reported in February that the site was at nearly 50 million monthly uniques, and its most recent funding round put the company’s valuation at $2.5 billion. It’s working with almost every major U.S. retail company to integrate products on its site. But technically, the site has only been out of beta and open to all users for less than a year.
Yet the rise of sites like We Heart It and Wanelo, which lets you re-post products you want to buy, shows that users and investors are willing to go elseswhere to focus on areas that are already covered on Pinterest. While Pinterest’s identity as a photo-sharing site for the web has allowed it to stay all-purpose and see strong growth, it’s also paved the way for these smaller companies to pick a niche and make inroads.

3. The future of the web is visual

Scrolling through any of these sites, you get the distinct impression that there must be millions of bored teenagers on smartphones all over the country, and the new time-killer of choice is re-posting photos of teenage girls posing on the beach, inspirational quotes with hearts, and photos of boy bands like One Direction; because these photos are everywhere. And the fact that Instagram, Tumblr, We Heart It, Wanelo, and no doubt countless other sites can all thrive on this basic behavior of re-posting photos says a lot about where the internet is headed.
Whether they can make money is another question entirely, since building a site based on beautiful images and then adding advertising does not seem to work so far. But these sites have successfully capitalized on a psychological desire among users to be associated with different photos, and it doesn’t appear that the desire is going away.