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Nancy Rhine and Women's Wire

By Sue Boettcher

Nancy Rhine had a head start on many women online, having gotten her first Internet account in 1987. The web was barely in its infancy, and being online meant using "gopher" "ftp" and "IRC," most with difficult command-line interfaces that Rhine describes as "ten times worse than learning to program your VCR."

Shortly after she got her account, she ended up developing the customer support department at the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a virtual community in the San Francisco Bay area. Rhine had years of experience doing community organizing in face-to-face communities, and one of the first things she noticed at the WELL was that the population was "so glaringly obviously 90% white men, probably in their early 30s." She longed for an online world with more diversity: international voices, women, people of color, people of all different ages. She talked to everyone she knew, and tried to figure out a way to make it happen.

On the WELL, she met Ellen Pack. Together, they decided that women were the perfect target audience. SeniorNet was already reaching out to older people online, and the international audience was difficult to capture because of inadequate infrastructure and exhorbitant access fees in many countries. But there were women out there, in great numbers, and Rhine thought if she could make them quickly see the value of being online, they would embrace it as she had.

Rhine says, "I knew what it was like to be a single mom. I knew the Internet would be a great time-saver for other women, too - if they could only access information at home after kids went to bed, for example. My dream was to give back to women what I'd learned when I was new online."

In 1992 Rhine and Pack decided to go ahead.

One of the first things they had to do is find software. The emphasis then was on proprietary software, like dialup bulletin boards and AOL and Compuserve rather than the Web. They looked into licensing AOL's software and found the expense prohibitive. Rhine says someone at AOL even told them, "Women will never use this tool." Undaunted, they looked for off-the-shelf programs that did what they wanted since they didn't have the money either to pay a programmer to develop a custom program.

They developed a must-have list. GUI (graphic user interface: the use of icons rather than typed commands), was on that list. "In order to hook people online," Rhine says, "you have to show them the goodies early." With a command-line interface, she thought, you lose many people because they don't have the patience and perseverance to ever get to the goodies. With a GUI, even though it might be slower, people are successful earlier, and get hooked into the community, Rhine felt.

Ultimately their decision was driven by a combination of what was on their must-have list, what was then available, and budgetary considerations. They settled on software called First Class, which had chat, message boards, libraries, and download/upload areas.

In January 1994 Women's Wire came online. Finally there was a place for women to go which was built with a woman's point of view, about women and women's issues. Rhine's dream of diversity was beginning to come true.

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