It’s almost impossible to explain Pinterest to someone who has never been on it.

And now that it’s hit the big time, there’s a lot of explaining to do — especially, it seems, to men who can’t seem to avoid hearing about Pinterest from the women in their lives.

Pinterest — which Mashable’s Pete Cashmore called “2012’s Hottest Website” in a piece on CNN last week — is sort of social networking, sort of blogging, sort of curation, sort of a bookmarking tool.

In short, it’s a way to “pin” (bookmark) things you like — photos, recipes, crafts, design ideas, photography, art, etc., and silo those items into “boards.”

When I gave the basic explanation to my husband, he said, “Isn’t that just what Reddit is for?”

Aha, I thought. Indeed. That’s it: Pinterest is Reddit for crafty women. (And by “crafty,” I mean a do-it-yourself, creative, arty, style-ly kind of gal, not the other definition of crafty, although the two aren’t always mutually exclusive.)

But the Reddit comparison doesn’t really do it justice, either.

In many ways, it’s easier to explain what Pinterest is not than what it is. And perhaps, that is why it’s taken such hold. It found an opening in an impossibly crowded social media landscape by being a beacon of simplicity.

The concept

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The beauty of Pinterest is that it doesn’t manufacture a need. Let me try to explain that. Basically, I mean that instead of making us share or create or produce — or do something that we otherwise might not do in real life (like say, “poke” — is that still a thing?), Pinterest takes what we all already do, puts it online, and makes it easier, simpler and more elegant.

“Pinning” by any other name is something we all do every day. We clip out recipes, we bookmark blog posts, we note the cut of the jacket of a passerby, we take a mental picture of a neighbor’s living room layout, we marvel at the colors in a photograph on the gallery wall, we read a passage we like somewhere and save it for later.

If you were able to put all of those things into one, well-designed place and keep them organized so they are easy to refer to, wouldn’t that be great? That’s what Pinterest does.

What it is is so much more.

Social networking, hold the social

Pinterest is social in nature, yes. You “follow” people just as you’d follow someone on Instagram or Twitter. But, it isn’t about networking really.

Lately, I’ve cringed every time I heard the name of yet another social-networking site I had to join. There’s a point where connection becomes clutter, where the networking that seemed fun and convenient a few years ago now feels like a social uzi.

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I hit a point last year, when I was scrambling to check in with Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Blogger comments and email and voicemail, juggling responding to different people in various places and tracking tasks and requests that came in via multiple formats that I was just over it all. I told my husband in a huff that “from here on out, I only want to talk to real people, in person, for the rest of my life.”

That lasted the two seconds it took for another email to pop up with a question that needed answered and another friend request to ding in from someone adding me to their network.

Pinterest is refreshing in this way because it’s not about any of this. It’s not about chatting or finding out about what anyone is up to, or what they look like or what they think about politics or current events. It’s a step back from all of that.

It’s personal, and yet, somewhat anonymous. There’s beauty in that.

Personal, hold the ego

Perhaps because it is more curation than creation, Pinterest is remarkably ego-less. This may sound a bit cheesy, but it really is a room of one’s own on the Internet.

It’s personal, certainly, but for your sake, not really for anyone else’s. Most of the people on Pinterest I’ve chatted with have told me that they use it for themselves, and no one else. The boards they create are for their edification, their inspiration, their organization and even their own self-discovery.

Remember in junior high or high school when you made a collage in art class, clipping out of magazines? The exercise was one in excavating yourself based on what you clipped, and at the end, those little pieces would come together to give a fuller picture. There’s a little, maybe even a lot, of that in Pinterest.

Like other social media, it can be a mirror, but not the self-congratulatory kind. And that makes it feel so much different.

For some reason, so far, Pinterest has avoided being a place to show off, or to create and maintain some sort of persona.

There’s no announcement of someone’s kids winning a soccer game, no photos of someone’s amazing vacation, no promotion of someone’s projects. In short, no bragging — and that seems to be what sets it apart in some ways from other sites.

As a matter of fact, Pinterest even explicitly asks you not to brag. No. 3 in Pinterest’s “Pin Etiquette” is “Avoid Self Promotion”:

Pinterest is designed to curate and share things you love. If there is a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However, try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.

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A Pinterview on Pinterest’s blog.

So far, people are following that etiquette, and because of that, you can breathe a little easier on Pinterest, knowing there are no virtual Joneses to keep up with.

Also, by the way, the power of Pinterest is also in the community that grew up around it. As Cashmore noted in his CNN piece, because the site was seeded by a particularly regular, but inspired group of people with good taste, the content and community that sprung forth is pretty awesome. Pinterest plugs that regularly with the “Pinterviews” section of its blog.

Inspiration, hold the expectation

That brings to me to the third in the “what-Pinterest-is-not” category: Because there’s no virtual “persona” to upkeep on Pinterest, inspiration can be just that — inspiring. Instead of comparing your life to others’, your house to others’, your kids to others’, your vacations to others’ (seriously, is everyone someplace tropical except me right now?), your wardrobe with others’, you’re welcome to browse ideas and thoughts, designs and crafts and recipes without that strange baseline you get when those things are attached to people you know.

It’s one thing to be inspired by an anonymous person’s amazing house. It’s a whole other thing if your neighbor’s house is that amazing — because there’s an expectation there that your house should already be that amazing.

This is a hard one to articulate well, but I really think there is something to it. It’s the difference between looking at ideas in a magazine (relatively anonymous) and being inspired by the recipes or design ideas and reading the blog of a super mom who writes and cooks and sews and runs a business and still finds time to perfectly organize her house — and ending up feeling like an utter failure by the time you’re done.

Discovery, hold the filter (in a way)

On Facebook, or Twitter to a lesser extent, what you find — whether it be news or books or blogs or photos or ideas or products — is filtered by your friends. On Pinterest, that’s true, too. But, again, because the content is so much wider than what the users are creating, there’s more of an uncharted territory feel to it.

Pinterest does an excellent job of getting interesting “pins” in front of you that you might not have found on your own and may have not even found via your friends. When I hop on Pinterest in the afternoon to take a little break, I get the same feeling I get when I walk into a big old bookstore — knowing that I’m about find something I didn’t even know I was looking for.

There’s just something about about the mode of discovery on Pinterest that feels more organic than the otherwise manufactured version you find elsewhere online. (Amazon, Facebook, I’m looking at you.)

On a personal note, as a gal living in the middle of rural nowhere, Pinterest keeps me current and relevant because of this. Instead of narrowing my view based on some algorithm of my likes, my friends or what I bought last, it expands my view, while making it accessible at the same time. Invaluable.

(By the way, the word for this idea of narrowing by what you like instead of who you know is “interest graph,” and here’s a good explainer of this.)

Consumerism, hold the consuming

One of my friends told me recently that the reason she loves Pinterest is because she can feel like she’s shopping but without spending anything.

This was a particularly interesting response because of the question it points to about the business model behind Pinterest.

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I bought this sweatshirt for my daughter from a local artist on her Etsy store (Dig This Chick) after seeing something on Pinterest that inspired me.

Pinterest is heavy on the DIY. So, the message is, don’t buy, make! And, as I mentioned before, it’s heavy on inspiration and exploration, not consumerism.

I’m not sure how exactly this bodes for any future advertising on Pinterest, or if that’s even in the cards (the million-dollar question: How will they monetize?), but there may be something new developing here. There is great opportunity in creating a central place for independent exploration like Pinterest does, particularly with the powerful demographic it’s been able to attract: women.

I think what my friend is getting at when she says she feels like she’s shopping on Pinterest is that it feels like a true marketplace — a place where you see people and ideas and places and products alike — something that until now has been almost impossible to find online.

That, and the fact that it’s shopping that doesn’t feel like you’re shopping, could poise Pinterest perfectly for developing a whole new business model for the web if they do it right and keep the integrity of the experience.

Two good examples of Pinterest’s potential in this vein: this article on how MyRecipes and Cooking Light are benefiting and this article about how Real Simple is getting more traffic from Pinterest now than Facebook.

Totally old school

All new technology is best if it’s rooted first in the real world. And Pinterest is a great example of how popular old-school ideas can be in new-school formats.

Pinterest, however new and cool, is basic, and that’s what makes it so inviting.

After years of what feels like bombardment with people and news and ideas and blogs and links and cluttered websites and targeted marketing, it’s nice to be in a space that feels open and welcoming. Pinterest is simple — in design and concept, in usability (“pinning” takes one click) and in organization — and that, I have a hunch, is why it’s quickly becoming more than a trendsetter.

Amid all the hustle and bustle of the new web, it’s maybe just what we’ve all needed. It’s a nice quiet haven…for now at least.

Managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor and farmer based in central Montana, where the Rocky Mountain Front collides with the high plains. She is the co-founder and former editor in chief of the now closed online magazine NewWest.Net. She also co-created and ran the Rural News Network, a J-Lab New Voices project at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, which helped small towns revive or create their own online newspapers. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s helping her husband wrangle 150 heritage turkeys, 15 acres of food, overgrown weeds or their new daughter. She blogs about life on the farm, and other things, at www.lifecultivated.com.

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