Archive for Thursday, September 6, 2001

Spinning the Web: ‘Til the ‘WELL’ runs dryer

Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link attempts to outlast the dot.com industry fallout

September 6, 2001

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I faded away from being an active member of the WELL's (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) online conferencing system shortly after the World Wide Web became widely used in the mid-1990s. I've returned in what is only coincidentally the wake of the dot.com bust. Much has remained the same, but several things either are different now or appear that way because the broader social context has changed so much.

I probably make a mistake thinking of my salad days on the WELL as a kind of golden age, but my time did come during an auspicious era. It was during the first big invasion of personal computers into the home during the early '90s, when noncomputer professionals began adopting them as tools and toys, but before the Web was driving growth in computer sales.

Michael Newman

Michael Newman

Plugging a phone line into the back of the box was still a pretty arcane practice. I wasn't on the WELL to see the brush clearing and barn-raising. Social conventions and colorful reputations were in place when I arrived. But I was there to witness the WELL's moment in the sun.

WELL wishers

Most of the world wouldn't learn of this "www" thing Tim Berners-Lee had cooked up at Cern until about '94 or '95. But trend-watchers in academia and the press smelled something in the air much earlier. They were hearing about a social phenomenon called CMC, or computer-mediated communications. The authors and reporters came out of the woodwork looking for a story to tell.

Some of the journalists who came on safari were genuinely into the kind of new social space they found there, and tried to report on it accurately and discover its significance. Others those who came to write their first-person "An Innocent Abroad" tales were ultimately deemed carpetbaggers. Increasingly, scouring the press for mentions of the WELL became an exercise in deconstruction of criticism.

The WELL was, as a collective, pretty cocky. A "rich guy" bought it and imagined variously a WELL with a million users, or a thousand little cell WELLs. Mind you, the WELL was then a group of about 10,000 people with only about half really logging on, and only a couple hundred doing most of the talking.

The "rich guy" was eventually run out of town on a virtual rail for failing to understand what his changes would mean to the social fabric. He thought the WELL community should be flattered that he thought so highly of what he believed it represented for the world's social evolution. He thought the community should love the idea of scaling it up by several orders of magnitude. He thought wrong.

Today there are fewer than 6,400 WELL users. Of those, fewer than 2,300 have visited in the last month, and less than 1,500 in the last week. In Internet numbers that would be ... um, none.

The WELL has a media conference. Conferences consist of topics, and topics consist of responses. A topic is good for about 2,000 responses. If a topic gets full, it gets closed, saved for future reading and a new one is opened in which the discussion may continue.

The topic "Media Mentions About the WELL" had to be cycled three times in 1995. The last incarnation was opened in February 1996, and 5 1/2 years later is only three quarters of the way toward full. And since it hasn't received a single new response posted in the last 20 months, it looks like it will last a while. It might outlast the WELL. This data set suggests a fairly dramatic bell curve.

Ante-bellum attitude

There had long been a tension on the WELL between those who knew a sound business model came down to growth or death, and those who knew that the WELL's workable social model was that of an intimate intellectual and recreational salon.

The critics of the anti-growth Luddites warned that the WELL would become the Colonial Williamsburg of cyberspace. That analogy suggests not only a place stuck in time where archaic tasks are performed with archaic tools, but also that these things are done for the amusement of hordes of visitors.

There will be no hordes of visitors.

Nobody much cares for the arcania to be found there. A better analogy would be the Renaissance Festival of cyberspace or even the Civil War re-enactment of cyberspace. WELL users will tolerate an audience for their recreation but don't require one to enjoy donning traditional garb and engaging in ritualistic activity. Lurkers are merrily bilked for a cover charge because it keeps the gates open. But unlike Colonial Williamsburg and just like Ren Fests and ante-bellum battlefields the colorful characters are there for their own amusement.

I hear from people on the WELL that they still feel a well.com e-mail address carries prestige. I don't know enough to say with certainty that within 50 miles of San Francisco it may still yet, but I don't see this prestige any longer. At a time when only a million Americans had ever heard of the Internet, half of them had heard of the WELL, and many held it in awe or were threatened or intimidated by it. Nowadays, to no significant percentage has anyone heard of the place.

When the "rich guy" got tired of derision, he unloaded the WELL. With its hip cache still worth something, it wound up the property of that coolest of Web-based publications, Salon.com.

As Salon itself struggles through the dot.com shakeout, the future of the WELL is uncertain. Some people on the WELL believe that if and when Salon goes under (last week its stock was unlisted due to falling value), the conferencing system will be a salable asset that will find a new owner and continue. I'm less sanguine about the commercial future of the WELL. But I am confident that the means will be found for this resilient community to continue to thrive and provide value for its core membership.

During the "rich guy" scare, members of the community built a lifeboat. A parallel conferencing system called the River (www.river.org) was created. Years later it remains at the ready. It may be time to check the condition of the hull and fittings.

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