There's this thing happening online. Communities of men are springing up and communicating their likes and dislikes, their favorite brands of organic shave gel and vintage leather tote bags, the way a certain pair of pants manages to look both dashing and casual, instructions on how to wear one's best collar. Maybe they're talking about things they want to buy; maybe they're talking about things they simply appreciate. Maybe they're asking for advice, or telling personal stories. This new movement, if we can go so far (and we think we can) as to call it that, is not about women, nor about traditional male-bonding subjects like sports or business or even porn. It's about stuff. Men are sharing about stuff. Whatever stuff it is that they want to share about.
Men and women have both come a long way since the restrained (or repressed) time of the pre-computer 1950s. As the Internet was born and opened up all kinds of opportunities for unprecedented virtual communications, women blazed the trail gamely, taking to sites like Facebook and Pinterest as if they were natural environments, hardly different from more traditional venues like tea parties or book clubs. Men generally trailed a bit behind -- they currently number at about 45 percent of Facebook's users; women are even more so the dominant gender on Pinterest. The Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield reports that, per the most recent Quantcast statistics, men make up 49 percent of web users, and women 51 percent, but they spend time in different places. In a 2009 Pew survey, 50 percent of women said they had used social networks compared to just 42 percent of men. A more recent Comscore study found that while women spent 16.3 percent of their time online with social networks, the number for men was only 11.7 percent.
Using Quantcast data for Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, information from Comscore for Pinterest, and stats provided to The Atlantic Wire by Reddit and Gentlemint, Greenfield put together a gender breakdown of the social Web:
According to a 2010 article by Jenna Goudreau in Forbes, "Experts believe the difference between how men and women operate online mirror their motivations offline. While women often use online social networking tools to make connections and share items from their personal lives, men use them as means to gather information and increase their status." But this appears to be changing to some degree. On Reddit, on Gentlement, and even on Pinterest, where the hashtag #bropin has been adopted to indicate more guy-centric territory, there appears to be a shift from those former expectations about how men are using the Internet. It's not all guys pouring beers down their pants -- though sometimes it is. It's also, on Pinterest, breakup tips and Christopher Walken reading Where the Wild Things Are. On Gentlemint, there are beautiful photos of handlebar mustaches as coffee foam art, recipes for the perfect mac and cheese, and even affirmations of a sort. Reddit includes threads focused on adorable animals, health tips like "some personal lessons learned from 3 months of attempts at getting healthy," and discussions about cool shoes. Definitely, the discussions men are having online are more wide-ranging than ever.
On one level, of course, this is a marketer's dream. Imagine a place where guys talk comfortably and exuberantly about what shoes they most want to buy, or compare "dude spoons"! Already, merchandisers are salivating -- some are even calling "lazy men" the next frontier. But a sales focus is only one part of this. If the Internet is changing the way men relate online, meaning it's less a place for communication behaviors like competing, selling, and one-upsmanship (things that have been seen more traditionally with heterosexual males), and more about gathering virtually and getting excited about, say, a great pair of jeans or a straight razor, will that impact us offline as well?
Gentlemint was conceived by Glen Stansberry and Brian McKinney, both of Lawrence, Kansas, as a site upon which they and their friends could post “manly things” (they are both currently working fulltime jobs along with managing the site, which went from a casual side hobby to a rather large undertaking in a matter of weeks). From the beginning, Gentlemint was a place to share. Stansberry told us, "It started out as stuff that Brian and I liked. We weren’t going to post wedding dresses and gowns -- just fun stuff, manly content, manly things." A site built around sharing was not intended as a site for everyone and their brother, and so, despite having "tens of thousands wait-listed," Stansberry and McKinney have tried to keep the "feel and comfort level of a small community," ramping up slowly to let people -- mostly men in their 20s and 30s -- in but maintain the user experience. And they've tried to fit the sharing to men rather than vice versa.
"Historically with sharing sites, the demographic is more female," they told The Atlantic Wire, "Maybe that’s because of how the sharing is set up. We’re trying to build things out in a way that makes it easier with a man’s mindset and makes it easier to share. Social sharing should be really easy." Part of that is cultivating a very focused type of content, at least compared to the range on Pinterest -- so you'll see a lot of bacon, mustache waxes, leather messenger bags, and so on. One thing you won't see are women in bikinis: "We don’t want anything that objectifies women in any way. That's what we try to keep an eye on the most, but we haven’t had many people at all try to do that."
Alexis Ohanian is the founder of the social news site Reddit, which skews about 75 percent male and is considered one of the most dude-centric places online. But despite the temptation some might have to brush the Reddit community off as a bunch of Internet-stereotype nerds who barely interact, much less share, many of the threads reflect a different reality. Ohanian told us, "It's a really great community of dudes. One of my favorite threads is AWW, which is just cute animal photos. There's another of male fashion advice, guys posting strategies and tips and questions about how to dress better. Plenty of women and fashionable dudes show up and offer advice and constructive feedback." There's a weight loss community, and even a group for people to encourage each other following breakups. Tech nerds are sharing about fashion and dating and weight loss? Ohanian attributes the seemingly impossible to a simple platform that led to the creation of a community, helped along by the fact that "people can be a little more anonymous and candid," in comparison to IRL.
"I hate living up to male stereotypes, but it's true," he says. "I think it's a combination of the scale and the anonymity on the Internet. My closest friends, guys I've known since kindergarten, the only parties we went to were LAN parties, so we'd just bring our computer to someone's house and spend the weekend playing video games. We talk tech, geeky things. When I want fashion advice, I can't go to my crew." In contrast, the Internet provides scale and the ease and comfort to ask and answer questions that may lie outside the comfort zone. "You'll see...anything is fair game: What do you think of this haircut?, whatever. There actually is very little shaming or bullying, and the comment system does a really good job at punishing bad behavior," he says.
Barneys creative ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan told The Atlantic Wire that the Internet is definitely creating a place for guys to share. In fact, he was emphatic: "1000 percent yes," he said, "Lots of guys are still inhibited about spending too much time yakking about styling or grooming issues. The Internet provides a safe space for a little covert creative vanity. Hordes of men cruise our WINDOW website at Barneys looking for tidbits. We make sure they are never disappointed." Does he share online, too? Doonan admits, "I am a bit slow to catch on. I have just started grooving on Pinterest."
Aaron Perlut, chairman of the American Mustache Institute (a guy haven that's been around since the early days of the Internet), believes that sites like Gentlemint provide a next-level sharing experience for dudes. "Pinterest was a trend leader in terms of a new way of sharing, with the online pin-up method, but Gentlemint is taking it to the next step," he says. "It’s issue-focused and more specific. It speaks to the way we engage." And men are engaging more, he thinks, whether on Gentlemint or elsewhere: "On an almost monthly basis it seems we’re evolving in how we interact with each other online. Today’s millennial is far more culturally expressive than any other generation before him; that’s why there’s such a great interest in creating tools to help express those interests." Perlut, who's also the partner in a marketing agency and has extensive experience marketing to men, speculates that some of this new sharing culture is backlash to a sense of emasculation during the metrosexual years, which was then followed by an uprising of "bros," followed by "a revolt against what I would call the douchebag mentality." What we have now is "kind of an anti-douchebag movement that could encompass metrosexuals, that could encompass the emasculated male. I think you’re seeing this movement to a more husky male, more manly in a rounded way -- whether it's wearing more plaid or drinking craft beers that's perceived as being more 'manly.'”
Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness blog, which began in 2008 and currently attracts 2 million unique users monthly -- mostly men aged 18 to 35 -- thinks it's all about empowering men to actually have these conversations, which more naturally spring up online. He says, "Over the past five years I definitely have seen more and more men step into the lifestyle genre on the Internet. I think what's happened is men are tired of popular culture dictating what masculinity does. The Internet allows them to create their own idea and share it with others who are like-minded. It used to be called metrosexual, effeminate, whatever...now you can be a macho guy and interested in looking good."
McKay points out, however, that you still can't just lump men and women together in terms of how they share online. "I think guys are more comfortable sharing stuff on the Internet, but there is a difference in the way guys share stuff compared to women. With women it's more like, This looks pretty or I like this: They embue emotion into it. It's more practical with guys -- they want answers for it or they're poking fun at something."
However they're doing it, McKay thinks they're sharing more than they would offline. "You don't hear guys talking about their awesome leather bag face to face," he says. "The Internet allows guys to share that stuff in a more distanced way. Another thing that's great is that men aren't as likely to go to their friends and seek help -- asking in society is a sign of weakness -- but the Internet allows you to find out information anonymously, and you can post things you might not otherwise admit to liking. Even on Facebook and with Gentlemint, where you're using real identities, it's more acceptable for men to talk about these things."
So where does all this leave us of in terms of the current "guy movement" ... and what do we call it? Stansberry and McKinney see it as a self-determining independent time for guys online: "These guys who have their own take on manliness can all have their take on it, and whoever’s looking at the site can see if in a different way." Doonan believes we're in a "mainstream metrosexual" period. "The metrosexual revolution is not something which came and went," he says. "It came and then expanded its reach... and continues to do so. Metrosexual is here to stay." McKay suggests we may (finally) be entering a post-hipster society in which "men are interested in growing up and putting on the clothes of men instead of this extended adolescence," or maybe it's a "menaissance: a time of renewal in men's lives in which they take an interest in self-improvement and pop culture." Perlut's "anti-douchebag movement" may also have legs. Whatever it's called, Ohanian, for his part, hopes that it's a time in which men can both share, and share enthusiastically: "There are so many things that men might not always be comfortable sharing, maybe these are baby steps. One of my favorite quotes is Conan saying he hated cynicism -- maybe this is just a response to people who've not wanted to get excited about anything for so long. It's cool to get excited, whether it's about cats cuddling or cell phones or some Atlantic article."
As long as the first rule of men sharing on the Internet isn't "Never blog about sharing on the Internet," we're in good shape.
With reporting and chart from Rebecca Greenfield.