"F*cking recipes," "The Life of Julia," and Debating Politics on Pinterest

Setting the Stage: "The Life of Julia"

In mid-May 2012, an infographic titled "The Life of Julia" was posted to the pinboard "Just the Facts" belonging to the Pinterest account for Barack Obama. "Obama for America, President Obama's 2012 campaign" runs Barack Obama's Pinterest account (2012, Pinterest.com/BarackObama). On the pinboards associated with this account, campaign workers post pins related to the President and his campaign. For instance, the "Just the Facts" pinboard presents infographics and other short-form content, which present information on the campaign's positions in easy-to-read and understand formats.

Screen cap of Julia; click to view full image

The link from the "Life of Julia" pin leads to an infographic slideshow that follows along a timeline of the character Julia's life.10 Julia is an imaginary American woman, representative of women's experiences as US citizens and hypothetical futures they face with different administrations. Visitors click through the timeline, observing Julia from the early stages of her life through the age of 67; as Julia ages, her appearance changes to reflect her changing status and age. Throughout the timeline, readers are provided short captions that explain what the government might provide for her through social programs and government initiatives. The infographic presented hypothetical situations and experiences for Julia under both potential administrations from the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration and the Romney/Ryan administration. At 22, for instance, the infographic explained that Julia "undergoes surgery," and under the Obama administration, "it is thankfully covered by her insurance due to a provision in health care reform that lets her stay on her parents' coverage until she turns 26" ("Obama for America," 2012). In contrast, the graphic explained, under the Romney administration, "health care reform would be repealed," ostensibly costing Julia the opportunity to have her surgery covered by her parents' insurance. The infographic provided information to the visitor about the two candidates' stances on different issues while making a concerted effort to persuade the viewer to align with President Obama's position, framing them as the clearly better positions.

Screen cap of Julia; click to view full image

On Obama's account, this pin drew relatively little attention—it had eight comments by late 2012 (the majority of which support the President's stance on health care and women's rights). Despite the small amount of conversational engagement represented in the comment thread, the pin was re-pinned frequently (as of September 2012, it had been repinned 171 times), and it had also received many "likes" (110 total; Obama for America, 2012, /pin/276408495850161389/). One of the re-pins by Jane Wang drew far more attention than Obama's initial posting, and in fact, it garnered more comments than Obama's original posting, 230 more likes, and 243 more re-pins (as of late 2012; Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). When Jane Wang repinned the link to the "Life of Julia," it sparked a heated conversation among commenters and Pinterest users. Those who had subscribed to Obama's pinboards had self-selected—choosing to follow Obama and therefore likely wanting to subscribe to Obama's ideas and campaign texts. As the comments following Wang's repinning show, this was certainly not the case for her followers.

Within a supposed women's space that is predominantly characterized by content featuring recipes, DIY and craft patterns, and fashion, such a pin stands out. And as tastemaker Jane Wang brought political discourse into her account, it seemed especially noteworthy to her followers, sparking many reactions and points of discussion. Significant for its deviation for the normative standards of the Pinterest space, the conversation inspired by Wang's re-pinning of the "Life of Julia" pin revealed many interesting conversation threads that addressed the rhetorical and political implications of the posting.

Bringing Politics to Pinterest: "Women Wake up and Be Strong..."

When Jane Wang repinned the link to the "Life of Julia" infographic, it began an animated conversation among some of her followers. Hundreds of comments have been posted about the pin (by 2014, the pin had received 211 comments), documenting many different reactions to the posting. The range of reactions includes support and dissent, but the dissenters are largely more vocal. From the hundreds of comments left on this pin, particular themes emerged, which reoccurred throughout the commentary.

Two dominant themes seemed to characterize much of the conversation. First, commenters responded to the characterization of women, women's rights, and politics as evoked by the rhetorical content of the pin itself. For these users, it seems the political issues that were raised by the pinned content were most relevant, and these users exercised their digital citizenship skills and civic engagements to rhetorically intervene in this area through a cyberfeminist discussion. Second, commenters on this discussion thread used this space to debate the purpose of Pinterest itself, arguing whether politics belonged in this space. For these users, the integration of political discussions into this space was divisive: by some the space was seen as exclusively for more traditionally feminized content and others immediately challenged this notion. Again, these users enacted their digital citizenship and undertook civic engagements to rhetorically negotiate their communal identity by setting parameters for the space that houses that community.

Debating Presidential Policies and Women's Health Issues: "How is this empowering to women when it's showing how we ne[e]d Obama to help us through life?"

Among the commenters who debated the content of the infographic, many took issue with the way that women and women's rights were constructed by the infographic. These users in particular enacted a clear cyberfeminist and civic agenda, negotiating and discussing the rhetoric of the "Life of Julia" infographic as it situated their identities as women and the broader social implications of that definition. As digital citizens, and ostensibly US citizens who are invested in the conversation, they saw the political rhetoric, created by the Obama for America campaign and shared by Jane Wang, as an invitation for rhetorical response. Within a social media site that also seems to double as a women's space, these users felt safe and compelled to share their ideas and opinions, engaging in conversations about their political beliefs, especially as women.

For many commenters, the infographic seemed to imply that women in contemporary US culture were weak and needed the assistance of the government to get by in life. One commenter wrote, "How is this empowering to women when it's showing how we ned [sic] Obama to help us through life? No thanks I prefer hard work and drive to government handouts. Have some pride" (Jane Wang, 2012, http://Pinterest.com/pin/2814818487402713). Another wrote, "the whole illustration is degrading to women … it suggests that we can't do anything without Obama's help. If you want something, go and get it. Don't wait for it to be handed to you on a silver platter" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/).

A few commenters did declare their support for the pin's content, however, explaining that they felt the women's issues raised by the infographic were important and needed addressing. For instance, one of the first comments in the thread advocates the Obama position—stating that she "really like[s] this," the user makes inferences from the "Life of Julia" infographic and asserts "under Romney, Julia might not have made it past ... surgery. … The Romney Julia would have a very different life. And she wouldn't be able to 'decide' to have a child, either" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). Immediately following this comment, another user poses a question, seemingly sarcastic and potentially intended to undercut the preceding comment, "We poor women need to be taken care of, don't we?" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). Interpreting this as a response to her initial comment and not a comment on the pin generally, the first commenter responds, addressing the other commenter directly, "In a society where women make less money, bear the brunt of child rearing, pay more for insurance and health care services due to our ownership of a uterus, yes, Bridgette, we could use a little help" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/).

These women were not alone in their views, and many other users jumped in to chime in; however, direct addresses (like what occurred between "Bridgette" and the other user) were rarer. Other responses to the content of the infographic contain discussions of the idea of womanhood—"Women wake up and be strong on your own-you will be so much more proud!" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713). And yet another commenter pondered, "what happened to 'I am woman hear my roar.' I don't need anything from Obama" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713). For these commenters the infographic and its arguments seemed to represent an affront to their belief systems.

The commenters also engaged in discussions about how factual information is portrayed in the infographic; as one person wrote, "it is so dismaying that so much disinformation is out there," before quoting statistics like "military spending is 20% of the total" and asserting "Also the federal deficit has increased more during President Obama's first three years than it did under all 8 years of President Bush" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713). Another commenter stated that the information contained in the pin was a "bunch of krap;" she expanded upon this point, "all [Obama's] done is drive everyone of us into inestimable debt. ... Out of control unemployment is another one of his hallmarks. ... That's some hope for women—no thanks!" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713). These commenters saw their role in this discussion as primarily political, and as good digital citizens, they engaged the issues that felt most relevant to the political concerns raised by this pin. Notably, the women who refute the content of the infographic do not bring up issues related to women's health, but instead rely on economic problems that they attribute to President Obama.

As Cindy Kay Tekobbe (2013) argued, the women within this rhetorical space were doing more than just sharing content passively. Rather, they are sharing and discussing content to engage as digital citizens, debating political issues. As they discussed this content, they rhetorically negotiated and engaged with important civic issues, framing them as they mattered from their perspective—as issues of budgetary spending or as problematic overreaching by government programs.

Politics or F*cking Recipes: Debating Pinterest's Purpose

Although some commenters engaged directly with the political implications of the "Life of Julia" pin, particularly as it affected their lives and identities as women within US society, other comments addressed the purpose of Pinterest in general. As they defined and discussed the purpose of Pinterest, what content should be posted, and what should be shared on the site, the commenters enacted rhetorical and civic engagements as they discussed the purpose of the space, collaboratively defining the nature of this gendered rhetorical space. As W. Lance Bennett (2008) discussed, the location of civic engagement shifts in this aspect of the conversation, but the civic issues remain significant to the group and users.

Primarily, these users took issue with the presence of political content being posted on the site. For instance, one commenter queried: "Can we block these political thingys? I just want to get fucking [sic] recipes," and another stated, "All these posts are disappointing. :( Pinterest is for beautiful things/ideas" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). For these two users, Pinterest represents a space for recipes, "beautiful things/ideas," and a space in which political rhetoric is, seemingly, unwelcome (however, some people do come to the defense of the idea that Pinterest, like other spaces online, is an open forum and therefore can include all types of discussion). Political rhetoric and discussion interferes with their vision of the space and the type of interactions they want to have in it. Politics, it seems, are necessarily oppositional to "beautiful things/ideas," and had no place in a social media space like Pinterest (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/).

Many other users continued the debate. One user wrote, "Politics get plenty of exposure on every other type of media—could we just leave it off Pinterest?" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). Another put it even more simply, "Pinterest not politics!" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). But at the same time other users came to the defense of Jane Wang and also defended the sharing of political content on Pinterest. One user wrote, "if you don't like 'stupid political opinions' then pass them by. Don't read them, don't comment, just keep it moving. Pinterest is a place for inspiration ~ many of us are inspired by the politics in our beautiful county" (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/). And yet another quoted the Pinterest user guidelines at length:

Quoted from the Pinterest 'What is Pinterest' section of THIS website.. ".Best of all, you can browse pinboards created by other people. Browsing pinboards is a fun way to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests." First of all ... if you don't like it, don't read it, or try to bring down others whom felt the conviction to post. This goes from hair-dos, to recipes to political opinions. ... Pinterest was made to 'discover new things and get inspiration'. Someone 'discovered' this and it has 'inspired' a spirited discussion. Job done? Ladies & Gentleman the beauty of free speech, opinions, thoughts, ideas, inspiration are all why we are on this site, let us keep that in mind before we turn this into a negative space of criticism. (like many other social media sites). (Jane Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818487402713/)

The debate about the purpose of Pinterest and what should be included on the site is an example of the forms of civic engagement that can characterize online spaces. Moreover, as these women debated the purpose of this female-oriented space and what is both acceptable and unacceptable to post here, their discussions again highlight how Pinterest can be more than a space for "silly feminine daydreams," for even as some users assert their preference for those daydreams, they engage in rhetorical negotiations that demonstrate a civic investment in the social media space (Tekkobe, 2013). Although some seemed to advocate a more traditionally feminine standard for posts, others promoted a more capacious understanding of what women can and should post on Pinterest.

In these conversations, digital citizenship and civic engagement takes multiple forms simultaneously: These commenters enact their roles as citizens within this specific social media site but they also comment upon the role of politics in their life more broadly. Some desire to relegate it to specific arenas only (namely, not Pinterest), and yet others see it as important to engage whenever and wherever necessary. And even as some individuals debate the relevance of politics to Pinterest—a place for recipes and beautiful things—they demonstrate the importance of civic engagement within the space, as it enables these users to question, engage, and self-define their space and experience within that space discursively.