Click on to the EVE-olution
Hong Kong's first online English-language women's magazine launches today. David Watkins looks at the rise and rise of girl power on the Net
THE AMERICAN trend-spotter Faith Popcorn may be wacky and irritating, but her prophecies as a self-styled 'cultural detective' have always been newsworthy. A pioneer in terms of charting the so-called 'Eve-olution' - the shifting of the global perspective from men to women - Popcorn can be credited with turning many millions on to the fact that when it comes to spending money, it's women who are responsible for spending the most.
The more cynical male reader may be thinking, 'I could have told you that years ago'. But the fact is that, when it comes to the big financial decisions - houses, healthcare, holidays, cars and schooling - women are today responsible for a hefty 80 per cent of them.
This in itself is nothing new, of course - canny marketers have been aware of this for a long time now, to the extent that the concept of masculinity has been skewed into metrosexuality. Men are now being bombarded with messages coded to appeal to the female senses. At least that's my excuse for shaving my legs this morning.
The internet has been crucial in making this happen, and so it's no wonder the world of women's websites is, in particular, a battleground. Take ivillage.com for example - a site so determined to dominate that it's bought up every domain name that has the word 'woman' in it, taking all internet searches to the same site.
That's the sort of thing you're up against if you want to start your own site - and according to the editor and webmaster of Hong Kong's first online English-language women's magazine - which is set to go live today, one week before International Women's Day - the emphasis on selling has stripped the internet of its original essence.
'Most websites fail because people think they're marketing tools,' says Jo Dehaney, whose WomensWeb.cc attempts to reverse the trend by being content-heavy. 'I think the true message was lost years ago.'
WomensWeb.cc is 41-year-old Dehaney's idea of what the internet should be offering: small, localised communities as opposed to increasingly disconnected bigger ones, while taking the emphasis away from the technology aspect and focusing on the human. Men might call that a woman's touch.
'I don't consider myself to be in IT,' she says, and admits to owning a whole collection of Dummies guides to the world of computing. 'I believe that placing the Web in that category is what has led to much of the misunderstanding concerning its commercial uses and usability. As long as we treat it as a technical issue we will remain removed from it and will be unable to provide it with the human attention it needs.'
The idea is to create a magazine that serves as a local information resource for Hong Kong - predominantly focused on women. Instead of sneaky pop-up ads and spam, her ideal is a site that prizes community and the sharing of information above anything else.
'What I'm trying to do is provide a forum where the reader can access useful information, while small business can get closer to the user,' she says. 'It was important to be a local community site. More and more, women are responsible for family health, for schooling, the holidays - things like that usually come down to a woman's decision.
'People no longer understand where the Web is coming from. It's supposed to be all about content, collaboration and community. You've got to inspire people. The objective is not to get them to visit your site for the first time, but get them back for a second time. The first time is relatively easy.'
To achieve this, Dehaney - who has lived in Hong Kong for 16 years after moving here from her native Britain in 1989 as a backpacker - has used her concept of an online magazine as an outline of where the web should be 'coming from'. The site has been a labour of love that demanded six years of spending 15-hour days in front of the computer.
'I've been everywhere on the Web, right from the early days when they said women would never take to it,' she says. 'I actually went along to some of those stupid venture-capitalist meetings and this guy said to me, 'Don't you think women will find it all too complicated?'
'Another one thought there'd be no more people getting online, that it had already peaked. This was in 1999, when things had just begun to take off. There was a lot of nonsense flying around in those days - I don't know if those guys are still in business.'
Her research was 'six years of studying every angle of the internet' while tracking the progress of other major women's websites, such as ivillage.com and the successful British equivalent, handbag.com.
The magazine is split into different categories focusing on topics that range from professional life to lifestyle features that embrace the likes of food, travel, relationships, parenting and alternative medicine. Each article is written by an expert who is also a professional in their own fields - a 'community guide'.
'They're business owners with in-depth knowledge of their industry,' says Dehaney. 'But the idea is that they must be willing to share their knowledge with the wider community. Some people are reluctant to give away information online for fear that someone will take their ideas, but if you hang about on the edges the traffic will pass you by.'
In sharing, the community guides are able to market themselves to an audience that they might not otherwise reach. There are also two regular columns: one focuses on recipes for those with ill-equipped kitchens; another, Entertaining Without Prozac, advises on how to take the stress out of throwing parties.
'Knowing a woman's perception of the Web is a great tool,' says Dehaney. 'It seems women get online more to research health issues and investigate various aspects of their life than men. And so it's a content-heavy site, with 30 articles added monthly. For small business people, the site offers a way to market themselves as experts in their field.'
Advertising is the smallest of the site's various revenue streams. Instead, it will focus on multimedia tutorial packages to help small businesses with their Web presence, affiliations with other sites, sponsored content (which, Dehaney insists, won't be advertorial) and franchising, with a Sydney version in the pipeline.
'I'm going for world domination and I'm hoping it will be adopted in every major city,' she says. 'So there might be a franchise in Sydney. But, because that city has a huge Lebanese contingent, I'd put up a Lebanese version, too. I hope to take it to wherever there is a large enough community of women to support the site.'
And if it manages to grow successfully, it may help restore a vital ingredient that the internet seems to have lost years ago.
'I don't think we really understood the internet from the word go,' says Dehaney. 'The whole computer industry grew up because of the idea of community. It was about people sharing knowledge and ideas, people sharing code. But as soon as people started to get online in numbers - and they did, very quickly - we commercialised it, jumped on the bandwagon and saw it as an opportunity to sell.
'We never understood the essence of it, we never understood why it was working to start with. It wasn't working because you could buy shoes from London or do your online banking. It worked because people were getting online to find other people, to access and read interesting information. Shared knowledge is power.'