Chapter One: The Heart of the WELL
Chapter Two: Daily Life in Cyberspace: How the Computerized Counterculture Built a New Kind of Place
Chapter Three: Visionaries and Convergences: The Accidental History of the Net
Chapter Four: Grassroots Groupminds
Chapter Five: Multi-user Dungeons and Alternate Identities
Chapter Six: Real-time Tribes
Chapter Seven: Japan and the Net
Chapter Eight: Telematique and Messageries Rose: A Tale of Two Virtual Communities
Chapter Nine: Electronic Frontiers and Online Activists
Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy
Over a period of months, I fell into the habit of spending an hour or two every day gazing in fascination at this window into a community that was creating itself right in front of my eyes. Although the system was only a few months old, the air of camaraderie and pioneer spirit was evident among the regulars. Those three-dollar hours crept up on me in ten- to thirty-minute minivisits during the workday and hourlong chunks in the evening. Still, my daily telecommunicating expenses were less than the price of a couple of drinks or a double capuccino. The cumulative economic impact of my new habit came home to me when my first month's bill was over $100.
As it happened, a friend of mine had to deliver some artwork to the Whole Earth Catalog people, at the Sausalito office where the WELL also was located. So I went along for the ride. When we got to the rambling series of ancient offices in one of the last bohemian enclaves of the Sausalito houseboat district, I asked for the WELL. I was led to a small room and the staff of one, Matthew McClure. I talked with Matthew about the possibility of diminishing my monthly bill by starting and hosting a conference about the mind.
Hosts are the people who serve the same role in the WELL that a good host is supposed to serve at a party or salon--to welcome newcomers, introduce people to one another, clean up after the guests, provoke discussion, and break up fights if necessary. In exchange for these services, WELL hosts are given rebates on their bills. I was worried that my hosting duties might take up too much of my time.
Matthew smiled at my question. I know the meaning of that smile now, although it puzzled me then. He recognized what was happening to me. He judged it to be a good thing to happen to me, and to the WELL. He was right. But it was still Mephistophelian. He said, "Some hosts get away with less than an hour a week."
That was the fall of 1985. By the fall of 1986, the WELL was a part of my life I wasn't willing to do without. My wife was concerned, then jealous, then angry. The night we had the climactic argument, she said, referring to the small, peculiar, liberal arts college where we first met: "This is just like Reed. A bunch of intelligent misfits have found each other, and now you're having a high old time." The shock of recognition that came with that statement seemed to resolve the matter between us.
The WELL is rooted in the San Francisco Bay area and in two separate cultural revolutions that took place there in past decades. The Whole Earth Catalog originally emerged from the Haight-Ashbury counterculture as Stewart Brand's way of providing access to tools and ideas to all the communards who were exploring alternate ways of life in the forests of Mendocino or the high deserts outside Santa Fe. The Whole Earth Catalogs and the magazines they spawned--Co-Evolution Quarterly and its successor, Whole Earth Review--seem to have outlived the counterculture itself, since the magazine and catalogs still exist after twenty-five years.
One of Whole Earth's gurus, Buckminster Fuller, was fond of using the analogy of the
tiprudder--the small rudder on very big ships that is used to control the larger, main rudder. The tiprudder people who steer the movements and disciplines that steer society--the editors and engineers, scientists and science-fiction writers, freelance programmers and permaculture evangelists, grassroots political activists and congressional aides--continued to need new tools and ideas, even though they were no longer a counterculture but part of the mainstream. These cultural experimenters continued to feed Co-Evolution Quarterly and then Whole Earth Review through decades when magazines died by the thousands. Even the idea that you could publish books on the West Coast was a revolution when it happened; in 1992, when Publishers Weekly ran an article on the history of West Coast publishing, it started with the Whole Earth Catalog. The first Whole Earth Catalog was the first idealistic enterprise from the counterculture, besides music, that earned the cultural legitimation of financial success.
The Whole Earth Catalog crew, riding on the catalog's success, launched a new magazine, The Whole Earth Software Review, and, after the WELL was started, received a record-breaking $1.4 million advance for the Whole Earth Software Catalog. It was time for the string of successes to take another turn: the WELL was the only one of the three projects to succeed. The Whole Earth Review is what survived in print; the WELL did more than survive.
The inexpensive public online service was launched because two comrades from a previous cultural revolution noticed that the technology of computer conferencing had potential far beyond its origins in military, scientific, and government communications. Brand had been part of the faculty at an online institute devoted to stretching the imaginations of business leaders--the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI)--which introduced him to the effectiveness of computer conferencing. WBSI was also where he connected with Larry Brilliant.
Brilliant and Brand shared a history at the center of several of the most colorful events of the 1960s: Brand was "on the bus" with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (Kesey's pot bust, as described in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, happened on the roof of Brand's apartment; Brand was one of the organizers of the seminal Trips Festival that gave birth to Bill Graham Presents and the whole rock concert scene). Brilliant had been part of the Prankster-affiliated commune, the Hog Farm (which had organized the security arrangements for Woodstock around the judicious use of cream pies and seltzer bottles and had whipped up "breakfast in bed for 400,000"). After his Hog Farm days, Brilliant became a doctor and an epidemiologist and ended up spearheading the World Health Organization's successful effort to eliminate smallpox.
Brilliant was involved with another health-care effort aimed at curing blindness in Asia, the Seva Foundation, and he had found that Seva's far-flung volunteers, medical staff, and organizational directors could meet and solve problems effectively through computer conferencing. When a medical relief helicopter lost an engine in a remote region of Nepal, the organization's online network located the nearest spare parts, gained key information about ways to cut through local bureaucracies, and transported the needed parts to the crippled aircraft. Brilliant became one of the principles of NETI, a business that created and licensed computer conferencing systems. After they met via WBSI's conferencing system, Brilliant offered Brand the license to Picospan (the WELL's conferencing software) and the money to lease a minicomputer, in exchange for a half interest in the new enterprise. The new enterprise started out in the Whole Earth Review's charming but ramshackle office, leased a dozen incoming telephone lines, installed what was then a state-of-the-art minicomputer, and set up modems, and in 1985 the WELL was born.
Brand and Brilliant both hoped the WELL would become a vehicle for social change, but instead of trying to mold it in a specific image, they wanted to see the vehicle emerge spontaneously. The WELL was consciously a cultural experiment, and the business was designed to succeed or fail on the basis of the results of the experiment.
The person Stewart Brand chose to be the WELL's first director--technician, manager, innkeeper, and bouncer--was Matthew McClure, not coincidentally a computer-savvy veteran of the Farm, one of the most successful communes that started in the 1960s. Brand and McClure started a low-rules, high-tone discussion, where savvy networkers, futurists, intelligent misfits of several kinds who had learned how to make our outsider status work for us in one way or another, could take the technology of CMC to its cultural limits. When McClure left a year and a half later, another Farm veteran, Cliff Figallo, took over. While Figallo managed the business, yet another Farm veteran, John "Tex" Coate, was charged with building the community.
The Farm veterans had tried for more than a decade to create a self-sufficient colony in Tennessee. At the Farm's height, more than one thousand people worked together to try to create their own agricultural society. It still exists and is still surprisingly self-sufficient. They homebirthed and homeschooled, built laundries for washing hundreds of diapers, grew soybeans, and even extended their efforts to other countries--Cliff Figallo had spent years in Guatemala on behalf of Plenty, the Farm's international development arm, helping Maya villages install hygienic water systems. Matthew and Cliff and John and their families, including eight children, left the Farm after twelve years, partially out of disagreement with the way it was governed, partially out of weariness. Self-sufficiency is very hard work.
Brand thought the Farm alumni were perfect choices for their jobs at the WELL. Matthew was the only one with prior computer experience, but what they knew from the front lines of communal living about the way people reach decisions and create cultures collectively--and the ways people fail to reach decisions and create cultures--more than made up for their lack of computer savvy. By 1992, the WELL staff had grown to fifteen, the original minicomputer was long gone, and all the Farm veterans had moved on to other enterprises.
By the time I had been esconced in the WELL for a year, it seemed evident to me that the cultural experiment of a self-sustaining online salon was succeeding very well. At that point, as I was becoming convinced that we were all setting some sort of cultural precedent, I interviewed online both Matthew McClure and Kevin Kelly, who had been part of the original group that founded the WELL.
One of the advantages of computer conferencing is the community memory that preserves key moments in the history of the community. Sure enough, although I had not looked at it in years, the online oral history was still around, in the archives conference. The responses were dated October 1986.
Matthew McClure recalled that "Stewart's vision was very important in the design." The vision that McClure and Brand agreed on involved three goals: to facilitate communications among interesting people in the San Francisco Bay area, to provide sophisticated conferencing at a revolutionary low price, and to bring e-mail to the masses. To reach a critical mass, they knew they would need to start with interesting people having conversations at a somewhat more elevated level than the usual BBS stuff. In Matthew's words, "We needed a collection of shills who could draw the suckers into the tents." So they invited a lot of different people, gave them free accounts, called them "hosts," and encouraged them to re-create the atmosphere of a Paris salon--a bunch of salons. Brand, a biologist, insisted on letting the business grow instead of artificially stimulating it. Instead of spending money on glossy advertising, they gave free accounts to journalists.
McClure recalled two distinct growth spurts. First, the word about the WELL spread among the more adventurous members of the bay area's computer professionals, and the free journalist accounts paid off as WELLites began to write and publish articles about the WELL. Brand went to Cambridge to write a book, and the hosts seemed to have the run of the place.
"The next major event," McClure recalled, "was the organization of the Deadhead conference and subsequent promotion via interview and occasional remarks on local radio. Suddenly we had an onslaught of new users, many of whom possessed the single characteristic that most endears a user to a sysop [system operator: ratchet jaws [habitual talkativeness. The Deadheads came online and seemed to know instinctively how to use the system to create a community around themselves, for which I think considerable thanks are due to Maddog, Marye, and Rosebody. Not long thereafter we saw the concept of the online superstar taken to new heights with the advent of the True Confessions conference. . . . Suddenly our future looked assured. . . ."
Kevin Kelly had been editor of Whole Earth Review for several years when the WELL was founded. The Hackers' Conference had been his idea. Kelly recalled the original design goals that the WELL's founders had in mind when they opened for business in 1985.
The design goals were:
1) That it be free. This was a goal, not a commitment. We knew it wouldn't be exactly free but it should be as free (cheap) as we could make it. . . .
2) It should be profit making . . . After much hard, low-paid work by Matthew and Cliff, this is happening. The WELL is at least one of the few operating large systems going that has a future.
3) It would be an open-ended universe . . .
4) It would be self-governing . . .
5) It would be a self-designing experiment. . . . The early users were to design the system for later users. The usage of the system would co-evolve with the system as it was built. . . .
6) It would be a community, one that reflected the nature of Whole Earth publications. I think that worked out fine.
7) Business users would be its meat and potatoes. Wrong. . . .
"The system is the people" is what you see when you log into TWICS, an English-language conferencing system in Tokyo. The same turned out to be true for the WELL, both by design and by happenstance. Matthew McClure understood that he was in the business of selling the customers to each other and letting them work out everything else. This was a fundamental revelation that stood the business in good stead in the years to follow. His successor, Farm alumnus Clifford Figallo, also resisted the temptation to control the culture instead of letting it work out its own system of social governance.
People who were looking for a grand collective project in cyberspace flocked to the WELL. The inmates took over the asylum, and the asylum profited from it. "What it is is up to us" became the motto of the nascent WELL community.
Some kind of map of what "it" is can help you to understand the WELL. Here is a snapshot of the WELL's public conference structure. Keep in mind that each conference can have as many as several hundred different topics going on inside it (like the Parenting conference topic list in chapter 1), and each topic can have several hundred responses. For the sake of space, this listing does not include sixteen conferences on social responsibility and politics, twenty conferences on media and communications, twelve conferences about business and livelihood, eighteen conferences about body-mind-health, eleven conferences about cultures, seventeen conferences about place, and seventeen conferences about interactions.
List of Public Conferences on the WELL
ARTS AND LETTERS
Art Com Photography (g pho) Electronic Net (g acen) Poetry (g poetry) Art and Graphics (g gra) Radio (g rad) Beatles (g beat) Science (g sf) Books (g books) Fiction (g sf) Comics (g comics) Songwriters (g song) Design (g design) Theater (g theater) Jazz (g jazz) Words (g words) MIDI (g midi) Writers (g wri) Movies (g movies) Zines/Fanzine (g f5) Muchomedia (g mucho) Scene NAPLPS (g naplps) Scene RECREATION----------
Bicycles (g bike) Games (g games) Boating (g boat) Gardening (g gard) Chess (g chess) Music (g music) Cooking (g cook) Motoring (g car) Collecting (g collect) Pets (g pets) Drinks (g drinks) Outdoor (g out) Flying (g flying) Recreation Sports (g sports) Wildlife (g wild)
Audio-videophilia (g aud) Movies (g movies) Bay Area Tonight (g bat) Music (g music) CDs (g cd) Potato! (g spud) Comics (g comics) Restaurants (g rest) Fun (g fun) Star Trek (g trek) Jokes (g jokes) Television (g tv)
EDUCATION AND PLANNING
Apple Library Environment (g environ) Users (g alug) Earthquake (g quake) Brainstorming (g brain) Homeowners (g home) Biosphere II (g bio2) Indexing (g indexing) Co-Housing (g coho) Network Design (g design) Integrations (g origin) Education (g ed) Science (g science) Energy (g power) Transportation (g transport) Whole Earth (g we) Review
Grateful Dead (g gd) Tapes (g tapes) Deadlit (g deadlit) Tickets (g tix) GD Hour (g gdh) Tours (g tours) Feedback (g feedback) Tours (g tours)
AI/Forth/Realtime (g real Mac System7 (g mac7) -time) MIDI (g midi) Amiga (g amiga) NAPLPS (g naplps) Apple (g apple) NeXt (g next) Arts and Graphics (g gra) OS/2 (g os2) Computer Books (g cbook) Printers (g print) CP/M (g cpm) Programmer's (g net) Desktop (g desk) Net Publishing Scientific (g scicomp) Hacking (g hack) computing Hypercard (g hype) Software (g sdc) IBM PC (g ibm) Design Internet (g inter- Software/ (g soft- net) Programming ware) LANs (g lan) Software (g ssc) Laptop (g lap) Support Macintosh (g mac) Unix (g unix) Mactech (g mactech) (g mactech) Virtual (g vr) Mac Network Admin (g macadm) Reality Windows (g windows) Word (g word) Processing
THE WELL ITSELF
Deeper technical (g deeper) Hosts (g host) view Policy (g policy) MetaWELL (g meta- System News (g sysnews) well) Test (g test) General technical (g gentech) Public (g public) WELLcome and help (g well) programmers (g public) Virtual (g vc) Communities (g vc)
SOME POPULAR PRIVATE CONFERENCES ON THE WELL
Mail the hosts listed for information on their criteria for admission.
BODY - MIND - HEALTH
Crossroads (g xroads) mail rabar for entry Gay (private) (g gaypriv) mail hudu for entry Men on the WELL (g mow) mail flash for entry Recovery (g recovery) mail dhawk for entry Women on the WELL (g wow) mail reva for entry Sacred Sites Int'l. (g ssi) mail rebop or mandala for entry/td>
Aliens on the Well (g aliens) mail flash for entry Band (for working (g band) mail tnf or rik for musicians) entry WELL Writer's Workshop (g www) mail sonia for entry
Deadplan (g dp) mail tnf for entry Grapevine (g grape) mail rebop or phred for entry
The Matrix (g mids) mail estheise for entry Producers (radio) (g pro) mail jwa for entry
The Whole Earth crowd--the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, the space-station crowd, immortalists, futurists, gadgeteers, commune graduates, environmentalists, social activists--constituted a core population from the beginning. But a couple of other populations of early adopters made the WELL an open system as well as a specific expression of one side of San Francisco culture. One such element was the subculture that had been created by a cultural upheaval ten years after the counterculture era--the personal computer (PC) revolution.
"The personal computer revolutionaries were the counterculture," Brand reminded me when I asked him about the WELL's early cultural amalgam. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs had traveled to India in search of enlightenment; Lotus 1-2-3 designer and founder Mitch Kapor had been a transcendental meditation teacher. They were five to ten years younger than the hippies, but they came out of the zeitgeist of the 1960s, and embraced many of the ideas of personal liberation and iconoclasm championed by their slightly older brothers and sisters. The PC was to many of them a talisman of a new kind of war of liberation: when he hired him from Pepsi, Steve Jobs challenged John Sculley, "Do you want to sell sugared water to adolescents, or do you want to change the world?"
Personal computers and the PC industry were created by young iconoclasts who had seen the LSD revolution fizzle, the political revolution fail. Computers for the people was the latest battle in the same campaign. The Whole Earth organization, the same Point foundation that owned half the WELL, had honored the PC zealots, including the outlaws among them, with the early Hackers' conferences. Although the word hacker has taken on criminal overtones in the popular parlance, restricting it to urchins who break into other people's computer systems, the original hackers were young programmers who flouted conventional wisdom, delighted in finding elegant solutions to vexing technical problems, and liked to create entire new technologies. Without them, the Department of Defense's ARPA research never would have succeeded in creating computer graphics, computer communications, and the antecedents of personal computing.
The young computer wizards and the grizzled old hands who were still messing with mainframes showed up early at the WELL because the guts of the system itself--the Unix operating system and "C" language programming code--were available for tinkering by responsible craftspersons. The original hackers looked around the system for security holes and helped make the WELL secure against the darkside hackers. Making online tools available to the population, rather than breaking into other systems, was their game.
A third cultural element making up the initial mix of the WELL, which otherwise has drifted far from its counterculture origins in many ways, were the Deadheads. Books and theses have been written about the subculture that has grown up around the band the Grateful Dead. They had their origins in the same milieu that included the Merry Pranksters, the Hog Farm, and the Whole Earth Catalog. The Deadheads, many of whom weren't born when the band started touring, have a strong feeling of community that they can manifest only in large groups when the band has concerts. Deadheads can spot each other on the road via the semiotics of window decals and bumper stickers, or on the streets via tie-dyed uniforms, but Deadheads didn't have a place.
Then several technology-savvy Deadheads started a Grateful Dead conference on the WELL. GD, as it came to be known, was so phenomenally successful that for the first several years, Deadheads were by far the single largest source of income for the enterprise. Because of the way the WELL's software allowed users to build their own boundaries, many Deadheads would invest in the technology and the hours needed to learn the WELL's software, solely in order to trade audiotapes or argue about the meaning of lyrics--and remain blithely unaware of the discussions of politics and technology and classical music happening in other conferences. Those Deadheads who did "go over the wall" ended up having strong influence on the WELL at large. But very different kinds of communities began to grow in other parts of the technological-social petri dish that the Deadheads were keeping in business.
Along with the other elements came the first marathon swimmers in the new currents of the online information streams, the professional futurists and writers and journalists. Staff writers and editors for the New York Times, Business Week, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone, Byte, Harper's, and the Wall Street Journal use the WELL as a listening post; a few of them are part of the community. Journalists tend to attract other journalists, and the purpose of journalists is to attract everybody else: most people have to use an old medium to hear news about the arrival of a new medium.
One important social rule was built into the software that the WELL lives inside: Nobody is anonymous. Everybody is required to attach their real userid to their postings. It is possible to use pseudonyms to create alternate identities, or to carry metamessages, but the pseudonyms are always linked in every posting to the real userid. The original PicoSpan software offered to the WELL had an option for allowing users to be anonymous, but one of Stewart Brand's few strong influences on system design was to insist that the anonymity option should not be offered.
Two of the first WELLites I met were Dhawk and Mandel. Like new recruits or rookies in any ongoing enterprise, we found ourselves relating to each other as a kind of cohort. A lot of that early fraternization was necessitated by the confusing nature of the WELL's software. The development of human-user interfaces for CMC was in the Pleistocene era when PicoSpan was designed. It isn't easy to find your way around the WELL, and at first there is always the terrifying delusion that everybody else on the WELL can see all the mistakes you make as you learn your way. The WELL's small staff was available to help confused newcomers via telephone, but the more computer-savvy among the newcomers were eager to actively encourage others. David Hawkins had worked as an engineer and electrician, and found that he quickly learned enough about the WELL's software to act as an unpaid guide for many of us who joined around the same time he did.
- David Hawkins was studying to be a Baptist minister, and he was recently married to Corinne, a woman he had met at the seminary. He was from the Deep South. I had never known a Baptist minister or a good old boy. David changed his original career plans to enter the ministry, and Dhawk spent more and more time online, helping the lost, comforting the afflicted. The real people behind the online personae were important to him. I remember that no more than a year after he joined the WELL, David Hawkins drove for nearly an hour, every day for most of a week, to visit an online acquaintance who had undergone minor surgery. Dhawk helped me find my way around, and he visited me face-to-face early in the game. I was one of many who felt obligated to pass along the favor when we noticed newcomers floundering around, looking for a way to connect with each other through the WELL's software.
- Tina Loney, userid Onezie, is another dedicated community-builder. A single mother of two daughters, a public school teacher, and a proud resident of Berkeley, she is a zealous nurturer of the heart elements of the WELL, as the host of the Parenting conference, and one of the people who showed up at the first WELL real-life party and still rarely misses the face-to-face get-togethers. She's a fierce fighter with a temper that comes through her words. I've "watched" her daughters grow up and leave the nest, via Onezie's online reports, and she has watched my daughter grow from toddler to schoolgirl. We've been on the same side of many online battles, and on a few occasions have struggled against each other over one issue or another.
Maddog named himself after something a friend had called him once, in reference to his occasional verbal ferocity. He's a sweet guy if you meet him in person, but online, David Gans in the Maddog days did his best to live up to the moniker. He is a dedicated and educated Deadhead, by profession as well as avocation. His book about the band is required reading for hitchhiking tour rats and limousine Deadheads alike. He produced an hourly radio program of Grateful Dead music and lore for a San Francisco station. It was at a Dead concert that he and two of his companions, Mary Eisenhart (marye), a computer journalist-editor, and Bennett Falk (rosebody), a programmer, received the inspiration to start a Grateful Dead conference on the WELL.
The WELL drew me into the Deadhead milieu and real-life contact with David Gans. I watched and participated as the WELL's Deadhead community helped him grow through a major life crisis. The management of the local radio station canceled his show. David was devastated. He loved to do radio, he loved to evangelize about his favorite band, and the cancellation hit him hard. After much commiseration and anguish online, somebody suggested that David syndicate the show to other stations. That way, he could have revenge on the station that canceled and reach even more people than he had reached before.
He was skeptical at first, but so many of his online cohorts urged him to do it that he couldn't very well refuse to try. The idea turned out to be a good one; Gans started Truth 'N Fun productions to distribute his weekly programs to scores of public radio stations around the country, and along the way he changed his userid from Maddog to tnf. The Maddog persona is still latent, and jumps out snarling online every once in a while, but tnf continues to be one of the people who most visibly reinvents himself on the WELL's center stage.
David Gans is one of several dozen people who seem to influence strongly the WELL's conversational flavor, simply because we spend so much time reading and posting. David in particular sometimes seems to have his frontal lobe directly wired into the WELL. It helps to see him at work in real life. Like many of us, he works at home, in a custom-designed office-studio. He has a wraparound audio console in front of him--the control center for his radio production. Studio speakers are on either side, focused on the one chair in the middle of all the equipment. A television is mounted at eye level, above the audio monitor. A telephone is at his right hand. And directly in front of him is the computer and modem. David Gans marinates himself in media for a living. Not exactly what Peter Drucker envisioned when he coined the term
knowledge worker, I'd bet. David Gans, like a lot of others these days, is multitasking. The WELL is just part of the information flow.
Then there is Mandel , who appears at first glance to better fit the image of the information-age specialist. He brought some kind of intellectual respectability to the high-tech bull session. He was a professional futurist at a real live think tank. He had solid research, facts and figures, to back up his assertions. If you wanted to argue with him, you'd better do your homework. Mandel, who joined the WELL the same day as Dhawk, a few weeks before I joined, was another one of the instant online regulars, along with me, the freelance writer, and Onezie, the schoolteacher, and Dhawk, the Baptist minister turned Unix hacker, and Maddog, the Deadhead radio producer, and a dozen others.
Mandel's employer is SRI International (which started out as Stanford Research Institute, where Jacques Vallee and Doug Engelbart did some of the pioneering research in computer conferencing in the 1970s). Municipal and national governments and the biggest corporations in the world pay SRI for a few hours of Tom Mandel's pontifications about the future of publishing or paper or transportation or--and here I can see his wicked grin--communication. Tom not only is paid well for his WELL addiction, he was applauded for it by his clients and the consulting firm that employs him. He doesn't even have to feel guilty. When he is having fun, he is still working.
You can't talk about the WELL as a community without meeting Tex, the innkeeper, bartender, bouncer, matchmaker, mediator, and community-maker, another communard who emerged from twelve years on the Farm with a reality-tempered commitment to community-building and a deep distaste for anything less than democratic governance. I knew all about him long before I set eyes on him. He was a born online autobiographical entertainer, and what he said about the way things ought to be had some bite because he had put more than a decade into living his communal ideals. I knew he had worked as an interstate truck driver, as a carpenter restoring houses in the poorer sections of Washington, D.C., as an activist in the South Bronx. He was working as an automobile mechanic when Matthew McClure hired him to help deepen and broaden the WELL community. He had four children. And I had constructed my own mental image of him from what he had disclosed about himself online. When I met him in real life, his boyish looks surprised me. I was prepared for a grizzled, tobacco-chewing, potbellied guy--the kind of guy who would call himself Tex even though he's from California.
One big part of Tex's persona, to everybody who knows him in person, is his friendly disregard for other people's personal space. Online and off, Tex likes to shed formalities and talk person to person, to say what's really on his mind and in his heart. In person, he does this very close up, literally "in your face." He's over six feet tall and big boned. It isn't easy to keep your distance when he gets a grip on your shoulder and talks to you earnestly from less than three inches away. When Tex left the WELL in 1992 to take a position in another online service, the WELL community threw a combination testimonial, bon voyage party, and roast. One by one, people came up to the podium, grabbed Tex, and talked to him from about three inches away.
His "in your face" style and his anecdotes from twelve years of trying to make a real-life intentional community work represented a core value of the WELL that has survived beyond the years of Farm-vet management: a commitment to using the medium to make real human connections, and more--to try to find better and better ways to live with each other in cyberspace. From the beginning, the exchange of information and the sharing of emotional sympathy exemplified by the Experts on the WELL topic and the Parenting conference were accompanied by some of the less attractive attributes of human groups. Whatever community is, it is not necessarily a conflict-free environment. There has always been a lot of conflict in the WELL, breaking out into regular flamefests of interpersonal attacks from time to time. Factionalism. Gossip. Envy. Jealousy. Feuds. Brawls. Hard feelings that carry over from one discussion to another.
When one of those online brouhahas happened and people started choosing sides and unkind words were being said, Tex and I often walked in the hills above Sausalito and talked about how and why onlife life can become unpleasant and how to make it work. We kept concluding that simple, corny, all-powerful love was the only way to make a community work when it is diverse, thus guaranteeing friction, and at the same time committed to free expression, which can and does get out of hand. A core of people must flat-out believe in the possibility of community and keep coming back to that amid the emotional storms in order for the whole loosely coupled group to hold together at all. When you complicate the situation with the real-life courtships and marriages and divorces and affairs and breakups that tend to happen to the same cohort of people when they stay in touch over a number of years, you have an atmosphere that can get overheated at times.
Who are the WELL members in general, and what do they talk about? I can tell you about the individuals I have come to know over seven years, but only a few of them, and the WELL has long since been something larger than the sum of everybody's friends. On the WELL, I subscribe to an automatic service created by another WELLite who likes to build tools for the community; the Blair Newman Memorial Newuser Report collects the biographical descriptions that new WELL members publish in a public file when they join, and sends them to me in one long electronic message every day or two. If I'm too busy to bother, I just delete those electronic messages. E-mail makes it very easy not to read something. But it gives me a sense of who is joining the WELL, and why, when I let those bios scroll by at 2,400 bits per second. Every once in a while I save a few to a file, as a methodologically sloppy kind of survey.
The following is a very small random sample of the different user biographies I culled over a few months in 1991 and 1992.
I am a self-employed productivity consultant. I live out in the country overlooking the ocean near Bodega Bay. The phone, fax, and e-mail let me work here, and still be in the business community.
I reside in Seoul Korea where I practice public relations for the U.S. government.
I am a physician, specializing in women's health, including contraception, abortion, and estrogen replacement therapy after menopause. I am the medical director of an abortion clinic. I was a member of the Mid-Peninsula Free University in the 70's and organized concerts, including the Dead, Big Brother, Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, etc. I am interested in philosophical/ethical issues surrounding the beginning of life and the end of life and the functional value of rituals and traditions.
I am a 19 year old college student struggling to find myself. I enjoy sitting in a field of dandelions with no socks. I spend too much time playing on my computer. I am an advertising/business major so I will be here for five or more years. I am trying to find the meaning of life . . . helpful hints are appreciated. I wish that penguins could have wings that worked (Breathed), solutions are being contemplated . . .
I am a student from Prague, Czechoslovakia, studying in San Francisco's Center for Electronic Art computer graphic and design program.
Librarian for USDA, sysop of "ALF" bbs
I am a lawyer, working as a law clerk to 3 state judges in Duluth. I am 31 and single. I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982, and the University of Minnesota Law School in 1990. I opposed the Gulf War, and I was Paul Wellstone's deputy campaign director in the 8th Congressional District. I like sailing and long hikes in the woods and the shore. My other interests include law and Italy. My biggest issues today are single payer universal health care and proportional representation.
I'm interested in land-use planning (I'm helping to put together the Sacramento County General Plan), and in Management of Information Systems (I'm writing an article about this, and am interested in a career in it). I'm a real estate broker and developer now, with several years experience using and reviewing software for IBM-compatibles.
I am a born-again phreak, at age 33. My modem is my life! OK, the weightlifting, the fast car, they are all fun, but the modem is the biggie! As a matter of fact, I met my husband on a bbs! But, I realize that I have only tapped the surface of what my little Hayes can do, and I want to learn it all!
I am a self-employed systems and software consultant, primarily on large military command-and-control systems. My newest interests are in neural networks and fuzzy logic, with parallel processing as an enabling technology. I am usually interested in discussing new technologies and new applications of technology, along with the societal implications, with almost anybody, anywhere, anytime.
Music Store owner, Secretary of Ecological Economics of Alaska.
Captain, US Army
I am a Japanese writer who are very much interested in ecology and the electronic democracy. I am going to spend two years with studying (joining?) ecological movement and sharing network as a tool for making the new world here in Berkeley.
I work at the only hospital dedicated to the cure and eradication of leprosy in the United States. I also spent 6 months in Romania after the December, 1989, Revolution.
One of the reasons people value places like the WELL is the intellectual diversity it offers. With a divergent group, you get separate, nonoverlapping personal networks of expertise. If you could use that diversity as a kind of living encyclopedia, you would find that communion, the immeasurable matters of the heart that the Parenting conference provides, is not the only kind of value that people derive from virtual communities. The knowledge-sharing leverage of a large, diverse group of people who are motivated to help one another, and whose differences of place and time are erased by CMC, can be considerable.
Gift Economies and Social Contracts in Cyberspace
No single metaphor completely conveys the nature of cyberspace. Virtual communities are
placeswhere people meet, and they also are tools; the place-like aspects and tool-like aspects only partially overlap. Some people come to the WELL only for the community, some come only for the hard-core information, and some want both. The WELL contains places of the heart for me, but it is also a valuable and unemotional information-seeking device that has become an integral part of my professional routine. The Parenting conference might be a sacred circle, but the News conference can be much more like a combination of intellectual marketplace and mind-game parlor. When I first found my way into the WELL, I was looking for information and I found it. By that time, I realized that the people who have the information are more interesting than the information alone; the game-like and tool-like aspects of sharing information online drew me in further. Later, I began meeting some of the knowledge traders in more communitarian places online.
I was hungry for intellectual companionship as well as raw information. While many commuters dream of working at home, telecommuting, I happen to know what it's like to work that way. I never could stand to get out of my pajamas if I didn't have to, so I've always worked at home. It has its advantages and its disadvantages. But the occupational hazard of the self-employed, home-based symbolic analyst of the 1990s is isolation. Information-age hunters and gatherers were lone wolves until we found the Net.
The kind of people that Robert Reich, in The Work of Nations, called "symbolic analysts" are natural matches for online communities: computer programmers, writers and journalists, freelance artists and designers, independent radio and television producers, editors, researchers, librarians. For some time now, these early adopters have been joined by the first ranks of the mainstream CMC users. Increasingly, many people who paint houses or build boats or work in an office or hospital or sell real estate, but who are curious about new cultural phenomena and not afraid of using a computer keyboard to express themselves, are mixing it up with the knowledge workers. People who work for themselves, whether it is with their hands or their symbols, have been plugging into the Net for the kind of tactical and emotional support others get at the office or factory.
Since so many members of virtual communities are workers whose professional standing is based on what they know, virtual communities can be practical instruments. If you need specific information or an expert opinion or a pointer to a resource, a virtual community is like a living encyclopedia. Virtual communities can help their members, whether or not they are information-related workers, to cope with information overload. The problem with the information age, especially for students and knowledge workers who spend their time immersed in the info flow, is that there is too much information available and few effective filters for sifting the key data that are useful and interesting to us as individuals.
Programmers are trying to design better and better software agents that can seek and sift, filter and find, and save us from the awful feeling one gets when it turns out that the specific knowledge one needs is buried in fifteen thousand pages of related information. The first software agents are now becoming available (e.g., Archie, Gopher, Knowbots, WAIS, and Rosebud are the names for different programs that search through the vast digital libraries of Internet and the real-time feed from the news services and retrieve items of interest), but we already have far more sophisticated, if informal, social contracts among groups of people that allow us to act as software agents for one another.
If, in my wanderings through information space, I come across items that don't interest me but I know would interest one of my worldwide affinity group of online friends, I send the appropriate friend a pointer or simply forward the entire text (one of the new powers of CMC is the ability to publish and converse via the same medium). In some cases I can put the information in exactly the right place for ten thousand people I don't know, but who are intensely interested in that specific topic, to find it when they need it. And sometimes, one of the ten thousand people I don't know does the same thing for me.
This informal, unwritten social contract is supported by a blend of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives and ephemeral affiliations. It requires one to give something, and enables one to receive something. I have to keep my friends in mind and send them pointers instead of throwing my informational discards into the virtual scrap heap. It doesn't take much energy to do that, since I have to sift that information anyway to find the knowledge I seek for my own purposes; it takes two keystrokes to delete the information, three keystrokes to forward it to someone else. And with scores of other people who have an eye out for my interests while they explore sectors of the information space that I normally wouldn't frequent, I find that the help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: a marriage of altruism and self-interest.
Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler, two social scientists who have been observing the ways people in organizations use CMC, point out in their book Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked World that this kind of informal lore exchange is a key, if invisible, part of every organization:
"Does anybody know . . . ?" is a common phrase in organizations--typically heard in informal encounters in office hallways, before meetings begin, at the water cooler, coffeepot, and lunchrooms. In the terms of the general information procedure, one person asks a search question that may be vague or ambiguous. Usually the asker is seeking a piece of current or arcane information, not easily found in official documents. The audience for such questions usually knows the asker and is sympathetic or at least tolerant because the behavior is conventional, the questions are not onerous, and answerers themselves may one day need to ask a question.
In the conventional world, if the asker's acquaintances cannot provide an answer, the asker is stymied. But with electronic communication, the asker has access to a much broader pool of information sources. An oceanographer broadcast a message to an electronic network of oceanographers: "Is it safe and reasonable to clamp equipment onto a [particular type of insulating wire?" The official instructions said, "Do not clamp." Right away the sender got several messages from other places saying, "Yes, we do it all the time, but you have to use the following type of clamp." The oceanographer did not know the people who responded and would never have encountered them in a face-to-face setting, but through electronic communication, he benefited from their knowledge and experience. Folklore is an important part of science and technology, consisting of idiosyncratic information about how equipment really works and what tricks you have to know to get the experiment to come out right. It never appears in journal articles or manuals, and it is typically conveyed by word of mouth. With electronic communication, folklore can be more broadly accessible.
Early in my history with the WELL, I was invited to join a panel of experts who advise the U.S. Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) on the subject of communication systems for an information age. I'm not an expert in telecommunications technology or policy, but I do know where to find a group of such experts and how to get them to tell me what they know. Before I went to Washington for my first panel meeting, I opened a conference in the WELL and invited assorted information freaks, technophiles, and communications experts to help me come up with something to say. An amazing collection of minds flocked to that topic, and some of them created whole new communities when they collided.
By the time I sat down with the captains of industry, government advisers, and academic experts at the panel table, I had more than two hundred pages of expert advice from my own panel. I wouldn't have been able to integrate that much knowledge of my subject in an entire academic or industrial career, and it took me (and my virtual community) only a few minutes a day for six weeks. In my profession I have found the WELL to be an outright magical resource. An editor or producer or client can call and ask me if I know much about the Constitution, or fiber optics, or intellectual property. "Let me get back to you in twenty minutes," I say, reaching for the modem.
The same strategy of nurturing and making use of loose information-sharing affiliations across the Net can be applied to an infinite domain of problem areas, from literary criticism to software evaluation. It's a good way for a sufficiently large, sufficiently diverse group of people to multiply their individual degree of expertise, and I think it could be done even if the people aren't involved in a community other than their place of employment or their area of specialization. But I think it works better when the community's conceptual model of its own activities includes a healthy amount of barn raising along with the horse trading.
Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this mind-set pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community.
In the virtual community I know best, elegantly presented knowledge is a valuable currency. Wit and use of language are rewarded in this medium, which is biased toward those who learn how to manipulate attention and emotion with the written word. Sometimes you give one person more information than you would give another person in response to the same query, simply because you recognize one of them to be more generous or funny or to-the-point or agreeable.
I give useful information freely, and I believe my requests for information are met more swiftly, in greater detail, than they would have been otherwise. A sociologist might say that my perceived helpfulness increased my pool of social capital. I can increase your knowledge capital and my social capital at the same time by telling you something that you need to know, and I could diminish the amount of my capital in the estimation of others by transgressing the group's social norms. The person I help might never be in a position to help me, but someone else might be. That's why it is hard to distinguish idle talk from serious context-setting. In a virtual community, idle talk is context-setting. Idle talk is where people learn what kind of person you are, why you should be trusted or mistrusted, what interests you. The agora--the ancient Athenian market where the citizens of the first democracy gathered to buy and sell--was more than the site of transactions; it was also a place where people met and sized up one another. It's where the word got around about those who transgress norms, break contracts. Markets and gossip are historically and inextricably connected.
Parents, libertarians, Deadheads, radio producers, writers, homeowners, and sports fans all have particular places to hang out in the WELL. But in the News conference, the WELL's town square, there is a deliberately general topic, Experts on the WELL, that continues to be a paradigm of one of the ways people can spin banter into an unstructured repository of valuable unclassifiable expertise.
The premise of Experts on the WELL is simple. If you have a problem or a question concerning any topic, from plumbing to astrophysics, you pose it. Then you wait seven minutes or a week. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes you get exactly what you want. In many instances, the answer already exists elsewhere in the WELL, and the topic serves as a kind of community librarian service that points the query toward the right part of the WELL's collection of information. And in some instances, the information requested exists in someone's head, and that person takes the time to type it.
The reward for knowing the answer and taking the time to enter it into the WELL is symbolic but not inconsequential. People who come up with accurate and well-worded answers win prestige in front of the whole virtual stadium. Experts compete to solve problems; the people who harvest solutions become believers. For $2 an hour, you gain access to your own think tank. You just have to know how to prime it and mine it.
Most topics on the WELL are about something specific. A topic in the Pets conference might be about places to board dogs; a topic in the Parenting conference might be about discipline or coping with measles. Experts on the WELL is about several things at the same time, and the topic is expected to change regularly. The topic serves as an intelligent community filter, where people seeking information can be directed to the specific part of the WELL where their area of inquiry is a topic of discussion. This is how social norms of helpfulness to newcomers contend against the ponderous difficulty of the WELL's software that makes it difficult for new people to find their way. In a surprising number of cases, somebody from the WELL's diversity happens to know the definitive answer to a question about angelology or automatic transmissions or celestial navigation or where to find a good martini. Many of us read the topic for amusement and for the odd bits of expertise we can pick up along the way.
Experts on the WELL is about more than simple fact-finding. It is also about the pleasure of making conversation and creating value in the process. Although all these responses were originally typed on a terminal or computer keyboard, and are available for people to read long after they were typed, the postings in a computer conference are experienced by those who read and write them as a form of conversation as well as a form of publication. In the case of the WELL, it's a conversation in which 16 percent of the people contribute 80 percent of the words, but many people are listening invisibly and all are free to join. In that sense, there's a theatrical element to this medium--written conversation as a performing art. One of CMC's distinguishing characteristics is the way it mixes aspects of informal, real-time communication with the more formally composed, write-once-read-forever mode of communication.
Computer conference conversations are dialogues that are situated in a specific place (the conferencing system, the conference, the topic) and time. The place is a cognitive and social one, not a geographic place. The WELL is a kind of place to those who come to it, and within the WELL, the News conference is a more specific kind of place inside the larger place, and within the news conference, the Experts on the WELL topic has its own flavor, its own cast of characters, its own norms and rhythms. The way casual conversation is organized in a hierarchical structure, with descriptive names at every level, enables people to use the record of the conversation as a database in which to search for specific information. The way words and ideas are structured by computer conferencing systems is different from more familiar structures, such as books or face-to-face discussions, so we don't have a default mental model that helps us think about the structure.
An architectural model of the WELL can help you create a mental model of these spaces within spaces. If you think of the WELL as a building, you can walk down the halls and look at the signs on the doors to different rooms of various sizes. The sign on the door tells you about the general subject of the conversations that take place inside--sex or art or politics or sports or literature or childrearing. The building is the conferencing system. The rooms are the conferences. And within each conference room, imagine a number of blackboards covered with writing. Approach one of the blackboards, and you will see a sign at the top that indicates which subtopic of the conference room's specified domain is under discussion. In the health conference, you might have topics about medicines, topics about different diseases, topics about medical discoveries, topics about the politics and economics of health care. Each of those topics has its own blackboard, known in the WELL as the topic level. That's where Experts on the WELL exists, as a topic in the News conference.
At the top of the blackboard, a person begins a new topic of conversation by asserting a proposition or asking a question or more generally describing an area for general discussion. Immediately after and under the introduction, somebody writes a response. On the WELL, that is the response level. When you know how to navigate the different levels of such a system, and use tools provided by the system to automate that navigation, the sense of place helps you structure the system in your memory.
Reading a computer conference transcript in hard copy--on paper--misses the dynamism of the conversation as it is experienced by regulars; the back-and-forth dialogue over a period of time that regular participants or observers experience can be reconstructed by looking at the time stamps of the postings, however. In terms of communication rhythms, e-mail and computer conferencing can be levelers. This is one way in which computer conferencing differs from other communications media. The ability to think and compose a reply and publish it within the structure of a conversation enables a group of people to build the living database of Experts on the WELL, in an enterprise where contributors all work at their own pace. This kind of group thinks together differently from how the same group would think face-to-face or in real time.
Sara Kiesler, a social psychologist who studied how e-mail systems changed the nature of organizations, was one of the first to observe businesses systematically and study the impact of CMC on the organization. Dr. Kiesler confirmed and legitimated what CMC pioneers had known from personal experience when she noted in Harvard Business Review that "computer-mediated communications can break down hierarchical and departmental barriers, standard operating procedures, and organizational norms." Kiesler's observations supported the theory long popular among online enthusiasts that people who often dominate conversations face-to-face, because of rank or aggressive demeanor, are no more visible than those who would remain silent or say little in a face-to-face meeting but say a lot via CMC. Businesses are the next organizations to be subjected to the same new kinds of social forces that were experienced by the research and academic communities when they went online.
Kiesler also offered evidence that people communicate across and around traditional hierarchical organizational boundaries if their mutual interest in a particular subject matter is strong enough; groups make more daring decisions via CMC than they do face-to-face; work that later turns out to be important is sometimes accomplished in informal conversations as well as in structured online meetings.
Clearly, people in the Parenting conference are enmeshed in a social interaction different from that of people in Experts on the WELL, and a college student indulging in the online role-playing games known as Multi-User Dungeons lives in a different virtual society from a participant in a scholarly electronic mailing list. Point of view, along with identity, is one of the great variables in cyberspace. Different people in cyberspace look at their virtual communities through differently shaped keyholes. In traditional communities, people have a strongly shared mental model of the sense of place--the room or village or city where their interactions occur. In virtual communities, the sense of place requires an individual act of imagination. The different mental models people have of the electronic agora complicates the question of why people seem to want to build societies mediated by computer screens. A question like that leads inexorably to the old fundamental questions of what forces hold any society together. The roots of these questions extend farther than the social upheavals triggered by modern communications technologies.
When we say "society," we usually mean citizens of cities in entities known as nations. We take those categories for granted. But the mass-psychological transition that people made to thinking of ourselves as part of modern society and nation-states is historically recent. Could people make the transition from the close collective social groups, the villages and small towns of premodern and precapitalist Europe, to a new form of social solidarity known as society that transcended and encompassed all previous kinds of human association? Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, called the premodern kind of social group gemeinschaft, which is closer to the English word community, and the new kind of social group he called gesellschaft, which can be translated roughly as society. All the questions about community in cyberspace point to a similar kind of transition that might be taking place now, for which we have no technical names.
Sociology student Marc Smith, who has been using the WELL and the Net as the laboratory for his fieldwork, pointed me to Benedict Anderson's work Imagined Communities, a study of nation-building that focuses on the ideological labor involved. Anderson points out that nations and, by extension, communities are imagined in the sense that a given nation exists by virtue of a common acceptance in the minds of the population that it exists. Nations must exist in the minds of its citizens in order to exist at all. "Virtual communities require an act of imagination to use," points out Marc Smith, extending Anderson's line of thinking to cyberspace, "and what must be imagined is the idea of the community itself."
It's far too early to tell what the tools of social psychology and sociology will help us make of the raw material of group interaction that proliferates in cyberspace. This is an area where adroit use of the Net by scholars could have a profound effect on the nature of the Net. One of the great problems with the atmosphere of free expression now tolerated on the Net is the fragility of communities and their susceptibility to disruption. The only alternative to imposing potentially dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression is to develop norms, folklore, ways of acceptable behavior that are widely modeled, taught, and valued, that can give the citizens of cyberspace clear ideas of what they can and cannot do with the medium, how they can gain leverage, and where they must beware of pitfalls inherent in the medium, if we intend to use it for community-building. But all arguments about virtual community values take place in the absence of any base of even roughly quantified systematic observation.
Right now, all we have on the Net is folklore, like the Netiquette that old-timers try to teach the flood of new arrivals, and debates about freedom of expression versus nurturance of community. About two dozen social scientists, working for several years, might produce conclusions that would help inform these debates and furnish a basis of validated observation for all the theories flying around. A science of Net behavior is not going to reshape the way people behave online, but knowledge of the dynamics of how people do behave is an important social feedback loop to install if the Net is to be self-governing at any scale.
|read on to
Visionaries and Convergences:
The Accidental History of the Net