IN 1994, JOURNALIST HOWARD Rheingold made a name for himself with the book The Virtual Community, in which he investigated the sociology and future of special-interest discussion groups on the Internet. Now, Rheingold is taking the next step and co-founding a new type of Web-based community that, unlike most, will seek to make a profit.
Called Electric Minds, Rheingold's new company in Mill Valley, Calif., is backed by, among others, Japanese publisher Softbank and U S West. Starting in September, it plans to get people around the world involved in an array of ongoing discussions about what new digital technologies are doing for and to society. How will they affect commerce, for instance, and how might they improve education? Participation will be open to anyone, but a group of online moderators and editors will keep the ball rolling by highlighting particularly interesting statements and attempting to stamp out annoying "flame wars." They'll also dole out one-time payments of $25 and give $1,000 monthly retainers to strong contributors.
Revenues? Electric Minds will take some paid screen advertising. But mostly, it plans to sell sponsorships to corporations, which may get their scientists and engineers to participate in discussions, and sell condensed versions of its various discussions to other Web sites that want to draw more visitors.