Gendered Rhetorical Spaces on Social Media

Popular discourse about Pinterest users positions the site as primarily a space for women. These popular accounts often cite demographic figures that suggest anywhere from "58% to 97% of Pinterest users are female" (Fehling, 2012). But these articles rarely explain how these figures are calculated. One account of Pinterest demographics (Ledbetter, 2012) relies on data generated by Google analytics. Google's data may accurately represent the rate at which users select the "female" versus "male" option when signing up for a Pinterest account. But labeling an online space based on sex is problematic at best. Leaving aside the fact that Pinterest does have male and/or male-identifying users, I suggest that labeling Pinterest a women's social media space requires a more nuanced understanding of how gender identity and gendered rhetorical spaces are composed and created in online spaces, including Pinterest.

As Sarah Summers (2010) noted, although "the Internet becomes a space for women to speak out, build coalitions, and challenge oppression," it is important to not forget that "simply examining spaces as 'women's spaces' can also reinscribe oppression" (para. 8). Cindy Kay Tekobbe (2013) wrote that Pinterest, in particular, has been denigrated as a social media space as it seems to appeal to women and encourage digital literacy practices that stand in opposition to the "hegemonic, masculine technological narrative that privileges 'creating' over 'sharing'" (p. 385). Such a focus on privileging "'creating' over 'sharing,'" as Tekobbe (2013) described, subordinates the experience of Pinterest users, figuring their online, civic engagements and interactions as the product of "a community of women who indulge in silly feminine daydreams rather than engage in the serious work of valuable content creation" (p. 382; 385).

Rather, it may be more productive to position the space in terms of gendered affinities, allowing for a more capacious understanding for how gender identity—from the feminine to the masculine, and everything in between (or even outside of this spectrum)—might be performed and composed in online spaces. As Kaitlin Clinnin (2013) discussed,

Examining how gender appears online presents a unique opportunity to see how the performance actually occurs. With the physical body of the user no longer visible and essentially removed, the gender roles that typically correspond to embodied experience are still performed, even if the gender roles portrayed by the user do not correspond to their supposedly true gender. (para. 17)

Users' gender identities and affinities, as they are constructed on Pinterest, may adhere to stereotypical notions of the feminine or the masculine, depending on their interests and preferences. And just as easily as she/he may adhere to gender stereotypes, a user could violate the stereotypical expectations for their performed gender within an online space like Pinterest. And ultimately, a user's sex selection when signing up for their Pinterest account can have little bearing on their gender and/or sex identity in other online and offline spaces.

Gendered rhetorics and norms for the space are established on Pinterest through users' interactions on the site. One study comparing the use of Pinterest by male and female users found that the practices of users of different sexes suggested trends and patterns in gender performance within the space.9 According to their findings, Raphael Ottoni et al. (2013) argued that "males and females have distinct motivations for using [Pinterest]," where women "use the the website to ... keep a record of items of interest mainly related to products and services, while men tend to act as curators, keeping a collection that reflects their tastes" (p. 2). Further, the researchers assert that "females are more social than males [on Pinterest]," which is illustrated by their tendency to make use of "likes and reciprocity" within the social media space (p. 2). The differences they studied were also found in the language used within the space: "Male users tend to be more assertive by using words associated with work, achievements, and money while females tend to use words related to emotional appeal" (p. 2). Thus, the researchers characterized how gender is performed within the space through rhetorical appeals and strategies. Their research illustrates the trends across how gendered rhetorics are constructed within, and in turn construct, the Pinterest space, and although the findings seem to point to stereotypical and/or traditional performances of gender, they also demonstrate how language and interactions among users (that is, rhetorical activities) are central to the construction of gender within this social media space.

And as I explore in the discursive interactions examined in this webtext, this gendered space, usually used to gather recipes, craft ideas, and other products and services, is more than just a place for "f***ing [sic] recipes" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713). Rather, Pinterest can function as a space for digital civic engagement and among politically-minded female users, as a form of cyberfeminism. Moreover, these women debate, discuss, and argue over politics and the purpose of the space in which they are having these conversations, bringing their voices to bear on the question of what characterizes a "women's space" and showing why having a space for such civic and rhetorical engagements matters.