For years now, I’ve been searching for the perfect turtleneck: the kind of wide-ribbed, medium-weight, funky-colored sweater that a guest on an early Sesame Street episode might wear while shooting the breeze with Big Bird. The prevailing turtleneck styles on the market tend to be either too flimsy—fine for layering but lacking the body to be worn on their own—or just boxy and flat-woven and boring.
As the weather turned chilly, I thought about putting out the word on Twitter about my annual turtleneck vision quest. But that seemed both inefficient and potentially annoying to those followers (the vast majority no doubt) who didn’t care to hear my concerns about cuff length and fabric heft. What I needed was a way to reliably crowdsource my shopping with a community of people who were, in essence, agreeing to accompany me on a shopping trip and expecting me to return the favor. That’s when I joined the Prowl, a social networking site founded last August by the creators of the popular parent-networking sites CafeMom and its spinoffs, Mamás Latinas and the Stir.
Unlike Pinterest, the megasuccessful online bulletin-board network that allows users to curate and share galleries of their favorite objects, places, recipes, and design inspirations, the Prowl is more narrowly focused on the act of shopping itself. Its users generally go there to post not aspirational images of stuff they might like to buy, cook, or make if they had the time and money, but stuff they’re actively considering buying right now. And unlike the Hunt—a fast-growing site that helps people locate specific products or something analogous at a lower price—the Prowl is designed to help people narrow down and organize their choices even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.
One of the network’s co-founders, Tracy Odell, told me that the Prowl seeks to play the role of a friend when you go shopping together: someone to advise, troubleshoot, brainstorm, and co-ogle. She compares the relationships among users on sites like Pinterest to that of two strangers waiting to try on clothes in adjacent dressing rooms. You can get a look at the dress your neighbor is interested in, compliment her on her taste, maybe even grab one off the rack for yourself, but it’s not the place to exchange practical information, opinions, or advice: “In real life, you wouldn’t consider yourself to be shopping with that person,” Odell says.
That’s the appeal of the Prowl’s “ask and answer” boards, where users can rustle up virtual shopping partners by posting queries about the items they’re seeking and collect suggestions for where to find them. Reading through these exchanges can be fun even if you have no interest in acquiring the product in question. A guy describes in detail his beat-up, “Lebowski-ish” mock-turtleneck sweater and crowdsources ideas for a similarly durable but more stylish replacement. The mother of a 9-year-old “Sid Vicious wannabe” asks, somewhat abashedly, if anyone knows where she can find child-sized pleather pants. Another woman sets out to put together an Olivia-Pope-from-Scandal wardrobe on the cheap, and, with the wisdom of crowds and the Prowl editorial team, puts together a season’s worth of sleek monochrome ensembles. (Well, maybe not a whole season—Olivia has a lot of costume changes.)
If Pinterest is the Facebook of online shopping sites, the Prowl, or something like it, has the potential of becoming the Twitter—that is, once the early design and functionality kinks have been worked out and a greater user density has been reached. It’s not a place where you go to curate a total image of yourself as a consumer, traveler, aficionado, and chef. It’s a place where you drop in to leave a quick tip as to where some random but awesome-seeming person can find that scarab-beetle bracelet for her sister’s birthday. (Yes, the majority of users of both the Prowl and Pinterest are women—here’s Slate’s Seth Stevenson on why attempts to start similar social networks for men have yet to take off.)
Before writing in praise of the Prowl, I joined Pinterest just to make sure that it wasn’t already meeting the same needs. I had fun trawling through the site’s endless visual archives to create a library of things I like looking at and fantasizing about—an amber necklace with a 40-million-year-old fossilized insect embedded in every bead! A school in Germany designed by the children’s book author Tomi Ungerer and shaped like a cat!—but once my feed was created, I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do. Visiting a Pinterest page is like being pelted with hundreds of high-end magazines at once. It’s a fire hose of beautiful images that serve in the aggregate to flatten one another out.
Maybe this doesn’t speak well to my level of aesthetic refinement, but what I really want when I go to an online shopping network isn’t a dazzling gallery of the countless marvels global capitalism has to offer. I just need practical advice on finding my daughter the right Christmas present (described adorably but vaguely in her letter to Santa as “something with mushrooms, fairies and elves”) and maybe, if I’m lucky, tracking down that elusive Platonic turtleneck. I’m leaning toward this one right now, though the fabric is a skosh thinner and the ribbing a tad finer than on the Sesame Street garment of my dreams. If you have a lead on something better, join the Prowl and help a girl out.