YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE CUTTING EDGE | Heard on the Beat

A Community, and This Time We Mean It

November 11, 1996|AMY HARMON

Howard Rheingold, whose book "The Virtual Community" helped spawn a string of unconvincing online community ventures, is launching a "social Web" service today that he hopes will succeed where others have fallen short.

Bankrolled by Japan's aggressive Softbank Corp. and private investors, Electric Minds is a sort of meta-community, featuring lists and links to other gathering places throughout the Internet, columns about virtual cultures and reports from local cybergroups around the world.

But it also aims to grow into a community in its own right by attracting Netizens interested in "intelligent conversation," mostly about technology. "Hotwired is about technology as fashion and attitude. C-Net is about technology as product. We're about technology as meaning," says Rheingold.

A longtime proselytizer for the social power of electronic communication, Rheingold traces his own conversion to his experience on the Well, one of the oldest online communities on the Net.

Despite all its fancy multimedia capabilities, or maybe because of them, the World Wide Web has not been conducive to fostering the sorts of intimate connections and compelling discussion threads as have the simple text exchanges of newsgroups and bulletin boards.

Rheingold, the first editor of Hotwired, Wired magazine's online venture, says he quit because the firm was not committed to community building.

Electric Minds is designed to enable browsers to jump instantly into a conversation about whatever it is they are passively absorbing, and to start conversation topics of their own.

But whether mining the social benefits of what often seems like cold and alienating technology can be done for profit is still unclear. Rheingold's revenue will depend mainly on attracting advertisers. And at a time when Web developers from Microsoft to Yahoo are touting new "community" features, he'll have plenty of competition.

Still, he says Electric Minds is sufficiently different from the rest to succeed--both in profit and principle.

"We're developing a service that has virtual community at its center rather than as an afterthought. This is going to help drive the Web toward becoming a social medium."

Los Angeles Times Articles