The Internet is an egalitarian wonderland where women are free to voice their opinions, dodge rape GIFs, meet new people, field rape threats, forge communities, and get asked to show strangers their boobs. What would happen if men weren’t allowed in?
Women.com, a new social network exclusively for women, is currently testing that premise. Launched by former Facebook employee Susan Johnson, Women.com—now in an invite-only beta stage—is a social network that encourages women to pose questions to the community (current queries range from “How do I get paid what I’m worth?” to “Bra or no bra?”); upvote the most relevant answers; and, if all goes according to plan, engage in the type of real talk that doesn’t surface on massive social networks like Facebook or masculine-aligned, comment-driven platforms like Fark.
So far, the site feels a little like a Yahoo Answers stocked with a diverse crew of smart women—the top answer to one user’s question about whether she should pursue a relationship with her married boss is, in its entirety, “NO”—and speaking as a person who has typed personal questions into Google’s abyss on more than one occasion, I can understand the appeal. With a little more firepower—I’d like to see Laverne Cox weigh in on the question of how parents can teach their daughters that they’re worthy, for example, or reps from the Tech LadyMafia on the issue of how to deal with inappropriate sexual behavior from VCs—it has the opportunity to transcend that guilty-pleasure atmosphere and evolve into a necessary resource. (Johnson says that Quora-style expertise identifiers for contributors are currently in the works.)
I talked with Johnson about what women talk about when Facebook isn’t watching, how a community can get big without going negative, and why the site has the potential to make a boatload of cash. Our interview has been condensed and edited.
Slate: What are women talking about on Women.com that you don’t see them talking about on sites like Facebook?
Susan Johnson: The Internet has traditionally not been a very safe space for women to speak their minds. Women dominate all these social platforms online—we’re 58 percent of Facebook and 84 percent of Pinterest—but our offline conversations aren’t matching our online conversations. If you look at a conversation in real life that’s just women, there’s something really special about that specific interaction. The same is true for men—if there’s a group of all guys, the tone and cadence of the conversation is just different with one specific gender. But most sites now are not encouraging women to interact in a really well-lit, positive manner. A lot of comments sections are hidden below the fold or overrun with trolling comments; on Facebook, we’re talking with seemingly everyone, so we’re not necessarily sharing our thoughts on the Middle East, or even what we bought at Nordstrom.
Today’s main question [“Friend’s husband is cheating. Do I say something?”] was really interesting. I don’t think anyone would ever post that on Facebook, and it’s a true dilemma. You can Google that stuff, and Yahoo Answers will be your only result, and you won’t know who you’re talking to, and the answer will be somewhat … illiterate. Or the question about how to raise a daughter who respects herself—you can ask that on Facebook, but you won’t get access to this larger community of women with experience.
Slate: Why build the site around questions?
Johnson: I found them to be the basic foundation of a lot of great conversations I’ve had with my female friends—we’re sharing stories, but we’re also asking questions about things that happen in our lives, from our relationships to our politics to the face cream we’re using at night. In true Internet fashion, we launched with a minimal viable product to see if the idea could get traction and take hold. But as the site evolves we, hope to see women starting conversations about articles they find interesting, or events they want to create, or books they’re reading and want to share with the greater community, and forming microcommunities around different topics that interest them.
Slate: Early on, users were asking questions about how inclusive Women.com would be for queer women, and particularly for trans women. How are you going to address that?
Johnson: I knew this was going to be a topic that I would address once we opened up the site, and it happened faster than I thought. As I said when the question was raised on the site, yes! Women.com is an inclusive community for all women. If you identify as a woman, you’re welcome here. We allow everyone to connect through Facebook Connect, and if you’re a trans woman who identifies as a woman on Facebook, then that’s that. You’re in. If you’re someone without a Facebook profile, there are a couple of more steps you’ll go through for verification—users can send us their LinkedIn profile or photos of themselves—and we have a very diligent community management team that’s on the site all the time, monitoring the conversations to make sure they’re authentic. We’ve had a couple of men try to break in, and we just escort them out.
Slate: Facebook has recently added a huge number of gender categories that users can identify as beyond male or female.
Johnson: I think there are 50-plus additional genders now, and we’ve incorporated them into our user flow: Women get right in, men don’t get in, and if you list any one of those 50 or so other categories, you’ll go through a couple additional qualifying steps. The woman-only requirement is just one wall we’ve put up in an attempt to create a safe community. If you’re a good member of the community, you’re going to be fine. But if you don’t have a good and authentic impulse for participating, our community managers will figure it out.
Slate: Do you see “LGBT” becoming one of the site’s main sections?
Johnson: We’ve seen overwhelming engagement on that question, which I love, and we hope to see women in LGBT communities create their own microcommunities on the site. We applaud and encourage that.
Slate: Women.com obviously has about half of the potential user base of a mainstream network like Facebook. Do you think the gender specificity will be appealing to advertisers?
Johnson: I think our revenue model is definitely, naturally an advertising revenue model. At Facebook, I worked with advertisers and marketers, teaching them how to share and reach their audiences, and they all wanted to connect with women—because women control 80 percent of U.S. consumer spending, which is a $5 trillion number. But I’ve also learned a lot from women’s magazines, where a lot of the advertising is actually beautiful content. I’ve worked with women who would rip out advertisements for Prada and hang them on their cubicle walls, because they’re truly pieces of art. I don’t know that Prada is going to be making custom ads for Women.com, but eventually we hope to have a really native experience where we have a large community base supported by advertising.
Slate: One problem that’s endemic to every community of women that’s ever existed—so apologies if you can’t solve it—is that while these communities start off with a goal of positivity, it’s not always possible to be both positive and honest, because being honest can mean criticizing other women. How will Women.com deal with that?
Johnson: There’s a difference between being mean and engaging in productive criticism, and we hope to err on the latter side. Community management is very important to us, and that means giving tools to the community members themselves—to report and flag specific types of content—as well as using technical means to get rid of really bad users. We don’t want hate speech or socially negative material on the site. But it’s not all on us; it’s on every woman who’s in here to make sure it’s a home that feels good for everyone.
We take our invitation strategy really seriously—the initial, early adopters of Women.com will invite their friends in, and you don’t want to embarrass your friend. You’re also linked to your Facebook profile, so people kind of know who you are. We hope that will set the bar much higher coming in. From there, it’s just a matter of maintenance.