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Members angry over Netscape forums shutdown

As part of an overall tightening of the belt following its acquisition by America Online, Netscape is planning to shut down the community forums on its Netcenter portal.

As part of an overall tightening of the belt following its acquisition by America Online, Netscape Communications is planning to shut down the community forums on its Netcenter portal.

Netcenter has long featured moderated community discussion forums on the topics Arts & Entertainment, Computing & Internet, Career Center, and Small Business.

Netscape spokesman Nathan Tyler denied a report in Salon.com that the forums had been shut down last week. He said that although an interruption in service was possible, the forums are still up and running. The links to them from the Netcenter front page were removed Wednesday night, but were reinstated last night.

But Jennifer Powell, who worked on the Netcenter Forums from the time they were in beta until last month's reorganization, disagreed with Tyler's account of the events.

"Mr. Tyler is trying to revise history, to give an impression that Netscape cared about the forum members," Powell wrote in an email message to CNET News.com today. "But Netscape didn't care about the forum members, and the reorganization and consequent shutdown were handled very poorly, and the users [were] given little to no information about what was happening to their online home."

A letter sent to one forum host, dated March 31, said, "As part of our continuing review and restructuring of business operations, Netcenter will be eliminating its WellEngaged Discussion Forums as of April 9."

One former forum host explained that without the front door link the forums were impossible to access unless a user had a bookmark or an old URL saved.

Tyler said Netscape had planned to kill the forums on April 9 but granted them a stay of execution for 30 days.

"We very reluctantly made the decision that we planned to discontinue the forums on the ninth," Tyler said. "But because we really value the forums and the community that has grown around them, we have done everything we can to reallocate resources and will extend the forums for 30 days."

But Powell said she was unsatisfied with Netscape's moves and questioned the company's motivation.

"Unfortunately, the forums are now empty of anything except spam and the occassional new person who wanders in only to be told they will have to leave again soon," she wrote. "In fact, many of the hosts have already frozen and archived topics due to the amount of spam the empty forums were attracting.

"Keeping the forums open for the rest of April serves no purpose whatever, except insofar as Netscape believes it is good PR somehow," she added.

In the next 30 days, AOL will determine how to fold various Netcenter features into its existing services and vice versa. Both companies incurred 450 layoffs each after the acquisition, and those fell heavily on Netcenter. Of 25 forum hosts, 19 were laid off initially, and the remaining 6 have since received pink slips.

According to one person instrumental in creating the forums, a groundswell of user protest caught Netscape off guard.

"The portal world is not understanding the community world," said Jen Bekman, who was an original product developer on the forums. "In communities, you have people who are already inclined to be vocal. So if you take something away from them, of course they're going to be vocal in complaining about it, and you're going to wind up with a big PR problem."

AOL will restore the Netcenter link to the forums tonight. The company promises a "more robust offering that leverages both AOL and Netcenter resources" when it reconstitutes the forums next month.

But even if AOL throws a "more robust" party as promised, it's unclear that forum mainstays will come.

"The regulars are so angry," said forum host Elizabeth Lewis, who continues to monitor forums that she describes as "ghost towns" of spam and bewildered newcomers. "They feel betrayed by Netscape and have gone on to form their own private community at Communityware.com. They're not going to be back."