Two Web sites speak with women's voices

Help: Places exist on the Internet for female users looking for advice, a sense of community, and respect.

January 31, 2000|By Frances Katz | Frances Katz,Cox News Service

If you believe what you see on television, even the most technophobic women have made peace with the Internet thanks to a site called iVillage.com.

A slew of TV commercials for the woman-oriented Web site feature typical women telling heartwarming tales of how, thanks to iVillage.com, they got advice about nutrition or learned about computers or what to expect when they were expecting.

Obviously, no Web site is going to solve all of your work, family, money and relationship problems, but the site's mix of articles, community topics and shopping tips is a good way for women to get started on the Web.

The woman-oriented Web site is one of a growing number that honestly pay attention to what their readers are doing and thinking. As rival Web site Oxygen put it, it's "smart talk for smart women." Borrowing a page from Web magazine Salon, this new generation of women's Web sites knows that the women and teen-age girls who visit their sites have IQs above room temperature. The sites also know how to involve their readers, and that's an exciting and welcome change from many sites on the Web.

IVillage.com is a mix of the conventional and the offbeat, with a something-for-everyone approach that will probably bring a variety of women to the site, just as the ads say.

Sometimes it's predictable, other times surprising. Tuesday night's online chat with Hillary Rodham Clinton was a definite coup, but iVillage really shines when it offers readers a chance to comment on what they've read or voice their opinions.

The company began life on America Online, where talking back and voicing opinions has always been an integral part of the user experience.

Clicking on iVillage's compilation of the 100 greatest books, the reader has no idea whether to expect a litany of gothic novels or cookbooks. Happily, it's neither. Topping the list is "Gone With the Wind," followed by "To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and "Atlas Shrugged." The book list is cleverly linked to Amazon.com and peppered with member comments about the books and how a novel has influenced a particular reader.

To get the most out of iVillage, go beyond the start page with its run-of-the-mill tips on romance, kids and money and check the book club, careers and Election 2000. For women who want to sample what the Web has to offer without straying too far from the community and structure of AOL, this is a good place to start.

While iVillage has been around for a while, Oxygen (www.oxygen.com) is a fairly new site from a powerful collection of women executives, the most notable being Oprah Winfrey.

Oxygen, which will also have a cable TV channel, combines the traditional modes of online interactivity, such as chat and message boards, with multimedia applications, such as video storytelling. When users click on a story, a second browser window pops up and the story is told through streaming video, a cutting-edge technique not found on many Web sites.

Most of Oxygen's users could be frustrated by the time it takes for these "video articles" to load, but most of the stories are worth the wait. It is a sign of the eventual merger of television and Internet technology that users are likely to see in the future.

If iVillage suffers a little from being too mainstream aiming squaret Mrs. America -- Oxygen scores points for targeting women of all ages and offering a more offbeat selection of subjects.

Mothers and their daughters will appreciate Oxygen's mix of articles and attitude. Users aren't asked just to post comments but to submit stories on a variety of subjects. For example, it incorporated the "Girls On" Web site into its "family" of sites. "Girls On" lets teen-agers offer their opinions on film, movies, TV, books and a variety of other issues.

Oxygen's reader contributions and iVillage's member comments feel similar to the way women talk to each other face-to-face. Some comments are thoughtful and witty, others are just silly, but their authors all use the interactive medium of the Web to express their ideas for an audience of peers.

Both women's sites have a long way to go to build reputations like those earned by Salon and Slate, but those two sites could learn from the myriad opportunities Oxygen and iVillage offer for reader input.

Both make good use of content and community that's missing in a lot of online publications, especially those aimed at women. Online women's magazines are a different kind of medium designed for a different kind of woman -- one who likes to talk and not be talked down to.

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