The Brave New Web Order

Well, it’s official. The numbers finally prove what even the staunchest resister must have recognized all along: The Internet is no longer the last remaining bastion of maleness.

Women now lead men in Net use by a few tenths of a percentage point. Doesn’t sound like much, but in terms of the psychological impact, it’s a bombshell. So prepare, everyone — and especially you men who smugly thought that the challenges of dialing up, squishing browser bugs, and navigating an infinite number of sites would keep most women away from the Web — for a brave new Internet world.

The report that brings us the big news, from Jupiter Communications and Media Metrix, reveals the important finding that women use the Internet differently. Women want sites that create emotional connections. They want to bond.

Warm and Fuzzy

Personally, I think that’s a load of psychobabble, and that women can be as cold and utilitarian about the Internet — which is a utility, after all — as the most macho of men. Maybe even colder. (I know several guys who keep revisiting Web sites for no other reason than to see their cool Flash intros.)

But what I think doesn’t matter. Rest assured, the report has spread across the e-commerce world faster than an e-mail virus. Companies that long ago spotted the trend and hung “Women Welcome” signs outside their virtual doors are claiming victory. The laggards who lacked the prescient ability to spot the obvious trend are surely busy catching up.

E-tailers are smart. They know that women have huge buying power, both directly and through their influence on purchases made by others. For instance, women influence 85 percent of all car purchases, according to Autobytel.com.

A Women’s Web

The upshot is that women are going to be getting an awful lot of attention in cyberspace, and it can only come at the expense of men. It may not mean huge changes to the casual observer. But woe to the guy who’s grown accustomed to the male version of the Web.

The changes will be swift and insidious. The e-mails you get from all those sites you patronized just once will start to appear in your In box with little smiley faces and tiny hearts over the ‘i’s. They’ll address you by name — and tack on a pleasant greeting. Maybe they’ll even start asking about your kids in a non-threatening way.

Or not. Maybe companies will start getting serious about asking for input, actually consider suggestions, and — and miracle of miracles — respond to complaints. I expect the company that now embraces me as its “friend” is already thinking this way.

Seriously, though, smart Web companies recognize that targeting niche markets is effective only when you have a niche product. Women like content sites like Clubmom.com and Oxygen.com because they are relevant to their lives. But when the time comes to spend some money, they are just as likely to turn to Amazon or Yahoo! as the regular guys.

More Upside

Am I suggesting that nothing should change? Of course not. Well-run companies in all industries react to changing times and shifting demographics. But they don’t panic and they don’t overreact. They say focused on their goals: providing good service, keeping prices down, and making profits for their shareholders.

Will a lot more virtual “Women Welcome” signs go up in the next few months? Count on it. Perhaps some deeper, more significant changes will take place, as well. Maybe the geniuses who invent search engines will be prompted to develop methods for tracking down and categorizing sites that actually make sense. Maybe privacy initiatives will speed up as the new audience demands it with a sterner tone.

While we’re dreaming, let’s imagine that women — who pushed together the gender divide themselves rather than waiting for the tectonic plates to shift — may lend some intelligence to solving the other great gaps separating the online haves from the have-nots, erasing the technology deficit of minorities and low-income people. Anything’s possible.

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