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Mining the Geocitizens
May 05, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Community is the buzzword du jour. Business Week put it on the cover. The latest Wired chronicles the development of The Well. And thanks to Electric Minds, even the rematch between Deep Blue and Kasparov has spawned an ephemeral community, arguing the finer points of intelligence and chess.

It's no surprise, then, that two of the hottest companies on the Internet are embracing "community" as their guiding light. But their notions of community couldn't be more different from one another...

GeoCities, which bills itself as "the most popular collection of free home pages and email on the web," has enabled thousands of newly minted web publishers to broadcast their hopes, dreams and pictures of their cats to the world. Built around a neighborhood metaphor, the GeoCitizens organize themselves into areas of themed content. GeoCities provides the tools and the server space, the users provide the content. No pesky editors, no temperamental HTML jockeys, no Photoshop gurus -- just miles and miles of server space. Traffic at some level is virtually guaranteed -- if you put up a home page, couldn't you at least get your family to visit?

With revenue coming from neighborhood-specific banner advertising, premium member services and sales of goods in the GeoCities marketplace, founder David Bonhett hopes to leverage his users' desire to shout from the rooftops into $4.5 million this year.

One could argue that as budding web publishers flood the packetstream with paeans to NASCAR racing and web celebrities, the volumes of content will become even more overwhelming, and people will actually start surfing less. We'll hit only the brand name sites; the ones with enough pocket change to keep content fresh enough to inspire repeat visits. Or our eyetime will be dominated by content and commerce that has been pushed to us.

Or, we'll rely on people that have already scoured the web for us. This is the model that Scott Kurnit, former head of Prodigy, is banking on with the newly launched Mining Company. With a planned 4,000 topics, Kurnit is planning on turning thousands of rabid web content providers into "guides" that lead users through a framed tour of the best sites in a particular category -- say, NASCAR racing or web celebrities. The guides will also write regular columns, regularly update their tours, and participate in any Mining Company chat events.

Like GeoCities, the Mining Company relies on outsiders to provide the bulk of its content. But unlike GeoCities, the Mining Company will actually pay their tour guides. The Mining Company promises their rigorously selected guides $250 a month, or 40% of any ad revenue generated by their tour, whichever is greater.

(The Mining Company didn't invent the tour concept, of course. Excite has been doing this for quite a while, with their Exciteseeing Tours, but with little success. Their tours are really just lists of links wrapped up in dull prose ("You should check out this site!"), and HREF tags that spawn new browser windows.)

The Mining Company is community with point-of-view, and they're hoping to become the one, trusted source for things meta. Need to know about French cooking? Want the latest tips on Quake? Need to learn JavaScript? Take a Mining Company tour. Stick around after the tour for bulletin boards discussion and some lively chat.

GeoCities, on the other hand, is merely an overblown ISP, without the troublesome modem banks. It's the "community as web server" model. To date, they've invested very little in organizing their content, other than letting users self-select into neighborhoods. Their traffic is most likely generated from the outside -- with hits coming from search engines looking for the latest Cindy Crawford JPEG.

"The greatest thing about the Net is that it's anything goes. That's also its biggest problem," said The Mining Company's Kurnit, in a recent Wired News piece. Which is why the Mining Company and GeoCities will peacefully co-exist: the Mining Company, as the para-site, will most likely feed on the GeoCitizens and their propensity for publishing.

To me, this sounds like a perfect joint-venture opportunity. The Mining Company can solve the content infrastructure problem of GeoCities. Mining Company tours could feature the pages of GeoCitizens. This will help encourage more content from GeoCitizens, which will give the Mining Company more content to excavate. Meanwhile, the venture takes ad revenue on both the tour and the page that's being toured. It could be the self-perpetuating business model that everyone's been looking for...



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