This year is already famous for erasing one of America's newest gender gaps: Women now outnumber men online.
What's more, women will gain greater dominance in Web use in the years ahead, according to at least one recent projection.
Yet such numerical changes hint at something potentially more important. Women use the Net differently, and that is altering the Web's content and its role in society.
Since the Internet's early days, there has been an evergreen worry that the Web would produce an atomized nation of lone keyboard tappers averse to the society of their fellows. With growing numbers of people experiencing the world through a computer monitor, that concern seemed both logical and prescient.
But as more women log on, a different picture is emerging. Women, more than men, say they use the Web in ways that increase their social activity.
From the e-mails they send to the Web sites they visit, women are more eager to interact with family and friends and seek advice and camaraderie for everyday personal and family problems online, according to Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet Project in Washington.
"Women use the Net to enrich their important relationships and enlarge their networks," says Ms. Fox. As a result, women's growing presence online is "reshaping the social landscape," she adds.
The growing presence of women will ripple through the Internet world as surely as the workplace has seen shifts as a result of the growing female workforce.
In purely economic terms, notes a report by Jupiter Communications and Media Metrix, more women on the Web drives more of its content their way as marketers recognize what a growing segment of their audience wants.
Of course, the fact that more women than men now go online doesn't necessarily mean that women spend as much time on the Web as men. Those data are still emerging and will affect how Web dollars are spent.
But those with an eye to the future are certainly paying more attention to teenage girls who, according to Jupiter, have charged on to the Net over the past year at an astonishing rate. The number of girls ages 12 to 17 using the Web has jumped 126 percent, making them the fastest-growing segment of the online population. And to address these users, the Internet is rapidly becoming a place where "girls can tell their own stories and see their lives reflected online," says Jupiter.
No wonder tools to build a personal Web page and chat rooms devoted to personal and family relationships are such popular features of the top Web sites catering to this age group.
Many Internet proponents have disputed the notion that Web use would ultimately weaken traditional family and community bonds. Affiliations would change, they argued, rather than disappear.
Aid to daily life
But the Internet is so new, no one really knows yet what its lasting social impact on family and community will be.
For women, at least, it could well be a tool for strengthening those ties.
Beyond their greater social use of the Web, women seem also to use it more as an aid to daily life, seeking practical, usable information. Men do plenty of that, too, but as the Jupiter study notes, men "are more interested in technology for technology's sake." Men, for instance, are apt to be more patient with the process of downloading software, while women put a premium on "ease of use." Women seek content that directly supports their "offline" lives.
As knowledge of Web use increases, many experts are seeing less evidence of some prevailing stereotypes that have grown up around the Web. For instance, Fox says women and men both like to use the Net for entertainment, just different types of games.
Both men and women use the Web primarily for gaining information and communicating. And each gender uses the Web equally as a tool for making purchases, according to Pew's Fox.
But the type of information sought is often different. Women are more inclined to seek religious and spiritual information through the Web and more likely to seek support groups for family and personal problems than men.
Spilling secrets online
One of the greatest emerging concerns among Web users is privacy. This issue could become particularly problematic for women who, according to new Pew research to be released later this month, are both more worried about privacy and apt to divulge more online. "Women find such value in online support groups, they're willing to ... share feelings and information with strangers" to a greater extent than men, says Fox. That is at odds with women's higher security anxiety about Internet privacy.
While women engage in more social activity online than men, there is one clear exception, according to the new Pew research.
Men are twice as likely, says Fox, to go online to get a date.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society