Click on the gun" advises the web page at www.bloods.com, next to an icon of a particularly vicious-looking machine pistol. Over at the rival www.crips.com, the bony finger of a skeleton beckons visitors into his domain, with a promise of a lonely hearts club and free e-mail.
The sites are dedicated to two of the most world's most notorious and deadly street gangs, born in the the ghettos of south central Los Angeles in the late Sixties. But where the Bloods and Crips once accrued power and status by the number of bodies in the 'hood, they now measure "hits" of a very different kind.
For instance, visit the Crips link site, us/gangs/signs.htm, and you'll find dozens of the most commonly used signs and symbols in the gang world. Stroking the chest with the right hand means "we want to wipe you out". And it is always useful to know that in St Petersburg, Florida, a sudden downward movement of two hands, palms up, signifies "no talk, just hit them".
At the moment, the Crips site is the more sophisticated of the two. It boasts an impressive quality of technical wizardry, including a little animated cartoon of two anthropomorphic PCs. One takes out a gun and blasts away chunks of his neighbour, who responds by smashing him out of sight with a baseball bat.
A nearby link, through mafia.crips.com, offers a downloadable glimpse of "Vic"'s impressive collection of high-powered weaponry, including several pump-action shotguns. The south central LA chapter, "Thugs4Real", publishes a helpful list of prison addresses. The site claims to have had more than 135,000 visits or "hits" on a single day recently.
What gang members may not realise, though, is that both sites were set up by the same person, a Missouri businessman called Dirk Lemmons who once worked in the slums of St Louis and who conceived the concept of "cybergangs" as a more peaceful version of the real thing.
The content of both sites, however, is determined largely by gang followers, who e-mail their photos and their take on life. Some of these are real foot soldiers. Others are so-called "cyber-gangsters" living out their tough guy (and gal) fantasies only while on-line. Usually the genuine gangsters can spell better.
Critics say the sites glamourise a life punctuated by drugs, crime and violent death. Lemmons, a 41-year-old former accountant who once worked at Coopers & Lybrand, prefers to think he is providing a creative alternative to life on the street. What he is doing is "like having a basketball gym in the inner city". He explains, "I'm saying come into our website and play."
Like basketball, there are rules. Crips.com says it will not host pornography because "it would cheapen what we are trying to achieve". And it won't give out recipes for making drugs, not because it would be illegal but because of objections from a gang member who felt he had first dibs on the idea. Most importantly, there must be no "dissing" of rival gangs. The last thing anyone wants is an electronic firefight, with flaming e- mails.
In reality much of the content is relatively anodyne, with fuzzy photo galleries of baggy-trewed youths trying to look sinister, or fan links to slain gangsta rap heroes such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. A high percentage of e-mails come from public libraries, clearly the only place where some members can use a computer.
The police and web server regulatory authorities seem content to let the Bloods and Crips duel for digital superiority, although the Los Angeles police department does have a detective monitoring the sites for possible infractions.
The only intervention to date was with the creators of KillerCop.com, which offered a reward for the most creative way to kill a policeman. It soon disappeared after the LAPD began to talk about charges to incite murder.
But not everything is guns and rap. The Crips' site has plans for a collection of graffiti and, improbably, a sculpture gallery. It also offers a forum for creative writing. "Smoke Dawg", from Chicago, has sent in his autobiography: "Every day i saw brothas runnin to they houses every time a car would drive by slowly cuz they feared they was gonna gets shot up!".
Later he recounts an incident in which he was beaten and shot by a "couple of slobs" (slang for Bloods) and left for dead. After getting out of hospital, Dawg was "a little bit pissed off bout bein shot". So he finds his assailant "and shot at da mo fo 4 times".
Narrowly escaping a life sentence because of a lack of evidence, Dawg concludes that violence is not worth risking prison. The moral to all those cybergangsters out there? "Chill yo grills and limit yo kills."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies