Eighth grade was the worst year of my life," says Ashley Power, 15, whose quick wit and flawless looks make it tough to imagine her as anything less than the most popular girl in school. But when she switched to a new junior high in Burbank, Calif., two years ago, the class cliques promptly brushed her off, forcing her to turn to the Web to make friends. The result: goosehead.com a site she created that is chock full of games, music downloads and original comedy in streaming video. "I want to make Goosehead a teen-entertainment network," says Power, whose site gets more than 50,000 unique visitors a month.
A new study from research firms Media Metrix and Jupiter Communications helps explain Goosehead's appeal. Since 1999 the number of teen girls online has more than doubled, to 4.4 million. And for the first time in the U.S., more women are logging on than men. While the percentage of teen girls is increasing the fastest, women 55 and older are a close second. What's the lure? Girls chat on sites like teen.com and cosmogirl.com while working moms save time shopping at sites like babygear.com and walgreens.com Older women frequent health and family sites, such as merck-medco.com and familyhistory.com
"After years of talking about women and computer phobia, it turns out that women were simply reticent about a technology for which they didn't have compelling uses," notes sociologist and M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle. At alloy.com a top teen site with a 60% female audience, that means horoscopes, advice and message boards. But pegging women's interests isn't always that pat. Ann Wrixon, CEO of www.seniornet.org says, "Three years ago, women on our site were only interested in special topics like knitting or book clubs. Now they're just as likely to tell someone how to fix a computer as a man is."
Nancy Close, 70, is as much a part of the surge in wired women as Ashley Power. A retired teacher, Close first went online six months ago at her daughter's urging. Now the Columbus, Ohio, widow spends three hours a day auctioning paper dolls on eBay, researching health facts for her Chihuahua and sending e-mail. Why didn't she make the leap sooner? "It was intimidating," she says. "But now I'm trying to get all my senior women friends online."
Even traditionally male enclaves like online gaming are seeing an influx of estrogen. A year ago, the site Total Entertainment Network targeted hard-core gamers who played Quake and Duke Nukem online. The site was 98% male and had 30,000 subscribers. Last fall it changed its name to pogo.com and switched to more casual games like checkers, spades, bingo and euchre. Of its now 10 million users, 49% are women. The lesson: catering to women online isn't just open-minded; it's good business.
--By Anita Hamilton