January 21, 1999

Surfing in Circles and Loving It

Friends of Cats, Fractals and Tractors Link Web Pages in Homespun Rings
If using a search engine can be like drinking from a fire hose, Internet surfing using a Web ring is like sharing a cup of tea with a group of strangers who are batty about a favorite hobby, like collecting Australian emergency-squad insignia.

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Web rings are circles of Internet pages on various topics that are linked democratically, by their creators, a change from the wider Web's more official and commercial clamor. The rings provide homespun displays of hobbies, obscure and common expertise and general camaraderie.

More than 60,000 Web rings, including more than one million member sites, can be searched via Web Ring (webring.org), which was purchased in December by Geocities, the free home-page service. There are structures similar to Web rings, like Looplink (www.looplink.com) and The Rail (www.therail.com); Web Ring is the largest of its type.

A Web ring is like a giant backyard fence, said Bruce J. Zanca, a Geocities spokesman. "It allows all the people who are interested in the same topic to move in next door to each other, click on an icon, go to their neighbors' houses and see what's doing in there," he added.

It all started in June 1995, when Sage Weil, a high-school student in Ashland, Ore., wrote some computer code to link Web sites, or particular pages from various sites, in rings.

Weil is now a junior studying computer science at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., and is still involved with Web Ring. The main advantage of a Web ring, he said, was that "it allows anyone to create their own little community."

Site-Seeing: Ring Around the Whatever

For every thing there is a Web ring, and a site for every purpose under heaven: OPEN PAGES: www.hedgehog.net/op
A collection of nearly 700 online personal journals, a ring so large that it has sprawled into "suburbs," Web rings that are more focused, with, for example, journals by atheists or by people who promise to write about more than just what they did all day. A related list divides the journal-ists into categories like military brats, Hawaiians and others.

FREE TO BE WE: members.xoom.com/TWCDesign/WEFREE
For people with multiple personalities. "We do not think that we are less of a person because we have not integrated. We may choose to do so, and we may choose not to. But that is our choice!"

THE FANS OF REDHEADS RING: redring.homepage.nu
"No blondes or brunettes (unless you LOVE redheads)."

AUSTRALIAN PATCH COLLECTORS: www.globec.com.au/glenmack/person/auspatch/auspatch.htm
"Designed for collectors of Australian law enforcement, fire and ambulance insignia who have a Web page devoted to the hobby."

THE TINA'S BIRTHDAY RING: welcome.to/TinasBirthdayClub
(I confess, I found this through narcissurfing.) "This Birthday Club is for everyone with a home page. You will be notified by e-mail when it is another member's birthday so as you can visit their site and sign their guestbook." Members can rack up visitors to their sites on their special days.

THE URBAN EXPLORATION RING: www.infiltration.org/joinring.htm
"Content related to tourism of manmade spaces not designed for public use. This includes such locales as rooftops, transit tunnels, storm drains, abandoned buildings, college steam tunnels, employee-only areas and all sorts of other off-limits nooks and crannies."

CHILD FREE: www.fred.net/turtle/kids/ring.html
For people who have chosen not to have children. "We link people who have not made children a part of their life and are enjoying that choice. Information available includes social contacts for child-free people, info about sterilization, tips to make your life easier and how to avoid being 'evangelized.' "

WEBRING ADDICTS: www.eccentrica.org/piglet
"This is a Web ring for everybody who has three or more webrings on one site. . . . C'mon, join us. . . . You know you wanna. . . ."

Webmasters join a ring by adding to their pages the code that can be found on the home page of the particular ring. Surfers are then able to move from one site in the ring to another by clicking the Forward or Back buttons, the Show Next Five Sites button or a button that will call up a site at random from the ring. By hitting the Forward button enough times, surfers can usually travel through the entire ring and eventually land back at the beginning. But some Web rings, like The Rail, take you straight through the sites without looping you back to the beginning.

"Looking for something in a Web ring is easier than doing a search because search engines have gotten so difficult, they just don't pick up the site you want and you get 400,000 hits," said Gayla Nelson of Guymon, Okla., who runs a personal Web site called www.gaylasgarden.com, which has 316 pages, including a place to adopt virtual houseplants. "If you're doing a search for a Web ring on prisoners of war, you get whole sites devoted to them, not just sites with a dedication page about P.O.W.'s."

Gayla's Garden receives about 100 hits a day, about 10 percent of them via the 20 rings Ms. Nelson has joined, which include Moms With Modems, the Original ICQ Web ring (based on the instant messaging system) and a Christmas ring.

"You get a lot more traffic because some people surf through Web rings and just want to look at pet pages or recipe pages," Ms. Nelson said.

Charley Lanusse, chief operating officer of Geocities' Starseed division, which operates Web Ring, conceded that fewer sites were searched through Web rings than through search engines. But one of the things driving the Web-ring phenomenon is the explosive growth in personal home pages, sites run by individuals -- not companies or schools or governments -- that usually cover hobbies, opinions, lists of favorite ska recordings, earnest poetry, pictures of pets and links to other sites. Geocities said it had two million personal home pages last June and now has 3.4 million.

Rings linking similar sites have sprouted up to embrace People Born on the Fifth of May, anything having to do with Mendham, N.J. (population 4,890) and fans of fractal art, plus connoisseurs of Hanson, cribbage players, fans of particular songs and, of course, people who have derogatory things to say about Web rings.

For surfers interested in certain topics, Web rings provide more content per click than search engines. The rings are frequently run by people who are passionate, informed and up to date about their topic of choice and who monitor the editorial content of the ring and cull the Web, focusing on their particular passion.

Most rings can be searched through the home page of Web Ring, though most people first run across rings by noticing the Forward and Back buttons at the bottom of a Web page in a ring they landed on while surfing.

That's how William and Pauline Stout of Hamilton, Ontario, discovered Web rings. Now they run nine of them.

"We happened to be surfing through, looking for graphics," Stout said, "and we happened on one that said Web-site-design Web ring." The couple hope that the Web design business they run will get them off their disability pensions, Stout added.

The Stouts have found Web rings helpful in promoting their growing business, at www.execulink.com/wstout, and have enjoyed the camaraderie the Web ring offers with other Web page designers. "If one person is good at what they do, it promotes the others," Stout said, "so you're not just helping yourself, you're helping other people in your group." He has also started rings to connect e-mail pen pals, to promote helping the homeless and to welcome newcomers to the Web.

But the rings are not entirely rosy. Those that aren't carefully watched by ringmasters tend to have defunct pages that break the circle. Sources of information are hard to verify, especially on personal home pages, and many surfers are unaware that rings even exist.

Paul M. A. Baker, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who studies online communities, said Web rings offered "a lot of peripheral on-the-edge sort of stuff -- someone writing about the maintenance of varnishes on wooden handgun stocks, really weird stuff." If a site was really substantive, he said, it would not need to join a ring but would be picked up by surfers using search engines.

"The Web ring seems to be kind of a way to give strength to the aggregate, as if having links of related things created a whole out of it," he said. "I wouldn't rely on anything there unless I knew the quality of the source itself."

The rings remind him of how surveys are conducted to determine the leaders in any society: ask people who are the influential ones, then ask those influential people for the names of the influential, until there are no more names.

"There's a finite number of self-referencing links," Professor Baker said, and the same is true within Web rings.

Until the Geocities purchase in December, the Web ring phenomenon had been short on commercialization, one of its main selling points in the eyes of Net surfers who are sick of spam and flickering advertisements.

"It does seem like there's a substrate of the Web out there that increasingly won't show up in the commercial search engines," said Marc A. Smith, a research sociologist at Microsoft. "Web rings are endogenous. They bubble up from below."

He appreciates rings for the way members direct traffic to one another. "The fact that they're doing it noncommercially and cooperatively is one of the very positive things about the Net," Smith said, especially when some search engines charge fees to companies that want to make sure that their sites get preferred placement in the list of search results, he said.

Have a hobby? Join a Web ring, a circle of like minded strangers.

When Geocities bought Web Ring, ring members fretted that rings would lose their cachet as a sanctuary from commercialism.

"Geocities is generally loathed because of its hideous pop-up ads and the watermark," said a Webmaster for a ring, Kymm Zuckert of Weehawken, N.J., referring to the advertising pages that attempt to capture the interest of visitors to Geocities sites and to the Geocities' watermark, an animated G that often appears. "If Geocities tries to do any of that with Web Ring, there will be a massive exodus."

Pop-up ads and watermarks have been very unpopular with Geocities users, and the company says they will not appear on Web rings but will show up, as they always have, on Geocities home pages.

Weil, who wrote the code that glues Web rings together, said he did not want to see the rings commercialized and did not think Geocities would do that. "I think what makes Web rings really useful is the Webmasters say, 'I'm going to create a Web ring, something that's valuable,' and they have a certain attachment to it," he said. "I was very leery of betraying their trust in Web Ring, to allow them to create something they're personally responsible for and own, and then if some company starts plastering ads on their sites, they're like, Hello, this is the site that I did.

"Geocities was very understanding of the sensitivities the ringmasters have. As soon as the merger was announced, people in the rings were saying 'no pop-ups, no watermarks, blah blah blah,' but from our perspective, it was very clear and obvious that that would never happen."

But Professor Baker, no fan of commercialism, said advertising could offer a seal of approval to sites that might otherwise lack credibility.

"To some extent, a site with ads tells you something in a way of validation -- at least someone else feels this is worthy of putting money on," Professor Baker said. "The fact that there are no ads there tells you that the site is not perceived as much of a market."

Lanusse, of Geocities, said Web Ring had a different mechanism for advertising than Geocities: most Web Ring advertisements appear on the screen that introduces the next five pages in the ring. He does not expect that to change, he said. Zanca, the Geocities spokesman, said his company, which paid about $25 million in stock and cash for Web Ring, was interested in some unused advertising space on the rings and in how Web rings could increase traffic to Geocities home pages.

Gary Tramontina for The New York Times
FAN OF THE RINGS - Dinty W. Moore, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona, said he liked Web rings because they put users in control.
But the spirit of Web rings remains decidedly not corporate.

Dinty W. Moore, an English professor at the Altoona campus of Pennsylvania State University, likes Web rings because they let computer users shape the Internet, much as Usenet participants create their own newsgroups.

"Internet users in search of some method to the random madness of the Web have latched onto an organizing method that they control," said Professor Moore, author of "The Emperor's Virtual Clothes" (Algonquin Books, 1995). "They create the rings, they add the pages, they spin off new, ever-more-specific rings. Where portals like Yahoo aspire to be 'media networks,' by shaping and organizing the topic areas by which Web info is defined, Web rings are very grass-roots."

As in other places on the Web, irrepressible rants and raves and self-reflexive groups pop up in rings.

"There's a Web-ring Web ring, a ring about rings," said Scott Wenzel of Knoxville, Md., who runs Child Free (www.fred.net/turtle/kids/ring.html), a ring for people who have chosen not to have children. He belongs to several rings -- about cats, Swedish cars, the blues and antique tractors -- but he won't visit any ring about Web rings.

"I'm worried I'll get sucked into a black hole and end up in another side of the universe," he said.

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