March 12, 1998 5:55 AM PST

Netscape offers Web forums

Netscape Communications (NSCP) is stepping up its competition with Yahoo, Excite, and other "portal" Internet sites with today's launch of its Netcenter community services.

The leading browser company has turned its attention in recent months to its Web site, renaming it and hosting other companies' news services, storefronts, and software sales sites. The Web-centric focus is an attempt to cash in on the site's heavy traffic, traditionally driven by the Navigator browser's default home page setting.

Since the site's reconfiguration and launch in September, Netscape has moved aggressively not only to attract visitors but also to keep them there to increase advertising and other revenues. That revenue is crucial to the company's success now that it no longer charges for its client software.

As reported yesterday, two new sections of Netcenter will launch today: "Professional Connections" and "Member Directory," both of which are free for users who register as members.

The connections service, which features discussion forums gathered under three headings, is the closest Netscape has come to creating original content. Still, Netscape eschews the "content provider" label.

"We are absolutely not a media company, if you consider a media company as people who create original content," said Jerrell Jimerson, director of online and content marketing at Netscape. "Our members are the ones really creating the content."

The discussion forums will be grouped under three "hubs":

  • "Work the Web," with three forums devoted to Web design, e-commerce, and Web culture.

  • "Tech News Today," with three forums for discussing headlines, business and investment, and issues and ideas.

  • "Product Center," with seven forums, each devoted to a different software product. The Product Center forums have the tightest tie-in to advertising, with four of them focusing on products that are also for sale in the "Software Depot" section of Netcenter.

    But the forums are set up for users to share tips and fixes as well as get advice from company representatives. Lacking specific product tie-ins, the Work the Web and News forums don't have sponsors yet. Netscape still hasn't formulated an overall sponsorship plan but will rotate ad banners in the forum rooms, according to Jimerson.

    "By the sheer force of the traffic, you have something more desirable for advertisers to target," he added.

    The company also is launching a directory that allows Netcenter members to build a profile with personal and professional details. Directories and forums will not be searchable and will not be accessible to nonmembers.

    With its community discussion forums, the company is wading into waters that other online companies have recently tested and found difficult to navigate. Netscape is using independent contractors--including several well-known technology journalists--as its forum hosts. But who is responsible if the hosts or the forum participants engage in libelous activities, for example?

    Libelous conduct would violate the site's terms of service, said community development manager Jen Bekman. Even though Netscape owns the site, "hosts are responsible for their own words," she added.

    Online giant America Online has made the same argument. Nonetheless, it is a codefendant in a lawsuit against Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge, who published then retracted a report about White House counsel Sidney Blumenthal, which also was posted on AOL. A hearing in that suit began yesterday in Washington.

    "Weird things will crop up and we'll deal with them as they come," said Jimerson, who noted that the company has put great efforts into selecting and training its forum hosts.

    For the site's infrastructure, Netscape licensed the Well Engaged community software used and originally developed by online service The Well. The system allows Netscape to add its own interface and navigation and is flexible enough to add a new forum within days at practically no cost, added Jimerson.

    The system uses Web-based protocols and supports HTML coding such as links and in-line images within posted messages.

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