I bought my first modem in 1984 a 300-baud appendage that protruded from the back of my Commodore 64. In those days, long before there was a World Wide Web, recreational users were mostly limited to online services like Compuserve, Genie and Quantumlink. There really wasn't any such thing as Internet access and the free wealth of news, information and social gathering places that comes with it.
On Quantumlink I organized music trivia games, and on Compuserve I communicated with others interested in photography from all over the country. Being able to personally interact with one of my favorite photo magazine writers in the Photographer's Forum there was both a revelation and a taste of things to come.
By 1990 I owned my first real desktop PC. At this point, I also was a committed Deadhead. When Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland met an untimely demise that summer, I remembered reading about this online service frequented by Deadheads called the WELL. Though it charged by the hour, and was a long distance call to Sausalito, Calif., I signed up.
To be sure, I found a group of like-minded Deadheads with which to commiserate. I also found a good deal more.
The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) was founded by Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog people in 1985. And while the Deadheads have been one of the systems bread and butter constituencies from early on, it represents but a fraction of the activity there.
It didn't take me very long to "go over the wall" and leave the parochial confines of the cluster of conferences on the WELL that encompass the Deadhead world there. Some folks drawn to the WELL as I was never breach those battlements. Out in the broader WELL I found places to discuss art, music, politics, cooking, sports, books, movies, current events and almost anything else I might care to talk about.
Gradually, several things began to happen. First, the postings of individual users ceased to be an undifferentiated stream of text and the personalities of individuals emerged and revealed themselves to me. These were people! Second, I began to write, I mean really formulate my thoughts, compose my words, and present them to others for consumption. This was something I'd spent my whole education avoiding.
The WELL was a crucible for me as a writer. There are so many brilliant, accomplished people there many of them writers, and many more of them rather prickly personalities that it's a tough room for a fool. A premium is placed on communicating from a strong factual base, developing clear and cogent arguments, listening carefully, an ability to support one's assertions and writing well. Being entertaining doesn't hurt either.
Eventually I realized that the WELL had become my primary social environment. In the early '90s, most of my friends had moved away from Kansas and I had less and less interest in hanging out in bars to make new ones. Besides, I was now able to discuss things with other people I seldom ever could in the meat world.
Before long I began to see that I was becoming a prominent voice on the WELL. This stemmed more from my tendency toward being a dilettante, my endless hours of activity there, and a certain shoot-from-the-hip rhetorical style, than from any weight of thought I was bringing to bear. Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community" dubbed me The Noominator. And once when I expressed a concern over the reputation I was developing, he advised me not to worry about it, I had become "part of the environment."
I founded and hosted the WELL's Midwest conference and hosted or co-hosted others. As an outgrowth of my writing on the WELL, I eventually found the courage to begin writing for the newspaper where I worked in the photo lab. In time I was offered an opportunity to write a column for a Chicago-based music Web site.
Writing on the WELL became a performance art, and the positive feedback became utterly seductive to me. When Jon Katz quoted me in an article for Rolling Stone, I thought I'd won the lottery. Later, when John Seabrook recounted in his book "Deeper, my two year odyssey in cyberspace," an exchange between myself, and then WELL owner Rockport shoe company founder Bruce Katz, which ended with the millionaire hurling an expletive my way, I was slightly less proud.
In fact that was the first hint that I might need to, as they say, get a life.
For all of its charms the WELL remains in large part grounded in real, face-to-face community. The largest contingent of WELL users continue to be found residing in and around the San Francisco Bay area, where regular social gatherings have been part of the social fabric from the beginning. I attended one such WOP (WELL office party), and gathered with other WELLfolk on numerous occasions. Somewhere along the way, it began to feel slightly toxic.
In 1995 Jerry Garcia died, and while the death of one Grateful Dead band member led me to the WELL, the death of another subtly led me away. Following Garcia's passing, life in the Dead conferences on the WELL became fractious and edgy, and it seemed like the time was right to get away from it all. Thus began my gradual disengagement. For me it was perhaps easier than some. As I faded out of sight, I received a few missives of concern, and over time they ceased.
During the last few years I made a number of halting attempts to rejoin the community I'd grown to miss. I never closed my account and once or twice a year I'd return. Old friends would ask me if I was "back" and I'd tell them honestly that I really didn't know. Each time, it turned out I wasn't. I couldn't put my heart into it again.
A month or so ago I tried once again. To my bemusement, it seems to have taken hold this time. I don't really know why. I'm avoiding the meta-world of WELL politics and the Deadhead ghetto so far, and it feels like home. In a future column I'll tell you what I've found there as a returning prodigal. The online world is very different now, with instant messengers, chat rooms, yahoo clubs, message boards on Web sites and a burst dot.com bubble. Yet the WELL carries on.