The Problem With Pinterest & Its Male-Gaze Dominated Algorithm

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Reflecting on the Shifting Paradigms of Pinterest

When I first discovered Pinterest, the idea of collecting different images to create a visual of the type of life and things I wanted, seemed boring. To put things into perspective, between eighteen and twenty, I found anything that required minimal effort boring. But I secretly loved fashion and realized I could translate my obsession with clothes onto these pins. A few years passed and the number of pins increased. Each board received a uniquely assigned name. I was always creative with my titles, choosing to pull references from music like one of my boards aptly named “all white errthang.” I kept the title light and abstained from defining the different boards with literal nomenclatures.

More time passed. I grew older, wiser, but not richer. I still wasn’t dressing as I desired. When your weight is in constant flux and depression reduces you to thoughts and feelings, it leaves no need to dress well. Around twenty-eight, after taking a long break from the app, I came back to Pinterest. With my first account deleted and all the pins erased, I felt off about creating something new. I wanted all of the images I had collected and all of the boards I had invested. 

There was a Zuhair Murad board composed primarily of his designs, a wedding themed board (though I don’t intend on marrying), one for thigh highs, and many others. I had one board filled with endless outfit inspos. I was so proud of that board because I had once showed it to a ‘friend’ who didn’t think too highly of me. She was surprised at the different collections and said she couldn’t believe I chose them all on my own. Patronizing, yes, but I was too young and too depressed to notice. I knew I had better taste than her and that was a hill I was willing to die on.

Eventually I decided to at least use the app version to find new braiding hairstyles. I was pleased to see more Black creators on the site spreading their fashion looks as well as sharing their tips and tricks on how to style beautiful natural hairdos. That was a wonderful change. As I re-acclimated myself to the site, I also came to love the different adverts popping up. I would save those pins thinking ‘just in case this summer is my summer.’ Yet the more I used the app, the more I noticed many other adverts. Every time I clicked on a pin thinking I was simply saving a new favorite outfit, it was linked to a separate website. This drove me crazy and led me to believe Pinterest had moved on from being an online vision board to numerous small boutiques.

When I used Pinterest in the beginning I mostly saw outfit inspirations, cooking recipes, relatable mantras, seasonally themed pins, and a few other different things. Pinterest felt very warm, like a cozy safe space for women. Nowadays, what I find is a hodgepodge of aggressive weight loss ads, challenges, an overabundance of health food suggestions, skin care adverts, and unrelated or non-germane pins. More than ever, fashion pins are vastly underrepresented, instead pins showing outfits are oftentimes simply adverts. Pinterest has moved from being a female-centered space where femininity lives, to something more robotic, male-gazey and life-sucking.

I understand that Pinterest needed to grow. However, this aggressive prioritization of profit has led to a roid rage version of the website. It just feels like a lot of yelling at the consumer rather than working with us. We get it, profit is important but there are more creative ways to go about getting the desired outcome from users without alienating us, or making the site just another social media tool dependent on advertising dollars. Women who use Pinterest do so for its relaxing or tranquil content. They use it to learn, share, and dream. But the current iteration of the site feels more like an underwhelming feature of capitalism. One that, while touting advancement and growth, actually breeds a lack of ingenuity and stops innovation. It is predicated on overused formulas and overdone practices.

 An article by the New York Times discussed Pinterest at length. The article started off by introducing the company’s co-founder Ben Silbermann. Apparently, Silbermann did not want to run the company the same way other tech giants ran theirs. That boded well for me. He hired people based on their values and not their technical expertise. He chose a slow and steady pace rather than one fueled by advancing too quickly to dominate those spaces. In this 2018 article, by Erin Griffith, the writer states that investors did not favor this approach. Chilling facts about the company come up when you look up the former COO Francoise Brougher who replaced the former chief operating officer in March 2018 but was later fired in April of that same year. She cited sexism, misogyny, racial discrimination, as well as work hostility that permeated Pinterest as the reason for her termination. According to Brougher, she was excluded from many important meetings by Ben Silbermann. A December 14, 2020 article by the New York Times states that the former COO was paid 22.5 million dollars to settle the suit.

It’s disconcerting to know how different Pinterest has come to be. Multiple Reddit posts reveal some users’ discontent. Redittors allude to the company’s obsessive fixation with weight loss and diet pins, the overly specific algorithm that clings to the same pins, the lack of variety, and the saturation of scantily clad women as one Redittor stated. I understand these commenters. Pinterest doesn’t have to be a women-centered platform. The aim of the tool has always been aspirational. People can come on Pinterest and outline the goals they have for their lives or the dreams they long for. There’s no reason men can’t also use it as a powerful mechanism to plot their pursuits. They can use Pinterest as a guide for the goals they are seeking. However, both the algorithm and the site’s lack of former warmth that gave Pinterest its appeal, need to go back to the drawing board. 

If the goal was simply to make money, adverts make sense. However, Pinterest should have worked to align that goal with what users want, and have curated so tastefully. The website is all over the place and non-specific, while what the site gives you is very narrow and specific. The goal of Pinterest is profit, not usability or interest. The focus is on gains and not those peaceful and tranquil vibes that once fit Pinterest. The app/website is so aggressive, so full of the male-gaze, and so bursting in testosterone to the point where it just isn’t fun anymore.

Gone are the days of passive leisurely scrolling through Pinterest seeing pin upon pin of aesthetically pleasing and varied visual boards. Ben Silbermann had a good idea but unfortunately, the weight of profit trampled over it; that and the persistent male gaze denoting its female users to the lowest common denominator for advertising dollars.

Maybe he should have been aggressive with the site in the beginning and opted to dominate that space like the geniuses behind Twitter. Twitter has been around since 2006 and it continues to only get better. Twitter stays true to the premise of opinion sharing, and while adverts have now become more prominent the core concept has never changed. It still caters to its idea of freedom of expression. I believe Pinterest should have also stayed true to its branding. It should have continued to be a safe space for women (and later men) where they could come to express their innermost desires free from what these businessmen believe women want. Its users don’t want scantily clad models appearing on their feed. They don’t want excessive diet culture shoved at them. I know I pin pictures of women whose bodies I aspire toward but that’s completely different. They aren’t naked and they aren’t telling me to lose weight. Men also need this place of no judgment. Pinterest should be about creating dreams rather than trying to sell users one.   

Article by Eleanor Etchu

Eleanor Etchu was born in a small city called Mamfe. She moved to the United States at six years of age and fell in love with the country’s vast libraries and compendium of books. Her favorite genre is nonfiction and she is continuing on her quest to consume as much of it as possible. Eleanor graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in Creative Writing and Film Studies. In her leisure she loves listening to music (because who doesn’t), going on walks while listening to music, and planning her ultimate takeover of the world. One day, in the immediate future, she hopes to return back to college to study Mechanical Engineering and Physics.  

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