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    LESLIE WALKER
    Leslie Walker
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  • A Place of Their Own

    By Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 24, 1998; Page B1

    Jack Kohnen's family gathered in their very own "Kohnen Korner" in cyberspace recently after a broken hip sent him to a nursing home in Colorado. Across the country, dozens of his children and grandchildren signed onto their private area of the Yahoo site to schedule a relay of visits out west.

    Nobody wanted Jack to be alone, especially at Christmas. "People are trying to be there for Grandpa. This was much faster than snail mail," said Lucy Kohnen, a 29-year-old San Francisco woman who created her family's forum in response to an e-mail she got from Yahoo.

    The Kohnens are among tens of thousands of families, hobbyists, clubs, civic groups and small businesses that are taking advantage of dynamic new "group publishing" software that big Web site operators are developing as a weapon in the fight for mass audiences.

    Taking vanity publishing to a new level online, the software lets people create private virtual worlds – interactive forums where friends and family can chat, post messages, and share calendars and address books. Some even let users create personal photo albums and conduct instant polls. All of these services are free.

    Commercial "homesteading" sites have long offered free home pages and sold ads on them. But lately the drive for profit and domination of the Web is making the self-publishing business more competitive and creative – with consumers as the beneficiaries.

    Big portal sites on the Web, such as Yahoo, are offering free personal "clubs" to consumers because they know if they don't, someone else will. They're fighting for the right to host your virtual world, even though you might not think you want one. It's your loyalty they're angling for, figuring that if you set up shop on their computers, you'll use other services such as search and stock quotes, look at the ads they post, and bring in friends.

    Touring these new mini-worlds, I glimpsed what I see as ground zero for the future of the Web. Even as they go commercial, these sites are staying true to the global network's original nonprofit purpose of allowing people to freely share information. People are using these still-experimental tools to connect in new ways, much like the Internet's early pioneers. While the forerunners knew Web programming codes, the new crop of tools allows anyone to publish interactive pages.

    Until recently, many big businesses operating on the Web, including traditional media companies, were wary of self-publishing, unsure it would yield profits. They also were afraid they couldn't manage user-generated pages in the orderly manner that advertisers demand. But that perception is changing.

    Three companies offering personal pages – GeoCities, Xoom.com Inc. and Theglobe.com – had successful public stock sales this year. Two others were snapped up by the Lycos Network (Tripod.com and Angelfire.com).

    None is profitable yet, but investors don't care. That will come later, they believe. What matters to them is that the 10 fastest-growing sites for much of this year were ones where users create content.

    In August, anxious not to miss out on something big, Excite and Yahoo began offering group-publishing tools that allow more interactivity than the static pages offered by GeoCities. Koz Inc. launched similar technology in August at Familyshoebox.com. And DejaNews, the Web front door to Usenet's newsgroups, released its version in October.

    In just four months, with little promotion, tens of thousands of user-created communities popped up on Excite, and more than 40,000 on Yahoo. DejaNews got 6,500 in two months. Yahoo's music category alone has spawned more than 5,000 clubs, including one for fans of the band Hanson that has 10,000 members who post 1,000 messages a day.

    Already, the ad inventory in Yahoo's "clubs" (each page carries a small ad) is sold out for all of 1999. Advertisers like to target their messages by topic, making special-interest club pages a comparatively easy sell – music companies, for instance, jump at the chance to put their ads before people in music clubs.

    People can choose to make their mini-worlds publicly accessible, private (closed to anyone who doesn't have the password), or a mixture of both (they see ads either way). Most users on Excite and Yahoo choose to make their pages public.

    After testing a variety of the tools, I found the ones offered by Excite and Yahoo the easiest to use. Excite's provide more flexibility in design and make photo publishing a breeze. Yahoo's look good, but allow little design variety and artwork and no ability to add photos.

    Sites that offer static pages aren't standing still. GeoCities announced this month it soon will offer its 3 million members free syndicated content to insert into their home pages, including news headlines from the Associated Press.

    All the Web sites promise they will respect the privacy of personal information that they'll be able to collect about users – hobbies and hometowns, for instance. But clearly, one motive behind these freebies is a desire to form the kind of consumer relationships that could yield direct-marketing bonanzas. The eventual trade-off for consumers – privacy for convenience – is still in the early stages of negotiation.

    It remains to be seen how valuable the mainstream consumer audience will ultimately find these tools, and how much privacy people will be willing to surrender. But my bet is that these tools will be bigger than we can imagine, driven by the same social needs that turned the telephone into a virtual human appendage, and the emotional bonds that led the Kohnens to rally around Grandpa.

    Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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