By SREENATH SREENIVASAN Early last year, Steve Schalchlin, a 42-year-old songwriter in Los Angeles, thought he was going to die of an AIDS-related illness. "I was careening toward death," he recalled.
So he decided to chronicle his experience on the World Wide Web. He set up a home page on Geocities, a free home-page provider and began an online diary in March 1996. "I wanted it to be a way for my family in Texas to keep up with my progress," he said.
Now, a year later, he credits the site with being more than just a medium for expressing his thoughts. "I really think it saved my life," he said. A doctor saw his page and put him on a life-prolonging drug.
Schalchlin's story is evidence that not all content producers on the Web work for hip companies in Silicon Valley or the Silicon Alley. Eleven-year-old boys and grandmothers are also busy putting up Web sites. Of course the quality of these sites varies greatly, but low-cost and even free home-page services are a growing part of the online world.
Among the companies seeking to dominate these online communities by offering free home pages are Geocities, Tripod and Angelfire.
"The overwhelming feeling people have is that the Internet is this massive corporate engine," said Douglas Rushkoff, who wrote "Cyberia," a book about cybercommunities. "I see Geocities and other such companies as a place for independent Web publishing. This is great because it allows people to communicate and share their ideas and thoughts, not just download."
Of course these services also try to attract advertisers by offering pockets of potential consumers.
Unlike America Online and other companies that offer their members home-page services, Geocities, Tripod and Angelfire do not provide dial-up Internet access; users need to have access to the Web already.
"The AOL technology architecture is outdated," said Bo Peabody, chief executive of Tripod, which is based in Williamstown, Mass. "We are taking cues from their position as a pioneer, but we believe the open nature of the Web makes us more appealing down the road."
Rushkoff asserted that one reason America Online had attracted more than 6 million subscribers was that "people are afraid of the Internet, and AOL gives them the feeling of a safe place to hang out."
"As more and more of these communities are set up," he said, "they will attract new users who find the openness of the Web more attractive than a limiting world such as AOL."
America Online, of course, takes issue with those views. "There is nothing we do that is restrictive in our Internet access," said Barry Schuler, president of creative development for America Online. "We provide access to the Internet, plus everything else, and our members can build their own home pages."
Geocities is organized into 33 neighborhoods like "Wall Street"; "Motor City," for vehicle enthusiasts, and "Area 51," which deals with science fiction. New members, known as "homesteaders," pick a neighborhood according to their interests and set up a Web page as a cyberhome. Someone interested in movies, for example, could move into "a lot" in "Hollywood."
The service provides online tools to set up a page and says that a newcomer can have a page up and running in 10 minutes. Each user receives two free megabytes of server space -- the equivalent of 25 to 50 pages of text and graphics -- and can get more for a fee.
Tripod, which is aimed at "young adults who are moving from college to the workplace," has plenty of resources for that age group, and Angelfire offers a basic and simple home-page service.
Geocities says that it has 450,000 homesteaders and that it adds an average of 5,000 new members every day. David Bohnett, the chief executive of Geocities, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif., expects to have a million members by October.
Bohnett said the site had 60 to 75 regular advertisers including companies like Honda, American Express, Visa and Microsoft -- Geocities also recently received $9 million in financing from an investment group led by Softbank, one of the world's largest providers of venture capital for new-media companies.
Lisa Johnson, a director of interactive communication at Wunderman Cato Johnson, an agency in New York, has placed dozens of advertisements in Geocities communities for clients like Apple Computer, American Express and Sears, Roebuck.
"The biggest advantage of Geocities is that it breaks down into comfortable neighborhoods, making it easy to target consumers," she said. "I don't know of any other Web-based service that aggregates so many different interest groups in such a neat, easy-to-understand way."
For Sears, Ms. Johnson's agency placed ads aimed at men (for Craftsman tools, for example) in male-oriented neighborhoods like Motor City. It also placed ads aimed at women (feel-good Christmas ads, for example) in neighborhoods like Heartland, which caters to families.
So what makes these communities different from Web sites?
"Most companies are just publishing text and letting people look at it," Peabody said. "Our idea is to build a community through user-created and user-based content. We are not just giving people server space."
Bohnett of Geocities has a similar view: "We are not an in-and-out service like a search engine. It's a place for people to meet. We allow for self-expression through self-publishing. We're it, in terms of being a major content-entertainment site whose editorial strategy is solely based on the members creating the content themselves."
Not everyone is sold on the viability of online communities. "You can't build an online community by saying, 'We are going to build an online community,"' said Glenn Davis, who originated the "Cool Site of the Day." "You build an online community by building compelling content. Sites like Geocities don't offer compelling content, because they have Web pages that don't have high standards."
Schalchlin, the songwriter, never expected to become a Web master or to visit New York on business again. But now, "Last Session," a musical he wrote about a songwriter dying of AIDS, will open at the Currican, an off-off-Broadway theater, in May.