by MIA FREEDMAN
On Wednesday 27th of February Publisher Mia Freedman addressed the Sydney Institute on the topic of the Changing Face of Female Communication. This is what she had to say.
PART 1: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN AND ONLINE COMMUNICATION
It’s become the en vouge thing to trash the Internet and what it does to our brains, particularly our children and young people’s brains. Somehow, the idea that a wealth of information and a world of communication is only a click away has become corrupted.
We hear discussion of shortened attention spans, brought about by our thoughts being confined to only 140 characters. We hear criticism that depth of thought, introspection and personal reflection have all but disappeared, as we live our lives increasingly online and not in the real world.
We are told that our appreciation of sources with integrity is being compromised, as we turn instead to what is nothing more than an uneducated thought bubble on a screen. We are told that our relationships with each other have become less meaningful, as they are reduced to a series of emails, Facebook shares and Instagram ‘likes’.
Parents are warned that we’re raising a generation of socially awkward, socially isolated, socially uneducated, socially phobic loners who cannot read facial expressions or body language and who would rather tweet to the person on the other side of the couch than talk to them with their actual voice.
Sorry. But I say bollocks to that.
How can anyone look at the hundreds of millions of people of all ages interacting with people all over the world they would never otherwise have met and sharing advice, information and common interests and see a population that is LESS connected? Being disabled, socially isolated, socially awkward, impoverished…..these are no longer barriers to connecting with other people thanks to the Internet.
The Internet hasn’t changed the way we think or what we feel. By giving us unprecedented and previously unimaginable access to information, the Internet has simply changed what our brains are able to do with information and given us a new, faster, simpler method of interacting – and connecting – with one another.
And as Bernard Keane explains in Crikey:
“That’s what media do and have always done — print, the telegraph, radio, TV: they rewire humans inside their heads and in how they relate to each other, except the internet is doing it on a far bigger scale and more quickly than any previous medium.
All those absurd stories about how the internet is Destroying The Fragile Minds Of Our Young People in the Sunday papers every week, the ones that always start “a new study from …”, miss the point totally. They don’t see the world wide web for the trees.”
Or as British author, columnist and Twitter enthusiast Caitlin Moran puts it:
…..the sheer, awesome, exhilarating power of the internet is absolutely captivating: it is the biggest game on Earth. The twenty-first century equivalent of the birth of rock’n'roll. For those who don’t work in it – who are merely customers, rather than Mark Zuckerberg – having access to it is like standing on a rocky ledge, halfway down Victoria Falls, in the middle of an all-enevloping monsoon.
The roar and the spray – the constant motion and hydrating mist – are intoxicating. Thousands of new things tumbling past you every second – swept into the river above in the flood – that you can just reach out and grab. Maps and shops and faces and friends from 1987 and that clip from that show that time, and snowflakes, and explosions, and Crosby Stills and Nash singing “Hopelessly Hoping’ in three-part harmony, as many times as you want.
The Internet is a mechanism for communication and not a communication in and of itself. And when it comes to ordinary Australian women, the Internet is quite simply revolutionising how they interact with each other and how they formulate their thoughts, ideas, opinions, feelings and – as I can tell you for a fact– their vote.
PART 2: WHY WOMEN’S MAGAZINES ARE TRAPPED IN THE PAST
My name is Mia Freedman and I’m the Creator and Publisher of Mamamia.com.au; a website that began as a one-woman blog in my living room in 2006 and has since grown to employ more than 20 staff, attract hundreds of contributors and – along with our sister site iVillage.com.au – reach 1.2 million Australian women every month.
I began my career in women’s magazines and was proudly the editor-in-chief of publications including Cosmopolitan, CLEO and DOLLY during my fifteen years in the industry. But by the end of that period I was growing exasperated with the medium and desperate to try something else.
I dipped my toes in the waters of television and ran screaming back to the shore, secure in the knowledge that I was not cut out to be a TV executive and convinced that as a medium, it was as impotent as magazines when it came to keeping pace with the modern speed and style of female communication.
So I fled the corporate world, took a massive income hit and decided to start a website called Mamamia – inspired by years of gentle childhood teasing to the tunes of ABBA. I knew online was what I wanted to try next because I had become increasingly frustrated by the nature of traditional women’s media. By using a static, one-way medium, it barely bothered trying to create two way and interactive conversations.
Women’s media, whether it be weekly or monthly magazines, are desperately trying to maintain their relevance within a 24-hour-news-cycle, which requires a responsiveness and flexibility on the part of publishers that is simply unprecedented.
Take for example, last year’s announcement that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge – also known as Kate Middleton – was pregnant. The news broke overnight in the wee hours of Tuesday December 4th. The weekly women’s mags were stuffed. The first one on sale was Who Weekly, which came out four days later on their regular on-sale date of Friday. The other weekly mags scrambled to move their on-sale dates forward. A couple made it to join Who Weekly on Friday. The others weren’t on sale until the following Monday, almost a full week after the news had broken.
The monthly magazine editors – including the bullseye target market, Australian Women’s Weekly, to whom circulation boosters don’t come any greater than a royal wedding or baby – simply threw up their hands in frustration, essentially locked out of the story for weeks.
The fact that the Women’s Weekly is the largest selling magazine in Australia is a liability when it comes to quick response. It takes a long time to turn around The Queen Mary.
Meanwhile, at Mamamia, we had our first post up at 7:30am on the Tuesday and we updated it as a few more details emerged – as did other news sites, websites and blogs.
I’m told that none of the magazines saw the circulation spikes they once would have taken for granted with such a huge story in their target market.
Yet again, they were locked out of this story a week later when the news broke of the tragic suicide of the nurse who had taken a prank call from two Australian radio hosts. This story broke in the middle of the night on a Friday. None of the weekly magazines could touch it for a week, by which time newspapers, websites and social media had raked over it to the point where it had been thoroughly chewed up and spat out.
Women in particular are voracious consumers of information, but we inhale quickly and we move on.
The magazines, which I loved madly as a reader, and then as a writer and editor, are produced monthly or weekly – but the reality is that Australian women don’t live their lives in increments of months or weeks or even days. We live our lives in increments of half hours, sometimes minutes – and if you’re mother of a child under two, best make that seconds.
We don’t wait for magazines anymore. We have information coming to us from the Internet and social media much faster than we can consume it.
Magazine sales are plummeting and when you pick one up from the stand at the newsagent, it’s not hard to see why. If you’ve even been to a newsagent lately, Mark Fletcher, who publishes the influential industry Newsagent blog, told the ABC’s media report last month that 25% of newsagents are forecast to shut down in the next two years.
The increasing insignificance of magazines is only compounded by the fact that they continue to use the same formula they always did when speaking to women. And while women’s thinking has evolved, magazines haven’t grown with us.
Flipping through the pages of a women’s magazine is like stepping back in time. Eva Wiseman of The Guardian UK describes it as looking down at a page and losing a decade. She writes:
The brief for a women’s magazine’s celebrity interview requires that the writer include information about her diet, what she’s wearing and who she’s going out with. Sometimes this is relevant; often it is not.
But it suggests that their ideas about what a woman should be today appear more limited than ever. As if we’re looking at women from a long, long way away.
The subjects are often the same – relationships, work, bodies – but the women’s magazine take on them seems old-fashioned. We no longer always buy jeans to hide our pear-shaped hips. We are no longer conflicted about our sexuality or hung up on what it means to have a one-night stand.
Women are no longer interested in being told how to improve their lives from on high. They’re far more likely to crowd-source advice and information from a variety of online sources, social media accounts and the comments on women’s websites.
The online space also allows Mamamia to be a continually evolving product. We respond to the needs and desires of our readers in real time. No decision or plan is immoveable. We don’t wait for two months before launching a new section or style of article – we don’t even wait a day.
If I have an idea, we can literally execute it as fast as we can type. As an editor who once had to wait a minimum of three months for the print publishing cycle to plod along from conception to birth of an idea, you can see the attraction towards a medium that’s so responsive.
We’re flexible to the news cycle but also to the ever-changing and very busy nature of women’s lives and interests. And the reason that formula works is because the Internet – and our particular style and mix of content- reflects the way that real women have conversations each and every day.
At Mamamia, we’re not trying to mould the way women communicate into a package that suits the way we want to operate – quite the opposite. We’re taking the way women talk to each other already and building a website which both facilitates and enhances that conversation.
PART 3: HOW WOMEN COMMUNICATE AND WHY ONLINE WORKS
If old media is about communicating information in the same way as I’m giving this speech – with you sitting there passively absorbing it – then new media is about engaging with that information – speaking with you and then encouraging you to speak back to us and amongst yourselves and with your friends – on your own terms. And this is exactly what women are about. It’s what we’ve been hardwired to do and it’s a mode of communication that we’ve been practicing and refining for centuries.
Elementary gender psychology – or indeed anyone who has ever been in a hetrosexual relationship – will tell you that men and women communicate differently. Men will open up a conversation for a purpose: to solve a problem or to make a point, to effectively convey information that the other person will need. And that’s the same way men use the Internet. If they have a problem, a query or a question? They head to Google to find the answer.
They hunt for information.
We gather it.
Women talk in a more roundabout fashion. We talk for the sake of talking. Because it is often through conversation that women discover how we think, or feel. We get to that ‘point’ men are so eager to covey as quickly and succinctly as possible, by engaging in discussion. By expressing our thoughts and opinions and by gathering the thoughts and opinions of others.
We’re not necessarily looking for a solution when we open a conversation; for us that conversation is, in and of itself, worth having because it allows us to better understand what our own opinion or position is.
Are any of the blokes in the room confused yet? I know, try and stick with me. We’re going to get through this together. We should have it totally sorted by this time next week, give or take a few days…
This mode of gathering information can frequently lead to women thinking and speaking in a circular fashion. One second we’re talking about how hard it is to find childcare, and the next we’re discussing Michelle Obama’s new fringe. A single conversation between two women will move from the recent ALP polling and leadership speculation, to a mutual friend’s struggle with IVF, to the morality of taking paparazzi photos of a pregnant Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge in a bikini, to this week’s Q&A, to the tragic death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan and how if you forget to do your pelvic floor exercises, it’s not advisable to join your kids on the trampoline.
And that’s just the first fifteen minutes.
And while on the surface that may seem inefficient and whiplash-inducing, only a bloke would think that. To us, it’s second nature.
We are hard-wired to gather critical information through that conversation style – not just factual information but tools, tone, emotions and feelings that will help us to shape an informed opinion.
Information is a key currency for women. We love to give advice, and to do that, you need something to base that advice on. That means gathering information the same way our ancestors gathered berries and nuts. And the nature of that information and the breadth of topics we’re interested in, is truly boundless.
This is something that both mainstream media, which so often fails to connect and engage women, and so-called ‘women’s media’ that is trying to stay relevant, fail to recognise.
Women are interested in more than one thing.
The vast majority of us do not define ourselves in only one way. We are neither Madonna nor whore. We are not a ‘yummy mummy’ or a ‘fashionista’ or a ‘housewife’ or a ‘spinster’.
Society is obsessed with boxing women up in a way nobody ever tries to do with men.
I am a mother, boss, friend, publisher, writer, daughter, journalist, sister, business owner, ABC watcher, commercial radio listener who loves shopping and politics.
I am diverse and I am typical of a generation of women who fit no old-school marketing or media stereotype.
And the Internet is the perfect platform for this dynamic, flexible and ever-changing conversation between women to occur. Why? Because the Internet is all of those things too.
Much of Mamamia’s power and influence stems from the fact we don’t categorise our reader or seek to cater to only a single aspect of a woman’s personality. We are not a website for mums, or for fashionistas, or for the politically inclined. We’re a website for women who are engaged in conversations; a website that recognises that women are not just interested in one thing, we’re interested in everything.
Our contributors range from ordinary women in the community who want to give writing a go, to professional journalists, right through to Hollywood star Naomi Watts, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and comedian Hamish Blake.
Each of those voices is relevant, each of those voices is important and each of those voices is speaking to women through a medium that is accessible – the Internet – and through a platform they trust – Mamamia.
Unlike the more traditionally condescending forms of media aimed at women,
our website is not only a platform for women to access information – in the form of interesting or entertaining opinion or stories – but an actual community where they can use and explore that information with each other.
Our articles generate high numbers of clicks from readers – 1.7 million of them on Monday alone this week – and also lend themselves to being shared on social media and generating thousands of comments. It is not unusual for a Mamamia article to be shared on Facebook six thousand times and commented on by more than four or five hundred readers, reaching a potential audience in the millions every time we post – if we get it right.
PART 4: WOMEN ARE INFORMATION HUNGRY AND WAITING ONLINE
Countless studies show that men use the internet to get the information they need, whereas women use the internet to communicate about information they didn’t even know they wanted. In fact, women are “68 per cent more likely to use social networking or media to communicate with friends other than in-person.”
This shows us that the Internet is not disconnecting women from real life conversations – it’s actually adding a new and deeper layer to those conversations. Women aren’t talking at a lower or less engaged level when they’re online; they’re simply talking in a different location.
So why is it, that this quiet revolution in the way women are engaging with one another, has gone largely unnoticed and unacknowledged by the mainstream media until now?
Well, the simple fact is that Australia’s highly consolidated media platforms are run by men – but for women. Why? Well, in a world where media is driven to a significant extent by the advertising dollar, women are absolutely fundamental.
Women are responsible for around 85 per cent of purchasing decisions and influence close to 95 per cent. A quick glance at the type of products advertised on Mamamia will show you that this is true. The companies that are coming to us aren’t just trying to sell dishwashing powder and make-up. Women are the ones buying and influencing the sale of big-ticket items, from health insurance to cars, to holidays and banking.
And yet, this incredibly lucrative market and a readership hungry for content that speaks to them in their own language, continue to be dissatisfied by the offerings of mainstream media.
We are no longer speaking futuristically about the day when online news overtakes newspapers. Look behind you, that day has already come. It is not unusual for the broadsheet newspapers to be recording decreases in sales of around five per cent each quarter. The rolling announcements of job losses at Fairfax and News Limited show how quickly the world is moving on from a print publication that updates itself only every 24 hours and fails to speak to women in their own language.
The big players are finally looking to the online space, with Fairfax launching a women’s website last year and News Limited set to do so in the coming weeks.
When we first began Mamamia, we were frequently told women were a ‘niche’ audience. Something we found hilarious
Suddenly, the big players have worked out that women are not only a majority of the population – we punch way above our weight when it comes to economic influence.
They are finally recognizing what media titans like the BBC, the Huffington Post, the New York Times and others around the world discovered over a decade ago – that this new platform delivers unprecedented engagement and that you have to go to where the readers are, rather than expect them to come to you.
Mass media communication in Australia continues to be governed by very few voices; voices who will ultimately reach many, many ears.
As such, the points of view are still limited.
The success of Mamamia and independent media in other parts of the world, show that women are craving a different perspective. They want news and opinion that is delivered to them with a female slant, with an emotional rather than aggressive, inflammatory or condescending entry point into each story. Not information that is dumbed down or simplified, but information that is presented in a way which garners women’s personal investment and engagement with the story.
PART 5: THE INTERNET AS A SOCIAL EQUALISER FOR WOMEN
The relevance of Australian women forming communities online goes far beyond the media and business spheres, and reaches into the political. Globally, we have seen the power of the Internet as a great social equalizer. Access to information breaks down economic, social and cultural barriers and promotes greater understanding between individuals.
It also provides a rallying mechanism through which groups are able to form and together mobilise their newfound voice – a voice that would have otherwise been a financial and physical impossibility.
And we’ve already seen that power demonstrated loud and clear by the Mamamia community and other online communities of women in the past two years. Australian women are showing their willingness to take issue with misogynistic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate commentary and actions of men in the public eye.
Has it had an impact? Well, just ask Kyle Sandilands. And Alan Jones. And Gordon Ramsay. And Matty Johns. Just ask Tony Abbott. In each of these cases, the backlash against comments that were perceived as sexist has been overwhelming and merry media hell has rained down on their heads.
In each case, their shock has appeared genuine. And why wouldn’t it be? This sort of public pushback hasn’t been possible before. It’s the power of online communities and social media that is giving the public, and most particularly women, the ability to speak up to the rich and influential in a way they never could previously.
In the face of such extreme public anger and media castigation, some boundary pushers have understood faster than others that they’ve gone too far. Some remorse has been heartfelt and since. Other apologies have been cynical and made at gunpoint, motivated by spin-doctors and a mercenary desire to secure future earnings. Behind the scenes, I’d guess many remain quietly defiant, seething that they’re suddenly being held accountable for things they’ve done freely for years.
But there is no question that, regardless of the personal feelings or opinions of these men, there has been a financial and societal impact felt – and it’s been felt because of women. Women, who previously might never have spoken to one another or discovered that they shared a similar sentiment, have done so via the Internet. I’ve watched the force of public opinion be stirred up and brought to bear through the comments on Mamamia, by the shares on Facebook.
Many times on Mamamia we have encouraged women to take the side of science over scaremongering and stand up to the anti-vaccination lobby. Late last year, we called on our readers to sign a pledge that they would vaccinate their children and encourage others to do the same: and women answered that call in their thousands.
The campaign was so effective that it drew the attention of the Federal Health Minister, who met with us immediately. We’re seeing legislative reform afoot in NSW right now that will see the scurrilous and deliberately duplicitous Australian Vaccination Network (who are in fact vehemently and unscientifically anti-vaccination) forced to change their misleading name.
Mamamia readers have spoken up recently and joined the chorus of outraged Australians who were offended by candidates for Bob Katter’s Australia Party’s homophobic position on school teachers. Again, through online communities and social media, a story and a concerned response are generated much faster than they ever could be by mere word of mouth. The 24 hour news cycle, the speed of Internet communication and an effective campaign means that the public have unprecedented power to tell community and political leaders when we do or don’t like something.
In real time. Really loudly.
The online group Destroy the Joint, named after Alan Jones’ famous phrase in reference to women in political power, are making their presence felt as well. While only a small community of women, they are using social media to great effect to bring about awareness and a change of attitudes when it comes to sexist language being used in the public domain. Not since the Women’s Electoral Lobby in the 70s has Australia had a successful, organised, well funded women’s lobby – who knows, perhaps this is the beginnings of one.
Sure, this is a different kind of activism to joining a political party, or to attending a protest where one marches through the streets waving a banner. My proudly feminist no-nukes mother dragged me along to enough of those, so I know what I’m talking about here… But is it any less worthy? Is it any less effective? The simple answer is – no.
Whether you like it or not, clicktivism has become a powerful political force.
In fact, this kind of armchair activism, that involves little more than the click of a mouse and the tapping of a few buttons on a keyboard has a monumental impact. Why? Because it is allowing women, whose minds have previously been occupied by juggling endlessly busy schedules of work and motherhood, to engage and use their powers as consumers to make a political point. We may not have time to organize a rally but we sure can mobilise our online networks in seconds.
By refusing to buy products that advertise with Kyle Sandilands or Alan Jones, by sharing a meme on Facebook in support of more affordable childcare, by supporting women’s clothing brands that agree to only use healthy weight models, by retweeting a message about maintaining a woman’s right to control what happens with her own body – women are using the internet to remake Australian society as they wish it to be.
PART 6: WOMEN WILL DECIDE THIS ELECTION
While elements of the mainstream media are finally starting to take notice of this quiet online revolution of women, there is still a long way to go.
I know I am often dismissed as an angry feminist shouting from the sidelines. That’s when I’m not being dismissed as a Mummy Blogger or – as one journalist at the Australian Financial Review takes perverted pride in referring to me as – a Penis Blogger.
I don’t even know what that means but he’s does it every time he refers to me in his column.
Condescending, sexist terms like penis blogger and indeed mummy blogger, are currently being used every day to dismiss women as a media market that are outside the mainstream, who aren’t to be taken seriously.
Doctor Karen Brooks explains:
“The term ‘mummy blogger’ manages to keep these women on the margins of culture and forces them to be viewed as non-threatening to mainstream opinion makers. It erects boundaries and keeps them on the outside, as ‘mummies’ who gossip and play where the big boys and girls dare to tread.”
Kate Eltham, CEO of the Queensland Women’s writer’s centre agrees:
“If you’re a male writer who blogs, then you’re a social commentator. If you’re a woman writer who blogs, you’re a “mummy blogger” (whether mother or not). And if you are a woman who writes about motherhood (whether in a blog or anywhere else), applying the term “mummy blogger” to what you do undermines all the significance of your artistic and intellectual contribution.
There was much derision of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s invitation last year, to a number of women bloggers and journalists to meet with her at Kiribilli. Now, the majority of these women run websites that don’t reach anything like the numbers that a daily metropolitan newspaper does, so why would they attract the Prime Minister’s interest, commentators wondered.
Well, I believe they did so for three reasons.
Firstly, the Prime Minister and her Government have been struggling to make inroads with the mainstream media. They were not so much fighting an uphill battle but rather clambering up Everest with only a pair of ugg boots and a Kit Kat to warm and sustain them.
So instead of focussing solely on that unwinnable fight, the Prime Minister’s chief strategist decided to try something different. Why not try to speak directly to voters in a setting where they feel comfortable and through a voice they already trust – a blogger.
There seemed to be widespread incredulity from the mainstream media that any politician would bother to engage with any form of media that wasn’t classed as a ‘serious’ news organisation.
Well, here’s a newsflash for you: politicians are not only elected to represent those who watch The Insiders and 7:30. Newspaper readers and AM talkback listeners aren’t the only ones who vote.
Smart politicians – from all political parties – have worked out that the most effective way to engage with the highly influential female demographic is by, wait for it, talking directly to them. Online.
Secondly, although the majority of these women’s blogs reach only a scattering of women – all big things start small. Mamamia began as a lounge room blog where I wrote 100 per cent of the content myself and made a couple of dollars a year from Google ads. Across our network we now reach 1.2 million women each month.
And thirdly, the Prime Minister reached out to women writers because she recognises that she can and should be doing better when it comes to the women’s vote. Abbott is a leader that – rightly or wrongly – many women have serious anxieties about in terms of how the decisions he would make as Prime Minister would affect us.
Communications Director, John Mc Ternan wrote for the Guardian in 2010 and he was right, that:
PART 7: CONCLUSION
I know I have spoken at length today and the very nature of a 30 minute address means that the audience will forget the vast majority of it before they even leave the room.
But if I can leave you with one single take away from this evening, it would be this.
Women are 51 per cent of the Australian population.
We wield the vast majority of this country’s buying power.
We are engaging and organising online in an authentic and honest way that is allowing us to use that power to great effect.
We’re a political force to be reckoned with and I have absolutely no doubt, women will decide the outcome of the September 14 election.
Women are not a niche.
And as the biggest and most influential independent women’s media outlet in the country? Mamamia will be right there with them, bringing women together, broadening their knowledge base, fuelling their debates and taking our rightful place as a serious player in the Australian media market.
Not bad for a bunch of penis bloggers.