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Civility Engineer

[whitespace] Bill Lee
Christopher Gardner

RemarQ exec Bill Lee brings order to the chaos of the Usenet. And someday, he'd even like to build a nice community there.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

SURNAMES AND ETHNIC backgrounds aside, Silicon Valley executive Bill Lee bears an almost uncanny resemblance Bruce Lee, the martial arts movie star, from his furrowed facial expressions to the gliding, slim-hipped athleticism of his walk. Watching the 28-year-old RemarQ Communities CEO leap from link to link along the World Wide Web is something like watching Bruce's famous Enter the Dragon scene with the cobra--the viewer pays more attention to the magically artistic fingers and the great brown eyes of these men than to the snake or the screen, since that is where the real action is.

It is perhaps in their choice of mission that the two men begin to demonstrate a marked difference. Bruce Lee only fought sensei villains and armies of evil kung fu warriors. Bill Lee, on the other hand, has taken on the task of bringing order and community to the chaos of the Internet's Usenet constellation of online discussions. Now that's a seemingly impossible dream.

Usenet and the newsgroups contained within it are both among the oldest and least-used segments of the Internet. While email and the World Wide Web have metamorphasized into mass-media outlets, Usenet has stubbornly clung to its quirky, techie roots. Though news reports and commentary most often concentrate on the howling anarchy and vibrant flame wars of its postings (see accompanying story), the real challenge of taming Usenet lies in organizing the huge mass of information, sifting out the useless chatter and making it easy for readers to quickly pluck out informational gems.

"Let's say you want to see what people are talking about cooking," Lee suggests.

Let's say. A Usenet search comes up with 11 separate cooking-related newsgroups, from rec.food.cooking to gaia.fido.cooking to alt.creating-cook, alt.creative-cooking and alt.creative_ cooking--well, you pretty much get the idea.

"They suck, don't they?" Lee says with a laugh. He estimates that there are some 30,000 individual Usenet newsgroups in all, generally listed in long scrolling alphabetized lists on most news readers. He explains that the organization--or lack thereof--is a product of the technical minds which originally pieced together that part of the Internet for their own use.

"It's a clunky interface, a total library nomenclature," Lee says. "Most people are intimidated by it. It's not made for the mainstream. So we tried to create an organizational structure where my Mom could feel comfortable looking things up."

HIS FINGERS WHIR NOISELESSLY over the keyboard as he pulls up Excite's homepage. (He explains later, a little self-consciously, that 16 years of six-hour-a-day concert pianist practice turned him into "a fast typist.") Lee explains that the Excite, Lycos and Infoseek portal/search engine sites now feature RemarQ-supplied newsgroups with its prettied-up interface and friendly names. In place of 30,000 listed names is a single screen with links organized by categories: Arts & Humanities, Science, Government, Sports & Recreation and so forth. Gone, too, are the alt.s, rec.s and soc.s, with the newsgroup names clarified to such things as Cooking, Creative Cooking and Cooking Chat.

He is also quick to explain that the name changes are only on the Remarq-repackaged interface available to Web browsers. "We'd get killed," he says, for suggesting such changes to Usenet itself.

RemarQ itself is an archetypal Silicon Valley success story. Founded in 1995 in a Marin County garage owned by the parents of Lee's business partner, Craig Wallace, the company then known as Supernews concentrated on the unromantic task of storing and routing Usenet groups for Internet users and service providers. Wallace and Lee tapped their credit cards and savings accounts to scratch together the $6000, which launched a company that would achieve profitability and move into a well known San Jose address without outside venture capital.

Soon, however, venture capitalists were circling and begging to be let into the game. Supernews was a category leader, a money-maker in an industry known for bleeding red. Last year, the company jumped in with the venture crowd, hired professional executives from Netscape, Sun and CKS and rebranded itself as Remarq to position itself as a manager of "discussions" rather than news.

By making newsgroups available via the World Wide Web through a browser, Remarq is taking Usenet to the masses just as Hotmail made email directly available from the Web, and it is making the groups searchable, much as Yahoo and other search services allowed Web sites to be indexed, described and searched by key words. Today RemarQ has 80 employees in three floors of offices in downtown San Jose, serves some 850 ISPs, handles half a million net postings a day (by contrast, Lee says, Yahoo takes in only 20,000 posts), sucks through 16 to 20 gigabytes of information every 24 hours while feeding out several terabytes in return ("a shitload of information," Lee translates), and is primping for an anticipated initial public offering later this year. Not a bad early career for a Pittsburgh, Pa., native who grew up in Los Angeles, attended UC-Berkeley and got a double advanced degree from UCLA in business and law.

Like many innovations, RemarQ's newsgroup interface has the ring of inevitability once seen in action (observers of the first wheel must have hit their thick foreheads and shouted, "Oh, man, I could've thought of that!"). But Lee has no intention of stopping here.

TO HANDLE THE OFTEN raucous finger-pointing debate style of many newsgroups, Lee has a broadly drawn plan to set up a series of "collaborative rating filters" he hopes to have in place on RemarQ sites by the end of the year. He sees this as a series of five debate levels (adult, product-related, "Bible-belt type" and so on) that will be screened by users themselves. Lee is a little vague on how all of this might work, either because he doesn't want to reveal secrets before the idea is launched or because the kinks haven't yet been worked out. Mailing list subscribers who have suffered through their own attempts to configure email filters will probably take a wait-and-see attitude; it is notoriously difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in wide-open text-based discussions.

Lee also wants to take newsgroups a step further; he has a plan to build Internet discussion groups into something he calls "community." He defines "community" as Internet locations where individuals can discuss topics, conduct research and purchase products all within the same space.

"Our society is flattening out," he says. "A lot of the people are doing things online that we used to take care of walking around. Grocery shopping. Banking. People are participating in Usenet support groups for such things as HIV and cancer in place of discussions that used to take place face to face."

Lee envisions such communities being built through the Usenet newsgroups. "Websites are mainly just static places to get information," he says. "They don't change much. But on the newsgroups you can ask questions, and you learn to judge people and set a value on their opinions. It's a place to bring people together." In the future, RemarQ plans to have "appropriate retail outlets" linked into their newsgroup sites where Internet users can talk and shop, shop and talk, all without leaving home. "Commerce," Lee says, "is inherent in community."

It is a vision of the future that invites more discussion, both online and face to face.

As befitting someone who appears to face a rosy future, Lee has a decidedly rosy view of the future of commerce in the valley, which he expects to continue at its booming pace "for many, many years." He says, "We're in a smarter valley than we were at the start. Companies are starting to shake out. It's still an entrepreneurial environment, but it's much more sophisticated. New rules have been defined. Three years ago I could have started a search engine website, and that's all it would have to be. Now it has to be a portal if it wants to compete. We're still pioneering. We're just smarter pioneers."

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

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