THE BLOG
05/30/2006 11:51 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Women and Blogging: My Conversation with BlogHer's Jory Des Jardins

BlogHer-250-beta.png

Perseus Development Corporation says women bloggers comprise 56 percent of the blogging population. A recent Pew Internet survey says women comprise 43 percent.

As a degree-holder in Sociology, a journalist who has written about the online world since the pre-Web days and as a blogger- admittedly of the "Y" chromosome tribe- I have been fascinated by these numbers and the questions they engender.

My innate (some would say irritating) curiosity drove me to investigate further. That's when I decided to interview Jory Des Jardins. Along with fellow veteran Internet content cohorts Lisa Stone and Elisa Camahort, Des Jardins is a co-founder of BlogHer.

Initially launched in 2005 as the operational arm of the first BlogHer conference, BlogHer is now an actual year-round business, functioning full-fledged community resource and services provider for women bloggers. In that vein, BlogHer Conference '06 will be held July 28-29 at the Hyatt in San Jose.

From her vantage point as President, Business Development & Alliances for BlogHer, Jory (an old colleague of mine from a sadly defunct Baby Boomer website) exchanged views with me about women's impact on the Internet, and especially on the Blogosphere.

A transcript of that email interview follows. "Russ" precedes my questions; "JDJ" precedes Jory Des Jardins' erudite, bold-faced answers.

Russ: My opening question: Venus and Mars in the Blogosphere... given the pop culture meme spread by Deborah Tannen and others that women and men communicate differently in the real world; do the preponderance of bloggers articulate themselves differently due to gender? Or is that just a stereotype?

JDJ: My partner, Elisa Camahort would respond differently than I would to this one. She believes you can't make sweeping generalizations about how men and women communicate online. I agree that you can't make generalizations, but I'm further down the continuum toward believing there are differences. I tend to think that gender often plays into how a reader engages with you. Some men engage by arguing with you, for example, as do women with a masculine communication style. Using Tannen's distinction has been helpful to me; I've learned to not feel so criticized when I'm questioned by a commenter. This is just a masculine style bumping up against my feminine approach (pardon the graphic depiction).

And while there are many brilliant male bloggers who are excellent storytellers, I firmly believe women own the narrative touch, whether they are talking about shopping or Darfur. Let's be honest, if you were to read a line from an anonymous blogger that reads, "So I'm in Banana Republic and the craziest thing happened..." who are you going to assume wrote it?

Russ: Before I ask you some specific questions about women bloggers and about BlogHer, I'd like to ask you a few related to your decade or so of experience in demographically targeted media.

Russ: Back in the late 1990s, the online world was seen as one that was heavily male, young and geeky. Women were perceived either to not be "on" the Internet yet due to the gender gap, or to use the Internet shopping, auctions and maybe some health info. At what point did you sense that stereotype was outdated, if indeed it has been? Or do women and men still use the Internet somewhat differently?

JDJ: I worked briefly at iVillage back in 1999, and my stock options were not valued at $95 on a hunch that women would eventually flock to the internet--they were already there! But I do believe it took a while for the use of content management tools and self-publishing to catch on with women without computer science degrees. Even as recently as 2003, when a male friend of mine used to send me links to his fairly Neanderthal-looking Weblog, I thought, "Nice hobby for you, Nerd," and I had already worn the big, honking Web 1.0. retrospectacles and been working in new media for nearly four years.

What shifted for me and, I think, for many users, is a shift in faith in the value of user-generated content. Rebecca Blood speaks of the nichification of media. You can find a cable channel for nearly everything, and everyone can be an expert in something. Women were already playing by these rules. You can now imagine the conversation, "My friend Jan is a Project Runway freak, and she says that Santino's designs weren't very ambitious ..." happening on a night out over drinks with the girls or on a blog. Only with the blog there's no need for a Designated Driver; everyone can partake.

Russ: What did early sites such as iVillage (which I know you worked for) do right to encourage more online participation from females? What did they not do as well, and may not be doing as well today?

JDJ: They "got" the power of community. Like I said, I was at iVillage briefly, but my observation applies to other strong community sites like pre-merger Women.com: they knew they had to get their readers in conversation to be successful. iVillage put a lot of energy in developing Community Leaders, who were like party hosts, making sure the conversations were engaging and on-topic, and that there was always someone there. You cannot discount the value of feeding the conversation. I left and went to a baby boomer content site that had loads of content, but we struggled with the community side, and without it you have a tough time keeping eyeballs.

But message boards don't cut it anymore. There's still a use for message boards, or forums--BlogHer hosts forums! However, with so many people changing the way they consume information, opting to have it sent to them instead of checking back to a favorite Web site, message boards have become less relevant. They appeal to people who consume Web content by browsing. As RSS (Really Simple Syndication, a technical way of distributing blog content) and IM (Instant Messaging) continue to grow in usage, online conversations must be pushed to audiences who request them but are too busy to actively seek them out. Sure, Q&As and message boards provide interaction, but not the acknowledgement.

Put it another way: Web 1.0 was a nice switch because instead of simply being a boring news broadcast, it fielded questions from the audience; it was more like a talk show. But Web 2.0 lets the audience point to others in the audience who can also provide answers. Provided people don't get all Jerry Springer, it's a much more three-dimensional and rewarding experience. Who doesn't like getting props?

Russ: Your formative years in the online world overlapped with the "boom" years for the Internet. Looking back, what were some of the mistakes made back then that have, or can be turned into, teachable moments for entrepreneurs today, regardless of gender?

JDJ: Oy! For those of us whose livings relied on new media it was like being a teenager in the 1920s and then suffering a spiritual Depression. You think there's so much possibility and then you're scrounging for work. It really does a number on your identity; it makes you VERRY humble.

I had been at fairly traditional media companies before working for a start-up in '99. I had never worked somewhere where I got three promotions (and raises) in a year before. My progression was based on what I accomplished, period, not on how many years of servitude I put in. This was highly motivating, and very dangerous. It made me think I knew everything or that I could fake it and still do well. I suppose the lesson here is be prepared for the long haul, and never assume you know it all. One of the things that struck me immediately when I began working with Elisa Camahort and Lisa Stone was their Pavlovian response to getting a second opinion, to set up a team of experts. They started by assembling an advisory board early last year for BlogHer '05. I believe that if we hadn't worked with this board and enlisted strongly connected people in the blogging community we never would have launched the conference.

Russ: I remember my Mom keeping a diary when we were growing up. It was all pen and book. I never heard of a guy keeping a diary. Since more women then men kept diaries, what in the X-chromosome does that tell us about the willingness of women to present their experiences, ideas and opinions in a Blog?

JDJ: John Gray, the Mars/Venus guru says women are chemically wired to tell stories--we have a biological need to connect and vent. I won't make mincemeat of the man's work by trying to explain why. The point is I believe women are hardwired to chronicle their stories. We're less apt to blog for world domination and more for world understanding. And if you want to give us a fat book deal in the process, so be it.

I think of my Mom, who for more than 30 years publicly identified herself as "(insert name of one of her children's names)'s Mom". When I approach the subject of monetizing her blog she bristled and insisted it wouldn't be fun anymore. But in light of losing her job last year, the death of my father and grandfather, and providing care for my ailing grandmother, she says blogging is a lot cheaper than Prozac. Connecting is her drug.

Russ: Does a "certain type" of woman blog? We all know shy and private types who were not encouraged to have opinions at the dinner table when they were growing up, and even now only talk about their opinions and perspectives to other women over coffee. Others feel they would like to share their opinions, but they never get around to publishing them. So are we to assume that women bloggers are more outgoing, more experienced writers, more comfortable with the blog publishing technology tools?

JDJ: I don't know what pre-existing attributes make a good blogger. I don't think temperament has anything to do with it; introverts and extroverts are bloggers. I was surprised to meet women at the BlogHer Conference who roar online but speak rather softly in-person; they used their blog for amplification. There's also an offline assumption that bloggers have a lot of free time. Ummmm, right. Bloggers MAKE time to blog. None that I've met--even the ones that "blog professionally" actually have that much time to blog. But they are compelled to tell stories, or to extract information; and they question the status quo, even if they are perceived as part of it.

Russ: To what extent have social networking sites such as MySpace, LiveJournal, and others encouraged women to blog by making it even easier for them to do so then Blog-hosting services such as Typepad and Blogger?

JDJ: I can't answer this question because I skipped these custom-templated sites and jumped right into TypePad. Only a subsegment of the women I know and read have blogs in both places. I think this is more a function of age than tech savvy.

But I'll share this: Way back in the days of the 56k modem I once dated a hard-core techie who asked me not to make public to his friends the fact that I had 1) dial-up and 2) an AOL account. He set me up with a cool, custom-built ISP account from his server, and I never used it. It passed muster in SOMA (South of Market Street in San Francisco, where many trendy Internet firms have been located) but, well, it was ugly.

Women are interested in technology because of what it allows them to do. Sure, an open-source solution may allow the most customization and be totally cool, but most of us like quick, usable solutions that help us get our words up quicker. I've found that the savvier I've become with the various solutions I've used, the more ways I want to tweak it and mess with the style sheets, but MySpace, LJ, TypePad, and Blogger helped me learn the language.

Russ: It is reliably reported that women and men vote somewhat differently- women tend to tilt Democrat. There's a widespread feeling that the current U.S. Administration and indeed, the party in power, is not that woman-friendly on some key issues. Has that perception fueled the ranks of women bloggers by spurring those who feel they have "had enough" into starting their own blogs?

JDJ: I'm sure it has, but I'm not a very political blogger and couldn't back this up with data. I have to be clear that blogging isn't solely a liberal endeavor for women. BlogHer is omni-partisan, so we engage all women who are building platforms for themselves, regardless of their political affinity. So I can tell you we know of plenty of conservative bloggers too. Just look at our advisory board! We have Liza Sabater on the liberal end co-existing with more conservative bloggers like Ann Althouse.

Russ: I am trying to think of conservative women bloggers. Michele Malkin comes to mind, maybe a few others. Is blogging dominated by liberals? If so, why? If not, why would this be an erroneous assumption?

JDJ: See above ;)

Russ: Are we seeing more women blog from other nations- specifically those where women don't even have the rights they have here in the U.S.? What's driving that?

JDJ: Just today (BlogHer co-founder and current President, Events & Marketing Elisa (Camahort) confirmed that a woman from the Middle East will help live blog the conference. She wrote us because she planned to come to the conference but couldn't put the conference registration on a credit card--her father wouldn't let her, and she needed permission. A grown woman! She asked if she could pay when she arrived. It's quite a metaphor for how women are seeking out any means they can to be seen. In terms of what's driving it, I can't put myself in that same position as these women in other countries, but there's an acknowledgement that comes with blogging--by being seen by a community beyond your previous parameters--that pushes me. I can't imagine how liberating it could be for women in other countries to be acknowledged for their work. To be seen.

Russ: Now, to BlogHer. Mission statement..50 words or less?

JDJ: Easy! BlogHer's mission is to create opportunities for women bloggers to pursue exposure, education, economic empowerment and community.

Russ: I know you started with a conference, and of course, the 2006 BlogHer takes place July 28-29. It appears to me that after that last conference, a realization started to hit that well, maybe we could turn this into more than just a group with an annual conference- but an ongoing business. Is my perception correct? If so, could you please describe the path that took you and your business partners from the conference-only business model to a year-round business model?

JDJ: BlogHer wasn't initially conceived as a business. We just wanted to have a conference for women bloggers. After the conference last summer, we planned to do another conference in '06 and build the community online. As the fall progressed and we fleshed out our underlying mission, we kept up conversations with the community and learned that quite a few women wanted better advertising options on their blogs. Then our backgrounds kicked in: Lisa had been the editorial head at Women.com; she and I understood the online content advertising model, and Elisa had strong product marketing experience. While Web sites were no longer earning the $50 CPMs they could get in 1999, the CPM model was re-emerging as a viable option. It occurred to us: why can't women's blogs, which host some of the most engaging conversations online, also have premium advertising?

All three of us were consulting independently for companies that were building blogs or blog networks. But we knew we needed to dedicate ourselves full time to build the online community, manage 60 contributing editors, ensure the quality of the blogrolls and editorial, engage advertisers, build a conference that was twice as large as last year's and manage the growth. We were drawn to follow the energy that was building around BlogHer.

Russ: Speaking of, how do you create a business out of a community such as yours? I know many other entrepreneurs would try the easy approach- wait for the Google AdWords to roll in and then collect checks. But I sense a far more, well-considered model here. Could you please explain it?

JDJ: Right, a low-risk way to test the waters. If we'd taken that approach with the conference we never would have been as successful, in my humble opinion. Just like we did with the conference, we made sure to listen and to not make any assumptions. So many of the bloggers had already been advertising, with varying degrees of success. They wanted ads that made sense showing up on their blogs and that spoke to their interests--or better put, that didn't speak against their interests and beliefs. And they wanted a degree of choice. Lisa was scrupulous working out a member agreement that met bloggers' needs. Our affiliate bloggers agree to make BlogHer-sold advertising the most prominent and only graphic ads on their blogs, and we agree to honor any requests they may have for advertisers they do not wish to have on their sites. So far we've had no problems. My task is to make clear to advertisers that the value of the network is not access to controlled content but association with the conversations on our network. Don't get me wrong, we have editorial standards that all bloggers in the network have agreed to, but we don't clamp down on what's made their blogs so compelling to begin with.

Russ: OK, one more question. Say I am a female and am reading this interview. Maybe I feel I have something to say on an ongoing basis, but I am still a bit reluctant to blog. Perhaps I am too busy, maybe unsure about how to make a blog post, or maybe I am just a private person who is, by nature a bit shy about sharing my experiences and my opinions with "strangers." Do you run into people like that? Now is your chance to speak to this issue. What would you tell them?

JDJ: I've had a number of conversations with women who were referred to me because they wanted to know more about blogging before making the leap. I always tell them, wait! Read blogs first and see what pulls you in before committing yourself. I worked with someone who felt pressured to blog. He'd been told it was the thing to do to build up his platform as a thought leader, so he started one. But he'd never read blogs, nor did he have the time to read them. In the end it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: He didn't read, so he wasn't read. He never felt the love. Not everybody writes to generate traffic or comments, but he was trying to build a platform for himself. If you don't know why you are blogging it can be a very unfulfilling experience. Know what you want!