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A VIRTUAL HAUS IS HOME TO GERMAN SPEAKERS (int'l edition)

Melanie Roehm was feeling homesick for Germany last fall. As a foreign student studying at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., Roehm started searching the Internet for a community that would give her that old neighborhood feel. Magic Forest, one of 12 chat groups created by Germany's Internet GmbH, is now like a second home to Roehm, who spends two hours a day chatting in her mother tongue with cyberbuddies on the other side of the Atlantic.

Roehm, 24, known as ''Smurfiness'' on the Net, then introduced her sister in Germany to Magic Forest, where they hold real-time transatlantic gabs for pennies, instead of the $1 per minute it costs to phone home. ''It's like meeting the same group of friends every day to play volleyball or soccer,'' says Roehm, a management major, who traveled home to meet 15 of her cyberfriends over Christmas vacation.

European online communities like Magic Forest are new to the Net, surfacing in just the past year. But they already have quite a following: Some 15,000 Austrians, Belgians, Germans, and Swiss have registered their pseudonyms at two of the most popular general sites: Top.de (www.top.de) and ChatCity (www. chatcity.de). Top.de, created by Internet GmbH, includes one megachat site called Top-Chat. At the same time, Internet GmbH's parent company, 1&1, is working with German ad agency Will & Partner, which has another megasite called ChatCity. The two companies have linked their sites, so that most of them are common chat rooms. Magic Forest, for example, can be found on ChatCity, but you can enter it through Top.de and never know the difference.

At Top.de, 3,000 people hit the site each day. Up to 2,000 cybernauts sign up daily on chat boards to gab with each other later in the day, says Rainer Lingmann, the producer of Top.de. The online community also plays host to Star Trek buffs and is considering a room for the site's many Turkish visitors.

ROMANCE. For Internet GmbH Chief Executive Martin Aschoff, fast-growing cybercommunities such as Top-Chat are the killer application that Net companies have been waiting for. As communities flourish, Aschoff expects the chats to start generating ad revenue later this year, with advertisers paying from $30 to $60 per thousand views.

Internet GmbH's communities already are taking on a life of their own. In February, 200 Top.de chatters converged on Cologne from Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland for a two-day gathering. The German service has spawned several romances and one wedding. With that kind of enthusiastic following, Aschoff thinks Net communities will be able to charge per visit--in May, he aims to create a 3-D site that will charge fees in 1998. Chats such as Aschoff's could just give a whole new meaning to the words ''global village.''

By Gail Edmondson in Paris


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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