SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2000

Let the Sun Shine In,
and Install a Superfast Line

By ABBY ELLIN

ack in the '60s, "commune" was often synonymous with yoga and free love. Inhabitants shared political beliefs, a desire to save the whales, or maybe a penchant for Tofu Surprise. They thought globally and acted locally.

Thirty years later, a far different commune is in vogue. Call it the e-commune, a community of real, live people who share a fascination with all things digital. People who bond over broadband. People who realize that it can be mighty lonely in the cool glow of a computer screen.

Indeed, if the '90s were about imbibing virtual beers in virtual bars, the experience of these groups suggests that the new de-cade could be about how some virtual communities can be transformed into real ones.

Just last week, a Stanford University study concluded that the more time people spend on the Internet, the lonelier they become. For some people, e-communes may be the antidote. If their residents tend to be shy types, they at least feel more comfortable turning outward in the company of others like themselves.

Consider the eight members of the nonprofit World Peace Through Technology Tour. They live and work in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco, sharing bills, a DSL (digital subscriber line), two bathrooms and a shower. Their mis-sion is to "travel around the world, do live netcasts from remote places and demonstrate 'benevolent technologies,"' showing people how computers can help them, said Brad Olsen, 33, the group's director.

By the mid '90s, looser e-communes of more profit-oriented people were already thriving near Silicon Valley, in the coastal

city of Santa Cruz, which in some ways is could leave messages"from their computstill a hippie haven. These e-communes ers on a central computer screen, Coates were occupied by students from the Uni-recalled by phone from Carmel, Calif., where versity of California at Santa Cruz, where he now sells homes. "We ordered pizzas they were called "geek houses," the com-and paid bills online. I could flick a switch puter nerd's version of a fraternity house. from my bed and start the shower. We down-

The students rented huge homes --loaded CDs into the computer with 33 gigs with hot tubs, swimming pools and garag-of hard drive space, so you could have es --and digitized them. No niche was left 1,000 hours of music. We were ahead of unwired, said Terry Coates, 29, who resid-our time." ed in three different geek houses from 1994 Many former inhabitants of geek housto 1998, including one called the Marsh-es have since founded their own compamallow Peanut Circus, a six-bedroom, nies or gone to work for major corporations bright orange house that he shared with like Cisco Systems and America Online. eight others. In more urban settings, e-communes

Photograph by F. Carter Smith for The New York Times
Will Wagner, left, and Michael Kolojaco live at Walden Internet Villages, a Houston complex with high-technology features including poolside connections to the Internet.

"There were wireless intercoms in ev-can thrive nowadays in apartment buildery room and an electronic blackboard sys-ings. Jason Tavis Jeffries, 28, whose motto tem throughout the house where people is "Think globally, click locally," lives in a

four-story, former girdle factory in Brooklyn, New York. Last fall, the building was trans-formed into apartments --a metamorphosis that, through word of Web, attracted many people who design Web sites or work in related fields.

"Everyone's really young," Jeffries said. "On moving-in day, people left their doors open and were borrowing each others' tools. It was just like a college dorm."

With his landlord's blessing, Jeffries, a senior develop-er at a Web company in Manhattan and the founder of billburg.com, a community Web site in Williamsburg, in-stalled a high-speed DSL connection. Jeffries paid for the line; others rent access to it.

At his suggestion, the landlord built a free public-ac-cess Web kiosk on the first floor: two computer terminals are encased in a cast-iron sculpture of a potbellied stove, designed by a local artist to echo a time when people would gather to warm themselves at the general store. "Today, they gather 'round the Net," Jeffries said.

Recently, he opened the Verb Cafe on the first floor, complete with high speed Internet access, a swipe coffee card (which, like a prepaid phone card, works through a card reader, with the cost of each cup automatically deduct-ed) and an online jukebox.

"The Internet, in its na-scent form, is a misused novelty," Jeffries said. "It has much more of a utilitarian value on a local scale than on a global scale."


Photograph by F. Carter Smith for The New York Times
The Walden clubhouse, known as The Nexus Cafe, has a 10-foot-high video projection screen, a 100-watt sound system and a Sega Dreamcast game machine. The apartment complex has nearly 400 residents, generally ranging from 23 to 35 years old.


At Walden Internet Village in the Westchase area of Houston, the theme was planned from the start. One of three such complexes built three years ago you had no money," said Alan by James M. Birney, a local de-LeFort, 27, the chief technoloveloper, the 200-unit village is gy officer of the complex. "Now home to nearly 400 Web-heads: that you're out of school and think Microsoft meets Delta making money, you may still House. About 85 percent of the have that frat-house approach residents are men; the age to life." range is generally 23 to 35. Near-But don't worry, Mom. ly every apartment has access "They're not getting drunk out to a superfast T3 data line. of their skulls -- there's a real

"Our thesis is that your bond here beyond partying," time in college was cool, except LeFort said. "The Internet is the you had to go to school and common link that brings them together. Later on, they develop friendships based on other things."

When a resident was laid off from his job a year ago, his neighbors chipped in for groceries and rent. They also helped him find another job. Another man who had a $40,000 salary when he moved in, soon learned from others what he was worth. "He now makes $75,000," LeFort said.

At night, residents hang out at the village's Internet Cafe, which has a 10-foot-high video projection screen, a 100-watt sound system and a Sega Dreamcast game machine --"all the geeky toys you wish you could own," LeFort said.

Walden Internet Village also offers Spanish classes, Web training programs and group "Star Trek" viewings. Even a potentially ho-hum New Year's Eve --after all, the majority of the residents were on Y2K alert --turned into fun: residents streamed digital music through laptops and into speakers set up for a party near the pool.

But do the residents really want to breathe the same air and share the same cyberspace day in and day out?

Apparently so. "Most of the guys were introverted when they moved in," LeFort said. "But by bringing them together as a group they have no fear. They're not afraid to go out because they have the security of a group. Twenty-two guys are going to Mardi Gras together."

And who knows? The Mardi Gras group next year might not be all guys. More women have begun moving in. As LeFort put it, "We're get-ting a reputation as a place to find a good husband."

Locations throughout

(713) 783-9090

Houston, Texas USA

info@waldenweb.com