If the thing you like least about working at home is the loneliness of a solitary office, check out the online world of virtual communities.
Whether you call them telecommunities or virtual worlds, their focus remains the same: to foster social interaction between groups of people based on shared interests. Some sites are text-based only (where online personas "talk" via the keyboard); others include graphic and audio elements.
Today's telecommunities are much more than your basic chat room, where anonymous users simply converse. Virtual com-munities have strong identity models, security systems and rules of order, not to mention access to the networking tools needed to keep track of important contacts, events, activities and bulletin board notices.
"One of the things [virtual communities] can do for entrepreneurs is keep them in touch with a professional network," says Christina Allen of Electric Communities Inc., a Cupertino, California, developer of virtual world technologies.
For instance, you can create your own space in the virtual world--to be visited only by friends and colleagues to whom you give the password. And to curb isolation, you can keep it on your desktop throughout the day as you work on other projects "and have casual conversations, giving you the sense of being in an office environment where you're running into colleagues," Allen says. You can even log on to happenings in and around the virtual community, such as online chats.
Or you can use your space to answer customer questions--scan in a photo of a product and refer to it as you talk on the phone. And if you, like most homebased entrepreneurs, can't afford to fly all over the nation to make sales calls, try giving live sales presentations on the Web that potential customers can access.
Experts say these communities will only grow in popularity--especially with the current trend toward securing user loyalty. Electric Communities, for example, features a personal identity model; participants use the same identity in each interaction, thus building a reputation over time within the virtual world. Says Allen, "People are starting to [recognize] the social and commercial value of having synchronous communication."
Some of the more popular Web-based virtual communities are at ,a href=http:/www.minds.com>http:/www.minds.com, http://www.thepalace.com, http://www.well.com, http://www.worldsaway.com and http://www.worlds.net
John W. Verity writes the "Currents" column for Entrepreneur's HomeOffice.