Lately, a wide range of social media writers have made much of the fact that the user base for Pinterest is overwhelmingly female, with even conservative estimates claiming 80% of users are women. Some writers have speculated that the structure of Pinterest, with an emphasis on visuals, appeals more to women, while other writers think that Pinterest appeals more to women because it focuses on social interactions by forming communities. However, what these writers are actually doing is reading too much into their own interpretations of the differences between the genders. Their arguments underestimate the flexibility of social mediums, in this case Pinterest, while trying to look for biological, rather than social, reasons for why Pinterest has become dominated by women. In the US, the Pinterest user base is predominately made up of women because women were the first, or perhaps just the fastest, to start inhabiting Pinterest and define its focus today. Women, by connecting with other women both on Pinterest and in real life, have made Pinterest a space for women.
In a country where men are traditionally the first ones to adopt new technology, it’s easy to see why writers have been sent into a tailspin trying to figure out why the gender ratio in Pinterest users is reversed from the usual statistics. These statistics have led some writers and analysts to speculate why Pinterest appeals to women in particular, and many have concluded that this is due to the structure of Pinterest itself. For example, Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois in Chicago, has compared Pinterest to the bulletin boards that girls hang up and decorate in their bedrooms: “It reminds me of my girlfriends in high school who’d cut stuff out of magazines and pin it up on a wall…This is the Web-based, digital equivalent of that behavior.” This statement, however anecdotally true, seems to assume that there is a biological distinction between men and women that makes women want to pin things to a board. However, I don’t think women have an innate drive to create collages. Instead, girls create pin boards because they’ve seen other girls create pinboards, and they liked the idea. Looking at the story this way, it becomes apparent that there’s more of a social influence at stake – we’re influenced by people of similar social groups.
On the other hand, some minds have surmised that men look to social media as a “transactional” medium, as a means to gather information, expand business opportunities, or find a mate, while women use social media as a means to foster relationships. They reason that Pinterest is effective for female communication because it’s more community-based. Men prefer Google+ and LinkedIn because they can view information and scope out potential networking opportunities, while women prefer Pinterest because they can share their hopes and dreams and keep in touch with family and friends. This argument gets more to the heart of the issue by analyzing how women act in social communities, but doesn’t answer the issue of why women have dominated Pinterest over, say, Delicious or Instagram, which could both potentially be just as “community-based” as Pinterest is.
What both of the arguments above fail to address are two things: the importance of community in founding social networks, and the flexibility of social media as a medium. One statistic that firmly busts the idea that “Men are from Google+, women are from Pinterest” is that men actually outnumber women on Pinterest in the United Kingdom, with 56% male users to 44% female users. If Pinterest were so socially and evolutionarily structured so as to fit female communication, why would the statistics on user gender ratio be so vastly different in the two culturally-similar countries? If we look at the same infographic that gives us this statistic, the author notes the differences popular pinboard topics in both the US and the UK. In the US, the main interests include Crafts, Gifts and Special Event Items, Hobbies and Leisure, Interior Design, Fashion Designers and Collections, and Blogging Resources and Services. In the UK, on the other hand, the main interests posted are Venture Capital, Blogging Resources and Services, Crafts, Design, Web Stats and Analytics, SEO and Marketing, Content Management, and Public Relations. Although both countries have some similar overlapping interests, such as Crafts and Blogging Resources, the rest of the top posting categories differ greatly. The US interests largely fall under typical “women’s interests,” such as Fashion, Hobbies, and Interior Design, while the UK interests are dedicated towards pursuits that are typically thought of as more male because they are “transactional,” such as Venture Capital, SEO, and Analytics. What these differences between the utilization of Pinterest in the US and the UK show is that a social media structure is not inflexibly, or even inherently, “male” or “female.” Social media is a tool that can be manipulated for various purposes, depending on the people who are using it. Pinterest can be used as a means to foster interpersonal relationships through collections of dream wedding dresses, as well as increasing business PR through SEO and analytics. The comparison between US and UK Pinterest users underscores the fact that social media is an extremely flexible medium, and its primary purpose is directed by its users.
The fact that social media is directed by its users is an important point because then one can begin to view social media sites as spaces that can be dominated by a certain group of people, making it less likely for other groups to participate if they don’t already fit that demographic. In the US, Pinterest is not only a means for women to communicate about their dream weddings or their budding sweater-knitting businesses; it’s also a place for them to do so. In this manner Pinterest becomes a concrete location that exists, in the way that a concert hall provides a place for symphonic performances to exist. Except that since Pinterest has been dominated by women in the US, it has become a place primarily for women’s interests, and so its popularity as a site for women has snowballed through online and in-person recommendations from other women. American men are now less likely to be drawn to Pinterest in the first place because it’s already perceived as a community for women, where men are as excluded as they would be from most women’s groups in real life, such as some parts of wedding planning.
What marketers may forget, is that social media is not only a means of communication, a tool; it is also a space for communities. Tools can be used for many purposes, and spaces can be repurposed or taken over by different communities. When looking for ways to connect with their consumers, brands should be on the lookout not only for which social media sites already have a large number of users in their target demographic, but also which social media sites have the potential to be a good place to connect with that demographic, even if that demographic isn’t there yet. So this means that Pinterest could possibly be a good medium through which to connect with men, and it’s definitely already a good medium through which to connect with certain groups of women. Marketers just need to give men the right reasons to join in.