By James Decker
www.Alloy.com is just a little too easy to criticize, and to jump
on this Web site for teenage girls would be to miss one or two key
concepts that this site understands very well. Then, after considering
those concepts, we'll jump all over them. Alloy understands its audience.
Its audience is being jolted by biophysical hormonal changes and have
only recently become aware that their social environment functions
according to rules that had not occurred to them previously. This
audience is being introduced to a public space where, along with other
youth, they can define themselves outside of the traditional sites
of home and school.
Alloy also understands that it is not difficult to persuade a person
in the throes of puberty that the entire world transacts in sex, the
repression of sex. Women in particular are prepared to believe that
sex and beauty are their primary or even their sole cultural currency.
Alloy is clear about the fact that teenagers want chances to name
and claim their sexual feelings in contexts that take those feelings
for real. When we consider in what direction those feelings might
be cultivated, we can waylay our criticisms of Alloy no longer. Questionnaires
are big on Alloy, just as they are in older women's print magazines.
Alloy has essentially created "Cosmo for Children". The
younger than 13 years of age will not be allowed to register on the
site. Of course, registering only serves to restrict access to the
chat rooms and the poetry slam sections--perhaps the least objectionable
areas of the site. The Tell-Us-Your-Spending-Habits quiz and the I'm-Having-Lots-of-Sex
advice columns remain open to all. Given such titillating subject
matter, it is not surprising that young readers find their voices
by blurting sentiments like, "Go for it. Sex in the hot tub feels
good and I didn't even get pregnant."
Now, shopping is not the only activity repeatedly tied to "your"
sexuality at Alloy, you also get promoted to the world of routine
cussing: Bitch, Shitty, and Sucks are key terms
that appear throughout the site. The word sex occurs with greater
frequency than love and, incidentally, sex is of the hetero
variety exclusively. Presumably, anything else would constitute a
complex idea and therefore would be not fun. Alloy's wisdom, however,
is that youth need to test their own voices and are prepared to spend
hours testing the social codes and investigating what sexual experiences
can be about. Schools mostly fail to capitalize on this natural curiosity,
Romeo and Juliet notwithstanding. Most parents are dedicated to overlooking
their child's sexuality. But, while Alloy capitalizes, it misses its
greatest chance to win loyal subscribers, to create a culture around
itself by engaging and contributing to a realistic sense of self.
www.Smartgirl.com provides an excellent, if not a very slick example
of how to engage teenagers as more than consumers and simpletons.
The print-based Sassy magazine offers an example of what that culture
might look like. Seven years after Sassy was taken over, an online
community of loyal readers continues to track the whereabouts of specific
Sassy staff members. Somewhere between the cult popularity of Sassy,
the solid substance of www.Smartgirl.com, and the vacuous promotionality
of Alloy there's a business plan waiting be born.
Everyone will outgrow Alloy and that will be Alloy's loss. Whether
its participants will have emerged with ideas as complex as their
social, economic, political, and sexual realities is surely doubtful.
Unless, of course, Maybeline surprises and really does deliver on
its veiled promises of total fulfillment. If its pointless to think
about how government regulation might positively influence Web content
aimed at youth, is the alternative is to accept the cynicism of commercial
mediocrity? Instead, it should occur to us all that Web sites offer
a somewhat different rhetoric than exists in radio or television.
Where time limits might justify poor or incomplete content on radio
or television, the Web reveals those limitations as conscious and
purposeful decisions. Therefore, the absence of topics beyond shopping,
gossiping, and still more shopping becomes a conspicuous absence.
What's more, Web sites don't fly past. They're available round the
clock for close scrutiny and specific reference via hyperlink. Parents
may even become interested in reliable reviews of sites that target
their kids. Those reviews may include a correlation to the sponsors
of those sites. By this same measure, Web content could come to be
seen as more trustworthy and of higher quality than what is broadcast
scrutiny-free on television or radio. In fact, a poor showing on the
Web could come to be a serious liability that a company's competitors
might choose to publicize.
On my visits to Alloy's chat rooms I noted frequent declarations
of "This is boring," and "No one is talking" but
mostly lots of practice at cussing and lying. So, what's missing?
How could it be different? Perhaps if Maybeline entrusted some of
its advertising funds to the people who produce www.Smartgirl.com
we might find out how responsible companies could cultivate customers,
build loyal communities, and push real limits rather than tweak taboos.