Pinterest: Visual Rhetoric and Capitalizing on Social Categories

When Pinterest was launched in 2010, it took the site over a year before it began to create a buzz.  Since 2011, the site has developed a pretty solid network of users, who create profiles and decorate – or perhaps curate – their profile page with ‘pins,’ or highly-decorative memes and images that are selected throughout the internet to be shared with the site.   The images are uploaded by users, who share images with other users.

When you sign onto Pinterest, it resembles a scrapbook of sorts.  Users organize and categorize images themselves.   As frequent users know, the seemingly unlimited pins you can curate your profile with depends on the frequency of sharing.  Similar to Facebook, Pinterest uses an algorithm that calculates which images you will see as you search and scroll for certain topics. Pinterest, like other social networking sites, has garnered success from the sharing.  Surprising, for a company that lacks an actual business model.  But, then again, in the age of social networking, who needs a business model?  Facebook has yet to find a working model and, yet, with nearly a seventh of the world’s population using the site, who gives?  Something is working.

That something is women (and this is not necessarily a good thing).

Check out this Pinterest infographic:


Pinterest’s pins are directed at a certain audience, don’t you think? How is this good? Bad?

Pinterest tends to appeal to a certain user: the middle-class (Gen Y?) female.  The visual design of the site is clearly gendered.  The soft pastel background, the neat, handwritten logo, and the delicate organization of the site exudes femininity.  Considering that 80% of all Pinterest users are women, there is clearly a target for the site – an appeal to its customers.  Pinterest capitalizes off of users; hence, its ‘business model’ is not necessarily pre-planned; instead, the site follows its users’ activities and monitors what and how they share pins.  Over a certain time period, statistics are collected and the site is reformed, similar to WordPress and the recent changes the site underwent.

In the age of digital media, ‘customers’ buy items by clicking on buttons.  Our tastes, styles, likes, etc, become our purchases.  Hard cash isn’t so much the issue as is the desire to be a competitive site, one that appeals to an array of users.  Pinterest doesn’t necessarily make the cut, at least according to the recent launch of the all-guy, Manteresting, a scrapbook site dedicated solely to guy interests – you know, girls, games, sports, and beer (that’s the list, right?).  I have to admit, the design of the site is far more edgy and cool.   So, depending on the mood I’m in, I check out either site.  Do I feel like edgy and cool, or soft and floral?  That’s the thing about the internet: you seek the illusion.  It’s your choice, right?

But, more importantly, why the separation of the sexes?  Blame it on how we’ve been trained to read (and gender) images.  Compared to printed language, visual language, including pictures, paintings, touched-up/sexed-up photos, are more immediate than words.  They are easier to access and more absolute  for the reader/user.

As Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen write in, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, as children we are encouraged to read and create visual images, from using painted block letters, to learning the alphabet, to painting our first picture.  As we grow, we become increasingly exposed to images in our culture; however, education is far more focused on teaching us how to read and write print language.  So, when it comes to reading images, especially those we are exposed to through the media, we have to read in a different way.

So, why then are images so powerful?  Let’s compare the two texts  below:

 As I walked down 5th avenue a cold, brisk wind tunnelled down the street.  The car lights, horns, and scattered voices mixed with the vibrations of warm jazz music coming out of the cafés.  My mind wandered from one sight to the next.  The dark windows above the shops, the tailored suits standing outside of the Gucci store smoking cigarettes, and the Empire State Building – right ahead – standing above us all, like a mountain of lights.  Was it 42nd or 46th?  I turned down 42nd and hurried myself past the crowds outside a Broadway show.  Suddenly, there it was: Times Square.  Everywhere lights gleaming: Coca Cola, Samsung, Marquis, NBC, American Express…


Visual language gives us  details, whereas verbal or written language tends to leave many of the details up to you.  As Kress and Van Leeuwan note in their work, a visual image is prepared and pre-packaged (framed and encoded) with a message that you decode.  So,  in a sense, the message is out of your control when you receive it.  Over the past half-century or so, Western society has become more dependent on visual images, in particular, in advertisements and commercials.  Our media-driven society has created a simulacrum of sorts, where we are constantly encoding and decoding information.  Sites like Pinterest and Manteresting are profiting from the abundant resource of images throughout the net and tapping into the internet habits of digital natives.  Since sharing is such an passive activity, it easily becomes a pastime.  So, can gender be passively sold?  Yes, for sure.  Is this a bad thing?  “Bad” is the wrong word, perhaps a little disconcerting.  Gender can be sold like race can be sold.  Social categories are based on ideologies of what is black vs. what is white, or what is man vs. what is woman.  So, in a sense, you are sold ideologies.  Your job is to think whether or not this is okay with you.



Back to my initial speculation: why are these sites so gendered?  In the digital age, I am given the impression that the internet is not a gendered space – at least, not to the extent that physical spaces are gendered.  What is more, these sites use images to promote a branded gender identity, or an identity that is informed and shaped by brands and stereotypes associated with guys and girls.  To be fair, Pinterest does have a range of images, but there is a clear target audience for the majority of them.  Think of it like this: in this information age, where we are surrounded by the media, are we reconstructing old binaries and old stereotypes?  Have we always been doing this? Or does the internet really allow us to choose?  For instance, I can choose which sites suit me, but do our digital voices become more or less pronounced in the simulacrum that we live in?  Or are my choices merely choices that become profit for a large social-networking site?  There are many questions I do not have answers to.

Why is gendering a site such an issue?  Well, like any product, when you gender it, how we interact (or don’t interact) with the product changes.  Think of toys directed at girls vs. those directed at boys.  I know this is an old argument, but it suffices.  Boys toys promote activity and independence, whereas girls toys are more focused on passivity and collaboration.  Both have their pros and cons.  Most kids are brought up with a variety of toys; however, parents and peers tend to direct kids to certain activities vs. others.  As a result, the toy market is driven by its customers’ demands for a certain product.  The same thing occurs with the social networking sites, where the product is shaped by users.  As mentioned, Pinterest has become increasingly more feminized.  Manteresting was a merely a response to this feminization.  I don’t think either site is to blame for this separation, but I do think that when we have such a separation occur, we are taking two steps backwards into the past and excluded ourselves from the potential new and different identities that the internet has to offer.  Since digital media allows us to create an online identity, it isn’t exactly a bad or wrong to utilize digital spaces to extend or reshape our identity; or to perhaps have an online life that promotes our ideals or who we wish to be.  For instance, the bottom line of why Pinterest is so successful is that, frankly, the pins are quite lovely.  They are idealistic.  Pinterest serves as place where we can store and share our ideal worlds.

Social networking sites are unlike others forms of communication that we’ve had in the past.  These sites are interconnected with the rest of the net in everyway and offer a heightened form of communication and information relay.  This is perhaps why I am surprised that internet sometimes can seem like its stuck the past; in some sort of a pre-digital era, when social constructions were so important because our lives we not so mediated by technology.  But technology is a reality nowadays and to allow yourself to experience the world behind the screen is a way to understand how society is changing in revolutionary ways.

I’ve been told that my posts offer up more questions than answers.  The above is no exception, but I think that this is my intention.  I want my readers to ponder these issues because they are important.  Yet, there really is not a concrete answer as to why, for instance, people can capitalize off of sharing pins, gendering sites, or reconstructing sex wars, but I think that we have to think of these things, or at least know that these issues are there.

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

2 Responses to “Pinterest: Visual Rhetoric and Capitalizing on Social Categories”

  1. Do you mean you are given the impression sites on the web (the internet is not the web) are not gendered or that you believe these sites are not gendered?

  2. It’s nearly impossible to find well-informed people about this subject, however,
    you seem like you know what you’re talking about!

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