Pinterest has man troubles. The San Francisco–based company has been one of Silicon Valley's biggest success stories, garnering 100 million users since its launch in 2010. But within that staggering member count is a gender discrepancy. According to the latest Comscore numbers, roughly 70 percent of its users are female. And while there's clearly nothing wrong with a female-skewing audience, the service never planned to appeal to one gender over the other. "Pinterest is a platform to discover anything and everything you're interested in," says Altay Sendil, a researcher with Pinterest who's spent the last few years studying this issue. "Those interests could be preferences, they could be passions, they could be hobbies, they could be lifestyles, they could be vocations. It's safe to say that men have those. So what's missing?"
To find out, Sendil's team studied and conducted ethnographic studies, meeting with groups of men from around the country, and from a wide range of backgrounds. Some were Pinterest users, and others weren't. The takeaway: "People seem to orient to the future differently," says Sendil. "There are people who think about their dreams or aspirations in the distant future. On the flip side, there are people who start with the here and now, the empirical today. We noticed that women seem to lead with the former first, and men with the latter."
Is this a revelation in the long and constantly evolving field of gender studies? Probably not. But this broad conclusion helped Pinterest zero in on its real problem. It wasn't that its user interface was accidentally more appealing to women (or repellent to men). It also wasn't about content being inherently geared toward women, based on the higher proportion of female pinners. That's certainly true today, as evidenced by a glance at the most popular categories at the moment (craft ideas, hairstyles, and nails). But that became a factor as the service gained members, and doesn't explain the origin of the gap. The initial problem, says Sendil, was perception. "One of the early narratives was that Pinterest is a great place to pin your dreams and aspirations. To some, that seemed vague, and not utilitarian. Men often dismissed us."
Pinterest sees this as little more than user confusion. The service is designed to be a tool — a visual bookmark. Rather than compiling tons of folders full of links to whatever you're working on, or working toward, you can put a pin in something, and easily find it later. Pinterest is supposed to be useful. And we can see that first hand in what Pinterest calls "rich pins," or pins that contain information beyond the standard caption. Chefs like Alton Brown can post recipe pins that aren't just food porn, but include a breakdown of ingredients without having to click through to the source.
That's not to say Pinterest expected men to flock to the site on their own. Pinterest has tweaked its early user experience (the various prompts you see when you sign up) and search algorithms, guiding new users toward pins and pinners that are more closely lined up with their own preferences, including those that might be based on gender. If you're male, and you do a search for pins related to dress shoes, the results should now default to men's shoes. While it could take years for the male-female split to even out, Pinterest says a third of new members are men. And in other countries, the mix of users is much closer to 50-50.
The situation raises interesting questions about gender, as well as branding. Even when a company goes out of its way to avoid establishing a clear brand identity, people might come up with one anyway. Uber's brand is almost entirely accidental, and comprised of ugly associations with news reports of driver assaults, privacy breaches, and frattish behavior from executives. Pinterest's accidental brand is, in some ways, the polar opposite. It's positive almost to a fault, and considered feminine because of how its users appear to contemplate the future.
There's nothing wrong with that impression of Pinterest, or with a service that happens to be more appealing to women. But we're in agreement with Pinterest: It's a shame for men to overlook the service. When you stop seeing Pinterest as a social network, or as a prettier version of Google Images search results, it becomes as useful as Pinterest claims. We have proof, in our list of highlighted pinners who are also male. Only time will tell if the service can shed its accidental brand, and realize its own dreams of gender neutrality. But these guys already get it. Pinterest is about hunting the internet for cool stuff, while the world peeks over your shoulder.