What the WELL's Rise and Fall Tell Us About Online Community

A key early member of the most influential early online community remembers the site, which is now up for sale.

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Historian Fred Turner with three key players in the WELL story, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold (flickr/mindmob).

In the late 1980s, decades before the term "social media" existed, in a now legendary and miraculously still living virtual community called "The WELL," a fellow who used the handle "Philcat" logged in one night in a panic: his son Gabe had been diagnosed with leukemia, and in the middle of the night he had nowhere else to turn but the friends he knew primarily by the text we typed to each other via primitive personal computers and slow modems.

By the next morning, an online support group had coalesced, including an MD, an RN, a leukemia survivor, and several dozen concerned parents and friends. Over the next couple years, we contributed over $15,000 to Philcat and his family. We'd hardly seen each other in person until we met in the last two pews of Gabe's memorial service.

Flash forward nearly three decades. I have not been active in the WELL for more than fifteen years. But when the word got around in 2010 that I had been diagnosed with cancer (I'm healthy now), people from the WELL joined my other friends in driving me to my daily radiation treatments. Philcat was one of them. Like many who harbor a special attachment to their home town long after they leave for the wider world, I've continued to take an interest -- at a distance -- in the place where I learned that strangers connected only through words on computer screens could legitimately be called a "community."

I got the word that the WELL was for sale via Twitter, which seemed either ironic or appropriate, or both. Salon, which has owned the WELL since 1999, has put the database of conversations, the list of subscribers, and the domain name on the market, I learned.

howard_sm.jpgI was part of the WELL almost from the very beginning. The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link was founded in the spring of 1985 - before Mark Zuckerberg's first birthday. I joined in August of that first year.

I can't remember how many WELL parties, chili cook-offs, trips to the circus, and other events - somewhat repellingy called "fleshmeets" at the time - I attended. My baby daughter and my 80-year-old mother joined me on many of those occasions. I danced at three weddings of WELLbeings, as we called ourselves, attended four funerals, brought food and companionship to the bedside of a dying WELLbeing on one occasion. WELL people babysat for my daughter, and I watched their children.

Don't tell me that "real communities" can't happen online.

In the early 1980s, I had messed around with BBSs, CompuServe, and the Source for a couple of years, but the WELL, founded by Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame and Larry Brilliant (who more recently was the first director of Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org), was a whole new level of online socializing. The text-only and often maddeningly slow-to-load conversations included a collection of people who were more diverse than the computer enthusiasts, engineers, and college students to be found on Usenet or in MUDs: the hackers (when "hacking" meant creative programming rather than online breaking and entering), political activists, journalists, actual females, educators, a few people who weren't white and middle class.

Howard Rheingold talking about the early days of the WELL.

PLATO, Usenet, and BBSs all pre-dated the WELL. But what happened in this one particular online enclave in the 1980s had repercussions we would hardly have dreamed of when we started mixing online and face-to-face lives at WELL gatherings. Steve Case lurked on the WELL before he founded AOL and so did Craig Newmark, a decade before he started Craigslist. Wired did a cover story about "The Epic Saga of the WELL" by New York Times reporter Katie Hafner in 1995 (expanded into a book in 2001), and in 2006, Stanford's Fred Turner published From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism which traced the roots of much of today's Web culture to the experiments we performed in the WELL more than a quarter century ago. The WELL was also the subject of my Whole Earth Review article that apparently put the term "virtual community" in the public vocabulary and a key chapter in my 1993 book, The Virtual Community.

Presented by

Howard Rheingold is the author of many books on social media and how it shapes society, including Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, and most recently, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.

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