July 8, 1997 1:25 PM PDT

Web Diner may close on AOL

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America Online (AOL) members are rallying behind one of the online service's last areas to get tips on designing Web pages.

They are writing letters and sending email, hoping to save Web Diner, which offers support for building personal and business Web pages.

Last month, a AOL's Web Diner area recieved a million hits, according to Tim McCanna, who together with his wife Laurie, runs Web Diner. But ironically, the site, at the peak of its popularity, was faced with having to abandon the service because it couldn't come to an agreement with AOL, McCanna said.

But last week, after members sent letters and petitions to AOL, the company reopened negotiations, although it was unclear if there was any connection between the campaign and AOL's move, McCanna said. Company spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg confirmed that AOL was in negotiations with Web Diner but declined to comment further.

"By stopping negotiations on a new contract with Web Diner, you lose a highly valuable resource for the AOL business in a rapidly moving time where member and customer support are the most important aspects for choices between service companies," wrote one member in an impassioned plea to AOL CEO Steve Case. "If the question of costs has made up the main part of your decision, please take into consideration that excellent service can only result from equally excellent payment."

Founded in November 1995, Web Diner originally was designed to give support to small businesses that wanted a World Wide Web presence. The area evolved into an area that became popular with all categories of membership.

When AOL went to flat-rate pricing in December, the area's popularity skyrocketed, McCanna said. "We've gone from really small to very large," he added. Today, it is as much a one-stop shop for help as it is a community where members help each other design pages, giving each other tips.

Under the old hourly-rate system, Web Diner would have gotten a percentage of the hourly fees paid for by members. But under the new system where members pay $19.95 a month, regardless of how much time they spend online (unless they are in premium areas), there is no guarantee of increased funding.

In fact, AOL has renegotiated and will continue to negotiate contracts with several providers on its site. All contracts operate differently under the new plan. While some new contractors have been attracted to AOL, many others have left, saying they could make more money on the Web.

Areas that provide services but don't sell products or ads are likely to be hurt the most under the flat-rate plan, as AOL's new model relies on revenues from outside sources such as advertising and sales of merchandise.

Members who have come to depend on Web Diner, including a core of 20 volunteers who help out with the effort, are concerned that Web Diner will not be able to reach an agreement. Then, they worry, there will be little if no support on the online service for people seeking help with HTML.

"I believe AOL is trying to decide how much technical support it can afford for Web members," McCanna said. "Right now, AOL and Web Diner are looking at different options for keeping Web Diner open."

 

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