AUSTIN, Texas - Christina Gomez has carefully displayed her dream cribs, rockers and mobiles on Pinterest, the increasingly popular online bulletin board. Never mind that she doesn't have a baby.
"Ah, Pinterest - where I dress my unborn children and decorate my imaginary mansion," the San Antonio political consultant said - on Twitter - when asked about the website.
Gomez is addicted. And she's not alone. The social site where users can "pin" images and follow others' collections has surged in recent months to become the 16th most-visited site in the United States, according to the Web information company Alexa. That's a higher rank than CNN.com.
Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, who grew up in Iowa collecting bugs and stamps, said on Tuesday that his goal is to help people discover things that they didn't know they wanted. He said there are plenty of people trying to tell you what you want via billboards, catalogs or Internet ads.
"But no one has really made a lot of progress toward building a place you want to go every day to discover things that feel like they were hand-picked just for you, and that's what I can hope we can do," Silbermann told a packed ballroom at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference in Austin.
The self-deprecating Silbermann, who has rarely spoken publicly about the site he co-founded in fall 2009, described having "catastrophically small numbers" at first. Nine months in, there were fewer than 10,000 people on it, he said. He sought feedback from early users, giving some his cell phone number. And he didn't quit.
Silbermann, who spoke repeatedly of wanting his site to be beautiful and display beautiful collections, said one goal of his was to create a service that offered timelessness in an era when people were obsessed with real-time sites like Twitter.
"If something is your favorite book, it's no less your favorite book 72 hours from now or a year from now or five years from now or 10 years from now," he said. "It still says something about who you were then and who you want other people to know you as."
Learning from pinning
For Gomez, who lives in a 900-square-foot home in Texas and is about to move to smaller digs in Washington, D.C., Pinterest allows her to collect things - like USB drives shaped like teddy bears - without taking up precious physical space.
Like other users, she has organized her pictures into boards with titles like "Sewing Projects," "Gift Ideas" and "For the new house. She has used it to post pictures of clothes she already owns and to learn to cook with a crock pot.
The growth of Pinterest has been fueled primarily by women, including those planning their weddings, said Robert Quigley, who teaches new media and multimedia at the University of Texas. The draw is the site's simplicity, he said.
"The rise of Pinterest has been absolutely incredible - it just came out of nowhere," Quigley said. "It's so visual, it's easy to use and simple - yet complex enough to allow you to organize the way you want."
Pinterest isn't only for women.
Guillaume Driscoll, 30, a design student at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, said he and his girlfriend both use the site. Before he joined a few months ago, he was interested in clothes, but "not on a level of some of my lady friends." He's seen that change as he's pinned more clothes, like colorful socks and a grey cashmere sport coat from J. Crew.
"Now, I'm starting to think about it more. What is my style? What does my style say about me?" said Driscoll, who was visiting Austin for SXSW.
Silbermann said it makes sense for people to use Pinterest to explore topics that lifestyle magazines focus on -- design, home decorating, cooking and fitness -- but he's also seeing new uses like political satire (say, Mitt Romney's fake yacht collection). Museums are using Pinterest to post art collections. Some users are posting travel guides to cities.
"Every day, literally, we see at least one board where we just couldn't have imagined how people would use it and to me, that's really exciting," Silbermann said.