There are few reliable numbers on Net use by gender, but one high-tech Wall Street analyst says his firm's research suggests that the majority of Web users -- possibly as high as 60% -- are now female. And younger women, especially those between 13 and 30, are the fastest growing single demographic online.
"Five years ago, there were not that many women on the Internet," Carol Kovac, a vice president at the Watson Research Center at I.B.M. told the New York Times recently. "Today, we're on there and using it for everyday things."
Contrary to any lingering stereotypes, they aren't the least bit wary either of embracing technology or going online. They have adopted the Web enthusiastically, discovering new ways to use it, giving the lie to the notion that the Net is a male playground, or that it primarily isolates people. Says one Web developer, these young women finally have their own medium. With e-mail, AIM, Web sites, and mailings, they're no longer dependent on the goodwill of parents and teachers for the tools to connect with. In many ways, they're creating a different kind of medium -- communicative, community-centered,culture-driven. Beyond the wildest dreams of any slick and usually dumb women's mag, they define their own agenda.
Along with the spread of the open source ethic and the free music and culture battles, the geek girls -- or Chickclickers as some dub themselves, are perhaps the single most important social phenomenon online. And online, they make different choices than men.
"We are everyplace now," e-mails Roz67, "and in rapidly growing numbers. And we are different from guys. We don't need to prove our technical savvy, though we have enough of it. And we don't need to prove our feminism either. We are just thrilled to find one another and to talk about the things WE want to talk about."
Some of these women appear to embrace a new political value system. They are post-feminists who take their equality for granted and don't make it a central issue in their online lives. Via the Web, they are creating new media that don't patronize or dismiss them, treat them as stupid twits, or focus obsessively on the stereotypical female images that have defined traditional media for decades. Their Web sites reject the idea that women are only interested in men, apparel, cosmetics and recipes.
Heather Irwin, creative director of Chickclick (a highly navigable, user-friendly and colorfully-designed site) and a former Hotwired editor, says her site's research indicates that the heart of the female movement online is the 13-30-year-olds. They're smart and they're "using the Net for community, for research, for job hunting and for networking." Offline, Chickclick has noticed, there is a huge surge in these same women reaching out to one another to talk and meet.
"The 13-17 year olds are going to be a major force of their own as they reach adulthood and they seem to have an amazing feeling of sisterhood for each other," Irwin predicts. Although young men often behave differently online than their female counterparts, the same age group is a huge part of sites like this one (Slashdot) and also sees itself as belonging to a new kind of community.
The rise of the Chickclickers is significant on several levels. Anyone who doubts that men and women often make distinct technology choices online ought to visit Chickclick and the many "sister sites" that are linked to the top of its homepage.
It's clear on the younger women's sites -- chickclick, bolt.com, gamegal.com, Teenpeople.com (and sites like Mode, Jane and Jump, one of the first-ever sports sites aimed at young women) -- that there are radical differences from male-dominated sites. And they are markedly less hostile. They use technology to form community, yet the mechanics of the technology are subordinate to what the technology permits them to do. These sites are also distinctly different from Web sites aimed at older women, like oxygen.com and women.com. The latter are less political, and focus less on pop culture, more on so-called "traditional" women's interests -- food, fashion, lifestyle.
"I guess a lot of [us] don't care about the programming code any more than we need to see the insides of the TV before we use it," said Ginger, posting from ROCKRGRL.com, a Chickclick sister site. "The technology is important because it enables us to be here. But I don't care all that deeply how it really works."
In chat rooms and forums that are more personal and less combative than many public sites on the Web, the discussions and threads go on for weeks, even months. Almost all these younger sites link intensely to other sites. Although sites like Chickclick do include stories on cosmetics and appearance, it's often with a political edge -- sniping at the stick women on TV and in glossy magazines, and trading high-school horror stories.
Chickclick's news service Shewired bristles with attitude as well as information: stories on women-owned techno-businesses, female cops, politicians and mass murderers. And artists and performers -- one thing these sites do have in common with more male-oriented geek and nerd sites is an obsessive love of pop culture. Chickclick is crammed with TV stories, movie chats and music-sharing discussions. The site is colorful, smart, newsy and centered around conversations, both one-on-one and many-to-many.
These Chickclicker sites reinforce what has always been the great potential of the Net and the Web -- building new kinds of communities, not hustling dog food and stock tips. The disparities aren't really that surprising. Men and women have completely different histories online, as well as different instincts about using the network. The Net was built and designed almost exclusively by men, since the institutions responsible for its creation and development -- government, defense, engineering and academe -- were overwhelmingly male.
Now, younger men online are interested in techology -- programming, software and hardware, among other things. Women are also interested in Net-offshoots like gaming, but seem more interested in using the Net to find other women, to have some say in issues they care about, something often lacking in their offline lives.
Of course, men and women are often misleadingly stereotyped as well as uncommunicative, hostile and unsupportive of one another. But men do also connect socially online, sometimes through mailing lists, chat rooms and messaging systems, music-trading sites, but also sometimes via prolonged and intense collaborative involvement designing software and writing code,and gaming. The communication appears more indirect, even disguised. But despite alarms from researchers, politicians and the media about the Net-promoted loneliness, most people go online to connect in one way or another, not to stay apart.
Is online gender segregation inevitable? For the short run, almost certainly. But a Web site that focused on technology along with social and cultural issues and which offered humane and rational chat forums might fuse the two cultures. And it would be a hell of a Web site. Attitudinally, there is lots of common ground between Chickclickers and their male counterparts. Both relish the free atmosphere online, and chafe at the restrictive environments of many schools.
Gender aside, as online communities evolve, it isn't clear whether they will inevitably fuse or remain distinct. "The Net is not going to transform the world immediately into a unified place," writes Mark Stefik of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in his new book The Internet Edge. "We have many differences in our cultures and values. ... Embracing too much at once is overwhelming."
But some similarities stand out. "High school is hell for us as it is for smart guys," Donna posted on a Chickclick sister site called http:www.smileandactnice.com. "And the Net is a godsend. We can find each other, talk to each other and give real support and useful information. We trade information about boys, education, colleges, sometimes even jobs. It's very powerful out there. We find the kinds of communities we often don't have in our schools and towns. "She and many of her friends visited established Web sites at first, Donna said, most of them dominated by men. They found the environment useful, "but there is just too much hostility and posturing." And she added, she and many of her friends like to use technology, but don't want to know as many details about it as some men.
"It's been my experience that these young women, to a much greater degree than their male counterparts, are willing to put a vast amount of personal information out about themselves, are willing to connect with others and want to talk about their lives and experiences online," one female Web editor reports. "They form amazing cliques just like in real life. They create alter egos, fantasy stories about themselves and their friends, share photos, swap stories, etc., and they actually form very strong friendships and bonds that often extend into the real world. I think that for a lot of young girls, using the computer is no longer a 'geek' thing to do."
Clearly not. Both genders transcend concerns about geekness.' Now that everybody's grandma is online, along with teachers, stockbrokers and priests, going online is considered less of a 'geeky' experience all the time.
The personality and diversity of expression on sites like Chickclick is astonishing sometimes, a precedent set by landmark sites like Riotgrrls.com Chickclickers tear into Dr. Laura, the homophobic talk show host. In the ChickLounge, they talk about work and self-worth and popularity, dissect the curious role of the supermodel and Hollywood's white-trash obsession, deplore fashion victims and argue about whether parents should encourage children to compete in beauty pageants.
Online, women don't have to hide their brains the way they often do in school, e-mailed a teacher named Grace (Two years ago, I rarely got e-mail from women. Now it's more than 30%). "It's just like being a student. The isolation, the need to hide your intelligence," she says. "I don't want to sit in any more lecture halls projecting phony deference for authority and fake tolerance for my pseudo-peers." Online, she says, she doesn't have to.
As Grace shows, the female rush online is by no means limited to teens. "It wasn't until my late 20s (I am 37 now) when I sat down in front of a computer and logged onto the Net for the first time that suddenly, everything changed," e-mails Melissa. There were thousands of 'me's out there. All trolling the lines of cyberspace for others of the same ilk. I discovered IRC and mailing lists. I instantaneously went from a lost soul to one with a community. I made friends all over the world. I met people I never would have met had I not logged on. And I was communicating constantly."
Lynn Weinberger points out that it's still often difficult for young women to show open interest in science and technology, especially in middle and high schools. "I was unusual for a girl," she was constantly being told, particularly in the seventh and eighth grades, when boys and girls started paying more attention to one another. "I was the nerd with the long hair. I kept to myself and learned as much as I could about the new MacIntosh computers." Weinberger was, according to her teachers, "too quiet ... but it is hard to talk when nobody cares what you have to say, and when every time you open your mouth to speak you are ridiculed by everybody, teachers and students."
Today, she writes, "I hope that people accept me for who I am. I am a female geek, which makes me different. But so what? It makes me all the more unique. This is who I am, and I am finally at 22 years old proud of that. I do not hide myself in silence any more. Yet I can make a bold statement like that and then walk down the street looking at all the people with more popular lives and hipper clothes than me and still feel envy. I will always fight this.'
So do many older women, who are also online in increasing numbers. The Institute for Women and Technology, located at Stanford University, links to scores of sites serving women in engineering and other technological and scientific fields. Femina.com is a collection of women-oriented Web sites, as is Womenconnect.com. But the Chickclickers don't need help navigating the Web. They appear completely at home online, and most have been using computers since primary school. As much as parents cluck about obsessive online use, it seems the Net can be a profoundly empowering tool.
The rise of the Chickclickers may be, along with the open source movement, one of the most far-reaching evolutions in the history of the Net. Because women are drawn to communities and to connection, they may be more likely to involve themselves in politics, or provide standing targets for advertisers. It's surely easier to reach large numbers of them. Their sites offer more potential for continuing conversations about technology, politics, culture and other issues, since there is less flaming and other forms of hostility to get past.
And since women are also pouring into sub-specialties like Web creation and design, they're likely to have considerable impact on all kinds of sites and Net communities. "Perhaps because they had some catching up to do, women have a particular sensitivity to the plight of the people using and navigating the Net and the Web. They are clearly designed and make it easy to ask questions and -- here's something -- get real answers," says Kate, a San Francisco freelance Web consultant. "Their influence is to make the Web more coherent and user-friendly, something male designers were a bit slower to do."
The open-source movement has turned out to be one of the most interesting and significant social movements emerging from the Net. Leapfrogging past its many implications for technology itself, OSS is challenging one mainstream institution after another -- the entertainment industry, education, politics, media -- to pull back the curtains, and topple the barriers between individuals and the information they want and need.
The Chickclickers may ultimately be just as important, as they are building enduring communities that look as if they will last. If the current patterns continue, they'll quickly become one of the biggest subcultures online. They share common sensibilities about politics, culture and technology. They intuitively grasp the Net's landmark potential: to connect people and information in ways never before possible.