Ellen Pack and Nancy Rhine officially launched Women's Wire last month by inviting a large group of friends to chat with some guest experts.
Travel writer Thalia Zepatos offered safety tips for women traveling alone. Computer guru Esther Dyson predicted where the electronics industry is headed. Greens Restaurant chef Annie Somerville answered questions about gourmet vegetarian cooking.
Women from all over the country participated--but nobody had to leave home. The audience was connected by its modems to Women's Wire, the world's first on-line computer service aimed specifically at the needs and interests of women.
"We think it can become a very practical part of a woman's life," says Pack, 28, a New Yorker with an MBA from Columbia University. "It's just now becoming a tool that can save you time and money."
"It's not mysterious--it's not going to take the place of the telephone or personal conversation," says Rhine, 43, a Midwesterner who has worked with computers since the 1970s. "It's just a convenient way to reach individuals and groups that is becoming very valuable."
Interviewed by phone from their office complex in San Francisco, Pack and Rhine discuss their plans for bringing women into the world called "cyberspace." (The current estimate, according to Online Access magazine, is that only 15% to 20% of all on-line systems users are women.)
Pack and Rhine envision subscribers turning to Women's Wire for information on everything from health and finances to movie reviews, and also using its interactive capabilities to share experiences, find jobs, solve problems and just schmooze.
"Some women who have businesses at home say it's their virtual water cooler," says Rhine. "They can log on and network. It really combats isolation."
Women's Wire is the latest entry in the emerging world of commercial on-line services--led by Prodigy and Compuserve--that are not yet household words, but getting closer, as home computers become more affordable.
"The understanding is growing," says Pack, "but there's still a gap--the people who haven't used it just don't have any concept of what is involved."
The process, she adds, is relatively simple--all it takes is a personal computer and a modem that connects your computer to a telephone line to send information in and out.
Through it you can dial a commercial computer system that typically provides the following:
* Read-only information such as stock prices, weather and news.
* Messaging forums to exchange ideas and information on topical issues in which users post messages for anyone who dials in.
* Personal mailbox for exchanging private messages. Subscribers can also exchange electronic mail (E-mail) with anyone who has an address on Internet (a global computer network) or participate in Usenet groups with topics ranging from pet care to restaurants.
* Interactive activities such as the Women's Wire chat sessions in which audience and speakers engaged by typing and sending questions and answers electronically.
Essentially, says Pack, this breaks down into two basic types of communication: "One is the pure information side. We buy data bases and have resource people putting them on-line. If a magazine did an excellent piece on breast cancer and you want it six months later, it will be in the data base."
But where women get the greatest value, she thinks, is in interaction.
That's the feedback Pack and Rhine have been getting since October, when they opened Women's Wire to 300 founding subscribers for a three-month trial period.
"People are helping each other get through all sorts of situations," says Pack. "A woman recently signed onto the forum devoted to children and said her daughter had been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities and she didn't know how to cope. She heard from other mothers who suggested groups to work with, recommended special schools and told her how they had dealt with similar problems."
Some have described this process as "electronic consciousness-raising," but Pack likes to call it an "electronic community," with women exchanging experience in everything from home repairs to menopause. "The amount of support you see on the network is incredible," she says.
Although she's used a PC since college, Pack doesn't consider herself any sort of computer wizard. But when she moved to Palo Alto in 1992 as chief operating officer for a software company, she discovered the Well, a regional on-line system with about 10,000 members who network on everything from finding relationships to discussing the state of the world.
Pack found the network helpful in getting acquainted with interesting people ("I even found a doctor on-line") and also noticed that most of the users were men. So she posted a note on the Well about starting a women's computer network and met Rhine.
Rhine spent the 1970s at a Tennessee commune, where she helped computerize a data base for the Midwife's Assn. of North America.