WASHINGTON — Eric Hysen is a busy entrepreneur, with a small but growing business that designs Web sites for other small businesses. He's got four clients right now, which may not sound like that many, but since Eric is 14 and in the ninth grade at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, he's got other things he has to do — like homework.
And Eric is not alone. He's one of the many kids who are building their own Web sites — for all kinds of reasons. Some, like Eric, are creating their own businesses. Others use their sites to further causes they support (Amnesty International, for example) or provide help for private problems (anorexia support groups and advice to other teen moms).
But most are simply me-me-me sites — my favorite band, sports team, clothes, food and friends. They have music and photos, links to other sites their creators like. These kids are writing about what they know best — themselves and the minutiae of their daily lives. Many such sites include guest books, so visitors can sign in and make comments about their tours of the site.
Peter Grunwald of the Internet research firm Grunwald Associates estimates there are about 2 million sites created by kids age 6 to 17. By next year, his research indicates, there could be 6 million or more. Further, he estimates that 9 percent of kids age 9 to 12 have their own sites.
"Building sites has grown organically but not until recently did we promote and market it," says Jamie Riehle, global manager of Web publishing for Terra Lycos, one of the Internet companies promoting site-building.
Terra Lycos, by its own definition, is pioneering ways to charge for Internet services. People start with its free service, then upgrade for a charge.
The company offers two sites — Angelfire.com and Tripod.com — where lots of these personal sites can be found. Web builders go there for a free place to put their sites online. The only "cost" is that those sites get plastered with ads. Kids searching for an ad-free zone have to pay for space. As part of the deal, though, they get gizmos to enhance their sites.
Bright business outlook
Business is good. Between the two sites, Terra Lycos has 32 million active members — that's up from about 1 million in the late 1990s. Slightly fewer than half are between 13 and 18 years old. That high number certainly indicates a lot of interest in building sites, but being a member doesn't mean that you've actually built one.
The membership grew, Riehle says, "by word of Web." And because so many of the sites are so personal, says Riehle, "it's like walking into a teen's bedroom" when you go to one of their Web sites.
Angelfire is geared to the younger end of the audience — teens and young adults — says Riehle, and for that reason it has more complicated programming options. Younger kids would rather take the more complicated approach to Web building, he says. Tripod, for college-age and older subscribers, has more "point-and-click" options, so those who are not so comfortable with building their sites from the ground up can pick out ready-made templates and just add their own content.
"If you're 12 or 14 and you don't know HTML, your friends won't respect you," Riehle says. "There is 'a cool geek factor.' Smart is cool again."
Kids are learning HTML code to create their own sites, not necessarily an easy thing for the pencil-and-paper generation to accept. For those who've lived under an eraser for the last decade, HTML is short for "hypertext markup language," the computer coding used to create Web pages.
David Jaffe, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at the British School of Washington, put up a site on Tripod.com a couple of years ago. Tripod monitors took it down, however, for "inappropriate content," he says, though he can't figure out what they considered inappropriate. He now produces an anime cartoon site on another server, where he does the words for the strip and a friend draws the pictures. He's really interested in moviemaking, but he enjoys writing for the strip.
"I like the technology," he says. "We taught ourselves HTML. It's quite simple. It's not really a code. It's basically a bunch of lazy people abbreviating things."
Six years ago, at age 11, Lissa Daniels, of Celebration, Fla., taught herself HTML by reading the "source codes" behind the sites. Then she built her own Web site (www.lissaexplains.com) to explain HTML to other kids. Today her Web site gets 28 million page views and 5 million unique visitors each month. Now, at 17, Lissa has just bought a car with the profits and the site is so successful that it will help fund her college education.
Plenty of places to learn
There are a number of places kids can go to learn how to build a Web site, including AOL's Hometown. It's geared to 13-year-olds and up, but lots of younger kids are using it too. AOL does not have numbers for how many teenagers have created sites on Hometown, though there are 13 million in total.
Now schools and camps teach HTML, and kids buy software to help them design pages. Karen Rosenbaum, who runs the TIC (Technology Is Cool) summer camp in Bethesda, says teaching kids HTML is easy. "Even young kids can learn it in an afternoon," she says.
So the camp tries to take kids beyond HTML to the sophisticated computer programming languages.
"We have a prejudice against making things too easy," she says.
Many of the sites are similar because "kids have similar interests," Rosenbaum says. "They love to tell stories, love to talk about their interests, sports, rock music, TV shows. They love the idea of being able to link to other sites. A lot of them are pretty ugly, because kids are more interested in content than in how they look."
David Edelstein, 12, a seventh-grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, got hooked on Web design through the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. He made a site last summer that had dozens of links to other gaming sites. While he loves Web design, he doesn't go online to do some of the things that his peers often do.
"I never use IM'ing" (instant messaging), he says. "When I talk to people it's on the phone. And I don't play those games where the object is to destroy every living thing in sight." Instead, he likes racing games.
At Takoma Park Middle School, Jim Street teaches HTML to seventh-graders in the computer, math and science magnet program. "Years ago we spent time teaching kids how to format disks," he says with a laugh. "That's not a big topic now." Kids in his class begin by learning how to do backgrounds and links and progress to creating good designs with easy navigation and sophisticated content.
Eric Hysen, the 14-year-old entrepreneur who is in the science, math and computer science magnet program at Blair, "started messing around online" in fourth grade, he says. He found a site where he could teach himself HTML. Now he's got his Web design business — HG Interactive — with a friend, and is paid between $400 and $500 to design and maintain sites for a local Exxon station and the Stonegate Swim Club. He also has donated his services to create sites for his synagogue and for a local men's basketball league. In addition, he has his own blog and is a writer and tech for a gaming site called www.activegaming.net, which reviews and previews games.
When he began creating Web sites in fourth grade, he remembers, "back then I was bored. It's fun saying, 'Go to my Web site.' It makes you feel like you have some power."
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