For tens of millions of office workers, weekends at home mean a chance to recover from five business days of staring at a computer screen. But these days the Web is brimming with so much creativity -- art, music, photography -- that online visits can feel more like a stroll around Soho than overtime at work.
What gives these new sites their spark is audience participation. More and more, the role of the entrepreneur is to come up with a concept and then open the doors to all comers. On many of these sites, whether it's an art site like PostSecret or a photography club like Flickr, the public provides all of the content. Without the users there would be nothing to click.
If you're in a strolling mood, a good place to start is PostSecret (postsecret.blogspot.com). Every day, hundreds of people illustrate and caption their confessions on postcards and send them to an address in Germantown, Md. There an art and pop culture lover named Frank Warren picks out the best and posts them on his site.
Whether they're true or dreamed-up, these confessions are a delight for amateur shrinks and fans of popular culture, not to mention voyeurs. The captioned artwork careens between poignant, nasty, and hilarious. This combo has rocketed PostSecret to the 10th most-popular position of the 13 million blogs monitored by Feedster.com, a blog search engine.
Some of the secrets in PostSecret are comical. On a Starbucks (SBUX) cup, one reads: "I give decaf to customers who are rude to me." Others are dead serious. Next to a drawing of spotted pink lungs: "Sometimes I wish I had lung cancer so my Mom would quit smoking."
Many of the new music sites feed off of their audiences, too. While Internet services in the past have provided streaming music by genres, from rockabilly to grunge, the new sites enable users to custom-build their own channels. One of the slickest sites is Pandora. The three-week-old site invites listeners to type in a few favorite artists. Then it plays a selection of songs thematically or musically related to those choices.
Don't like a song? Click the thumbs down icon, and the service tweaks your profile. Other clicks lead users to buy the song at iTunes or Amazon.com (AMZN), or to share their mixes by sending them in e-mails to friends. If you wonder why a track was selected, the service will explain. A Talking Heads listener recently received a song by guitarist Mike Stern because it had "a contrapuntal melodic presentation, groove-oriented approach, and quirky ideas." Pandora's downside? It's not free. Listeners can try the service for 10 hours, before paying a $3 a month charge.
A similar free site is Mercora. In a recent test, its connection seemed a bit more tenuous, but it boasts different features. Users, for example, can record some music for later listening. One important distinction: The songs on these services are not downloaded files that can be made into CDs or loaded onto iPods. They're for listening on systems connected to computers.
Of the photo sites, Flickr.com, which was bought by Yahoo! (YHOO) earlier this year, offers an astounding selection. Type in one word, Katrina or Iraq, and you'll see photos taken there within recent hours. Flickr.com is the eyes of the world on one site, and it grows richer every day as 1.2 million users all over the world upload their photos -- 37 million of them, and counting.
For browsing, Fotolog.net, with 57 million photos, boasts a collection more geared to people-watching than Flickr's. One key difference is that most members are limited to uploading only one photo a day. So instead of putting an entire archive online, members are more likely to pick photos that illustrate their day. The result? Visitors can click through photo journals of hundreds of thousands of lives all over the world. Of course at Fotolog, as at most of these new interactive Web sites, participating is a lot more rewarding than just watching.
By Stephen Baker in New York