Pinterest has suddenly exploded in the last few weeks, becoming the new hip social media site everyone’s talking about, now that the shine has worn off Google Plus. Despite the fact that it’s been in existence since 2008, the site was relatively low-traffic until quite recently, when it reached the flashpoint it needed to attract public attention. Along with the usual wild speculation and general quivering over Pinterest has come some interesting, and often frustrating, gender commentary.
Everyone has an opinion on the gender demographics of the Internet and feels obliged to share it, especially when it involves speculating on the makeup of a website that’s garnering media attention. In this case, there’s been a heavy focus on how many women are using the site, and what that implies about the users and the content.
For those not familiar with it, Pinterest offers social networking through media sharing. Users can create posts known as pins with an image and commentary, either by uploading images or using a bookmarklet that allows them to pin images from the web. These can be organised into themed boards, creating a virtual corkboard of sorts. Users can follow each other and repin posts that interest them. Tumblr users may smell something familiar about Pinterest, because the two sites have similar premises, although Tumblr also allows links, video, audio, and chat posts, which facilitates more multimedia posting.
I started exploring Pinterest about a week ago because the buzz was intriguing me, and I was specifically fascinated by the gendered nature of the conversations surrounding the site, which boiled down to this: Pinterest is for girls. This also means, of course, that people think it is lesser than other social networking sites, because media for women is less ‘important’ or ‘meaningful’ than media for the mythical everyperson, who mysteriously always seems to be a man.
Many people were comparing the site to Google Plus, which has a heavily male demographic, and I think that is a false comparison—a much better analysis would involve looking at Tumblr, since the two sites are similarly structured and would logically attract users with interweaving interests and similar methods of online engagement. Both Tumblr and Pinterest are slanted female (roughly 60% of users in both cases, a little more heavily female on Pinterest, less so on Tumblr), which reflects an important fact that’s being elided in many conversations about social networking: More women use social media. Not only that, women spend more time on social media, and thus it’s not surprising to see them represented in higher numbers on social networking sites.
What’s interesting to note here is that women tend to be social media adopters. In general, they’ve led the charge on new sites, and have used them to create large and established platforms for themselves. Yet, as users, they’re often dismissed and ignored; female bloggers, for example, are treated as less worthy than male bloggers. Their work is written off as unimportant or not relevant to the world at large; it’s ‘women’s interest blogging’ because it’s written by a woman. Women like Heather Armstrong and Ree Drummond started small personal blogs, an activity often regarded as excessively girly, and went on to generate huge media platforms and careers. Yet, female bloggers continue to be treated as a second class.
Pioneers in social media are often female, but they get shunted to the back of the room in conversations about how social media is used and who is active on it, unless those conversations are taking space in female-centric spaces. The reporting and discussion on Pinterest is a classic example of how quickly a space can become gendered by the media, and what happens when this occurs. In this instance, it means that a site growing incredibly rapidly and quickly gaining market share is considered a flash in the pan because it’s ‘for girls,’ and has no staying power that will translate into a serious platform.
Women talking about their lives, discussing fashion, chronicling childraising, and writing about similar activities are deemed ‘girly’ and told they’re not producing content of interest or value. The actual statistics on who is reading this kind of content would seem to belie the claim; despite the snide claims made about them, networks and sites made by women are getting high traffic. They’re also generating a lot of activity and discussion, which would seem to indicate that something about them is speaking to users.
The same can be seen with the fashion industry, which is also treated as a primarily frivolous thing ‘for women’ despite the fact that billions of dollars every year flow through the industry and it has a profound impact on society, culture, and overall attitudes. Fashion magazines can have significant clout, and they’re written off as cultural voids because they cover subjects deemed unimportant by authorities (who are, of course, men).
Looking at Pinterest, there’s a significant diversity of content along with growing networks of women exchanging comments, information, and ideas. It’s a complex ecosystem that is developing very rapidly, which means the media is interested, but the media has missed the larger picture by focusing on the women of Pinterest.
Tech reporters have very much gotten in on the trend, reiterating the idea that the site is heavily stacked with female users and concerns things ‘for women,’ as apparently only women are interested in things like science, cars and motorcycles, and architecture, all heavily pinned categories on Pinterest. It’s treated as ‘Tumblr for the ladies,’ with its more aesthetically pleasing design, and there’s an implication that serious content can’t be found on the site because it’s solely a storehouse for images people like.
There’s a dismissive attitude to discussions about Pinterest. The idea of collecting interesting images, for instance, is written off as ‘scrapbooking,’ an activity to be derided because it’s stereotypically feminine. Yet, an actual examination of how users are playing with the site reveals some very interesting stuff going on, including collecting project ideas, promoting books and other projects, discussing fashion, using individual boards for references, and, yes, just gathering pictures of pretty things.
It can also absolutely be a medium for distributing original art, which speaks to arguments that such sites aren’t ‘creative.’ Assembling boards of other people’s images actually does require careful work, but setting that aside, Pinterest is not solely a gristmill for other people’s content; it also includes a variety of artwork produced and shared by people who are using it as a portfolio or medium for expanding their exposure. It’s free and quick to set up, which makes it well-suited to people who may want to establish a base for their art without a heavy investment.
The site is also a heavy traffic driver, showing how it can be used as a promotional tool to build audiences for other sites. Many women’s magazines and lifestyle sites have taken to Pinterest because of the rapid dissemination of content through the medium, which translates to more pageviews at a higher rate. The exposure is free for them, because they don’t need to pay for the service, so it’s essentially an advertising win. Yet, using Pinterest for promotions is sneered at, while the presence of promotional Tumblrs is applauded as a media-savvy move. Interesting.
Looking at the site culture reveals interesting social dynamics and all sorts of fascinating things going on, but this apparently requires more work than just writing the site off as something ‘for girls.’ Reporting with minimal research seems to be a bit of a fad with some publications, thanks to budget cuts everywhere and increasing pressure to produce new pieces as rapidly as possible. It’s extremely irritating, because as one publication picks something up, numerous others follow suit, and then it becomes a meme. Unsurprisingly, sexism can have a rapid and vicious ripple effect, and the dismissal of Pinterest as a media platform is deeply sexist.
It’s not without problems; the interface is extremely inaccessible, the layout can be confusing, and the highly visual presentation is not to everyone’s tastes. I initially disliked it because I’m more a verbal than visual person, and love stark text and nothing else, but I started getting into it, and realising that boards could become useful stashes for things like recipes that I’m always trying to hunt down because my bookmarks are out of control. I am by no means a Pinterest power user, but I can see how one could become one over time.
There are also some serious copyright issues, because of course people can display copyrighted material without acquiring permissions. It’s been interesting to see these issues highlighted in a number of pieces about the site as though they are a Pinterest-specific problem when they are rife throughout the Internet; it is just as easy to do the same thing on Tumblr, for example, and on Tumblr some users seem to be engaged in a culture that actively resists attribution not just of images but also video, text, and other media.
To me, the focus on copyright problems with Pinterest is another subtle example of sexism at work, implying that frivolous women ‘don’t understand the Internet’ unlike the serious men on, say, Google Plus, who of course absolutely never violate copyright or participate in environments with resistant attitudes to attribution, requesting permission before using material, and making sure that the wishes of creators are respected.
The more serious copyright problem with Pinterest is that it holds users liable for any legal expenses incurred as a result of a copyright violation, despite enabling violations through its structure, and it retains ‘a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license’ to your content; it has ‘the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content.’ Some critics have raised understandable concerns about the implications of these clauses in the terms of service for users.
Sexism is rife throughout the Pinterest coverage, much of which seems determined to recreate ‘the battle of the sexes’ by gendering sites, and their users. It’s sloppy reporting, and it’s reflective of larger problems with tech culture. First they ask us where all the women are, and then they mock women for congregating at a site they like.
Women just can’t win, can they?