Pinterest has cooties. Or so you’d think from years of coverage about the online scrapbooking service and its predominantly female user base. David Pogue, when at The New York Times, assured his tech column’s readers in a feature walk-through of the site, “If all this talk of kitchens, recipes, crafts and beauty makes you think that Pinterest seems to be female-oriented, you’re right.”
The sentiment extended beyond the Gray Lady. This essay gave detailed advice as to how men could use Pinterest to pick up women. On a Phish discussion board, one member posted, “i know a dude with a pinterest page [sic]”; the reply: “hes gay though right? [sic].” TechCrunch suggested the site’s sudden growth in 2012 not be called a “hockey stick” but a “blow-dryer,” with an illustrated traffic graph shaped like the hair-styling appliance to boot.
Pinterest doesn’t care. While the platform wasn’t conceived with women in mind (its founders are all men), Enid Hwang, a longtime employee and Pinterest’s community manager, says it quickly became apparent who used the site, and early community building was female-focused. “We are totally unapologetic about that,” she says.
The company’s internal statistics support that attitude: A spokesperson for Pinterest says the site has 100 million active monthly users, over half of whom now live outside the U.S., and 4 million products are saved (or “pinned”) daily. This tracks with research from the Pew Research Center’s last snapshot of social media use in 2015, which saw a jump from 15 percent of all adults online in the U.S. using Pinterest in 2012 to 31 percent by 2015. And the perception of it being largely used by women in America holds true, too: Pew breaks out Pinterest use as 44 percent of American women online and just 16 percent of American men.
While Pinterest doesn’t discuss its finances, TechCrunch obtained leaked fundraising documents in 2015, when the company raised money at an $11 billion valuation; it’s taken in a total of over $1.3 billion in investment since 2009. Pinterest’s documents targeted a growth from $169 million in revenue in 2015 to $2.8 billion by 2018.
I was once part of the problem. When Pinterest first drifted into my field of vision, a colleague tweeted, “Is Pinterest just Tumblr for moms?” As a jaded tech writer, I retweeted it and joked along with it, but the almost immediate feedback from friends of all genders made me reexamine what I was saying: I wanted to dismiss a product women liked by sticking it in a pigeonhole that also degraded the experiences of mothers. I didn’t become an advocate for the site, but I did become more suspicious of my own gendered reaction to Pinterest and other tech that’s emerged since.
Like many tech products and websites that have attracted women in disproportionate numbers, by intent or — as with Pinterest — by accident, a hum of public gendered rejection from venture capitalists, pundits, and others in the industry hasn’t prevented many from thriving, like Etsy, the Knot, and Bitch magazine. For instance, the site Bustle launched in 2013 with a number of off notes from its male founder about the intended audience and its interest, but found its feet. It now has 50 million unique monthly visits and publishes 200 posts a day. The Apple Watch dominates the modest smartwatch marketplace and has become one of the best-selling timepieces of any kind worldwide, but at its introduction one male Time writer worried, “Am I Less Manly for Buying a Small Apple Watch?” And though that question was tongue-in-cheek, it contained a kernel of nervous truth.
Andi Zeisler, cofounder of Bitch Media — which has published Bitch magazine in print for 20 years and enjoyed an online presence for nearly as long — remembers a distinct shift in internet culture. “Only after people realized the moneymaking potential was when it started getting really stratified in terms of gender,” she says.
This reflects a wider tendency. “The gendering of culture forms has been going on for a long long time,” says Elana Levine, the editor of a 2015 essay collection, Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn, and professor and director of graduate studies of journalism, advertising, and media studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
We apply gender to everything we consume and interact with, but it’s rarely discussed until someone asks, and then it appears obvious. We know boats and cats tend to be “she” (regardless of the animal’s actual sex). We label everything heavily feminine or masculine (literally, in the case of romance languages), or, less frequently, neutral. The Academy of Wine Business Research published an analysis in 2013 of a survey it conducted about associations with gender and food, and concluded that meat and red wine are associated with men; champagne, white wine, and chocolate with women; and “cheese is unisex.” Levine notes that even the novel, when it first appeared in English-language culture, was considered a “women’s form.”
The fact that “genderizing” made its way from IRL to the web and technology companies is hardly surprising. Just like cats, dogs, descriptive Spanish words, and objects, new digital technologies and platforms often wind up having a gender assigned to them as well. “It continues to work that way even in this new realm, if you see the tech world as just another cultural space,” Levine says. “It’s because we don’t think of tech as feminized space it seems unusual.” Pinterest, Etsy, and Kimoji are feminine; Facebook and Twitter feel neutral; Reddit, 4chan, and Google-related products register as quite to fairly masculine.
This isn’t necessarily the intended result — Pinterest didn’t set out trying to find women. Community manager Hwang notes that the site didn’t resonate early on with “your typical, perhaps coastal, younger edgy tech adopters.” The company tried to find communities of interest, and found a receptive audience in lifestyle bloggers, who started using Pinterest and spreading word among their burgeoning audiences. These bloggers and community members were mostly women.
The site was different from other social networks because it’s “an introspective place for someone to dive into what they’re interested in, rather than publicly posture and be pushing out tweets,” says Hwang. Tying into the lifestyle blogging community helped with tone, she says, because “they already had such a strong sense of social etiquette online.”
An academic paper in the July 2016 edition of the journal “Media, Culture & Society” by Amanda Friz and Robert Gehl examined Pinterest’s sign-up process (as of 2014) for signals that might encourage women and discourage men from joining. They note, “Pinterest’s sign-up process displays a clear preference for users who curate over users who create.” That contrasts with stereotypical notions of men as creators, the authors write, and “Pinterest thus privileges a ‘feminine’ performance among its users.”
Or as Zeisler succinctly says: “There’s a shit-ton of cake pops and nail art! Men were seeing these things and automatically feeling there was no ‘in’ for them there.” Hwang says, “Guys think we always have feminine ideas.”
Pinterest is not the only site that through its design or presentation falls into (or is put into, subconsciously or purposely) a “for women” category. Kim Kardashian West’s array of apps, Etsy, and sites designated as “lifestyle” all tend to experience this. These sites send signals, sometimes large and sometimes subtle, that men see as giant signs flashing Bridget Jones’s Diary (or Baby) and nonfat frozen yogurt.
Despite the eye rolls and consistent industry criticism, Kardashian West has a larger presence and impact on general culture that largely targets and resonates with women, but she’s staked out a lucrative digital footprint with apps and emoji. As The Ringer’s Molly McHugh wrote in June, Kardashian West’s Kimoji emoji app launched at the top of Apple’s App Store rankings and remains popular. Her Kim Kardashian: Hollywood mobile game generates tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue, years after launch, is quite successful. Her year-old subscription-based lifestyle tips app is also performing well.
Despite this apparent success, Kardashian West remains a frequent target of ridicule related to the nature of her digital business empire. Her game ostensibly suckered people, including kids, into paying for in-app items. (The Twitter complaint covered in the previous link was labeled a “tantrum,” adding another layer of women-specific critique.) The $3-a-month charge for her lifestyle site and app resulted in enough grumbling from fans that Kardashian West felt compelled to explain the value of her product on multiple occasions.
Similar complaints rarely appear about non-feminized games that specifically target men.
“When women create them,” Zeisler says, “we expect more from them, or we expect them to be aiming higher.”
Kardashian West is singled out essentially because she’s working outside what some consider a normal role. “Female entrepreneurs tend to be slotted into these niches,” says Zeisler. Levine argues Kardashian West is at the frontier of the gaming and app world. (Various representatives of Kardashian West and her digital products didn’t respond to queries for comment or declined to comment.)
Online crafts and vintage marketplace Etsy has seemingly avoided this kind of critique despite its demographics. It reported last year that 86 percent of its sellers were female (and about three-quarters considered their storefront a business), and in a 2016 survey the Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of all U.S. men (not just those online) had purchased some sort of handmade or artisanal craft, compared to 29 percent of women. While Etsy isn’t the only source for old macrame vests and new hand-carved bongs, it dominates the marketplace.
Like Pinterest, Etsy’s grown beyond expectations, too, with $2.4 billion in sales last year, against which it collects listing and payment fees. There’s no clear answer as to why it’s been left alone. (Etsy declined to discuss gender-based issues for this article.) Why Pinterest is criticized and Etsy is left to its own devices is unclear. But what is evident is that not every site or technology used largely by women gets the same opprobrium.
The flip side of “feminized” tech comes out when an increasing number of women enter areas that men have staked out as their territory.
“Women feel excluded from masculine spaces in a way that men don’t feel excluded from feminine spaces, because the stuff for women is degraded in the culture at large,” Levine says. “You don’t feel like you’re missing out on something.”
When women cross over or are vocal about more inclusivity or representation, sexist movements like Gamergate and the highly gendered blowback about the new Ghostbusters film are what happen. Zeisler says the reaction can be summarized as, “How dare you infiltrate this space and ask it to innovate in ways that we’re not comfortable with?”
Ghostbusters offers an easier way to define how content is targeted based on gender — we can see exactly how in the Internet Movie Database rankings. Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight dug into the data from IMDb, which allows users to identify as a given gender, and concluded that male-identified votes were tanking the ratings of shows preferred by women.
You can drill down to individual movies, too. At the time of writing, nearly 80,000 registered IMDb voters had given the new Ghostbusters a ranking, which averaged 5.7 on a scale of 1 to 10, worst to best. About half the votes came from those identified as men, 20 percent from women, and 30 percent from those who didn’t specify a gender. No surprise: 13,000 of 20,000 rankings of 1 came from men; only about 700 come from women. And 40 percent of votes for the top rank of 10 came from women; only 10 percent from men.
For a film with a nearly identical average that didn’t seem to provoke male outrage, turn to Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes. The movie got nearly twice the reviews, but there’s no gender divide concerning its scores. Men, women, and people who picked no gender all rated the film in just the same way: a big bulge of middling scores and relatively few at the top and bottom.
If you take away about 18,000 of the ranks of 1, Ghostbusters’ average jumps to nearly 7, which seems to reflect a general consensus of reviewers and the box office. IMDB also reports weighted averages for men and women: 4.8 and 7.3, respectively, making the self-reported gender gap fairly obvious as well.
Zeisler says the loudest voices are typically the most negative. “It’s such a small fraction of people who are actually in tech who have this vendetta or this agenda against women or trans people encroaching on their space,” she says. But the way in which some digital forums amplify harassment, like Twitter, means those voices simply can’t be ignored.
There’s another tier of backlash — when a distinctly masculinized product opens up in part to women, and men angrily try to reclaim that territory. Look no further than Reddit. Jill Avery, a senior lecturer in the marketing unit at Harvard Business School, looked into what she labeled “gender contamination” in a case study in 2012 examining the male-focused Porsche brand producing an SUV model that aficionados of the automaker assumed was marketed at “soccer moms.”
“Through the use of the ‘soccer mom’ stereotype, the existing Porsche owners relegate the Porsche Cayenne SUV owners to the bottom of a gender power structure,” she writes. “By linking the product to negative conceptions of domesticity and motherhood that hearken back to an era when women had significantly less power and were relegated to the private, rather than the public sphere, the existing Porsche owners increase the power distance between the Porsche sports cars and the SUV and, hence, between themselves and the Porsche Cayenne SUV owners.”
This should ring a bell not just for those familiar with Gamergate, but those who frequent any site with a largely male audience, often one that perceived itself as “gender neutral,” and which then implemented outreach or policies designed to bring in non-male visitors. Ellen Pao’s tenure at Reddit, for instance, saw waves of anger from Redditors about changes seemingly as noncontroversial in mainstream culture as banning revenge porn. Pao stepped down after online petitions called for her resignation, but Reddit has continued and pushed through many of the policies introduced in her tenure.
Even as these fights continue and the tide shifts, Pinterest is managing a reverse migration. Despite many competing scrap-board and vision sites aimed at men — in which the act of adding an item is often “nailing” rather than pinning — men are finally coming in large numbers to Pinterest.
Pinterest has rapidly expanded its male audience through tweaks in its onboarding experience and the growth of users outside the U.S., who apparently came and still come to the site with fewer preconceptions.
More than 50 percent of Pinterest’s active users are now outside the U.S., according to a spokesperson, and two-thirds of new sign-ups come from non-U.S. users. The gender split for new sign-ups is about 50–50 internationally, and 40 percent male overall. (While Pinterest now allows non-binary gender options at sign-up, those users aren’t being accounted for in the company’s demographic reports yet.)
Rather than trying to take over Pinterest, the growing male population has joined existing categories and helped carve out new ones. Altay Sendil, a user experience researcher on Pinterest’s “core product,” says his group looks at “what are all the people not on Pinterest doing.” This helps them figure out which gaps to fill and site behavior to modify.
He says that in broad strokes, men have a greater tendency to search rather than browse, and searching on Pinterest used to be harder. Their research also shows that men typically have more interest in short-term goals, not longer-term ones. “People dismissed us, ‘It’s not really a helpful tool to get stuff done, to practically do stuff in my life,’” Sendil says.
Over a few years, through small and large changes, Pinterest now reads interests better and surfaces content that’s more appealing and targeted to each visiting individual, which helps with men as well as other people who lost interest with the site. Site metrics suggest the company is going down the right path, signing on more diverse users.
Pinterest’s community manager, Hwang, notes, “Early adopters and power users will set the tone for a very long time on your platform. If you leave it too long, it can be very hard to unwind.” But the site’s early adopters also helped push growth and staked out territory, and Pinterest continues to thread a needle that doesn’t leave those users behind.
“There is something going on that you can see amongst very young people in particular where these gender distinctions do seem to be mattering less in a way that has a lot of progressive potential,” Levine says.
“To see real change,” she notes, “you have to have men finding pleasures in feminized spaces, instead of women finding a place to enjoy masculinized things. For those who have more power in a culture to identify with or find more pleasure in something that risks their status, that would be something different.”
In a few years, few may remember that Pinterest ever had a gender.
An earlier version of this piece stated that 4 million items are saved on Pinterest daily; it’s more precise to state that 4 million products are saved daily. On Pinterest, the term “item” refers to anything that is saved, while “product” refers to something available for purchase.