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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / TERRY
SCHWADRON

Parenting Sites a Step Ahead in Infancy of Net Communications

December 09, 1996

Peel back much of the hype about the Internet and what one will discover is pretty much the same thing you find in most human settings: We like talking with people who share our interests.

Electronic publishers learned early on that it was communications--chat, e-mail, forums and the like--that really draw the traffic. And then we all discovered that a lot of what people talk about is disjointed, not to the point, hard to follow and, frankly, not what we wanted to be talking about.

Take these facts and stir them in the electronic wok and maybe you'll come to the conclusion that Nancy Evans, Robert Levitan and Candice Carpenter reached in forming a company called iVillage, publisher of a site they call Parent Soup (http://www.parentsoup.com). It is also available through America Online.

Here's fair warning: One needn't be a parent to dial up the site, but only people worried, joyful, wondering, confused or otherwise possessed with the need for information about what to do about very young children will find this site a treasure.

If you're not such a parent, you might want to look at it anyway. There are some lessons to be learned here as we stumble our way toward making online communication a natural part of our lives.

For iVillage is one of the best examples of something everyone in the Internet world is always talking about: the creation of virtual communities of people with shared interests--not shared hobbies, but something that really drives us.

The site producers think what they are doing is creating a series of extremely targeted communities that resonate with users who face real-life issues, and allowing them to get together, not just for the moment, but repeatedly. Having started on America Online, they have built on early success.

By contrast, many chat sessions are happenstance meetings, scattered in focus. Or they are driven by people who want to speak about a passing issue, a kind of intellectual impulse reaction to speak out.

The folks at iVillage also have introduced an At Work site devoted to the workplace (http://www.atwork.com), and other topics are under consideration.

The iVillage approach has drawn interest in the business world. Investors include AOL, TeleCommunications Inc., Tribune Co. and venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, Byers. And it has aimed its advertising sales campaign to woo companies to sponsor a few targeted sections for up to $150,000 a year.

It's easy to see why Parent Soup has appeal. Navigating the site is simple, and it includes more than articles and referrals. Visitors feel invited into forums and conversations on very specific issues, where parents are asking other parents for advice about what to do about illnesses, developmental concerns and the like. And it seems clear from the tone of messages that participants are having a good time doing so.

There are interactive surveys and organized poll results from the Harris Poll. One recent question was "What keeps parents up at night?" and several statistical answers were offered. (According to this survey, parents worry more that their children might be crime victims than whether they will receive a quality education, that they won't be able to afford to meet the child's needs, that children will become involved with drugs or will engage in unprotected sex.)

One self-described, home-based father reported using the site more than 10 hours a week to find health advice, to show off pictures of his children, to answer another parent about dealing with pet deaths. Like others, he reports responding to a medium that is not passive, but encourages participation.

Parenting is clearly an issue that is building an audience. On AOL, there are seven parenting sites, including Parent Soup. On the Web, there are lots, and many sites list related destinations.

Among them:

* Family Planet (http://family.starwave.com), a Starwave Corp. offering that is similar in many ways to Parent Soup

* Family World, (http://www.family.com), a magazine site much less interactive

* The Mommy Times (http://www.mommytimes.com), whose very name seems to limit the interest to women

* Parent Place (http://www.parentplace.com), published by a couple running it as a home business

Searching for parenting advice on the Web search engines brings up several more, including some with names my fingers found too silly to investigate, like the Cootchy Cootchy Who? page.

Parent Soup manages to create a site where people respect their shared concern, and yet it makes that experience inviting, entertaining and educational. The site seems to argue that it is important to develop a vehicle to let people bare their opinions about what precisely is bothering them right now. The site is well produced, well-organized and exudes credibility.

Whether you see such sites as "magazines" or "e-zines," newsletters or safely organized conversation pits, what seems to draw is a mix of some expert advice, practical detail and the chance to vent. Listserv technology, or organized e-mail postings, do much the same.

What all the technology says, however, is that, at base, what we really are seeking are people. And specifically, we are seeking people who believe that whatever we think is important to us also matters to them.

Even if that's all we can get out of the global connections of the Internet, it may be enough.

*

Terry Schwadron is deputy managing editor of The Times and oversees latimes.com, its Web site. He can be reached via e-mail at terry.schwadron@latimes.com

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