Commerce and Gender: Generating Interactive Spaces for Female Online User

Commerce and Gender: Generating Interactive Spaces for Female Online User

Noemi Maria Sadowska (Regents Business School, Regent’s College, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch022
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Abstract

Internet technology presented the women’s magazine industry with new prospects for publishing and user interaction. The case of BEME.com, the UK online commercial portal targeting female users, exemplifies the tendency for a commercial context to trade in and on gender stereotypes instead of pursuing opportunities for novel conceptions of interaction with users. Contemporary design practices together with a feminist framework are drawn on to explore these issues. It is argued that although design managers and producers might have been aware of the Internet potential to foster new forms of interactive spaces for female users, these advances did not fit within the existing business models of commercial portals. The notions of “becoming” and “user interaction” are suggested as alternative approaches to the development of female oriented Internet portals.
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Introduction

Historically, the women’s magazine publishing industry has traded in and on gender. Its goals and successes are measured by commercial standards where gender stereotypes define its inherent nature, communicate meanings, and users’ perception of what is being sold. Although it is not the only example, the business success of this interplay between commerce and gender owes a great deal to the highly sophisticated visual language developed through years of design practices and enhanced by the adoption of computer-based publishing. In the past decade, magazine publishers have expanded into the realm of the World Wide Web exploring novel opportunities for online user interaction.

It is argued that interaction has been a key component of the women’s magazine publishing industry. Whether in terms of inviting contributions from female readership, engaging readers in competitions, responding to readers’ questions and issues in advice columns, these tools of social interaction have informed notions of communities of readers and readership based on brand loyalty. However, the extent to which this interaction and brand-driven commercial model has also relied on, but moreover perpetuated, gender stereotypes has been the subject of considerable debate (Attfield, 1989; Gauntlett, 2002; McRobbie, 1999).

This chapter investigates Internet spaces defined as commercial portals targeting female users and their role in developing online social interactions. In particular, the intention is to illuminate the impact of a commercial context on the generation of novel interactive spaces for female Internet users. Against the backdrop of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 growth, the case of BEME.com provides an opportunity to examine an online space developed directly out of the women’s magazine publishing tradition in the United Kingdom. A product of IPC Media, one of the leading U.K. consumer magazine publishers which specialises in what are referred to as traditional women’s magazines (including Marie Claire and Woman’s Own), the portal’s development in 1999 and launch in February 2000 was a direct response to an electronic commerce boom of that time. Initially, it was somewhat unusual in that developing BEME.com content and editorially driven brand was given priority over an e-commerce profit-driven strategy. However, at the beginning of 2001, limited commercial success triggered a redesign, strengthening its connection to a traditional woman’s magazine industry approach. When these hasty measures failed to generate sufficient advertising revenue, BEME.com was closed in August 2001.

The chapter highlights how a traditional commercial print publishing concept has maintained a stronghold on the idea of interaction in an online environment. Whilst Web 2.0 technology has presented new possibilities for interaction, this new technology - even in latest commercial portals targeting female users - is not widely applied, and designers of commercial online spaces intended to attract female users do not seem capable or willing to break with gendered visual norms. Contemporary design and Internet practices and a feminist framework provide illuminative lenses with which to explore these issues. The data used in support of this argument derives from the author’s doctoral research asserting the potential of online portal design to offer alternative ways of communicating to female users in order to resist and combat the gendered status quo.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Women’s Magazine Publishing Industry: A specific area of commercial publishing practice often referred to as the commercial production of women’s glossy magazines or “glossies” for female readers. With the introduction of the Internet, the term has also been used to indicate online sites specifically targeting female audiences that subscribe to the traditional values and practices of the women’s paper magazine production and publication.

Gendered Design Practice: Design practice is understood as a combination of the process of designing (making) and its design outcome (the resulting artifact). The term also makes reference to design practitioners’ ability to not only create something new within pre-existing conditions, but also to imbue it with meaning decoded and understood by others. In cases where gender is not explicitly recognised as a factor of (or having influence over) the design process (or outcome) the design practice is then termed as gendered. Thus, gendered meanings are taken for granted leading to perpetuating gender stereotypes that disadvantage women through design processes or its outcomes.

Commercial Online Portal: These are portals that are either general in their services or niche portals that specialise in specific interests

Feminist Framework: A feminist framework occupies a political position seeking changes on behalf of women by focusing on promoting an understanding of women as a group amongst many within any society identified by different needs, desires, values, and priorities due to their role and the position they occupy within these societies. The feminist framework offers new understanding of gender, questioning its “naturalness” in relation to the man/woman dichotomy by shifting the old patterns of description to reformulate them as fluid, culturally located negotiations.

Interactivity: For the most part, interactivity is understood as an ability to facilitate interactions similar to interpersonal communications. Considered from within a feminist framework, interactivity is situated within a social, cultural, political and economic context. From design perspective it is an activity that sets online communication apart from other media such as print, film or animation.

IPC Media: The leading U.K. consumer magazine publishing company and the largest publisher of women’s magazines in Europe.

BEME.com: Women’s commercial online portal launched in the United Kingdom in February 2000 by IPC Media. BEME.com has established itself as one of the top three women’s websites in the U.K. By the end 2000, BEME.com was garnering 1.5 million page impressions per month and was named the Best Designed Magazine on the Web.

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