30 million people use this social network … and you’ve probably never heard of it.


This image is so popular on We Heart It, the network has included it in its press materials. (We Heart It)

This week, a major tech company unfamiliar to most Americans took a step that could — eventually! — make it a household name.

I’m not talking about Alibaba, the Chinese answer to Amazon that filed for an IPO Tuesday. I’m talking about We Heart It — the vapidly named, Pinterest-like social network that’s massively popular among teenagers, virtually unknown among everyone else and now, as of today, displaying native ads to its nearly 30 million active users.

If that number surprises you, it probably should. A userbase of 30 million makes We Heart It just slightly smaller than Snapchat, and about one-eighth the size of Twitter. And yet, while we all breathlessly speculate and philosophize over Snapchat’s every update, We Heart It flies more or less under the radar.

Maybe that’s because the network’s saccharine premise doesn’t exactly intrigue the jaded adult mind. We Heart It is similar to Pinterest, in that users post and share photos of things that interest them. But unlike Pinterest, where said photos frequently depict recipes, crafts or other practical pursuits, We Heart It trades in inspiration — “images that move you.”

Accordingly, you can’t downvote or comment on other user’s photos: Either you say something nice — a.k.a. “heart it” — or you say nothing at all. The site curates collections of photos with titles like “Girl Power,” “Let’s Escape” and “Daily Inspiration.” A scroll through some of its top tags (“lyrics,” “cake” and “animal,” at the moment) surfaces close-ups of tiny kittens, towering pastel layer cakes and lyrics to “Death Cab for Cutie” songs. It’s not all sunshine and cupcakes — there’s plenty of angsty poetry and glassy-eyed photos of Lana del Rey — but it is, on the whole, pretty upbeat, decidedly feminine, and very, very young.

In fact, We Heart It estimates that more than 80 percent of its users are younger than 25. A similar majority, 70 percent, are women.

That certainly explains why the nascent network has captured the attention of advertisers such as Teen Vogue, with whom it partnered last December, and Old Navy, Hollister and JC Penney, three of the advertisers in this latest round. It could also help explain why We Heart It doesn’t precisely entrance the tech-media masses. As George Washington fan studies Prof. Katherine Larsen told me last month, things beloved primarily by women and children are the exact things the mainstream marginalizes — and We Heart It is both. To further dampen the network’s narrative, these teen girls aren’t using it to sext or cyberbully or hit each other with shovels. They’re trading pictures of Shailene Woodley. And bowls of kiwi. And ballerinas.

It’s all terribly feel-good … and terribly boring, in that it fails to play into any of the prevailing narratives about how “the kids” behave online. Even We Heart It’s oft-repeated claim that it’s the Internet’s only real “bully-proof” network hasn’t managed to capture many imaginations — besides the imaginations of its teen users, of course, who have shared the image at the top of this post more than 100,000 times.

There’s definitely something intriguing going on here, though — and big-name advertisers have noticed it, even if big-name media hasn’t. Today in my We Heart It feed, I spotted a pair of candy-colored drop earrings, “promoted” by Kohl’s. I wouldn’t wear them, probably. But millions of teen girls will.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | May 7