The experience of signing up for Pinterest can be overwhelming and disorienting, especially if you're not into rainbow-knit socks. One minute, the Internet is a comfortable place for those whose interests run toward, say, spaceships. The next, it's all cookie-dough brownies, sheep-shaped cupcakes, bamboo kitchenware and stencilled floor patterns for the back patio.
Pinterest is a newish social network that lets users bookmark and share links. But instead of using words, like so many bookmarking sites before it, it uses pictures. Having seemingly emerged from nowhere, it is now being described as one of the top 10 social networks, and a potent new force in online sales.
There's one other factor that sets it apart: Unlike previous web phenomena that emerged from the male-centric world of technology, or the youth-heavy world of youth, Pinterest is a social network that – without many signs of conspicuous catering – has been chiefly populated and powered by women. It's reported that almost 60 per cent of users are female, between the ages of 22 and 44, but in practice, that feels like a lowball estimate. (For now, you have to request an invitation to the site, which only took a few days for me.)
Here's how it works: As users browse the web, they might happen to see things they like, be it rainbow socks, a nice stool or a picture of an actor. With the click of a button that Pinterest pops into your browser toolbar, you can take any image and "pin" it onto a digital pinboard. Every picture on the pinboard links back to the website it came from, like a visual bookmark. What's more, users can have as many pinboards as they like, to organize their links however they choose: One for cats. One for furniture. One for goods they'd (cough, cough) like to acquire, and so on.
At the same time, it's a way of sharing links: Pinterest users "follow" each other, just as one would follow someone on Instagram or Twitter. Users spend their time browsing each others' boards and "repinning" things they like, which reposts the image their own board, propagating the image. More often than not, these images are of products; so Pinterest also becomes a popularity-contest bazaar, where millions of people mill around objects of desire, iterating and reiterating their desire for each.
It is difficult to assay a social network until you've had the chance to find your niche there. Opening a Pinterest account is a jarring experience if your tastes do not line up with its natural inclinations. At present, its natural inclinations are twee. Despite my professed interest in design and architecture, my screen filled up with pictures of rainbow socks (and rainbow-sock-type items), recommended by contacts that the site had produced for me.
So I started asking around.
"It's kind of a woman's' thing, and I don't want to say it's a woman's thing," said Lesley Pysklywec, a kindergarten teacher in Toronto. Ms. Pysklywec has been on the site for a year, and uses it as a bookmarking tool, clipping out items to use in class. "For someone who's a visual person, it's brilliant. I can see exactly what I pinned and why."
But, she said, Pinterest is also attracting communities of interest around shared interests like favourite actors (the name Benedict Cumberbatch – elfin star of the new Sherlock Holmes series – came up).
And then there's the shopping.
"I buy a lot online. I'm always bookmarking stuff on my browser, but I'm always forgetting about it," said Claudia Lemire, a corporate public relations and strategy worker in Calgary, who cheerfully explained that she'd taken to buying things she never knew she wanted until she saw pictures on Pinterest. (Japanese bento boxes: "Completely addicted!")
Sure enough, a lot of these bookmarked product images come from – you guessed it – online shopping pages. So one click of an appealing object on a pinboard can easily land you at a checkout page, from which a purchase is a mere click away.
I wondered aloud whether we'd soon be reading stories about people with Pinterest shopping addictions.
"Oh, yeah," she said.
It's a novel thing, for the technology-oriented male to find himself on the wrong side of a new social network. So many web phenomena were incubated in the world of tech-friendly nerdery that it's eye-opening to find the (vintage) shoe on the other foot: This must be what it was like for people with no interest in social media or gadgetry to venture onto Twitter in 2008.
What's more, the gender imbalance suffuses the site with a weirdly explicit demarcation of "what girls like" and "what boys like." Faced with the screen of rainbow socks and their ilk, I hunted around the site to find users who were posting picture-links that were more up my alley. I found a guy who collected, say, wartime naval photos, and followed him. Suddenly my screen was full of flaming destroyers – and rainbow socks.
It could be that some realties of gender-specific marketing are coming home to roost on an Internet that likes to think itself above such things. But there's also no reason to assume that Pinterest will remain as it is today. It's a fun site, with a compelling premise that's broadly appealing. As more users arrive, it will evolve away from the communities of interest that have powered it so far, and into an ecosystem with a more robust, less twee cultural offering. I can only believe that men and women alike have a limited appetite for the feeling of being trapped in the world's largest Muskoka gift shop.