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Hafner, Katie. Look who's talking: yes, online chat rooms are mostly
boring and bawdy. But get ready for the next step; 'virtual
communities' where talk is anything but small. (includes a list
of six services providing chatrooms)(Internet). In Newsweek Feb
17 1997, v129, n7, p70(3).
Yes, online chat rooms are mostly boring and bawdy. But get ready for
the next step: 'virtual communities' where talk is anything but
A YEAR AGO, HOWARD Rheingold, a San Francisco--area writer and guru
on the somewhat mind-bending con-of "virtual communities," pounded
the pavement in Silicon Valley explaining to venture capitalists that
he wanted not just to build a community in cyberspace but to make a
profitable business out of it. "I got laughed out of their offices,"
he recalls. Now, with $2 million in funding and 30,000 registered
members, Rheingold is building Electric Minds, a gathering place on
the Internet where people come together from places as far-flung as
Tokyo, Berlin and New York to discuss everything from politics to
Rheingold has plenty of company. It's still unclear just what people
will pay to see or read on the Internet, but one promising new area
centers on the age-old notion of people talking to other people.
Venture capitalists, magazine publishers, online gaming companies and
Internet service providers are talking about building communities on
the Web. Of its 20 largest sites, 13 now have live chat or
conferencing features, compared with fewer than 5 a year ago. And a
dozen or so start-ups devoted just to chat have sprung up.
Why the push to gab? Just ask anyone who couldn't log on to America
Online in the past few weeks: talk is addictive. Part of the reason
AOL has had so many problems with its move to flat-rate billing is
that people who use its chat services--AOL's single biggest draw--now
have the luxury of staying logged on and blathering away
interminably. Communication, far more than information browsing,
appears to be the true killer app for the Web.
Talking over the Internet is nothing new. The original time-sharing
computer systems of the 1960s had real-time talk features.
Computer-mediated conferencing is nearly 20 years old. And Internet
Relay Chat has been around the Net since the late 1980s. But they
were used only by the most hardcore cybernauts. In the past year, as
chat and conferencing tools have grown easier to build and use, chat
systems around the Internet have started to rival talk radio in
popularity. But building a community--a common ground where people
come to know and care about one another's lives and interests-isn't
easy. It can take years. For one thing, real-time chats such as those
found on AOL tend to be superficial, ephemeral and often inane,
hardly the stuff of community building. The format, consisting of
quick one-liners and a dozen conversations all tossed together, can
be vexingly difficult to follow and often boring. Moreover, chat is
frequently just plain lascivious.
Chat's bad rap is beginning to change, as those starting chat sites
make community building more of a concerted focus. In small pockets
around the Net, people are coming together to discuss common
interests and concerns and to just have fun. Castle Infinity
(www.castleinfinity.com) is an Internet-based game for k/ds set in an
art-deco castle. As players type, text bubbles appear over their
heads. The game, in which kids have to cooperate in order to banish
the monsters and save the dinosaurs, rewards players with points for
working together and communicating via e-mail; the idea is to
encourage friendship. Kids are already using the virtual world to
hang out and make dates. ParentsPlace, a site devoted to child
rearing, has parents coming together to discuss everything from ear
infections to coping with adolescents.
SPQR is a Web-based adventure game set in a historically accurate
reconstruction of ancient Rome. Now that a faster, more sophisticated
CD-ROM version of the game has been released, fans from around the
world are gathering at the SPQR Web site
(http://www.gtinteractive.com/ minisite/spqr) to chat about the
CD-ROM. Players meet at the site to discuss strategy and swap tips.
On a service called WebChat Broadcasting System, one member, a
21-year-old college sophomore, hosts a virtual world called
Glenshadow's Tavern. The tavern has become a popular hangout for
people interested in Dungeons & Dragons-like role playing. People at
the tavern meet at specific times to drink virtual ale, wage war or
woo other characters.
Microsoft has entered the chat fray with two features on its
Microsoft Network (MSN) that seem uncharacteristically playful and
daring-if also a bit gimmicky-for the Redmond, Wash., giant. One is
called Comic Chat, which is traditional chat that can be viewed
either as plain text or as a cartoon strip with words in balloons
above each character's head. The other is V-Chat, which is currently
available in open beta testing on the Internet version of MSN. It
uses special software that must be down-loaded from the Microsoft Web
site (http:// vchat1.microsoft.com). V-Chat features so-called
avatars, animated characters that move through two- and
three-dimensional settings, talking to one another. Members can
choose from dozens of prefabricated characters or make their own.
Some chat systems use moderators to tamp down obscenities and help
build a sense of community. Talk City, a new Web site produced by
start-up LiveWorld Productions in Saratoga, Calif., is devoted to
chat but relies heavily on an army of moderators. Talk City has a
more structured feel to it than other chat services, with regularly
scheduled programs as well as occasional "infochats," the online
equivalent of infomercials, with paying sponsors.
Others, such as Rheingold, are emphasizing conferencing over
real-time chat. In conferences, or message boards, conversations take
place as a series of postings organized into different topics.
Rheingold believes that communities are built on sustained
conversations, as opposed to more ephemeral chat. Postings on
Electric Minds (www. minds.com) stay up on the system for months at a
time. "You can take your time and contribute even if the conversation
has been going on for two weeks," says Rheingold. Electric Minds is
composed of two dozen separate conferences, all guided by paid hosts,
with topics ranging from the latest Web technology to Paris
restaurants. Rather than rely on subscriber fees, Electric Minds
sells ads. Virtual communities may not he as commonplace as the
telephone any time soon, but that doesn't bother people like
Rheingold. Getting there is half the time.
With JENNIFER TANAKA and N'GAI CROAL
COPYRIGHT 1997 Newsweek Inc.