In February 2012, media outlets took quite an interest in the budding social network Pinterest, and female users were at the center of nearly every story. Mashable declared that "Pinterest's female audience is changing social marketing"; Time's Techland blog asserted that "Men Are from Google+, Women Are from Pinterest." That same month, when Pinterest hit 10 million unique users, TechCrunch suggested that the site's "hockey-stick moment"—a business term for achieving the top end of a dramatic growth curve—should instead be called "blow-dryer growth."
Since then, the media has been churning out a steady stream of articles and blog posts branding Pinterest the social network for women. The ForbesWoman blog even published the cringe-inducing post "Why You Should Be Using Pinterest to Pick Up Women" in May. But what does Pinterest mean for women on the web, and should we be celebrating its rise?
If you haven't been initiated into the world of pinning yet, here's a quick overview: The social bookmarking site allows you to "pin" links to content from around the web, organizing that content into themed "boards" that resemble online galleries. When you follow other Pinterest users, you can see what they pin to their boards in real time, and you can repin or comment on their pins. Its interface provides easy curation, intuitive social interactions, and eye-catching visuals. There's very little text: When you visit, you're greeted with a mosaic-like layout that's more mail-order catalog than Facebook timeline. And even though you can comment on other people's pins, there is very little conversation on the site. Pinterest is about collecting, sharing, and resharing. (This is also what makes the site a quagmire of potential copyright issues.)
The platform itself has grown at a faster rate than any other social network to date. Cofounders Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp, and Paul Sciarra launched Pinterest in closed beta in March 2010; according to ComScore, the site took just nine months to grow from 50,000 to 17.8 million unique visitors. (For perspective, it took Facebook 16 months, Twitter 22 months, and Tumblr 30 months to achieve the same level of growth.) In the second quarter of 2011, Pinterest accounted for only 1 percent of all social media–driven revenue; a year later, that percentage had grown to a jaw-dropping 17 percent. In May 2012, Pinterest earned a walloping $1.5 billion valuation. Considering that Pinterest is still in open beta as of this writing—in order to participate on the platform, you have to be invited or request an invite from the site—that's a notable amount.
But it's not just Pinterest's growth that's attracting so much attention. It's that its growth has been fueled by women—in particular, women who aren't commonly viewed as savvy, tech enthusiasts. (Fortune deemed them the "Midwestern scrapbooking set.") It's no accident that these women adopted Pinterest early on; from the start, the platform eschewed the typical tactic of winning over tech influencers and focused instead on getting designers, creatives, and crafters to use the site. Just a few months after the site launched, Pinterest enlisted 300 design and style bloggers to participate in a "Pin It Forward" event in which they created inspirational pin boards based on the theme of "Home." These enthusiastic early pinners, most of whom were women, became the core group of users. They've continued to dominate: Throughout spring of 2012, most blogs and publications reported that at least 70 to 80 percent of Pinterest users were women. Other demographic data is harder to come by, but tech outlets generally agree that the majority of Pinterest users are white, middle-class/upper-middle-class women between the ages of 25 and 54. For this reason, many investors, analysts, and writers initially wrote off the platform. Celebrated tech blogger Robert Scoble summed up this attitude when he posted a comment to a TechCrunch article about Pinterest explaining why he had overlooked the platform: "I wasn't that interested in a site that appealed only to women." Now that the media and industry have taken notice, though, the narrative has focused on how women have made Pinterest successful: why women love it, how much time they spend on it, and how it's become their go-to place online.
This narrative is a bit problematic. When the media singles out Pinterest as a site uniquely dominated by women, they're overlooking a much more important and comprehensive story: Women don't just dominate Pinterest, they dominate the entire social web. Women outnumber men in social networking, drive more online sales, play more games online than men, and lead mobile usage. As Intel researcher Genevieve Bell concluded in her keynote for the 2012 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference, "Women are our new lead adopters.... [They're] the fastest category and biggest users on every social networking site with the exception of LinkedIn.... Women are the vast majority owners of all Internet-enabled devices—readers, healthcare devices, gps—that whole bundle of technology is mostly owned by women." If, as the growing body of research indicates, women now rule the Internet, why is Pinterest considered such a novelty?
Clearly there are overarching cultural issues at work, including the fact that the tech industry is still dominated by men. But there's also the fact that Pinterest is, in comparison with most social network sites, stereotypically girly. Pinterest evokes the traditionally feminine in almost every way, from its pink and rosy palette to the language on the "About" page that invites users to "redecorate your home," "find your style," "plan your wedding," and "save your recipes." Pinterest form and function are aligned so that you can "organize and share all of the beautiful things you find on the web." Then there's what's being pinned: Content about fashion, design, home decor, and recipes aligns so well with traditional notions of femininity that it's much easier to "see" women on Pinterest than on other social networks. What's more, Pinterest users are also invested in making the site a "beautiful" and aspirational space: A visit to Pinterest can often feel like stepping into the pages of Real Simple or Better Homes and Gardens—magazines that are, not coincidentally, two of the top five brands using Pinterest.
Of course, there are men on Pinterest, and data shows that their ranks are growing, but the widespread perception of Pinterest as the Ladies' Home Internet means that a lot of men have steered clear. In fact, a handful of manly rivals have sprung up: Manteresting, Dudepins ("Man up. Sign up. Pin up."), Gentlemint ("a mint of manly things"), and Dartitup ("collect ideas for bachelor pads, bachelor parties, man caves…"). Pinterest even has porn clones, including Pornterest and Snatchly, which allows you to "snatch" content instead of pin it. (Stay classy, Snatchly!) Sure, there's an element of snark at work with these sites, but they're also taking the value proposition of Pinterest very seriously. That so many manly alternatives exist suggests that men may find the format of Pinterest appealing, but want to distance themselves so completely from Pinterest that they'll join an entirely different site, one that reinforces their masculinity rather than threatens it. In fact, these sites are so over-the-top butch that it makes one wonder if they're basically giving men the ability to pin their content with a big "no homo" tag on it.
But not all women are on board, either, and many worry that Pinterest reinforces gender essentialism and rampant consumerism. At ForbesWoman, Victoria Pynchon called Pinterest sexist because "it frames women's interests within tight gender boundaries." The Washington Post's Petula Dvorak called it "digital crack for women," asking if it's a "healthy thing for grown women to be spending time compiling a virtual hope chest." In her post "The Pinterest Problem" at the Ms. blogs, Tara L. Conley meditates on how activists and educators can change the discourse on Pinterest, then wonders if it's even worth the effort.
Less extreme are the many female friends I have who tend to qualify their usage of the site ("I only use it for…") or distance themselves from it because they don't want people making assumptions about their interests or online behaviors. And Pinterest doesn't want to get pinned down by perceptions about its female user base, either. Despite all the language about weddings and recipes on the site, there's nothing women-centered about its mission "to connect everyone in the world to the 'things' they find interesting."
Not surprisingly, Pinterest users have fought back against criticisms of the site, and rightly so: Telling women what they should be interested in and doing online is patronizing and counterproductive. Is being girly still such a bad thing in our culture? Why are wedding dresses and cupcake recipes any more frivolous than cat photos and rage-face memes? There's an obvious double standard at work in criticisms of the site. If there's a problem with Pinterest, it's this: Pinterest is perceived as the women's space online to the general exclusion of other spaces. The media and popular culture are now painting it as a pink ghetto that defines what women are passionate about and how they behave online. It's not a problem that a lot of women love pinning content about fashion and home decor on Pinterest, but it is a problem if a Pinterest stereotype ends up standing in for all women on the web.
The stakes are especially high because Pinterest represents a real e-commerce opportunity. It's become the leading source of referral traffic for women's magazines alone, and drives more referral traffic overall than Twitter. According to a study conducted by SteelHouse in the spring of 2012, users on Pinterest are twice as likely to purchase items they see on the site than users are on Facebook. With strong referral rates and sales conversions, everyone is looking at ways to exploit Pinterest. What's more, marketers are increasingly considering Pinterest a singular opportunity to engage with women online. And now that the space is perceived as being "for women," its success or failure will inevitably be linked to women in the most discouraging of ways. If it succeeds, well, that's because women love shopping. If it fails in its current incarnation or if it succeeds only by evolving beyond its current user base, well, that's because women aren't enough to sustain profitability. Rather than being a watershed moment for women on the web, the rise of Pinterest is actually a very fraught and complex one.
In her fascinating and powerful 2010 TEDWomen talk, Johanna Blakley (deputy director of USC's media think tank) argued that social media can help us escape our "demographic boxes" because media companies would have the tools to segment us by interest, rather than by the broad demographics that they've used in the past. She also underscored how difficult it is for marketers and media companies to discern categories like gender, age, and ethnicity on social platforms. It's a compelling argument, and the personalization of the web is a promising future. But we're not there yet. For the time being, Pinterest (and its manly alternatives) provide media and marketers a pretty convenient way to erase the complexity of our online lives and shove us back into our gendered boxes. The Pinterest phenomenon suggests that when gender is not apparent in online spaces, we don't see the women who are there; when gender is obvious, it trumps everything else. But we don't need Pinterest to change. We need the conversation about women and the web to change, and to ensure that marketers and media companies don't pin us down based on misplaced assumptions about our interests and online behaviors.