Web Lab Sites Produce
Extra-Corporate Content

By Pamela Parker

The absolute Shock of Silence, the lack of her presence, was my only companion for weeks, then months, then...it's been over 17 years," writes one man on the Living with Suicide Web site, sharing the aftermath of his wife's fatal overdose on sleeping pills. Another woman writes of coming home to find her husband gone. "I figured at first he was out picking up a pizza or something," she says, "but he was actually out killing himself."

On the
Working Stiff site, a woman shares her frustrations with customer service work at a mail-order clothing maker, where she had recently received a meager pay raise. "To add injury to insult my boss calls me into the office to tell me she'd monitored my last 5 phone calls."

Both sites, designed to be forums for people to communicate about personal issues, are products of the Web Lab, the non-profit incubator of innovative ideas on the Internet founded by New Yorker Marc Weiss. "It was kind of a strategy to get people thinking about innovation on the web," said Weiss, who also started the Emmy-award winning documentary film project P.O.V. in the mid-eighties. The Web Lab grew out of Weiss's work on Web sites to accompany the films -- sites about controversial and divisive subjects like the Vietnam war, violence against gays, and attitudes toward death and dying.

Weiss noticed the proliferation of personal homepages and mega corporate sites, but thought there weren't nearly enough places that fit in the middle -- well-crafted creative Web spaces with substance. So he created the Web Lab, with financial help from a private family foundation, the Ford Foundation, and PBS. The organization is currently accepting applications for round two. The deadline is September 13, and final decisions are expected by February 1999. Web Lab is still raising money, but hopes to have $200,000 available for the second round of sites.

The Web Lab awards aren't grants, though, and it isn't itself a foundation. Instead, it's more like an incubator for innovative ideas, offering guidance all through the development process and hosting the finished site.

"It's much more of a hand-on relationship. They want to be involved and they are involved," said John Keefe, a Brooklyn-based developer who created the Living with Suicide site along with Peter Esmonde, Mary Esselman, Britt Funderburk, and the Web Lab. "For me it was a very productive experience," said Keefe, "and it continues to be."

Keefe, who was working at Discovery Channel Online at the time of his proposal, conceived of the idea because of his experience after his father's suicide. "It really struck me that so many people are effected by suicide," said Keefe, "and no one was really talking about it. It just didn't seem like a healthy thing."

People are certainly talking on Keefe's site. Visitors contribute their personal stories to be randomly served on the pages, and they have begun 26 different threads of discussion.

"Some threads are very active where there's a lot of exchange," said Marc Weiss. "There's a real community forming there. That's not automatic. That takes a certain combination of factors that I don't think we really understand at this point. We've tried a number of ways. Sometimes they've worked and sometimes they haven't, and I can't tell what the magic ingredients are."

Experiments like these are what Weiss perceives as the value of the Web Lab. Although none of the sites are designed to be commercially viable, Weiss hopes that the lessons learned can help people doing business on the Internet.

"We're looking to create sites that are beyond entertainment, that are a little more substantive, and thought-provoking," said Weiss. "If someone can do that and make a little money, well, that's great."

Keefe believes the financial pressures under which Websites operate make it difficult to innovate, though, and he welcomed the opportunity to set aside concerns about pageviews. "It's a chance to experiment with new approaches to using the Internet and ways of exploiting what is so good about the Internet," he said, "without the fear of those commercial pressures."

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