Look Who's Talking

A YEAR AGO, HOWard Rheingold, a San Francisco-area writer and guru on the somewhat mind-bending concept of ""virtual communities,'' pounded the pavement in Silicon Valley explaining to venture capitalists that he wanted not just to build a community in cyberspace but to make a profitable business out of it. ""I got laughed out of their offices,'' he recalls. Now, with $2 million in funding and 30,000 registered members, Rheingold is building Electric Minds, a gathering place on the Internet where people come together from places as far-flung as Tokyo, Berlin and New York to discuss everything from politics to cuisine.

Rheingold has plenty of company. It's still unclear just what people will pay to see or read on the Internet, but one promising new area centers on the age-old notion of people talking to other people. Venture capitalists, magazine publishers, online gaming companies and Internet service providers are talking about building communities on the Web. Of its 20 largest sites, 13 now have live chat or conferencing features, compared with fewer than 5 a year ago. And a dozen or so start-ups devoted just to chat have sprung up.

Why the push to gab? Just ask anyone who couldn't log on to America Online in the past few weeks: talk is addictive. Part of the reason AOL has had so many problems with its move to flat-rate billing is that people who use its chat services--AOL's single biggest draw--now have the luxury of staying logged on and blathering away interminably. Communication, far more than information browsing, appears to be the true killer app for the Web.

Talking over the Internet is nothing new. The original time-sharing computer systems of the 1960s had real-time talk features. Computer-mediated conferencing is nearly 20 years old. And Internet Relay Chat has been around the Net since the late 1980s. But they were used only by the most hard-core cybernauts. In the past year, as chat and conferencing tools have grown easier to build and use, chat systems around the Internet have started to rival talk radio in popularity. But building a community--a common ground where people come to know and care about one another's lives and interests--isn't easy. It can take years. For one thing, real-time chats such as those found on AOL tend to be superficial, ephemeral and often inane, hardly the stuff of community building. The format, consisting of quick one-liners and a dozen conversations all tossed together, can be vexingly difficult to follow and oft

Chat's bad rap is beginning to change, as those starting chat sites make community building more of a concerted focus. In small pockets around the Net, people are coming together to discuss common interests and concerns and to just have fun. Castle Infinity (www.castleinfinity.com) is an Internet-based game for kids set in an art-deco castle. As players type, text bubbles appear over their heads. The game, in which kids have to cooperate in order to banish the monsters and save the dinosaurs, rewards players with points for working together and communicating via e-mail; the idea is to encourage friendship. Kids are already using the virtual world to hang out and make dates. ParentsPlace, a site devoted to child rearing, has parents coming together to discuss everything from ear infections to coping with adolescents.

SPQR is a Web-based adventure game set in a historically accurate reconstruction of ancient Rome. Now that a faster, more sophisticated CD-ROM version of the game has been released, fans from around the world are gathering at the SPQR Web site (http://www.gtinteractive.com/ minisite/spqr) to chat about the CD-ROM. Players meet at the site to discuss strategy and swap tips. On a service called WebChat Broadcasting System, one member, a 21-year-old college sophomore, hosts a virtual world called Glenshadow's Tavern. The tavern has become a popular hangout for people interested in Dungeons & Dragons-like role playing. People at the tavern meet at specific times to drink virtual ale, wage war or woo other characters.

Microsoft has entered the chat fray with two features on its Microsoft Network (MSN) that seem uncharacteristically playful and daring--if also a bit gimmicky--for the Redmond, Wash., giant. One is called Comic Chat, which is traditional chat that can be viewed either as plain text or as a cartoon strip with words in balloons above each character's head. The other is V-Chat, which is currently available in open beta testing on the Internet version of MSN. It uses special software that must be downloaded from the Microsoft Web site (http:// vchat1.microsoft.com). V-Chat features so-called avatars, animated characters that move through two- and three-dimensional settings, talking to one another. Members can choose from dozens of prefabricated characters or make their own.

Some chat systems use moderators to tamp down obscenities and help build a sense of community. Talk City, a new Web site produced by start-up LiveWorld Productions in Saratoga, Calif., is devoted to chat but relies heavily on an army of moderators. Talk City has a more structured feel to it than other chat services, with regularly scheduled programs as well as occasional ""infochats,'' the online equivalent of infomercials, with paying sponsors.

Others, such as Rheingold, are emphasizing conferencing over real-time chat. In conferences, or message boards, conversations take place as a series of postings organized into different topics. Rheingold believes that communities are built on sustained conversations, as opposed to more ephemeral chat. Postings on Electric Minds (www. minds.com) stay up on the system for months at a time. ""You can take your time and contribute even if the conversation has been going on for two weeks,'' says Rheingold. Electric Minds is composed of two dozen separate conferences, all guided by paid hosts, with topics ranging from the latest Web technology to Paris restaurants. Rather than rely on subscriber fees, Electric Minds sells ads. Virtual communities may not be as commonplace as the telephone any time soon, but that doesn't bother people like Rheingold. Getting there is half the fun.