Pinterest CEO dreams of a kinder, gentler social media

   2023-05-05 04:05

At Fortune’s dinner in San Francisco on Tuesday, a seasoned CEO at one point opined: “Social media may be the most destructive invention in the history of mankind.” That gave me pause. Surely others could vie for that honor? (ChatGPT points to the atomic bomb.) But the sentiment is not uncommon. Social media has become the new tobacco.

Does it have to be that way? I spent some time before the dinner visiting with still-relatively-new Pinterest CEO Bill Ready at his San Francisco offices. His goal is to turn the social media site, which lags well behind the giants in users, into the go-to place for digital window shopping. After talking about that commercial goal for a while, however, he revealed his bigger ambition:

Hopefully, many years from now, at the end and looking back on my life, what I will be able to say we did, and what I will be most proud of, is to prove a different business model for social media.

“Social media is the majority of media consumption. And people have lost control. The algorithms are in control of everything you see. And the algorithm has been told to maximize your view time. For thousands of years as human beings, the progress of the species has been about overcoming our basest instincts. And what the algorithm has figured out is how to play to your primal instinct. It’s anger, greed, all those things that for thousands of years we’ve tried to basically work to suppress, and support the better angels of our nature. And now we have one of the biggest, most profitable business models in the world and it is deeply embedded in this business model to prey upon the darkest aspects of human nature.

“Pinterest is different. I want to prove there is a business model in social media around tuning for positivity. We are going to build a business model around not just keeping you glued to a screen, but helping you do something in real life that makes your real life better…We’ve asked the team to change the optimization function. Can you tune for content that makes people feel better?…It just takes one company to change that.”

Will it work? Can Ready scale the Pinterest business and at the same time create a kindler, gentler social network? Worth remembering that Facebook itself began in a blizzard of good feelings. It was given almost single-handed credit for launching the “Arab spring.” But Ready’s experiment is at least worth watching. “Hold us accountable,” he said as I left his office. 

At Fortune, we will. More news below. 

Alan Murray

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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Nicholas Gordon. 

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