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  • The Navigator: Sailing the Cyberseas

    Mind-to-Mind Contact for English Majors

    By Linton Weeks
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 12, 1996

    Let me point you toward an ambitious experiment in what it means to be human: Electric Minds, a Web site recently launched by Howard Rheingold, one of the first Net celebrities.

    You may know Rheingold, 49, as the former editor of the Whole Earth Review, one of the first journals to point out that computers can be used for rebellion. You might know Rheingold as the founding editor of HotWired, Wired magazine's Web site. Or you may have seen him in a recent Kinko's TV ad wearing his goofy shirt, hat and grin.

    If his newest venture, Electric Minds, is successful, you'll be seeing Rheingold more and more. EM, he says, "is a virtual community, a global network of intelligent people in discourse about what technology means."

    I don't know about you, but all this talk of virtual communities makes me nervous. Can community be manufactured in such an unnatural setting? Can it be cobbled together with fancy software and good intentions? Do people online really long for virtual community or are they looking for real anonymity?

    Anytime I hear folks talking about online community I want to slip away and get a cup of coffee at an offline cafe.

    Fortunately Rheingold's not a bore, or, despite his aging hippy technicolor costume, a total geek. He's still got a pulse, though he occasionally uses words in a clunky fashion -- "aggregate" as a transitive verb, for instance. He's written a passel of books -- including "Virtual Reality" and "Virtual Community" -- that explain cyberspace using language found in a dictionary. He describes himself as publisher, editor, majority stockholder and "Chief Aha! Officer" of the new venture.

    Like other Net-based communities -- the WELL or the Meta Network, for example -- the premise underpinning Electric Minds is that people are looking to belong to something.

    But unlike the gurus of most other online groups, Rheingold says he hopes to "aggregate" a bunch of brainy people and attract corporate sponsors who will want to link their logos and lucre to "the programming" of Electric Minds -- PBS-style. In other words, he hopes to offer the service free to users and make money through sponsorships. He's already signed up Sun Microsystems.

    The two most important chambers of Electric Minds, he says, are Edge Tech and Virtual Community Center.

    Currently in Edge Tech, columnist Linda Jacobson writes about virtual reality and Mark Pesce writes about interfaces. Though the essays attempt to be smooth and slick, they make for tough sledding. Jacobson: "I aimed to expose the dehumanizing underbelly of corporate America. But until someone hired me to do that, I took a job stocking diodes, resistors, and integrated circuits at BTX, a company that ... " ZZZZzzzzzzzzzz.

    The beauty of Electric Minds, Rheingold says, is that users can read essays and articles by the brainy people and respond to them by posting messages in an open window right beside the story. The salient problem with Electric Minds is that the writers have too much brains and not enough stories. As in many virtual communities, Electric Minds members seem to be more interested in telling you what they think than in remarking on what others think. Sometimes they get so technical you want to find another open window to jump through.

    The real treasure of Electric Minds is its directory of other online groups. In the Virtual Community Center, an alphabet of web-based communities is listed, along with thumbnail descriptions provided by Rheingold's staff.

    Notable among the entries are the Nerdnosh mailing list, made up of "500 story tellers sharing tales and spinning yarns across a virtual campfire" and Utne Cafe, an online salon for fans of the Utne Reader.

    Even if Rheingold's Electric Minds lacks magic, his heart's in the right place. He realizes that the way we relate to technology, and vice versa, has a profound effect on the future of our culture. I just wish he would gear his site less toward gearheads and more toward us English majors. If we will pay attention to what's happening in cyberspace, maybe we still can salvage a little truth and beauty.

    Starting with this week's column, as your navigator, that's my job. Like my ancestors who were bar pilots on the Mississippi River, I'll try to steer you past the sawyers and sandbars in cyberspace.

    Together we'll venture forward and explore the electronic frontier. With this space as our agreed-upon meeting place, we'll sail the cyberseas.

    Where are we going? Through the ever-changing, ever-stranger digital world. What are we looking for? The Holy Grail. The lost chord. The killer app.

    Will we find it? Who do you think I am? Dionne Warwick? How should I know? But we'll have some fun, a few yuks if we're lucky. We'll see the sites and untangle the Web and maybe it won't seem like such a weird place after all.

    Along the way, we might as well look for the meaning of it all and try to figure out what life online tells us about life offline. As my editor reminds me ad nauseum, "It's the humans, stupid." Because love it or loathe it, cyberculture is moving through real life like the smell of cedar. None of us is untouched.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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