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Taking Back the Web

Are new services ways to share ideas, or graffiti?
September 1, 1999

When you’re traipsing through endless corporate-image home pages, it’s hard to remember that the folks who invented the Web wanted a tool to foster collaboration and community. Now a pair of free Web services, Third Voice and Gooey, are trying to restore that spirit to the medium. But the Web seems to be resisting this re-direction-in fact, these services have caused an uproar.

It doesn’t take long to understand the controversy raised by Redwood City, Calif.-based Third Voice. Users of the company’s software can treat the Web like a giant graffiti board. When they visit any site, they can post messages that appear to every visitor to the page using Third Voice. Some have taken to Third Voice like a graffiti artist to spray paint, and high-profile pages like Microsoft.com have become particularly easy targets.

Third Voice founder Eng-Siong Tan says, “The point of the Web is discussion and sharing of ideas.” Third Voice, he adds, lets readers “take back a little bit of the Web.”

But the people who own the sites where these notes appear aren’t very enthusiastic. Third Voice represents an intrusion into a site owner’s right to control content, says Char M. Green, director of legal research for a coalition of site owners called Say No To Third Voice. Green complains that Third Voice allows anyone to change the apparent content of the page. “It’s vandalism,” she says. Actually, the postings are stored on Third Voice’s servers and overlaid on the target Web page-but Green dismisses this as a “technicality.”

This summer, while the furor over Third Voice was raging, an Israeli company called Hypernix introduced Gooey-a Web-based chat service that seems to provide the open communication promised by Third Voice without invoking such angst. Gooey attempts to turn the Web into a gigantic party in which people exchange real-time messages with others visiting the same site at the same time. Each time you surf to a new site, you automatically join a new group of people who presumably share common interests. Hypernix posts a continuously updated list of the sites where Gooey users are congregating (in the early days of the service, however, the most active Gooey chat was at portal sites-not the sort of interest-sharing community that Gooey is designed to foster). About 46,000 people registered for Gooey in the first month after its launch, according to Hypernix CEO Shai Adler, who says that at any given time about 1,600 Gooey users are online.

Gooey has kicked up less of a ruckus than Third Voice. One reason: Gooey chat evaporates from a site once the users log off. Also, unlike Third Voice notes, Gooey chat occupies a separate, unobtrusive window. Moreover, real-time chat is becoming increasingly popular, and Gooey makes chat easily accessible at every Web site. Linking chat to a Web page that contains honest-to-goodness content may yield online exchanges with more depth than the inanity of many chat rooms.

Millions of Internet users have come to expect the Internet to serve up information. Now we will see if these legions of mouse potatoes are ready to turn the World Wide Brochure into a salon.

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