January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

I’m sitting on a sunny beach with waves lapping at the shore, but the vivacious-looking lifeguard is getting ticked off. She doesn’t like it when I say her skinny arms couldn’t save a drowning flea, so she zaps me with lightning. Then the daydream melts away, because I’m not really on a beach. In truth, I’ve just been ostracized from a ”palace,” an online visual chat room where a buxom blond could really be a 58-year-old balding car mechanic from Dayton, Ohio.

Virtual worlds peopled with nattering avatars? How mid-’90s. But if the technology behind the Palace is old by Net standards, palaces themselves — those graphically dazzling online abodes that anyone can create and open to the public — have been enjoying a comeback ever since new owner Electric Communities (EC) decided to let folks join for free last summer. Among the popular gathering spots are palaces with media tie-ins (Comedy Central’s South Park, the Sci-Fi Channel), homespun meet-and-greets (Peasant’s Paradise), official band fan worlds (Korn Korner), and foreign outposts (Chatteria! The Swiss Palace Server). By starting at the Palace hub, you can download the software, browse the Palace directory, and click onto sites where you can dress your online self as, say, a buff supermodel or a skate punk.

EC estimates there are 350,000 Palace-goers, with 50,000 new members signing on each month. The new giveaway strategy (EC hopes profits will partly come from ads in a separate window) is helping the Palace become one of the few online future worlds that hasn’t become the past. Time Warner Interactive helped launch the Palace in 1995 but spun it off a year later as an independent company that struggled before EC stepped in. At that time, you could also wander through the 3-D environments of Worlds Inc. or chat via your computer’s microphone on OnLive. Both are now scaled back considerably (EC also bought OnLive), but the 2-D worlds of the Palace and the Fujitsu pay service WorldsAway survived. EC cofounder Randy Farmer, a pioneer at LucasFilm’s Habitat in the mid-’80s, says many visual-chat companies died because they focused on selling software rather than creating communities. ”You have to make it very simple,” Farmer says. ”We wanted a tool so all you had to do is take some pictures, lay out the floor plan, and voilá! you have your own palace with your own rules.”

Judging by the eclectic Worldwide Directory of Palaces, there are no rules to what rules you can enact. Flirt.com supposedly screens out those under 16, but my visit to its beach included moderators scolding youngsters for stopping by. Peasant’s Paradise, meanwhile, provides French and English lessons for cross-cultural flirting, as well as ”Hussy Class 202,” in which women learn to woo men. BUZZ 105.9, a modern-rock radio station in Philipsburg, Pa., lets you chat with the DJ while listening to the music. I even scored an on-air mention during request hour — but it helped that I was ”disguised” as a scantily clad avatar named Fiora. In the Palace, even more than in real life, you are what you wear.

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