Eva Pascoe, managing director of the shopping portal Zoom, assesses a range of rival sites dedicated exclusively to women’s interests
My journey started from www.handbag.com, the youngest of the women’s portals, part-funded by Boots, the high-street chemist. It provides typically Boots-bland but oh-so-useful tips, such as how to roast a vegetable, and covers a predictably mixed bag of cookery-to- pregnancy topics, curiously similar to Women.com, its American equivalent. The site contains a directory of cookery ideas, opportunity to chat in the so-called powder room, a section for young mothers, and interviews with well-known chefs. A shopping section focuses on fashion and accessories, with Dorothy Perkins and Principles displaying their latest collections. Though the site feels like a low-end print magazine, its dark-blue and white livery gives it the air of an IBM subsidiary, which I would guess results from its being designed by a man to reflect a man’s idea of what women are interested in.
Actually, before I reached the real thing, the search for Handbag produced a hilarious site, which is a parody of Boots’s efforts, a hoot that you mustn’t miss at www.handbag.homepage.org.uk, which contains an article called I Married Myself and a fashion show for trendy suburban fashion addicts. It is very funny, as it exposes the irritating, aspirational articles that litter women’s magazines.
I had to force myself to look up www.women.com, which has cornered the stereotyped school of women’s writing in America and integrates traditional women’s magazine topics. Women.com is run by two sexagenarian females who are high-powered financial whizzes and seem to have experienced the peak of their womanhood some time in the 1950s. The site focuses on those topics – looking after the husband and cooking six-course dinners for 10. It is essentially a hardcore commercial effort, where content is only a half-hidden excuse for pushing online shopping.
Women approach shopping like men relate to football: it is a deeply consuming passion and an unrequited love affair. One of the superuseful sites that meets these requirements is www.fashionbot.com. This is a search facility where you can locate the cheapest bras or the best pair of chinos available on the virtual high street, without sweating it out on Saturdays. A big cheer to the company that has struck a deep chord in many female hearts.
Fashion-lovers have the helping hand of www.vogue.com with its high-quality previews of the spring 2000 catwalk collections. This is where UK women’s portals must go if they want to retain respect. Vogue.com has wisely decided to focus on beautiful photography, essential reporting and production values – and maintained its faithful female audience for the past four years, a long time in cyberspace – in contrast to some portals that fall foul of excessive ambition and fail to deliver even quality.
Martha Lane Fox from lastminute.com told me that she cannot find anything original online any more and she is probably right in the area of women’s portals, which are so often predictable rehashes from magazines.
A site that is not officially known as a women’s portal, but has been attracting thousands of women over the past five years is www.echonyc.com. This is a conversation area, originally composed of women writers, now opened up into a digital-art and female-community site, loosely based around New York but with participants from London and Berlin. You pay to play in what is a great virtual coffee shop. People such as Madonna contribute to continuing virtual conversations on topics ranging from sex, to how to be a female boss, to love in the 1990s. The quality of conversation is usually high, and the visiting celebs add a touch of surprise.
This is the mother of all bulletin boards, but with a very special ambience, where some of the most interesting and important female thinkers come together to reflect on today’s massive lifestyle revolution. Echo was one of the early bulletin boards and is still one of the best examples of a compassionate, intelligent and creative online female community. The internet’s virtue is to connect like- minded people, and Echo does show that virtual belonging is as strong as physical membership. Women need other women to function and be happy, and Echo is an example of how that can be accomplished even if the network members live an ocean away.
Many of these new sites are largely produced by existing publishers, and therefore concentrate on offering newspaper and magazine content online rather than interactive services. One hopes that this state of affairs is only temporary and that with time the new sites will take advantage of the net itself. Sites such as Women.com clearly aim to simulate the experience of reading a glossy magazine without the luxurious paper; websites should focus on providing services that I cannot find in a magazine. I wish the women’s portals would come up with an online service
for women that is as compelling as real-time sports results are for men. Only then can we talk seriously about a women’s portal.
Sunday Times, (London, England)
Sunday, November 7, 1999
Author: Eva Pascoe