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Say Hello To Secret Pinterest

Pinterest is finally letting users create secret boards. And it could be a huge change for the site.

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Private pinboards are finally here.

Starting today, Pinterest is rolling out a test feature that allows users to "create three secret boards," which are visible only to the pinner and specific people that they invite to the board. Pinterest is touting secret boards as a new feature pegged to holiday shopping: "The holidays are a time for being with family, sharing great meals, and, of course, surprising your favorite people with a special gift. That’s why we thought the holidays were a perfect time to test one of our most frequently-requested features." But secret boards are, in fact, a more profound addition to the site than they might seem — which is why Pinterest is carefully controlling this particular experiment, limiting users to having just three secret boards at a time.

Viral growth on Pinterest now drives more traffic to other sites than Yahoo according to one report — and a major reason is that until now, everything on it has been completely open. (Pinterest has also not been shy about mercilessly exploiting your Facebook friends to fuel the social networking fire.) Anything posted on Pinterest could be shared and spread, without exception. There was no behind the curtain, no private parties, only the very public stage.

Secret boards are, by definition, probably not very viral. And if users could exclusively use secret boards, I suspect Pinterest's growth pattern would look a little bit different, because it precludes the possibility that everything is shareable. Not to mention that secret boards invite the possibilities of wholly different kinds of content collection — content you don't want other people to know you're collecting. So not exactly content that you're going to share, and not the kind of content that Pinterest has become (in)famous for hosting. (That said, there are limits to what you can post — Pinterest blocks some URLs automatically.)

Invite-only secret boards could also form the basis for communities that would rather stay out of the spotlight — like thinspo boards, which have been subject to policing on some social networks. The invite mechanism itself seems fairly conducive to creating lots of little shadow communities: A secret board creator can invite anyone to the board, and anybody that's a member can recommend a new recruit, generating an explosive chain of members. And secret boards can have an unlimited number of members. It's hard to gauge how much potential there is for a large new swath of Pinterest that operates primarily in the dark — Dark Pinterest! — but Pinterest will monitor secret boards for "objectionable" content banned by its terms of service, much the same way it does public boards.*

Still, the big catch is that a secret board creator can make it public at any time, exposing its contents along with all of the members and everything they've posted. Pinterest seems to be aware of the can of worms it's opening with secret boards, though, given the extensive documentation about how they work, with a particular emphasis on that very possibility:

When a secret group board is made visible to everyone:
All the board collaborators are visible to everyone, as are their pins and comments on the board.
The board and its pins are visible to everyone on all the board collaborators’ profiles.
The board is treated like a new board: People who selected “Follow All” on any of the collaborators’ profiles will be added as followers to the newly visible board.
Previously existing pins will be visible and interactive just like regular pins.
Previously existing pins will be visible in Search results.
New pins on the group board will be shown to the board’s followers and can be shown in other public areas of Pinterest, such as Search results, the Everything page, the general category feeds, etc.

Since Pinterest does not want to be in the costly business of policing content — nobody on the Internet does, unless there's a gun to their head, like YouTube — the possibility of a group's darkest pins being flushed out by a rogue board leader might turn out to be one of the better control mechanisms in limiting, say, the growth of Pinterest porn. Do you really trust the leader of your brony community not to out your most intimate My Little Pony Photoshops?

All of that is exactly why I suspect Pinterest is pegging this thing to holiday shopping. It sounds safe, simple, true to the site, and probably like music to the ears of its investors, given that much of the buzz around Pinterest and its opportunities to make money are tied to its potential to drive sales at online retailers. The ability to face inward and to create closed communities on Pinterest could, in fact, turn out to be a serious growth driver, enticing people who aren't entirely comfortable with sharing everything all the time with the world at large. Whether they're the kind of people Pinterest has courted over the last year and what that could mean for the makeup of Pinterest users and the kind of content they're pinning as the site 23-million-user site continues to explode — well, we might be in the dark on it. But I bet Pinterest is about to get a lot more interesting.

*Paragraph updated with some fresh info.