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Once upon a time, logging on to the Internet was the secret handshake for self-defined cognoscenti. Then came the advent of cheap dial-up connections, proprietary services like AOL, and the vast, unpeopled plains of the wild, wild Web. Now under way is a third wave of colonization, a new front end to old programming tricks. There’s profit in them thar nodes — at least that’s the hope of online homesteading company GeoCities (, which went public in an August IPO, and search specialist Excite (, whose Excite Community software debuted this week. So if you want to recruit, say, your very own Elvis Impersonator Brigade, here’s how:

CREATE YOUR OWN WEBSITE GeoCities is populated by more than 2 million online settlers; TheGlobe.Com (www.the claims 1.8 million, while Lycos-owned Tripod ( weighs in with more than 950,000. A fourth contender, Talk City (, is moving up the ranks with 800,000-plus members — impressive when you consider that its home-page program was launched just last March. Talk City also currently has the best deal, offering its HTML wannabes 12 megabytes of space on its servers (GeoCities and Tripod offer 11) and sparing end viewers that annoying (and fear-inducing) Java script pop-up screen that threatens to crash your browser the moment it flashes across your monitor. But since all these gateways are free (they make their money from ads), the price is right. And even the most untutored novice can navigate the simple HTML editors that allow you to set the colors, text, and images on your page. The end result may look like a tract house in a virtual Levittown, but remember: This is a starter home. You can always upgrade later.

CREATE A CLUB In mid-August Excite launched the beta edition of a new interactive package that lets members design their own password-protected Web hangouts, complete with message boards, real-time chat rooms, calendars, address books, and restricted membership lists. Not to be outdone, rival Yahoo! announced its no-frills version of community-boosting software ( two days later. Competitor Infoseek is rumored to be close behind. While Excite’s eye-catching graphic interface and photo-album option are more likely to delight Grandma and Grandpa in Duluth who log on only to monitor the new baby’s growth chart, Yahoo!’s stripped-down functionality will appeal more to no-nonsense types. Both providers safeguard in all areas of their sites against hate-speak and the publication of material deemed inappropriate for minors. In all likelihood, though, surveillance won’t be restricted to playground monitoring: It’s a fair bet that these portals will study their members’ content carefully, the better to target advertising banners.

REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE Think of it as chat without a chat room, or e-mail without an electronic mailbox: Programs like America Online’s free Instant Messenger or Yahoo! Pager let you send a private message to a friend — or friends — across the ether instantaneously. The College Club (, an online college community, takes the concept one step further by enabling users to listen to their e-mail using an ordinary Touch-Tone phone. Which is where things may get a little weird: If you don’t need a computer to access a computerized community, at what point should you just start calling it real life?

— Patrizia DiLucchio