For a medium that's supposed to be interactive, the Web can be a pretty lonely place.
Sure, you can read pages posted by people around the world and invite fellow surfers into your very own online home. But you're not really interacting with anything but static HTML pages and perhaps the Big Gulp on your desk.
Web wandering shouldn't have to be a solitary activity. Whenever you visit a reasonably popular site, odds are good that others are there as well. The problem is that there's no way to communicate with those people or even to know they're out there.
At least, that used to be the problem. In the last few months, a number of software companies have released programs that promise to introduce interpersonal interaction to Web pages. If this "social surfing" software catches on and I believe it will the Web will be a far friendlier place.
Third Voice, the first of these programs, allows users to attach Post-It-style notes to any Web page and read notes left behind by others. So if ESPN.com reports on a trade between two baseball teams, the page can be plastered with comments from fans arguing over who got ripped off. In this way, people who have something in common such as an irrational attachment to a game played by spoiled millionaires can have discussions in a context that just isn't possible in traditional chat rooms or bulletin boards.
"Our product enables communities to form dynamically at any site," said Leo Jolicoeur, vice president of business development for Third Voice. "We've created an interactive layer that exists across the entire Web."
A product called Gooey goes further, allowing users to talk in real time with other surfers visiting the same site at the same time. In effect, the program attaches an appropriately topical chat room to every page on the Web.
"People who are on a Web site at the same time as you, by definition, have something in common with you," said Shai Adler, co-chief executive of Hypernix, the company behind Gooey. "These people are all potential friends, or at least someone to talk to."
Other such products, including Odigo, uTok and the not-yet-released Zadu, offer different variations on the note and chat paradigms. Zadu also will encourage users to affiliate with certain sites or organizations. That way, they could be recognized online as a Cubs fan, for example, or an NRA member. (Hopefully, those two wouldn't meet because giving a Cubs fan a gun right now wouldn't be such a good idea.)
"In real life, if you see someone wearing a T-shirt from a bar you've been to or the school you attended, you're more likely to walk over and have a conversation," said Robert Goldberg, vice president of marketing for Zadu. "We're introducing those sorts of reference points to the Web."
While social surfing programs are available for free, they don't come without a cost. Since they follow you around the Web, the products can compile an individual profile of you based on the sites you visit. While the spokesmen I talked to said their companies won't share that data with anyone, it will be used to target advertisements that will appear alongside the notes or chat windows.
Such concerns, along with the aggravation caused by yet another on-screen ad, will be enough to turn off some surfers. But I think many people will overlook these annoyances for a chance to make meaningful connections online.
The Web social scene has long been dominated by chat rooms. But they seem to attract people who are so lonely, bored or horny that they'll chat with just about anyone about just about anything. Chat rooms are the singles bars of the Web, making them just about the worst place to meet anyone you'd actually want to talk to.
Social surfing software, though, lets you casually interact with people who like to do whatever it is you're doing online. Even if you just log on to read the news and check your investments, you might end up having a nice conversation with someone else who's doing the same thing.
Like instant messaging, social surfing is the sort of activity that becomes far more valuable as more people start doing it. So within the next year, as these programs catch on, you can expect that Microsoft and America Online will be fighting over which product to buy up and roll into the next version of their respective Web browsers.
Once that happens, the Internet will take a big step toward fulfilling its promise as a worldwide network of people, not just computers. When you surf the Web, you'll have a chance to share the wave with the rest of the world.
To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
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