I had dinner with two friends last week and eventually the conversation came around to the Web (I generally try to avoid the topic in polite conversation but what can you do?). Anyone overhearing our conversation might have thought we were a trio of hopeless geeks, or digerati wannabes, but the truth was we really weren’t talking about the Web. The topics were what we had read on the Web, the same way we’d talk about the content of any other media. The fact that we could do so without acknowledging the media itself seemed encouraging

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Conversations often cluster entertainment and media. “Didja see that weird show on TV last night?” “What did you think of that editorial on Sunday?” These can be springboards into deeper conversations.

Many Webmasters have made their sites “sticky,” a quality that advertisers love, by opening chat rooms and bulletin boards linked to articles or issues. Some of the most popular cyberspots can be found at media sites’ interactive annexes. Aside from being a good way to monitor their audience, these Web sites are using the aggregation of like-minded individuals to harvest the rewards of “communities” — or at least that’s the ideal. Net users go to Salon’s Table Talk or the Gaming Zone’s chat rooms for a certain context and level of dialogue.

Last week I looked at a new wrinkle in the evolution of Web communities. With software such as Third Voice and CritSuite, users can annotate Web pages in the public domain and possibly build ad-hoc communities out of the dialogue. Of course, these new services and software could be seen as a parasitic species. Like lampreys that attach themselves to bigger fish, many small Web startups have found a clever way to make a splash without a large initial investment.

Steven Johnson, editor of the Webzine Feed and interface specialist, took a different take on these communities, calling them part of a “third wave.” These new hybrids, writes Johnson, take us farther from the geographic concepts, our perceived notions of virtual spaces. In turn, these new nomadic communities mirror the borderless world of the Web.

Gooey, chat software which was launched last week, definitely fits within the third wave. Its creators call it a vehicle for “Dynamic Roaming Communities.” Developed by the Hypernix, a Tel Aviv-based company, Gooey works in tandem with a browser window. When a Gooey user visits a Web site, a small window shows the nicknames of other members who are logging into the same domain. Current software such as ICQ or AOL Instant Messenger can show you which members are logged into the service, but Gooey goes a step further by showing you who is logged into a particular domain.

With Gooey, what used to be a solitary experience can become a group one. Click on a fellow Gooey user’s name and you might learn something — profession, age, gender, location, interests, etc. (Whether any of it is true is a part of the gamble.)

My Gooey experience was a one-night stand. It started in the evening while Jerusalem and Kiev were having lunch and Paris was rising from slumber. I made a beeline to my favorite sites, hoping to chew the virtual fat with some of those “like-minded individuals.” And I waited. And waited in vain. Sometimes I’d go to find a site of silent souls, and no amount of handstands would stir them. Maybe they were too busy sampling the offerings in the software’s “Gooey Zone,” another small window that features cartoons, games, etc. Or maybe I was just the wrong gender.

As far as “action” went, the Hypernix home page consistently had the highest concentration of users, and was definitely the most international. In 20 minutes I had rubbed shoulders with visitors from China, Holland, Finland, Italy and Turkey. English wasn’t the lingua franca, though a valiant attempt was made to find a common language.

As with Third Voice, a good number of chats I read or participated in were about the software itself — its merits, its potential — rather than the pages they were overlooking. Most users seemed to be drawn like moths to Gooey’s Hitwave list of the 20 most popular sites among Gooey users. Not surprisingly most of these sites were the usual suspects — portals or free e-mail spots. And we all know how much character these places have.

Eventually around 2 a.m., as traffic started to pick up on bigger U.S. media sites, I finally found new Gooey heads who had actually come to chat. So amid the occasional racial epithets and solicitations to porn sites, I chatted with folks like “Goku”, a graphic artist, and “Legzie”, a budding Web page builder.

“Gooey is way kewl,” was the often-heard refrain among my fellow Gooeyites, and many seemed to be veterans of the chat circuit. But when asked why nobody seemed to be chatting about the pages to which they were latched, the responses were muted. “tadpole” suggested that users could talk about what software was good to download. “Legzie” liked Gooey because it was “weird,” being out in the open, though she admitted the novelty might fade with time. “wkd” wisely pointed out that the software is too new to produce any substantial communities.

Despite the chatting fun to be had, Gooey begs the question: What’s wrong with surfing alone? Do you really want to be interrupted by “Lord Nikon” when you’re digesting an engaging essay? Conversely, Gooey would be perfect for more visual experiences, such as live Webcasts. And the uses of Gooey could be extended past mere social chatting. Companies could have online reps to give customers realtime guidance. Educators could take students on guided tours of the Web’s wonders. Taskforces of concerned Netizens could rampage the red-light districts.

For the time being, though, I think I’ll stick to dinner-time chats, as boringly local and spatially restricted as they may be.

Sorry “Goku”, the experience was real, but not real enough.