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New system produces well-designed chat

The Well, which helped put virtual community on the cybermap, introduces a new conferencing system that could convert any Web site into its own community.

The folks at The Well, who helped put virtual community on the cybermap, are introducing a new conferencing system that could convert any Web site into its own community.

Well Engaged, a Well spin-off company, is bringing a custom conferencing system to the Web that aims to combine the best elements of live chat with the threaded conferences featured on Usenet.

"I think the next evolution of the Web is really all about connecting people to people," said Maria Wilhelm, president of the Well and Well Engaged. "That's what Well Engaged, as a technology, enables.

"There isn't any other group anywhere who knows more about building community online than the Well," she added.

It only makes sense the premier licensing site of the Well Engaged conferencing system is Electric Minds, the much-publicized, upcoming Web site and brainchild of Howard Rheingold, who wrote the book, The Virtual Community, based on his experience on The Well.

The Well Engaged system will be a fully integrated, key component of Electric Minds, which has the lofty goal of creating the environment for having intelligent conversations about the ramifications of science and technology.

"Well Engaged includes a lot of architecture that made the Well successful," Rheingold said. "It enables people to find topics of mutual interest and keeps those conversations going for months and even years."

The technology allows the people at Electric Minds to focus on the work they do best: facilitating intellectually stimulating conversations and building community, rather than on the technology that runs the conferences, Rheingold said.

Well Engaged plans to announce several other large partnerships in the near future, Wilhelm said. It also has several smaller partnership in the works and a early version of Well Engaged is running on The Well's site.

The Wall Street Journal gave Well Engaged a trial run during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and was pleased with the results.

"Within a week or so more than 5,000 people went into that area," Neil Budde, editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition said of the conferencing area.

The people at the Journal had started looking for a company to help provide conferences only two to three weeks before they needed it, Budde said. Well Engaged provided a particularly good solution because the conferencing system is run by Well Engaged employees and resides on servers at its own San Francisco location.

"Frankly, given other projects, we were interested in someone who would run it for us," Budde said.

That's why Wilhelm refers to the service as a "turnkey" solution: Companies don't need to have the conferencing equipment or know-how to use the service. "There is no software to install and no hardware to buy," she said. "We deliver the functionality and the customer delivers the art."

The new version of Well Engaged will be launched in mid- to late October. Electric Minds hopes to launch its full-scale site at the end of October.