The internet is a messy place where not everyone has the best intentions. What role tech companies have in responding to that reality has become one of the central questions in business. For Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, the role his company--and other online brands--ought to play is quite clear.
"I think the lesson that everyone's learned over the last few years is that if you want positive things to come out of internet technology, they have to be deliberately engineered that way," Silbermann said Tuesday on stage at this year's National Retail Federation's annual conference and expo in New York City.
While Silbermann didn't explain who he meant by "everyone," anyone paying attention likely was thinking about Facebook and other big tech companies that have taken a more hands-off approach to dealing with bad actors. As a site where most users are there to pin pretty pictures and do the internet-equivalent of window shopping, Pinterest has not been at the center of conversations about the tech industry's role in handling misinformation in politics. Still, the company has faced its own dilemmas around how much to control what users see on its platform--and more often than not, Silbermann said, Pinterest intervenes.
He explained that in Pinterest's early days, he and his team hand-picked people to join the service. Back then, Pinterest tried to influence the behavior of the small group of users by sending them an email explaining the rules and etiquette of the service and hoping people led by example. Things have grown much more complicated since then. Now Silbermann and his team are faced with how to encourage that same good behavior among 320 million global users.
"If you care about the well being of the people who use your service, you have to care about the content and the things they do on that service," Silbermann said.
As an example, he said that a few years ago, his team noticed a growing number of users searching Pinterest for information on vaccines and other medical issues. Silbermann said that's when the company made the decision that, as a starting point, Pinterest would not surface vaccine content when people looked for it because the company couldn't verify that the information on its platform was credible.
Over the last year, Silbermann said the company has decided to take a proactive role in surfacing content only from top public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when people search for pins on vaccines.
Similarly, Silbermann cited Pinterest's approach to handling users' searches for content around anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health topics. Last year, the company decided to surface pins featuring wellness activities, such as breathing exercises and meditation, in response to those searches by U.S. users (international users will start to see similar results this year). Before, users might have surfaced only generic quotes about happiness and perseverance when searching something like "work stress." Pinterest also has disabled searches around certain terms it has deemed harmful, such as "self harm," "bulimia," and "thinspiration," according to a Wired report last year.
With hundreds of millions of users, staying on top of disturbing trends in searches--and coming up with the best response to them--is no easy task. Pinterest says that it works with organizations that specialize in relevant fields to come up with approved, trustworthy content on hot-button issues. Still, it's a huge responsibility to be in the position of deciding what's appropriate and what isn't.
For his part, Silbermann acknowledged the enormity of the task--and suggested he wouldn't do it any other way.
"We think that content actually has an impact on people's lives. And so if you don't take some responsibility for what people see, you're at some level responsible for the downstream consequences," Silbermann told the audience Tuesday.