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Web Development Fund| MSNBC.com

Taking risks on the Web; Spinoff of PBS Online offers grants for Net projects
by John Flinn
April 19, 1998

Say the word public to anyone in the computer industry, and you'll receive an earful about stock prices, splits and earnings per share. But not everyone associates that word with money.

A content Lab for the Web PBS Online spinoff WebLab set to fund projects of cultural, educational nature on the Internet

April 19 - On the radio dial, hit-driven Top 40 and shock-jock talk shows have National Public Radio holding up a higher standard. Few shows on the commercial TV networks, even cable's niche channels, display the creative freedom of public television's cultural and educational programming. But where is the Net equivalent of, say, "Great Performances" - or Ken Burns' "The Civil War"? A spinoff of PBS Online, called WebLab, is about the fund the answer.

WEBLAB was founded last year by Marc Weiss, a creator and former executive producer of the PBS documentary series "P.O.V," as "an online laboratory dedicated to developing new models for a new medium," as its Web site says.

The Lab's Web Development Fund, announced last September, was formed to underwrite Web projects that, among other things, "make imaginative use of the Web's capabilities as an interactive, participatory medium" and "explore both personal and public issues in new ways."

A call for proposals resulted in 519 submissions from the United States and around the world; later this month, Weiss will announce the first round of funded projects. Picked by an advisory committee made up of Web luminaries such as Red Burns, chair of the interactive telecommunications program at New York University, and Maria Wilhelm of The Well, about 10 sites will split a pool of $200,000. While that might not sound like a lot of money to anyone active in commercial Web development today, Weiss' experience tells him it will make a difference.

Weiss first saw the power of the Web while at "P.O.V." Starting in 1996, the series began creating Internet components for many of its shows. Its most ambitious: "Regarding Vietnam: Stories Since the War," which looked at people from all walks of life and explored how the Vietnam era had affected their lives. The Web site, which is now archived but was active from November 1996 until early this year, included a user-created dialogue area.

"All but one of the 225 topics were created by people who came there; we encouraged people to talk across differences," Weiss says. "It was an experiment in taking an emotional issue, and trying to find out if we could have a conversation on the Net."

Weiss says it was an "extraordinary experience." And because it was dependent on user-generated content, it wasn't expensive to produce: Weiss puts the total cost at about $40,000.

WebLab will have two categories of funding: full and developmental. Full funding will result in contributions of $20,000-$25,000 per project. Development funding will be half that. Weiss explains the need for the development effort: "We had a number of proposals that were potentially very interesting, very ambitious ... We felt, if they can pull this off it's going to be quite good, but we didn't want to make a full commitment."

Even "full" funding is a bit of a misnomer: WebLab's contribution must represent no more than 50 percent of the total cost of the project, though the remainder can be in-kind (non-cash) contributions. That, Weiss, says, is to make sure the creators are passionate enough about their project to scare up the rest. "We didn't want it to be simply a work for hire," he says. (All the sites will be a contractual partnership with WebLab, and must reside on the WebLab server.) WebLab's initial money has come from private foundations, PBS Online and a pending grant from a major automotive manufacturer.

WebLab's proposal guidelines were wide open, but most of the entries seem to have a social-issues core. Neither Weiss nor the judges will discuss individual projects in advance of the funding announcement, but WebLab did release summaries of some leading candidates. A sampling, in WebLab's words:

  • "Adoption: A Gathering," will provide a meeting place where those touched by adoption can speak their minds and turn to each other as guides. By opening communication across the triad - birthfamily, adoptive family, adoptee - this site will help bridge the silence and create a community of support, understanding, questioning, and seeking.
  • "Black Gurls R/Age (BGR)" will open a "cyber hair salon" where patrons get their heads together in more ways than one. BGR will expand the definition of a "black gurl" beyond skin color and geography, and re-infuse it with funk, adventure, evolution, open-, mindedness, and sharing. The goal: To see how black women develop spiritually, physically and emotionally [online].

"A key thing was distinguishing between a worthy idea and a workable idea," says Marisa Bowe, former editor of Word.com and a member of the advisory committee that reviewed the proposals. "Sometimes the way they were implemented wasn't so great."

Nonetheless, says Bowe, "Most of what you see on the Web is so marketing driven, it was a relief to see things on topics that seem more vital to life."

Jai Singh, editor of News.com and another WebLab advisor, agrees. "The Net has become very commercialized, but here's a bunch of people putting their own sweat equity into stuff they believe in, mostly about the societal impact of the Net, how it can help with the mainstream problems of society," he says. "There wasn't anything like, let's create another financial site. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it was refreshing."

Says Red Burns, "These are all highly experimental. It's about finding ways to use a new medium to deliver information in a new way."

Weiss thinks WebLab has started a chain reaction that will reverberate beyond its sponsored sites. He notes that people with a wide range of backgrounds and organizational ties came together in ad hoc teams to create WebLab proposals. Some, when told they wouldn't receive funds, said, "We're going to do it anyway. We love this idea."

Notes Weiss: "Even if we can only fund a handful, if we get people thinking about these kinds of projects, it was a ripple effect."

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