Arbiters of What's Cool on the Web

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Richard Grimes signs on to his computer every morning, he is greeted by hundreds of e-mail messages, some complimentary, a few insulting, but most beseeching him to check out a site on the World Wide Web.

His correspondents are hoping to be picked as the "Cool Site of the Day," and Grimes, a staff member for InfiNet Co., an Internet access company, is the delegated judge. Working from a lowly cubicle in InfiNet's office in Norfolk, Va., he spends his days surfing the Web, checking out new sites.

"All that stuff you see out there is my baby," said Grimes of the turquoise and purple Web page (http://cool.infi.net/). Not only does it single out the day's coolest Web site from the vastness of cyberspace, it also provides an archive, a chatty column, reflections on the meaning of "cool" and, with People Online and Apple Computer, sponsored the second annual "Cool Site of the Year" award ceremonies.

"I think we put out something unique," said Grimes, who routinely checks out 200 sites a day. Although InfiNet believes it was first with the idea, he said, they already have more than 40 cool Web site competitors. "People want cutting-edge; they want exciting; they want new, and they want cool. I try to find it."

At 30, the former newspaper columnist finds himself with a job description that didn't exist a few years ago. As a professional Web surfer, he's among a small industry of people who, almost by default, have become major gatekeepers to the chaotic world of the Internet, sometimes described as a library with all the books dumped onto the middle of the floor.

Getting around the Web is relatively easy if you know your destination, because every Web page has an address, or URL, that begins with the code "http://." But if you want to do research, or just poke around the most interesting sites, you need guidance, just like a telephone caller who doesn't have the number. "A lot of first-timers come on and don't know where to go," said Chris Holten, spokeswoman for the popular browser Netscape.

To fill the gap, dozens of navigating tools have been introduced in the past two years. Some organize the sites by category, like monstrous electronic Yellow Pages. Some, like Grimes' site, are devoted only to listing what's cool, what's new or, in some cases, what's the worst on the Web. Others are search engines, such as Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and Web Crawler, allowing the user to type in a search word or phrase and responding with a listing of thousands of sites that have been reviewed and ranked.

What these services share is a passion to hang on to every visitor (partly to please their advertisers), so they are increasingly loading up their sites with such attractions as news headlines, weather reports and, to signify cachet, what's cool. "Our figures went through the roof when we were named the Cool Site of the Day," said Daniel Kron, publisher of Just Sports for Women, a new online magazine. "We haven't had a day like that since--almost 10,000 hits."

(The definition of "cool" is so subjective that sometimes the cool offerings appear under the "What's Hot" heading, but the implication is the same.)

Sitting in their cubicles or work stations or at home PCs and Macs, the Web surfers filter out, in Grimes' words, "the boring, the banal and the gross," always seeking a spot that will hold the attention of a fickle audience--the hip, young, upscale 15% of the population presumed to be navigating its way around the Net.

Surfers monitor the competition and try to be current. If the Boston Marathon is coming up, there will be neat sites, Grimes said. "I found one this time with actual cameras that let you effortlessly run alongside the runners."

"It's very competitive, and the point is to get people to stay on your page," said T. Sumner Robinson of Los Angeles, an editorial manager for Excite (http://www.excite.com), a search tool that continually reviews and ranks new Web sites. Based in Mountain View, Calif., but with an editorial staff around the country, Excite promotes its reviewers as "the world's best editorial team."

In a field dominated by people in their 20s, Excite emphasizes the experience of eight editorial managers who are older than 50, said Robinson, 51. "We have a mix of a young team of founders and the judgment and wisdom of experienced site reviewers."

He believes that gives more depth to their choices. If someone enters a search word, as many as a million sites might be available and 60,000 would have been reviewed and ranked by the Excite team. "You want people to trust your site. We try to review in a hip, attitudinal way, but 'cool' is still a good description of what we're looking for."

"We feel a lot of pressure," said June Cohen, a producer at Hot-wired, whose San Francisco staff of 150 creates the Web version of trendy Wired Magazine. "We're trying to keep up with the technology, keep up with competitors, keep people interested and anticipate what they are going to want three months from now." Her responsibilities include picking sites for Netsurf Central (http://www.netsurf central.com), which promises its viewers that "We waste our time so you don't have to."

And they're trying to keep up with an immense amount of new material (one estimate being 118,000 sites with 6,000 more being added weekly by individuals, groups and, increasingly, corporations).

"It has exploded," said Cohen, 27, a Stanford journalism graduate who frequently uses parody in her reviews and once reviewed a Random Haiku Generator site ("every time you reload the page, you get a new haiku") with her own verse: "Haiku on the Web, generated randomly, reload, reload quick."

And while she's intrigued by the small personal ways people represent themselves on the Web, she also likes the trend toward sites that save people time, like the Amazon bookstore. She found the Farmers Almanac site "surprisingly great" in that it created a searchable database on homey subjects such as peat moss.

While nobody knows their exact audience, the services can track how many people log onto their site; the leader is Yahoo (Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle or http://www.yahoo.com).

Started two years ago by two Stanford graduate students, the Internet guide, based in Santa Clara, Calif., maintains a list of thousands of Web sites, cataloged by subject, as well as bonus lists of new and cool sites. Those are maintained by Adrian Lurssen, 27, and Amy Isackson, 23, who work in a huge open room with a sea of cubicles for 30 to 40 surfers.

Their goal is to provide six sites no one would want to miss when they click onto Yahoo's Coolsite location, Lurssen said. What he tries to balance is the Web's bizarre combination of "things that happen in everyday life and this whole other side of things you've never been able to do before."

Hot-wired's Cohen is looking for quirkiness, personality and individuality. "My first six months I felt I had a handle on everything that was cool on the Web, but now I don't think it is possible," she said.

Her formula for cool is to stay ahead of the curve in terms of new and interesting, but "not push it so far that we alienate people." Sometimes it is easy, she said, recalling the Squashed Bug Zoo page that was clearly disgusting.

The pressures of Web surfing, with its Sisyphean overtones, take their toll. "It's a dream job that I wouldn't want to have forever," said Grimes, who surfs 365 days a year and sometimes debates until midnight before he makes his day's selection.

"For tomorrow," he said, late one afternoon, "I am pondering between Needledrop, [which] does live techno music, and PBot, which is an experimental literary magazine, cleanly and crisply designed with a whole page of a run-on sentence. It's an interesting concept on the Web, kind of nice and kind of cool. . . ."

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