BOOK EXCERPT: What The Story Behind BlogHer Says About Women And Tech

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This is an excerpt from ‘The Coming Wave: Exploring Women, Innovation, and Social Technology‘ by Jessica Faye Carter.

It all started with Halley’s Comment.

Halley’s Comment is the personal blog of Halley Suitt, a technology professional, author, and pioneer of blogging.

Suitt uses her blog as a platform to hold forth on a range of topics, like “Why Boomers Will Pay Anything to Be Cool,” “Dying to Tell You Our Stories,” (on the life and death of bloggers), and “How to Become an Alpha Male.”

As you can tell by the post titles, her writing is witty, informative, and occasionally provocative; it was in this latter vein that she posted a short message on March 7, 2005.

Suitt had recently attended the Harvard Media centre’s Neiman Conference, an invitation-only conference for influentials in journalism, technology, and media. Attendees included thought leaders such as Rebecca MacKinnon, Craig Newmark, Susan Mernit, and Jeff Jarvis.

Post-conference, in response to some of the concerns raised by participants and others in the blogosphere, Suitt issued a challenge to some of her fellow conference attendees. The post was entitled “10 New Voices,” and it encouraged them to promote 10 new, diverse voices in the blogosphere—the voices of women, people of colour, and international populations.

Unbeknownst to Suitt, others were having similar thoughts. While she was discussing a broader range of diversity in blogging, Lisa Stone, a journalist and the former CEO of Women.com Networks and Elisa Camahort Page, a marketing consultant in San Francisco, had been discussing their idea for a women’s blogging conference. At their initial lunch meeting, after talking over some of the challenges facing women in the blogosphere, Stone said to Page: “I have a crazy idea. Instead of complaining, why don’t we start a conference?”

It wasn’t actually complaining; Stone and Page wanted to address the lack of women represented at blogging events—with action. At the time, women were welcomed at most such events, but many other programs still lacked significant participation from women. Emblematic of this kind of conference was bloggercon, a popular event founded in Silicon Valley. At bloggercon, bloggers convened to discuss trends in the blogosphere, new technologies, and shared practical information like how to get paid to blog. What Stone initially envisioned was a bloggercon for women—in a play on words, they considered calling their event bloggirlcon— and eventually settled on Bloghercon. Then they invited “about a dozen big women bloggers across subjects” to form an advisory board for the conference.

The next step was to clarify their mission: to create opportunities for women who blog to gain exposure, education, community and economic empowerment. They also invited Jory Des Jardins, a member of the initial Bloghercon advisory board, to take on a more prominent role and round out the trio of founders. In the midst of these preparations, Stone attended the Neiman Conference and was one of the participants named by Halley Suitt in her blogging challenge. She accepted Suitt’s challenge—and upped the ante—deciding that the time had come to take their idea public. First, each founder explained the conference idea on her personal blog and asked for feedback. The response from the blogosphere was swift and overwhelmingly supportive.

Thus BlogHer began.

What happened afterwards was both a surprise and an encouragement to the founders. People began taking actions of their own to support the event without any input from the leadership. As Page explained it, everybody got involved—some people offered spare rooms to conference attendees, others gave away airline miles to help non-locals with travel to San Jose, California, where the initial conference was to take place. In a very short period of time, BlogHer had become a community of women with something tangible to support and everyone was invested in its success. Finally, a platform of their own!

In the years since the initial Bloghercon event, BlogHer has become one of the most influential, women-owned, venture-backed companies in the world. It offers BlogHer, BlogHer Business, and BlogHer Food conferences in addition to meetups throughout the United States and abroad. Its network of blogs contains 2,800 unique women’s voices, covering society, politics, motherhood, careers, shoes, technology, food, relationships, and everything in- between—and garners 31 million unique page views each month. What began as a small, one- day blogging conference for women is now a multimillion-dollar new media company that wields considerable influence on the Internet.

The story of BlogHer is about a lot of things: it’s a narrative about women, blogs, and influence, a story about the rise of social media, and even a commentary on how social technologies are shifting the balance of power in the media industry. But above all, BlogHer portended the wave of women that would flock to social media and technology shortly thereafter.

Part of their success was due to the founders’ identification of what business researchers call an opportunity gap: a favourable set of circumstances in which to offer products or services to a previously untapped market. Social tools have always been available to women as well as men but because of the tools’ origins in the tech world, which continues to be male dominated, women lacked exposure to social media and so weren’t adapting or using the available tools at the same levels as their male counterparts. This is where BlogHer found its opportunity. The BlogHer founders didn’t mistake women’s lack of engagement with social media for disinterest; they believed (and were later proven correct) that with exposure, women would adopt what was then an emerging technology in huge numbers.

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Early in 2010, I wrote a couple of articles for Mashable, a popular social media news site, on the topic of women and social technology. For some time I had noticed a considerable uptick in the number of women using social media, but online I found a dearth of meaningful analysis about the reasons behind women’s interest in social tools.

I was surprised to find that many of the comments on my posts argued that gender-based communication styles were a major reason for women’s engagement with social media. The basic argument went like this: women are interested in social media because women are talkative and enjoy socializing.

But this view doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of why women are so heavily engaged in social technology.

It is a mistake—not to mention reductive—to suppose that women’s interest in technology is rooted in gendered communication styles. When you really look at women’s activities on the social web, it’s evident that they are using social technology for a wide range of reasons—some social, some utilitarian, others cognitive. Since everyone enjoys talking and socializing—not just women—and since everyone is doing considerably more than just being sociable on the social web, it seemed evident to me that there was more to the story.

Everyone enjoys the fun and games of social media; I found that women’s engagement with social tools goes well beyond having fun. Women are looking to do more meaningful things, as well: building new lives for themselves and others, gaining exposure for their ideas and abilities, and achieving lasting change in their communities.

Social technology is the practical means for women to reach these goals. But the fact that women are using social media has significant implications for our society because, historically, women have been innovative with communication as a precursor to and during times of significant social change, and have also solidified such change through their social networks.

This is an excerpt from ‘The Coming Wave: Exploring Women, Innovation, and Social Technology’ by Jessica Faye Carter.

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