Girls just want to have fun on the Internet Computers: The Web, often thought to be the domain of nerdy young men, is attracting young females.

August 20, 1996|By Nathan Cobb | Nathan Cobb,BOSTON GLOBE

Until this past winter, Alexandra Gero thought going online 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 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 online 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 online 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 online 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 online, what she's seeking usually depends on her location. 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 teen chat rooms. "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 online stuff from 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 online -- 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."

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