Recreating a Rialto

Can the global village be saved from monotony?

Their entrepreneurial gumption may sound familiar: Two young guys with pricey educations and a lifelong friendship dream up an online business venture over drinks at a nightclub in Italy. Armed with Barron's Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms, they amass a grubstake from their own private funds and some shrewd investments, and land themselves a hot new-media outfit in Soho with nine full-time employees. Their story seems typical, but their concept is altogether unusual.

Sacha Levy and Philippe Negre, both 25, launched iAgora (iagora.com) in November, debuting the first multilingual online platform for an international travel zine and community space. They envision an impossibly vast target audience— "people who are, have been, or want to be abroad for study, work, or travel," according to the mission statement— but are starting off with a core network of International Student Associations that either exist or will be created at universities worldwide. These will, if all goes well, branch off into professional communities after the students graduate.

So far, with content available in four languages and with a focus on 11 countries (including the U.S., Australia, India, and most of those in Western Europe), iAgora has only a fraction of the global purview it would like to accumulate. But if the audience and the content are spare, the template has promise. Structurally, iAgora resembles a microcosm of the Web as it was ideally conceived: a decentralized network of communities, not bound by any one language or dominant identity, that is in every way predicated on thinking globally and acting locally.

Like the Web at its outset, iAgora is reaching only a privileged group, but it will ideally expand to political organizations and human interest projects well beyond college kids who vacation in Zermatt. What grounds Levy and Negre is their total identification with their mission and target audience. All members of the iAgora team have worked and studied abroad or have multinational backgrounds— the cofounders themselves met in elementary school at a Lycée Française in Barcelona. Negre, who grew up with a Spanish father and French mother, saw the need to "recognize this group that identifies across borders as a community of international people with very strong bonds."

That community also happens to amount to a very strong marketing demographic, given the time, mobility, and funding it has for travel— although the cofounders assert that making money is not their primary concern. "We're not 100 percent American," jokes Levy (French father, American mother), "and therefore we place other things above money. Our top priority is not revenue, but to develop the trust and devotion of core members." Their sentiment is in line with the revenue model espoused in Net Gain (by John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong), the bible of online start-ups. In the long term, iAgora plans to generate funds through ad sales and by forging alliances with travel brokers and merchandisers.

Content currently includes profiles of the feature countries— their governmental structure, demographics, dialects, cuisine, ceremonies— travel essays, forums, and (coming soon) chat. A frames interface will allow users to choose content in English, French, Spanish, and German from any appropriate page, which is part of what makes the infrastructure so elaborate and fungible. The iAgora zine evokes the literary travel genre established by globetrotters like Isak Dinesen, Paul Theroux, and Christopher Isherwood. It includes tales of Bangkok prostitutes, the underground art scene in Paris, India's old-school aristocracy, and personal meditations on hybrid identity and displacement. The forums, though as yet sparsely populated, broach issues of foreign policy, misbegotten stereotypes, and practical information about travel and cultural etiquette.

What's impressive about iAgora is not only its purist mission, but the fact that it has a decent chance at success, having located an untapped, not to mention solvent, group with a distinct proclivity toward loyalty and belonging. Still, it's a young, idealistic prototype. For now it must measure itself against American "export" companies that have already succeeded in developing online content and communities abroad.

Besides the megaportals— Yahoo!, Alta- Vista, Excite, Lycos— that were among the first U.S. Internet companies to dig into foreign markets, AOL is making aggressive efforts to develop discrete international communities and local content. AOL's foreign memberships are exploding at twice the rate of its U.S. memberships. Since it launched in '94, AOL International has amassed nearly 2 million users plus a million more under the ancillary Compuserve (compared with approximately 13 million AOL members in the U.S.), and is now available in 10 countries, five languages and counting. "We've taken the things that were successful in domestic AOL— that's what we call our 'secret sauce,' what makes AOL fun, affordable, easy to use," says Jack Davies, president of AOL International, of the company's expansion model, "and replicated that internationally."

It sounds a bit like a step toward a McWorld-style globalization of content, but Davies doesn't stop there: "The key to our success internationally has been to create truly local services, partnering with local companies to create local management and content in the local language. . . . Our [international] management would be offended if you suggested that they were simply slavishly adhering to an America Online template." Still, what the AOL branches are importing— willingly, not slavishly— is more than an America Online template: it's the ideology associated with the brand.

Net brand-building overseas can become extremely lucrative; some American content companies are finding that licensing their brand abroad is "found money," in the words of one online mag's CEO. Nerve magazine (nerve.com) and SonicNet (sonicnet.com), for instance, are well positioned to capitalize on their content— sex and music, respectively— because it has universal appeal that is contingent on neither time nor geography. Translating the content can be almost as expensive as assigning original copy, but there are other key issues for U.S. content providers. SonicNet— which licenses its brand, content, and platform to publishers in Japan, Switzerland, and Australia— is finding partners who will provide local infrastructure and traffic and develop relationships with local advertisers.

bbb All international endeavors, especially one as inherently expansive as iAgora's, could be vastly facilitated by translation software that is in the works from companies like Lernout & Hauspie (lhs.com). But the software comes with its own critical issues, including the question of whether it will contribute to the death of dialects. Some Eastern European cultures feel threatened by Internet software that doesn't support the special characters in their languages, and by aggregate communities online that may eventually opt for one default language and rub out specialized dialects. Alex Fowler, Director of Public Affairs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org), brings up the "Gutenberg effect": "During the long transition from oral to written traditions, languages that didn't develop a written form died out, but that transition was also crucial for language development."

The technical dilemmas that translation software raises apply not only to written language but to translating interfaces, system software, programs, icons, and cultural convenations (reading right to left, for example). A trend toward global homogeneity may be an inevitable consequence of the Internet, but iAgora will do all it can in the meantime to stave off the Gutenberg effect. "For us, globalization means that more people are in more contact, more people understand each other within and across boundaries," says Negre. "It's not about the same culture spreading until it dominates the rest of the universe." That is, of course, if they can keep the secret sauce from dousing everything.

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