BISSEX: Electric Minds

This spring, when the eyes of the chess world were on international champion Garry Kasparov and his computer opponent Deep Blue, thousands of fans on the World Wide Web got more than just a play-by-play. Thanks to IBM and a Òvirtual communityÓ business called Electric Minds, over 20,000 people from 120 countries met in one place online for sideline commentary and philosophical discussions. The two companies didnÕt just deliver the match to the fans, in other words; they delivered the fans to each other. Launched in November by Howard Rheingold, 1996, Electric Minds (eMinds for short) was created to foster intelligent, critical talk about technology online. The name alludes to the fact that it is minds, not bodies, that make the journey over the wires. Free membership and notable columnists drew thousands of people, and eMinds became a place to talk about nearly everything: an international coffeehouse of sorts. Now, though, it looks like closing time. The outlook at the start was rosy. The business started with healthy doses of up-front venture capital and had sponsorship deals with several key companies. Later it worked on special events like the Kasparov/Deep Blue match. Farther down the road, Rheingold hoped that the eMinds community itself would be an incubator for profit-making ideas. The first big whiff of trouble came in April, when Japanese software giant Softbank withdrew its $500,000 loan. Rheingold was forced to lay off most of his staff, and by June it was clear that even this was not enough. An e-mail message went out to all members asking for help with a move should one be necessary. RheingoldÕs vision of the site as an idea-factory has turned out to be true, but what is now being hashed out Ñ painfully, fractiously, through thousands of individual comments and responses Ñ is, ironically, the question of where eMinders will go when the site shuts down. The foundering eMinds ship has attracted profiteers and samaritans alike. While the former eventually are ignored by everyone, the latter offer hard choices. Many eMinders looking for a transitional home have relocated to a special zone within Cafe Utne, a two-year-old online conferencing system run by the Utne Reader. The most serious candidate for permanent hosting of the eMinds community, though, is a small company in Goleta, California called Durand Communications. President Andre Durand told me they are Òmoving ahead with the acquisitionÓ as this column goes to press. Jon Lebkowsky, an online veteran and early eMinds staff member, believes that the "emergence and self-organization of the community" are the real story, rather than the simpler tale of business failure. ÒWhatever Howard's vision was for eMinds, once we got it up and running, it was its own thing." Rheingold is well aware that this electronic flock which he brought together will soon be moving on unless a surprise investor arrives in the eleventh hour. While surely harboring some regret over the path his venture has taken, he is also able to see the good. "The community,Ó he says, Òis in the process of demonstrating that it is more durable than the company." The aggregate emotional investment in eMinds the social phenomenon, as opposed to eMinds the business, is remarkable. But if people are the blood of virtual communities, then computer networks are the bones. Without a computer host, the community collapses. Hosting costs money, and money means business, and most businesses in the online world today have the relative lifespan of a mayfly. It will take clever and electric minds indeed to prosper in such an environment. Sites in my Sights As of this writing, the Electric Minds site is still operational. Take a look while you still can (www.minds.com). The biggest outpost of virtual refugees is still at Cafe Utne (www.utne.com/cafe). If you want to learn more about the nuts and bolts of online conferencing, the experts' favorite is a site maintained by David R. Wooley (freenet.msp.mn.us/~drwool/webconf.html). Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do Something If you believe that virtual communities might be better off shedding their commercial containers entirely, check out Grex, a non-profit conferencing system based in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.grex.org), or the member-owned River in San Francisco (www.river.org).Do you think the whole concept of virtual community is a bunch of hooey? Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. The Cyberia website is at www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/[SUGGESTED PULLQUOTE] "The community,Ó Rheingold says, Òis in the process of demonstrating that it is more durable than the company."

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