A Social Network of One's Own

I initially visited Pinterest after hearing its praises sung for being a remarkable organization tool with a social component, but all I saw at first were pictures of clothes, interior-design ideas, and cheesy photography coupled with “inspirational” mottos and prayers. Few things make me hit the “unsubscribe” button faster than seeing a black-and-white picture of a lake emblazoned with pabulum about living life to the fullest, but my hostile reaction belied a bit of the internalized sexism in the heart of even the most stalwart feminist. After all, I love fashion and design, so why wouldn’t I want to see more of it if not for the fear that it might be too girly?

It doesn’t take long for a blog-loving feminist to find the ugliness of the “ew, girly!” reaction. Women dominate on Pinterest—around 70 percent of users are female—and the site drives more traffic to commercial sites than Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn combined. Pinterest's popularity means that the male-dominated world of tech blogging has no choice but to pay attention, but they won't go down without a fight. Mean-spirited graphics and blog posts saying that women are an alien species one shouldn’t care to understand proliferated. The sexism prompted bloggers like Tracie Egan Morrissey, Kristy Sammis, and Rebecca Hui to write full-throated defenses of the site. And not despite its girliness, but because of it.

The knowledge that sexist dudes find Pinterest threatening reignited my interest, so I went ahead and signed up through Facebook, which generated a list of people to follow for me. Turns out Pinterest works just like any other social network; it’s way more fun when you actually use it to tune in to what people you like are saying. Before too long, I was using the site to collect videos of right-wingers saying crazy stuff, feminist pop art, and weird fashion.

Tech guru Deanna Zandt pointed out to me that Pinterest first attracted housewives and crafters, and while it’s becoming more diverse and feminist all the time, its image as a “women’s site” stuck. She credits the label as a factor in keeping the space safe, saying, “There's also a glaring lack of misogynist content, which signals to other women exploring the space that it's cool for them to be there.”

Even the site design subtly signals that men who bring a lot of baggage about sex and gender should stay away. “The banner is curly and pink-ish, and I think that just reads as ‘girly’ to a lot of people,” said Jill Filipovic of Feministe. “Hence men not using it as heavily.”

The irony here is that the invisible “No Boys (At Least Misogynist Boys) Allowed” sign on Pinterest means that it’s not just a safe space for women to indulge stereotypically girly interests. By far, the largest pinboard I’ve built is labeled “SXSW”; I’m using it to collect party posters, survival tips, and scheduling ideas for South by Southwest, an annual two-week conference happening in March for tech, film, and music in Austin, Texas. It’s often when women are pursuing stereotypically masculine interests like this that they end up dealing with the most outrageous bigotry online, often coming from guys who find the mere presence of women in their male-centric cultures threatening. The pink and girly exterior of Pinterest works as a jerk force field, keeping the most piggish men away, leaving pinners to indulge their interests in peace. The site owners seem to grasp this function of the site and have even created a “Geek” category for cataloging video game and comic-book-related items, all with a startling lack of the casual sexism usually found in geek-identified spaces.

Of course, maintaining a space that outsiders think is mostly about wedding planning but insiders know is so much more requires striking a delicate— and likely untenable—balance. In a blog post on the subject, Zandt sounded a pessimistic note, suggesting that the outside Internet culture will eventually breach the walls. “I know this little utopia may not last long,” she said, “but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.” But with the number of women going online growing by the minute and the increasing diversity of social-networking sites, perhaps the bile-fication of Pinterest is not inevitable. Perhaps the whiff of girliness at the front gates of Pinterest can hold off the hordes forever. 

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