Let's Surf the Web Together

The Internet is supposed to be all about community. But visiting sites has been a solitary pursuit — until now. New browser tools allow "tour leaders" to take groups to interesting sites and let users create "trails" to track their journey.

For a place teeming with millions of people and bursting with talk of global community,the Web can seem pretty lonely at times. Sure, email and chat rooms make it easy to communicate with lots of people. But when it comes to surfing the Web — visiting sites and figuring out whether they're worthwhile — you're on your own. Perhaps Robert Putnam, who recently published a book on the decline of community in America called Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000), should title his next book Surfing Alone.

Or perhaps not. Recently, a bunch of new tools designed to make the Web a more collective experience have become available. Some of those tools make community-oriented applications such as text-based chat more robust by letting people really chat — that is, with their voices. Other tools are designed to capture Web "trails" — click-by-click records of how Net surfers get from one destination to another, which can then be shared with friends. Still other tools are designed to enable groups of people to surf together in real time: A "tour leader" controls each person's browser and leads the group to various sites.

Full disclosure: These tools are new, which means that they're still a little rough around the edges. And since they're designed to enhance a sense of community on the Net, they tend to work best when lots of people use them. Right now, using some of these tools is like going to a party in a fancy nightclub and discovering that there are only five other revelers. But as the number of users increases, the quality of the conversations and the connections should deepen.

Firetalk (www.firetalk.com)
overall rating ....1/2
usability ...1/2

Real-time chat has become an increasingly popular Web application - whether the users are teenaged girls swapping gossip, or engineers collaborating on a prototype of their newest product. But the word "chat" has always been a misnomer on the Web. Wouldn't the experience be more rewarding if you could actually talk, rather than type? That's what the folks at Firetalk believe. They offer a tool that adds voice capability to real-time text chat so that you can gab with friends in San Francisco, San Jose, or Singapore — all for free.

All you need is the software (available at the company's Web site), a computer with Windows 95, 98, or NT4 (sorry, there's no Mac version), a sound card, speakers, and a microphone — all pretty much standard equipment. Firetalk users can make worldwide person-to-person calls and unlimited conference calls. They can also "instant-message" each other and leave voice mail for users who are not online.

To make a call, click on the telephone icon next to the name of the person you're trying to reach. When the call is answered, push the "talk" button and speak. It's that simple. If the conversation is limited to a small group (one to seven people), you don't even have to push the talk button to communicate.

True to the free-for-all spirit of the Web, you don't have to limit your conversations to people you already know. You can find other users whose interests are similar to yours by visiting one of the Firetalk forums, which are arranged by subject — "Computers & Technology," "Family," "Spirituality & Religion," and so on. (You can also create your own forum.) Forums can be public or private, and you have the option of inviting a moderator.

To get a feel for the quality of service (and the quality of conversation), I listened in on a public forum for "Vietnam Vets and Friends." Even in this forum, the participants were talking technology — discounts on computer hardware offered by the Veterans Benefits Administration. And while the sound quality was generally acceptable, sometimes the conversation was unclear. According to Firetalk, the quality of what I heard related directly to the quality of the microphone into which each participant was speaking. So if you want your voice to be heard, be sure to invest in a high-quality microphone.

But speech-based chat is just one of Firetalk's many useful tools. Even more impressive is its "talk-and-surf" feature, which allows users to surf the Web and talk to one another simultaneously. The designated "tour leader" can control the browsers of up to 20 other users (with their permission, of course) and take the group to various destinations on the Web.

To set up a tour, go to the site from which you wish to begin, and select the names of the people you wish to invite. When users accept, their browser instantly launches the appropriate site — where the leader is waiting, and where all participants can talk to one another. Finally, no more surfing alone!

Cahoots (www.cahoots.com)
overall rating ....
usability ....

When it comes to speech-based chat, Cahoots is not quite as robust as Firetalk. But it offers a comprehensive series of features, a few of which you won't get on Firetalk. Cahoots lets you make free voice calls to colleagues and friends, send instant messages, post notes at site "information centers," and participate in guided tours of the Web while speaking to other users.

Here's how it works. Users download the free software from the Cahoots site. Once you install Cahoots, a window appears beside your browser (the Cahoots Console) and lets you see which other Cahoots users are visiting the same Web page as you are. You then have the option of joining the active group text or voice chat. To initiate a private voice or text chat, to send an instant message, or to start a tour, just click on the name of the person you want to talk to and select the appropriate item from the pop-up menu.

The voice quality on Cahoots is every bit as good as on Firetalk, but Cahoots limits the number of participants in a voice chat to 10. If more than 10 users want to join a conversation, the service creates another "room" for the overflow. You can choose which room you want to enter, but if the chat session in your room of choice is at capacity, you'll have to wait for someone to leave.

Like Firetalk, Cahoots lets you initiate conversations with people you don't know, and it has a pretty nifty feature that helps you make smarter connections. You can find like-minded surfers by glancing at the list of people who are visiting a site when you are. Next to each user's name is an "affinity bar" that gauges how similar that surfer's interests are to yours. A dark-blue bar signifies that a user shares at least one of your interests. A light-blue bar means that the two of you have totally different likes and dislikes.

Another useful feature is Cahoots's ability to save transcripts of chats. Save transcripts as text files, and you can share them with other Cahoots users.

Analysis: Being in cahoots with Cahoots is definitely worth the effort.

Crowdburst (www.crowdburst.com)
overall rating ...
usability ....1/2

Two's company, and three's a crowd. But if the folks at CrowdBurst have their way, surfers will be moving through the Net in crowds of three, four, or more.

CrowdBurst is the latest entrant to the "chat-on-page" arena populated by the likes of Firetalk and Cahoots. But unlike those other applications, CrowdBurst doesn't require you to download any software. All you need in order to use the service is a browser. Once you've launched CrowdBurst, you'll need to register a user name and a password — and then you're ready to join the crowd.

The one thing that really makes CrowdBurst stand out from the crowd is the "trails" feature. A trail is a saved surfing session, with added commentary from the trail's creator, that other users can follow at any time. Using trails is a great way to help people understand the logic by which you arrived at a site.

That said, CrowdBurst's approach to trails is a bit circuitous. You create a list of URLs either by typing in the addresses or by adding the pages as you surf along. In order to record your path, you have to toggle between your browser and the CrowdBurst trail tool, adding each page by hitting the "add current page" button. (Or, you can add a bunch of pages at once by using the "view history" command.)

Finding trails is also complicated. The only way to find a trail is to find a Web page that happens to be included in one. When you find such a page, you can choose to follow the trail by clicking on the trail name. Your browser will automatically go to the first site in the trail, and a pop-up window will appear with commentary from the trail's creator.

These shortcomings aside, CrowdBurst is a great tool for anyone who wants to lead people to specific resources on the Web without having to be online all the time.

Odigo (www.odigo.com)
overall rating ..1/2
usability ...

Odigo, which comes from the Greek word for "guide," was one of the first tools to merge instant messaging, voice and text chat-on-page, and temporary Web-page note posting into one application. It's also the most playful of the bunch. Sure, Odigo can be used for serious business, but there's something about the tool's slick, remote-control-like interface that has "13-year-old girl" (rather than "58-year-old CEO") written all over it.

Unlike many tools of its kind, Odigo is compatible with America Online's ICQ and Instant Messenger, so you can chat with all of your friends - even those who don't have Odigo. (Beware: AOL has been known to block users of other tools from chatting with Instant Messenger users.) There are some other nifty features, such as the ability to transfer files and urls right from the chat window.

Finding new users to chat with is easy too. Just search the Odigo member directory, or use the service's Web-site directory (which covers more than 10,000 topics), and you can connect to other Odigo users. Unfortunately, users have to be online for you to make connections with them, and searches can be so specific that they may not turn up any users at all. For instance, when I did a search under "business" for people with expertise in beverages, I found no matches. But when I searched for consultants who know something about e-commerce, I found quite a few folks.

If you're looking for a fun and easy way to stay in touch with far-flung family members and friends, as well as for an opportunity to meet new people, Odigo is a reasonable way to go.

Gina Imperato (gimperato@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company associate editor, is based in San Francisco.

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