More and More, Girls on the Web (8/14)

c.1996 The Boston Globe

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Until this past winter, Alexandra Gero thought going on line was, like, boring. The 11-year-old had watched her father send and receive enough digital sacks of e-mail to be thoroughly underwhelmed. But then she and a friend discovered on-line ``chat,'' meaning they learned they could hold keyboard conversations with far-flung kids about Alanis Morissette and other equally important matters. They were way impressed, and they've been happy travelers on the information superhighway ever since.

``You can do it for, like, hours,'' effuses Alexandra. ``There are a million things you can talk about. And if the person you're talking to leaves, there's always someone else out there.''

Chances are growing that this someone else will be a girl, too.

The image of cyberspace as being largely populated by boy nerds - All those thick glasses! All that pasty skin! - is dissolving.

``Girls are really coming to the party. They want to be part of this,'' says Aliza Sherman, whose Manhattan consulting outfit, Cybergrrl Internet Media, is currently designing a World Wide Web site to be called Girl Zone. Its theme? ``Don't be afraid of this technology. It's a tool for you,'' Sherman says.

It's a message that appears to have already gotten out. When Georgia Tech conducted an on-line survey of World Wide Web users in April 1995, less than 1 percent of those who replied were females under 21; when the same poll was conducted this past April, this group represented about 5 percent. (Replies by boys, meanwhile, grew modestly from 7 to 8 percent.)

Sifting data from the major on-line services also reveals that girls have become bigger players. In May, 45 percent of America Online's domestic on-line users between the ages of 6 and 17 were female, up from 40 percent just six months earlier. At Prodigy, messages on Girl Talk, a bulletin board where girls can post musings on all manner of subjects, are up 30 percent over a year ago. And at CompuServe, a major print advertisement for WOW!, the company's new family-oriented on-line service, features only one person: a typical-little-girl type, not a nerdy-little-boy type.

But if girls just wanna be wired, what for?

When 17-year-old Amanda Hurst lifts off on line, what she's seeking usually depends on the location of her launchpad. If she's in school, she's likely to use the Internet's World Wide Web to check out the news, find sites that deal with her favorite authors, or look up colleges she's considering attending. At home, she's more likely to drop into one of America Online's seemingly endless teen chat rooms to see what's going down. ``What I do at school is for information,'' she says. ``What I do at home is for connection.''

(Warning to addicted chatters: Hurst recently cut herself off from America Online, canceling the subscription she paid for herself by working part-time at a bookstore. ``I'd been just sitting there chatting for hours and letting the bill run up,'' she says. How high? ``Too high,'' she groans.)

When CompuServe was gearing up to launch its WOW! service in March, it created focus groups of several 9-to-13 year-olds and quickly learned that girls wanted different on-line stuff than boys.

``Boys thought there should be no words and should be a lot of pictures,'' says Stephen Svengros, managing editor of the kids' and teens' areas on WOW. ``They also wanted lots of games and no section on books. But the girls came in and said they wanted a book section and to be able to read stories. The boys were visually oriented and the girls were text oriented. And the girls were much more interested in what other kids around the planet are doing.''

So if boys are looking for hot visuals during their on-line journeys - read: earth-splattering games - girls are leaning more toward finding stuff and finding each other. A World Wide Web survey of 430 girls between the ages of 9 and 18 has found that the most popular haunts of these 'Net surfers are TV, movie or soap opera sites. Next come music sites, along with sites where girls can chat or leave messages.

``Initially computers were a boy medium, so that's how we defined them,'' explains Elise Howard, associate director of Her Interactive, a girls' software developer. ``When you talked to girls about them, they weren't interested because they saw them as masculine toys. But if you talk to them about communication with computers, about sharing information and finding out about things they're interested in, then they're interested.''

You don't have to spend much time visting, say, an Internet newsgroup for kids to find girls who are hungering for keypals.

In a group called, 14-year-old Shanti announces that she likes talking on the phone and playing the flute, ``So anyone please write!''; Kirsty, who is 12, writes ``If u r a gorgeous boy aged 12 or over, then pleez write 2 me''; and 14-year-old Candice promises ``Write and I'll fur sure post ya back!'' Meanwhile, in a group called, 12-year-old Mindy in Southwest Texas is swapping messages with 11-year-old Elizabeth in Western Australia, who wrote that she wanted ``a penpal from an interesting place.'' Wonders Mindy: ``What's it like in Australia anyway?''

``This is the next generation on the phone,'' declares Cybergrrl's Sherman.

And, like the telephone, the computer offers a certain amount of soothing anonymity.

``Girls enjoy not having to deal with the lookism of our society,'' says Janese Swanson, CEO of Girl Tech, a company that focuses on technology for girls and that is currently working on a book titled ``Girls' Guide to the Internet.'' ``By that I mean we're obsessed with the way we look, and for girls there are a lot of issues around that. When you're on line, that issue is taken away.''

True, much of this on-line chatter seems like stereotypical girly-girl talk that deals with the likes of fashion, makeup and Tom Cruise. But Nancy Rhine, for one, isn't particularly worried.

As the founder of Women's Wire, an on-line service for women, Rhine was a strong and early female voice on the 'Net. Today she's director of women's programming at America Online, and its magazine subsidiary, Global Network Navigator. ``It's true that you see a lot of girls in chat rooms, and that it's a pretty low level of communication,'' Rhine says. ``But it gets their hands on the keyboard, which is good. It gets them excited about the medium. The important thing is to get them exposed.''

Besides, consider Limor Fried. It was four years ago, when she was 12, that Fried set up her own computer and modem, and she's been on line since.

Today the 16-year-old is likely to be found earnestly looking into the subject of computer security on an Internet newsgroup called, or dialing up a computer bulletin board known as The Works. (``That's where people talk about everything from cows to making bombs.'') ``I do not do MUDS,'' Fried says, referring to Multi-User Dungeons, the elaborate online chat worlds where participants take on different characters.

``I do not do AOL. (America Online) I am not an on-line kiddie. I'm on the 'Net for a purpose. For information. I'm not on there saying I'm 16 years old, 5'2'' tall, and looking for someone who looks like Tom Cruise. For me, the 'Net is not a lifestyle. It's a tool.''

Fried clearly knows her way around the 'Net. But many parents of even sophisticated young female users are concerned about safety and propriety, issues that continue to dog the on-line experience. While stories of child abuse emanating from on-line contact are rare, they are real enough to frighten many parents. And sexual harassment remains practically an on-line staple.

Meanwhile, try finding a nifty on-line site for your daughter by typing ``teenage girls'' into an Internet search engine. Many of the places to which you'll be directed won't be what you had in mind at all, nor will the language describing them.

Twelve-year-old Alia Toran-Burrell learned how to chat on the Internet during a recent Girl Scout-sponsored trip to Northeastern University. Within a couple of hours of returning home, she was holding on-line conversations. She was thrilled, but her mother wasn't.

Carey Toran seems relieved that summer camp has now come between Alia and her on line travels. ``I have concerns about unsupervised surfing and making chat friendships with who knows who,'' she says. But Toran also worries that she may discourage her daughter from acquiring computer skills she'll need down the road. ``Am I being too conservative?'' she frets.

Swanson, who prior to founding Girl Tech was the producer of the highly regarded ``Carmen Sandiego'' software series for kids, is the single parent of a 9-year-old daughter. She calls such issues ``a big concern to me.'' Her advice?

``I would tell parents to sit down with their daughters at the computer, to explore and to talk about what they find,'' she says. ``Then, when they're comfortable, they should leave them alone. We can't protect our daughters by prohibiting them from being on the Internet. We can only provide guidance. That's our job as parents.''

And, like, it's only cyberspace, right? OK, so it may bring you news of Alanis Morissette, a keypal in West Texas, and the latest riff on computer security. But as even Limor Fried points out, ``You really do need to hold a book sometimes.''

-Girls' Best Sites

The best World Wide Web sites for girls as selected by the staff of Girl Tech, the San Francisco creators of the upcoming book, ``Girls' Guide to the Internet''

Club Girl Tech - ( )

Multi-facted, interactive site for girls age 6 and up.

Cyber Sisters - ( )

Girls in the news, e-mail addresses of cyber sisters, links to gil home pages.

Girl Talk - ( )

Moderated bulletin board for discussion of a variety of issues.

Girls Internationally Writing Letters - ( )

Pen pal club for girls ages 8-14.

Girls Interwire - ( )

An on-line magazine by a girls' software developer.

Girls Series Web Page ( )

Links to authors and Web sites related to girls' series books.

Grrls in the Comics - ( )

Girl heroes and villains, women artists, news articles.

New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams - ( )

International magazine edited by girls.

TAP - Notable Women in Computing - ( ).

Learn about the female stars of the digital universe.

Women of NASA - ( )

By and about the females at NASA.

WWW Women's Sports Page -( )

Links to women's sports sites around the Internet.

(The Bloomberg web site is at )<

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