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Sampling Pinterest

The criticisms of Pinterest can teach us about the importance of sampling. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how random sampling and convenience sampling contribute to our understanding of what Pinterest is really about.

I have had a Pinterest account for about a year and a half. When I initially received my invitation, I began following a lot of people in the scrapbooking community that I did not actually know in real life. None of my friends in real life were on Pinterest. Over the last year, that has changed. I now follow the boards of not only complete strangers (wow, that sounds really creepy), but also the boards of people I know in real life (still sounds kind of creepy).

So who cares who I follow on Pinterest? Who you follow on any social network site shapes what you see in your feed on that site and your impressions of the site. For the first few months I was on Pinterest, it was a wonderful place to spend waste time because most of what appeared in my feed included crafty projects, color combinations, and scrapbook pages–all the things I really wanted to see and browse. Now my feed includes these items, plus fat-shaming imagery, homeschooling curricula, beautifully designed infographics, and sociologically-focused images (see Sociological Images or The Sociological Cinema). My feed changed as the type of people I followed expanded to more diverse groups using pinterest for different reasons. I went from following mostly people who were heavily involved in scrapbooking and other crafts, to people with a much wider range of interests.

Why does it matter that my Pinterest feed changed?

Pinterest has been a source of interest to sociologists and other scholars, and has mostly been criticized based on the content of Pinterest feeds as summarized in the above photo (see for example, here and here).

I am not going to analyze or criticize the popular board themes of weddings, babies, and food on Pinterest. Instead, I want to focus on what these criticisms, though important, teach us about the importance of sampling.

Quick background on sampling, imagine you wanted to find out something about college students. There’s no way you could survey/interview every college student in the U.S. so instead you would interview a subset of all college students. In this case that smaller subset is called your sample. The much bigger pool of all college students is what’s called your poupulation. To recap, researchers take a small sample of their large population. Okay, got it? Good, let’s move on.

When sociologists and other scientists do research we can get our samples using a variety of methods. Sometimes random sampling is desired, appropriate, and feasible. Other times, convenience sampling is necessary or preferred.

Random sampling means that everyone in the target population has an equal chance of being selected for inclusion in the study. In the case of Pinterest, the population could refer to Pinterest boards or Pinterest users. We’ll go with Pinterest users for the sake of simplicity. I would need to obtain a list of all Pinterest users and then use a random numbers table to select study participants. Every Pinterest user would have an equal chance of being selected and included in the study. This is random sampling.

A convenience sample is exactly what it sounds like, a sample that used because it is convenient. In the case of Pinterest, a convenience sample might include studying my own boards the the boards of the Pinterst users I follow personally. Or, I could just go the the homepage for Pinterest and study the images that show up that are pulled from all users-boards. Recall how I described how the content of my Pinterest feed changed as the number and type of Pinterest users changed.

I am not disagreeing that the analyses of Pinterest thus are are incorrect because they rely on a convenience sample. What I am saying is that how a sample is drawn (e.g., random or convenience), influences the information you get from the sample. Your analysis will be shaped by the sample you use.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is random sampling? What is convenience sampling? Compare the two and suggest why one might be better than the other.
  2. If you wanted to learn about the attitudes of college students at your college, would you use random sampling or convenience sampling? Why?
  3. Can you think of other examples of when using a convenience sample might lead you to draw a conclusion that isn’t accurate?
  4. Visit Pinterest and conduct a brief content analysis. Spend a 10-15 minutes on the site and describe the themes in the Pinterst boards you see. Be sure to describe you convenience sample (in other words, did you study your own boards, your own Pinterest feed, or the home page of everyone’s boards). Compare your findings with your classmate’s findings.