By James Decker 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 well-hidden privacy policy states that anyone who self-identifies 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. 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, 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 we might find out how responsible companies could cultivate customers, build loyal communities, and push real limits rather than tweak taboos.