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Digerati come home

Electric Minds, the Web site touted as the online home for the electronic community, launches with plans to gather online discussions and repackage them as books and other media.

Electric Minds, the Web site touted as the online home for the electronic community, launched today with plans to gather online discussions and repackage them as books and other media.

The site uses WELL Engaged conferencing software and includes The Palace, a virtual reality world complete with avatars.

The ambitious goal behind Electric Minds--founded by Howard Rheingold, who writes about technology and its impact on society, and Randy Haykin, founding vice president of sales and marketing at Yahoo--is to create community and intelligent conversation about technology.

Emily Green, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that while she thinks the site as a whole is likely to have success, she doubts it will be that revolutionary.

"I think they'll get some narrow ad revenue if they attract a dedicated following. It's not going to be a huge, explosive, revolutionize-the-world kind of thing."

The site, seeded with investment capital primarily from Softbank, will be funded by high-end advertisers such as Sun Microsystems, "who would like to reach an exclusive group of digerati," Green said.

The other revenue source for the site, to remain free to anyone who wants to join in, will be something that the people at Electric Minds call "inverse publishing," in which the ideas discussed are transformed into traditional media products, such as books, cable programs, and a subscription-based newsletter.

Advertising stands a good chance of working because the audience that Electric Minds is likely to reach with its bevy of new media stars promises to be small, yet exclusive, Green added. But the idea of repackaging content discussed online seems to pose too many questions, such as who really owns the content on the Web.

"I doubt the viability of this inverse publishing," she said. "What's the ownership of the intellectual property that gets created?"

Rheingold, the flamboyant author of The Virtual Community, has said the site will give people who long for intelligent, worldwide communication a place to go online. He has spoken about the site in broad terms, such how it will bring a "grassroots social community to the Web."

"When we started doing this, there were few people doing it and now there are more and more people actively building communities," Rheingold told CNET last month. "There's a difference between publishing to people and communicating with them."

The discussion on the site will take place through WELL Engaged, a proprietary software developed by The WELL, which strikes a balance between real-time chat and threaded discussion, allowing conversations to take place on the Web.

While most WELL Engaged customers use servers run by WELL Engaged, Electric Minds will actually have the server on its site, which is in San Francisco's China Basin.

The Electric Minds discussion forums are organized into five whimsically-named areas, including The Commons, the Virtual Community Center Arena, The WorldWide Jam Arena, the Edge Tech Arena, and the Tomorrow Arena.

The site will feature conversations started and moderated by well-compensated new media stars such as Rheingold, Laura Lamay, author of Learn Web Publishing with HTML in a Week; Bob Rossney, the San Francisco Chronicle technology critic; Silicon Graphics' Linda Jacopsen, Mark Pesce, creator of VRML; pop diva Reiko Chiba in Tokyo, and Web iconoclast Justin Hall.