The Social and Political Impact of PlanetOut: A New Online Service for Gay and Lesbian People

By Christopher Gregson


Author's Note

This paper was written as a class project for The Impact of Multimedia and Networks, a course taught by Howard Besser at the Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley. The paper briefly describes PlanetOut, a new online service for gay and lesbian people, then goes on to analyze the potential social and political consequences of this service, with emphasis on the unique qualities of the online environment.

Questions/comments may be directed to the author at gregson@haas.berkeley.edu.

Outline

Introduction
What is PlanetOut?
Improving people's lives
Coming out
Resources for problem-solving
Community
Fun
Causing political change
Strengthening gay political groups
Increasing political participation
Causing social change
Bringing distant people together
Drawing economic resources into the gay community
Conclusion

Introduction

One of the themes I'm examining in this class is how Internet technology is causing social change. All important technologies influence society, sometimes strongly, over long periods of time. It is worthwhile, then, to consider what impact PlanetOut, as a particular expression of Internet technology, might have.

As I see it, PlanetOut will have three broad effects on society-it will help gay and lesbian people live better lives, it will encourage fair political treatment of gay lesbian people, and it will foster broader social acceptance of gay and lesbian people. After a brief description of the service itself, I will examine each of these influences in turn, and address specifically how Internet technology is empowering these changes.

What is PlanetOut?

PlanetOut is a worldwide online community for gay and lesbian people, and their families and friends. It is a free service available on America Online, the Web, and the Microsoft Network.

There are many online resources for gay and lesbian people, but PlanetOut is notable. First, it is the largest, with over 150 interconnected pages. Second, it is the most comprehensive, with an integrated design, original content, daily audio news broadcasts, a huge queer film database, links to most prominent gay civic organizations, chat, and shopping. Third, it is the first venture-backed, corporate-backed company to target the gay market. Its investors include Sequoia Capital (one of the country's premiere venture capital firms), America Online, and a small group of Silicon Valley leaders. In short, it is the first serious effort to reach gay people online.

This effort is especially interesting because print media has largely failed to reach this market. The gay market has become attractive to mainstream advertisers, but it is notoriously difficult to reach. The two largest gay print magazines, Out and The Advocate, have combined circulations of less than 200,000, but there are more than 15 million gay people in the US. These magazines provide high quality content (The Advocate has beat out Time and Newsweek for industry awards), but the logistics of print, among other reasons, have limited circulation. The online medium may succeed where print has failed.

The best way to understand PlanetOut is to visit it yourself at http:\\www.planetout.com, but I will offer a few comments of my own. I feel the site offers a friendly, fun environment with hip sensibilities. Terrific photos of all different kinds of people populate every screen, making it feel almost as if you are hanging out with friends (which many people in the chat rooms are!). The site is well constructed and easy to navigate, and there is so much content it feels exhaustive. The site has a few annoying bugs, which I am told are being fixed, but otherwise it is quite impressive.

While the site is intriguing, the most interesting thing about it is it's potential to improve people's lives and cause political and social change.

Improving people's lives

There are many different ways in which PlanetOut can help gay and lesbian people live better lives. I will address each in turn.

Coming out

Coming out is a difficult and painful experience, and it is perhaps the only thing common to all gay people. Even so, closet depth differs widely among gay people. Some are out to themselves, but not to friends; some to friends, but not to family; some to family but not to coworkers; and so on. More importantly, not coming out has many costs-the constant fear of oppression, the friends, family, and coworkers you can't allow yourself to be close to, and the energy of pulling off a charade. As a rule, the more gay people come out, the happier, more fulfilling, and more powerful their lives are.

PlanetOut facilitates coming out. First, it provides online chat areas devoted to coming out, where people can go for support. Second, it allows people to participate in a gay online community anonymously, and thus gives people room to explore without risk. Third, it provides a safe environment where people can be out. The third way PlanetOut helps people to come out is probably the most important, because once someone has tasted freedom from fear of discrimination, it is hard to go back.

Resources for problem-solving

Gay people face a wide range of unique problems in their lives. Gay couples, gay parents, and gay Christians, to name a few, all face legal and personal questions that are largely ignored by traditional support resources. This situation is especially acute outside of major urban areas.

PlanetOut addresses this problem by distributing resources globally. PlanetOut offers books, videos, and music, as well as online chat and message boards for couples, parents, and Christians, to name a few. In addition, PlanetOut offers links to Web sites of many non-profit organizations, such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). PlanetOut has used the Internet to distribute resources more widely than ever before (making them distance-independent), and early traffic figures indicate that more than half of PlanetOut's visitors reside outside major urban centers.

Community

All successful societies have provided three types of environments for people to live in-family, work, and communal public space. In the past, public spaces have included the town square, the front porch, and the local church. In modern times, vital public space is sorely lacking, especially for gay people who have moved to big cities from home towns, and in some cases may be alienated from their families. PlanetOut provides a virtual public space for people to congregate-independent of distance. People are free to congregate from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Fun

Finally, PlanetOut offers a new angle on fun. Chat rooms offer a refreshing alternative to bars and coffee houses. In chat rooms, people have to communicate with each other; there is a lot less opportunity to cruise or give attitude. In addition, PlanetOut hosts online games and live celebrity events featuring gay public figures, such as Margaret Cho, Lea DeLauria, and others. It is a welcome break from primetime on NBC, and a lot more interactive.

Causing political change

PlanetOut has the potential to cause political change in several ways.

Strengthening gay political groups

PlanetOut has produced Web sites for many gay political and non-profit groups, and provides links to other political organizations. As PlanetOut draws heavier traffic, it can publicize the activities of its online political partners, and, in the process, strengthen these organizations. In addition, PlanetOut provides these organizations with a way to attract members without incurring costs for direct mail campaigns.

Increasing political participation

PlanetOut will potentially increase political participation in two ways: one, by increasing awareness of key political issues, and two, by making it easy for people to communicate with their political representatives. PlanetOut produces the first gay daily news program (This Way Out), which is broadcast globally, on-demand, by Real Audio. In addition, both the audio productions and the transcripts are archived. This resource will help create awareness of key issues and political events. In addition, PlanetOut has plans to create directories of politicians' e-mail addresses, along with summary information and message templates on key issues. People will most likely communicate more with their representatives if it is easier to do so.

Causing social change

Besides causing political change, PlanetOut also has the potential to cause social change, primarily by bringing distant groups of people together and by drawing economic resources into the gay community.

Bringing distant people together

On the map, the Castro is a long way from Colorado Springs, not to mention Washington D.C., but online, PlanetOut, Focus on the Family, and Gingrich Republicans are all just a few keystrokes away. This new-found proximity among different kinds of people raises some interesting questions. Will people use this environment to engage in hit-and-run antagonism? Or will people use it to drop in and learn about others they are normally far from, and sometimes mistrust? Probably both, but over time, this proximity may reduce prejudice and misunderstanding among people.

Drawing economic resources into the gay community

Finally, PlanetOut has the potential to draw economic resources into the gay community and use them to expand the services it provides. Market research indicates that gay people are 2.5 times more likely to be online than nongay people. In addition, advertising to the gay market is $70 million annually, and growing at 20% per year. PlanetOut plans to provide the perfect advertising vehicle to reach this market, to build a thriving business, and possibly to become the first public company to serve the gay market.

Conclusion

PlanetOut is interesting because it is using the unique capabilities of the online environment to enrich peoples lives. The technology employed by PlanetOut is widely used and has been available for several years. It is simply being used in new and better ways. PlanetOut has overcome physical distance to create a worldwide online community, and to distribute resources where they were not previously available. In a sense, PlanetOut has used Internet technology to extend beyond the limitations of existing broadcast mediums, and to narrowcast to a group of people that has traditionally been underserved.