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CYBERCULTURE | THE SCENE / SAN FRANCISCO

It Takes a Webhead Club

At S.F.'s Cyborganic Gardens, Communities From Both Sides of the Screen Converge

May 20, 1996|LAWRENCE COMRAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a sprawling flat in the heart of San Francisco's multimedia gulch, a tightknit group of people who spend much of their time on the Internet are having a party in real life.

"Oh, you're Snarly!" a young woman exclaims to the person she's been talking with for 15 minutes. In a cyberspace version of the "Bald Soprano," they both realize they already know each other from Spacebar, an online chat network currently occupying a large part of their social lives.

Welcome to Cyborganic Gardens, where for the last 67 Thursdays slacker computer professionals who spend their days weaving the World Wide Web have been getting together to "log some face time."

It's part of a growing phenomenon of Bay Area gatherings that combine techno-philia, psychedelia and a few hippie and pagan accouterments. The Thursday Night Dinner, or TND, is the flesh-and-blood counterpart to an electronic community that's inhabited all week long.

"There are not two different worlds, one 'real' and the other 'online,' but rather there is one world full of people that exist in both places," says Cyborganic founder John Steuer, who helped create Web sites for HotWired and C/Net and now hopes to grow his own creation--an Internet service provider with a physical location for the public--into a profitable business.

Amid the flashing monitors on We Are Sex Night, it's easy to see what he means. The five-room Victorian flat is chock-full of both pop culture memorabilia and computers--scads of computers, with high-speed connections to the Internet.

Cyberchicks Sonic and Brynna are performing via an Internet video technology called Cu-SeeMe. The image of their two faces, joining half a dozen other images in a real-time video chat room, is generating an inordinate amount of traffic. Within an hour they've received 10 requests for private sessions.

Thinking quickly, they dress up two male friends, stick them in front of the camera and--amid peals of wild laughter--start honoring the requests. "The guy looked kinda confused, and then he gestured, and then he logged off," chuckled Sonic. On White Trash Night, a digital camera takes pictures of people enjoying macaroni and cheese with veggie wieners and a "wide-ranging feast of preservatives, heavily seasoned with fats, sugars and nature-identic essences." The picture files are uploaded to the World Wide Web and made immediately available on Cyborganic's Web site.

If TND feels like a techno-roadhouse stuffed with hardware and Webheads in various states of consciousness, the Cyborganic Web site (www.cyborganic.com), oddly, has a more wholesome feel.

The site, laid out like a garden, implies a fuzzy green world of mutual support and nurturing, where members are given the opportunity to contribute and benefit in the ways best suited to them. The Cyborganic logo, of two digital avatars, welcomes members with its knowing smile. Anyone logging on can "carve a tree" (sort of like digital graffiti) in The Forest, which is also where members post their home pages.

The Hothouse features various online magazines. Transactions, presumably swapping Apples for Apples (and PCs), happen in The Orchard. The Shed offers tutorials on Web programming and other tools. And there are various chat and discussion services. Throughout the site, friendly instructions and cute sayings abound--a welcome change from the frigid nature of so much of what's online.

Cyborganic has already achieved a measure of online notoriety by hosting Brainstorms, the online presence from Web guru Howard Rheingold, and the famed Safer Sex Page, which stands up for free speech on the Internet.

But the real key to its success so far--and, Steuer hopes, to its development into a big and profitable business--lies in its ability to do something that many in cyberspace like to talk about but few really achieve: create a community.

Leveraging the garden-as-meeting place motif, Cyborganic has evolved into a sort of deluxe Internet service provider (ISP), providing dial-up Internet services and Web site design and hosting--mostly to other like-minded Bay Area professionals. The rates are competitive, with profit coming mostly from special services.

The business has so far focused strictly on the Internet side of things, but plans are finally taking shape to combine the online with a public space in the, uh, real world. Steuer is currently negotiating for a prime piece of Multimedia Gulch real estate, which he plans to call the Cyborganic Cafe.

Then, according to Steuer, "walk in" can mean "log on." The grand plan involves a series of similar cafes worldwide, with the goal of fashioning a cooperative that, in the words of Gardener in Chief Caleb Donaldson, "spans both sides of the screen."

Whereas a typical online service cares little for its users except while they are logged on, "the goal of Cyborganic," Steuer explains, "is to bring people together. We treat the people who are part of Cyborganic as whole people, and the time they spend online is just another way of them participating in our community."

To be sure, other San Francisco gatherings share similar trappings. The Anon Salon, a carnival of computer wizardry, has been taking place in a giant warehouse about a dozen times a year. And Burning Man, a cyber-shamanic gathering of the pagan/digital underground, continues to flourish at various assemblages along the beach and elsewhere. But Cyborganic may be the first of these chaos-inspired subcultures to go public.

* Freelance writer Lawrence Comras can be reached via e-mail at axil_comras@broder.com

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