Pin Pricked: A Cautionary Tale About the Dark Side of Pinterest

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At first, I was reluctant to join the Pinterest bandwagon. Curiosity got the better of me, and I casually requested an invite from a friend. Before I knew it, it would be 2am and I'd still be surfing pinboards, pinning away into the wee hours of the night. Thankfully, my late-night trysts on Pinterest are kept at a minimum these days.

As someone who uses social media every day, in both personal and professional capacities, I find a lot of value in Pinterest as a fledgling social media platform. Interestingly enough, in this social media context I'm connecting less with people and more with content; it's simply the nature of how Pinterest lays it out for its users. There are no status updates, no Follow Fridays - just a glorious mish-mash of visually engaging content from around the web. In a lot of ways, Pinterest allows me to channel-surf the web.

That's where I see the value of Pinterest in social media: it's not just about seeking out inspiration - it's about connecting users to the original source so we can see that inspiration in context. And that's exactly why I turned to Pinterest when I was looking for a compelling image to accompany a recent post I wrote at my blog comparing infertility to the Boston Marathon. I figured what better place to find a flashy graphic with a catchy runner's motivational quote?

That's when I found a disturbing side of Pinterest I didn't know existed, one that anyone visiting Pinterest could casually stumble upon and innocently click. It was this one foray into this dark side of Pinterest that has completely changed how I view and interact with it as a social media platform.

It started when I kept seeing the same image posted over and over again as I searched for keywords like "marathon," "running," and "runner inspiration." It featured a quote that was just perfect for my post: "There will be a day when you can no longer do this. Today is not that day." The image featured an exhausted-looking runner, a crowd of onlookers cheering her from the sidelines. Like a good blogger, I clicked through to the original source graphic to see from where it originated, to see if it would be possible to contact the source about using it on my blog.

That's when things started to get weird.

Credit Image: © Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/ZUMAPRESS.com

I'd click through the image and be taken to what I thought was a (terribly designed) health blog. But then I noticed the ads for acai berry diets. LOTS of ads really pushing acai berry.  As I scrolled around the page, that graphic was nowhere to be found. So I clicked on another repinned instance of the runner graphic on Pinterest, only to be taken to a page talking about how to reduce my belly fat. Again - no runner graphic to be found at the source. The third attempt brought my search to a screeching halt: my web browser warned me that the site I was about to visit could harbor malicious content that could infect my computer.

As I hit my back button and ended up back at Pinterest, I saw this single image repinned hundreds of times and realized that somehow, some pinners are able to redirect their pinned images to spam content, with the potentially malicious intent to commandeer my computer in the process.

It made me question the authenticity of the pins I perused on a regular basis on Pinterest and hesitant to click back to source material. Turns out, I hadn't stumbled on anything new at all.

Social Media Today recently featured Why It's No Longer Safe to Click On Pinterest Images. On one hand, I was glad to learn that I'm not the only one to have experienced such a spammy encounter. On the other hand, this disturbing precedent turns Pinterest from happy-go-lucky inspirational social sharing platform into a potentially damaging spam click-bait arena.

I learned from the Social Media Today piece how spammers can exploit redirect links from major news sources like the BBC. By using a generic BBC redirect link, spammers tack on their spammy content link at the end of the URL. When the image is pinned or repinned, it appears to come from BBC.co.uk. When the image is clicked from within Pinterest however, it takes you to who knows where serving you up a plate of big, hot, steaming spam. If you happen to be internet and anti-virus savvy, you might know to back away slowly from these sites.

If you're not careful, however, you could end up with malware and more on your computer.

I now think twice every time I click an image in Pinterest. Can I really trust from where it says the image comes? And, as an active member of Pinterest, can I safely repin an image without further spreading spam around the site? It's a crappy Catch-22 that forces me to do a lot more homework and research about singular images than one pinner should have to do.

In that regard, Pinterest has lost a bit of their sheen to me. I engage less with Pinterest now having had this spammy interaction with it. While I take pride in the Envisioning Hope pinboard I crafted specifically for my blog, I worry about pinning and repinning spam content. I have a responsibility to my readers not to send them to spammy or potentially harmful content.

I really want to love Pinterest: to leverage it in innovative ways to engage my blog readers, to explore new ways of marketing and generating buzz about my content, and to just have a good time pinning visual content that appeals to me.

But after this fiasco, I've been pin-pricked. I just don't know if I can pin, repin and click in good conscience anymore.

Keiko Zoll writes at The Infertility Voice and is currently trying to make a baby the new-fashioned way. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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