HERE WE HAVE a multifaith, multi-approach, multi-ideological site flourishing--at a time when we're supposed to be getting more fragmented, more contentious, more divided." So wrote Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief and cofounder of Beliefnet (www.belief.net) at the beginning of the year on the first anniversary of the site.
Waldman went on to tot up the site's accomplishments, list its most popular offerings, and identify its most "inspiring" members. Beliefnet published over 4,000 articles, started 17,000 different discussions which garnered more than 200,000 messages, launched almost 1,000 "prayer circles" and created nearly 1,000 "memorials." Waldman predicted that in the first month of its second year roughly a million people would visit the site, almost 10 million pages would be "viewed" and approximately 45,000 messages posted on its message boards.
It was unclear from the statistics whether the editors were predicting that a million different people would visit the site or that the site would experience a million hits, many from individuals making multiple visits. Ten million pages may be viewed, but I suspect that far fewer will actually be read, given what we know about the reading habits of habitual Internet suffers. But these are quibbles. Beliefnet is a big deal.
But like a lot of other Internet big deals, Beliefnet has not entirely figured out its revenue stream. It announced in April that it is laying off staff and emphasizing different income-generating products. (See news story on page 9.)
Though Beliefnet is a product of the interaetivity and wide audience the Internet offers, the site does borrow from earlier media. Waldman was national editor of U.S. News & World Report before cofounding Beliefnet, so it should be no surprise that the site resembles an online magazine, offering regularly updated news about religious matters. Like a fine magazine, it boasts a stable of distinguished columnists ranging from Harvey Cox to Richard Mouw, from Rabbi Irving Greenberg to Imam Sa'dullah Khan.
Beliefnet also borrows from talk radio or online "news groups," with their discussion "threads" that string together messages in a ramifying dialogue--or sometimes raucous debate. Alongside religious news or expert commentary, Beliefnet posts visitor opinion and reaction. Does this juxtaposition represent a fierce intellectual and religious egalitarianism? Or is it a low drama of dueling assertions, drawing people in by entertaining them? Or both? Controversial topics do seem to dominate. Of the 50 "most active" discussion groups in Beliefnet's first year, eight dealt with homosexuality and religion, three with abortion.
Beliefnet also offers online support groups, prayer circles, advice columnists and guided meditations. …