The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Communityby Katie Hafner
The Well was conceived during the Orwellian year of 1984, yet instead of heralding Big Brother, it became a boundary-breaking cultural invention that helped change our world. Though few glimpsed its potential, it quickly became indispensable to the evolution of the Internet as we know it today. Its creators were Larry Brilliant, a visionary software engineer and philanthropic doctor, and Stewart Brand, Sixties legend and originator of The Whole Earth Catalog. They imagined a new kind of community, one whose members would meet in everyday space, as ideal communities always have, while also inhabiting a new kind of environment, the virtual ether of a world that hadn't even yet been named. By the end of the 1980s, the pioneering community founded by Brilliant and Brand was attracting thousands of early adopters, from former commune-dwellers to students to technologists to businesspeople to fans of the Grateful Dead, all participating in online conferences with other Well-beings (as they called themselves) on myriad topics. This fascinating anecdotal history unfolds their story. It is filled with memorable personalities and their early electronic postings, which are quoted as they were originally transmitted, as it analyzes the many reasons for the Well's legendary success, from its beginnings less than two decades ago up to the present day, including its recent purchase by salon.com.
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IT WAS A VERY public way to die. Public, that is, to the few thousand people on The Well. He might have felt that he owed a heartfelt good-bye to all of those with whom he had wrangled and tussled for nearly a decade, people he had loved and scorned, and who in turn had thought him arrogant and obstinate but who somehow revered and liked him anyway. On March 25, 1995, a few hours after being told he had, at best, a few weeks left to live, Tom Mandel sat down at his computer and wrote this:
"It's bad Luck to say goodbye before it's time to do so and there's no point in embracing death before one's time, but I thought maybe I'd sneak in a topic, not too maudlin I hope, in which I could slowly say goodbye to my friends here, curse my enemies one more time <well, not really worth the trouble, actually> and otherwise wave a bit at the rest of you until it's just not time to do so any more.
"I could start off by thanking you all, individually and collectively, for a remarkable experience, this past decade here on the Well. For better and for worse there were a lot of both it has been the time of my life and especially a great comfort during these difficult past six months. I'm sad, terribly sad, I cannot tell you how sad and griefstriken I am that I cannot stay to play and argue with you much longer. It seems almost as if I am the one who will be left behind to grieve for all of you dying.
"So, thank you all, my best wishes and prayers to each and everyone of you. It's been a fabulous life and it wouldn'thavebeen the same without you."
Perhaps he wanted to make amends. As one of The Well's most controversial figures, he had excited a great deal of ire as well as admiration. Tom Mandel was saying good-bye to a place that had been his home for ten years, far more so than the Mountain View, California, condominium he inhabited by himself during those years.
But in truth, Tom Mandel was only doing what he had done nearly every day, and sometimes several times a day, for years: connecting to a community where he had found a home unlike any he had ever known.
* * *
The Well, this communal dwelling, had begun in the spring of 1985 as a VAX computer and a rack of modems in a ramshackle set of offices in Sausalito, California. When Mandel had logged on for the first time that summer there were a few dozen people online with him. For a long while The Well was an intimate gathering place where nearly everyone held a stake in nearly every discussion that arose. It was also a remote, hidden place: most of the world was then still largely ignorant of the alchemy that could result from pairing a computer and a modem.
But by the time Mandel died, ten years later, The Well had grown into a veritable Speaker's Corner, with thousands of postings every day on topics ranging from the circumcision of newborns to the Gulf War. Although in principle The Well made a conspicuous attempt to be accessible to anyone with a modem, in reality, by attracting a certain kind of person smart and left-leaning without being self-consciously politically correct, it had become something of a club.
For the most part, The Well was composed largely of people around the same age the first wave of Baby Boomers who had come of age in the '60s, most of them male, many with postgraduate degrees. From the start, The Well was one of those cultural phenomena that spring up now and again, a salon of creative, thoughtful, articulate people who are interested in one another's stories in a self-absorbed, cabalistic way.
Mandel had been one of the most visible members of the club perhaps even the quintessential member and although he had actually laid eyes on only a handful of the other people, this was the place he wanted to go to to die.
Historians of online culture have already decreed The Well to be synonymous with online communication in its best, worst, and, above all, most vital forms. Though always small in overall numbers, its influence and recognition far outweighed any significance that could be measured by membership or revenues. The Well created a paradox: scruffy, undercapitalized, yet armed with a huge amount of clout. It would become a harbinger of both the excitement and the concerns that over time would arise on the Net debates over the appropriate uses of electronic networks and virtual dialogues, free speech, privacy, and anonymity.
The intense connectedness fostered by The Well's relatively feeble technological base has been admired far and wide as a model for the future of sophisticated networked systems. At America Online with its many millions of users and at countless other, smaller network providers, those entrenched in the online world have analyzed The Well, hoping to divine the magic formula that made it so special, so captivating, so unique.
In truth, though, as with many great inventions, The Well was mostly the product of creative accident. It wasn't carefully designed or planned; it was born of a single idea and then nurtured by a multitude of competing intellectual visions. Perhaps most intriguing, it began more as a social experiment than as a business proposition. In later years, this resulted in a great deal of confusion and conflict over The Well's goals. Its destiny, meanwhile, would come to hinge on the still-unanswered question: Can you build a community and a business as one and the same?
The Well began over a lunch one fall afternoon in 1984 at a restaurant in La Jolla, California, during a conference of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. Larry Brilliant, a physician whose career had been a mix of good works and business ventures beyond medicine, collared Stewart Brand, the leonine counterculturist of Whole Earth fame. Brilliant, a roly-poly man who had spent years in India on a campaign to eliminate smallpox, had a lot of ideas and an eye for people who could help him realize them. On this day he had his eye on Brand, and although Brand and his wife had been planning to head straight out to the beach for the afternoon, Brilliant asked Brand to have lunch with him and hear his newest idea.
Brand remembered Brilliant vaguely as a supporter of various hippie activities, such as the Hog Farm commune, which nominated a pig for president in 1968. He also knew about Brilliant's work against smallpox; he knew that Brilliant had been close to Baba Ram Dass in the 1970s and that he had helped start a foundation called Seva, to eradicate blindness. He agreed to forego the beach and hear Brilliant out.
The pitch went like this: Brilliant had a company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Network Technologies International, or NETI, which sold computer conferencing systems and had recently gone public on Canada's Vancouver Stock Exchange, raising $6.3 million. Brilliant believed that computer conferencing was an idea whose time was long overdue. He had become convinced of this several years earlier, while presiding over an emergency electronic meeting called to discuss the extraction of a crippled United Nations helicopter from the Himalayas. But so far, the overall response to NETI had been tepid. This was a technology in search of people who could use it and help it come to life. Brilliant thought he would find a ready-made user community around Stewart Brand.
For his part, Brand, then 46, was legendary in many circles for his farsightedness, and for his willingness to take risks. He was a starter of things, an intellectual Pied Piper with a knack for bringing people together from across a wide swath of disciplines.
The product of an elite education (Phillips Exeter Academy, then Stanford University) in the 1960s, Brand had gone from Army photographer in Vietnam to passenger on the bus with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. But it was an encounter at the Stanford computer center in the early 1960s that had made one of the most lasting impressions on the young Brand, whose father had been an engineer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brand wrote about the coming computer revolution for Rolling Stone in 1972 and a few years later turned that article into a book, Two Cybernetic Frontiers.
Most famously, however, in 1968 Brand produced the Whole Earth Catalog, the oversized black paperback book that was an ingeniously eclectic mix of tool recommendations, book reviews, essays, and illustrations culled from the 1960s' cultural explosion.
Brand was always quick with an inventive turn of phrase and a slightly slanted, but perfectly logical, take on the world. He specialized in thinking against the tide. Instead of being threatened by computers, as many of his contemporaries were, he welcomed them.
Perhaps one of the most important messages of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Co-Evolution Quarterly, the publication that succeeded it, was that computers were a tool that could potentially give individuals a tremendous amount of power. More than that, they were fun.
By the time he met Brilliant in La Jolla in 1984, Brand was presiding over the burgeoning Whole Earth complex, whose flagship publication was the quarterly Whole Earth Review. Produced from offices on a Sausalito pier, the Whole Earth Review was really less a magazine than an intellectual community a collection of like-minded people in their thirties who were the rear guard of the '60s activists and thinkers. They carried their generation's banners long after their college roommates had moved on to Wall Street.
By 1984 modems were, if not yet de rigeur, certainly on the ascent among Whole Earth regulars. Even more to the point, Brand had already had some experience with communication via computer, and he was convinced that computers, when coupled with a telephone line, could be an effective way for people to interact. Brand and a few others at Whole Earth had used a conferencing system called EIES, the Electronic Information Exchange System (pronounced "eyes"). Built in the early 1970s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to test whether such conferencing could improve the effectiveness of scientific research communities, EIES was a pioneering form of what came to be known as Computer Mediated Communication, and it was well ahead of its time.
But Brilliant had no intention to re-create EIES. He simply believed that if he could introduce the Whole Earth community to conferencing technology he might discover the keys to increasing his system's chances for success. The idea was just about as simple as it could be: Find a bunch of people who are associated by something as random as the age of their children or their preference in wine or their taste in music, who would take that association seriously; give them the means to stay in continuous communication with one another; and step back and see what happens.
NETI would supply the computer, a $150,000 VAX minicomputer from Digital Equipment Corporation. It was called a minicomputer not because it was small (it was the size of a large Frigidaire, actually), but because it was smaller than the IBM mainframes, which were the size of several Frigidaires and which had dominated the computer world for all of the 1960s and most of the 1970s. VAX stood for "virtual address extension" but few people aside from the engineers who designed it or the programmers who wrote software for it knew that, and everyone simply called it "the VAX."
NETI would also supply the software (worth $100,000) and Brand's Point Foundation, the nonprofit umbrella for Brand's ventures, would become half-owner of the enterprise. Brand need only supply the people.
Brand was immediately taken with the idea. He dispatched Art Kleiner, a Whole Earth Review editor, to Michigan to work out the details of a deal while Brand brainstormed on the concepts. First, this thing needed a name. Brand took out a piece of paper and began free associating, playing with acronyms. Whole Earth, of course, had to be at the beginning. He jotted down "WEAL," which had a nice ring to it, but didn't spell out anything obvious. Then he tried "WEAVE," followed by "WEB," and a dozen or so others. After the list was finished, he underlined a few of the candidates. One was "WELL." It seemed right. A few more doodles later and he had the full name: Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, or The Well. The apostrophe ("always worth having in a name," he insisted years later), was signature Brand playful and a bit irreverent.
Brand also formed some ideas about what he wanted The Well to be. They weren't entirely in agreement with Brilliant's ideas. In fact, even before the VAX was installed, The Well was beginning to morph. Brilliant wanted to re-create the Whole Earth Catalog in computer-conferenced form to take every item in the catalog, turn each one into a topic for online discussion, and let people respond. Brand wanted The Well to appeal not just to the Whole Earth crowd but also to a wider audience: he wanted hackers, journalists (an early stroke of Brand's marketing genius was to offer free Well accounts to journalists), and anyone else who might want to chime in. And while he wanted a system that attracted and catered to people in the San Francisco Bay Area, he didn't want simply to clone one of the dozens of local electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) already running in the region.
He also had a hunch that, in addition to electronic dialogue, there could be a strong face-to-face element to The Well. (It was while on EIES that Brand had learned the value of online confreres also having physical contact a group of EIES regulars made a point of meeting offline as well.) He sensed that the most interesting possibility to arise from knitting electronic dialogue into the fabric of everyday life would lie not in championing either the virtual or the human-contact model but rather in finding the place where they overlapped and how each activity fueled the other. Brand was often correct with his hunches, and this one that the experiment needed a mix of the physical environment and the local culture and flavor in order to thrive proved downright prophetic.
But probably the most important of Brand's early convictions for The Well was that people should take responsibility for what they said. There would be no anonymity. Everyone's real name, linked to his or her log-in name, would be available to everyone else on the system. As a reinforcement of that policy, everyone who signed on to The Well was invited to write a personal bio, of any length, to reside permanently on The Well for others to peruse. To limit The Well's liability for what its members wrote, Brand came up with a credo that would, through the years, spark no end of debate: "You Own Your Own Words." That proviso greeted members each time they logged on to The Well. "I was doing the usual thing of considering what could go wrong," Brand recalled. "One of the things that could go wrong would be people blaming us for things that people said on The Well. And the way I figured you get around that was to put the responsibility on the individual. It meant that you're responsible for your own words and if you libel somebody they sue you, not us. And what that turned into was copyright insanity, where people thought that their precious words should not be copied in other contexts."
Brand's first hire was Matthew McClure, the quietly smart managing editor of the Whole Earth Software Catalog, as The Well's first director. McClure and Brand had known each other for years; McClure had been the chief typesetter for the original Whole Earth Catalog, but he had left the Bay Area in 1971 and spent 12 years in rural Tennessee on The Farm, Stephen Gaskin's intentional community one of the few communes that outlasted the Sixties fad. When McClure left The Farm in 1983 and returned to the Bay Area with little money and few job prospects, Brand was happy to take him back and hire him on at the Whole Earth Software Catalog. And when The Well started, Brand liked the idea of having a director who had lived on a commune. McClure's Tennessee years had been spent interacting with others in a tight community where there were few forms of entertainment besides getting into other people's heads. Indeed, following McClure's lead, The Well was to become a professional haven for a handful of ex-Farm members.
But McClure wasn't just a commune refugee. Like Brand, he had attended an elite prep school, then also went to Stanford. Together, they chose the French literary salons as an intellectual model for The Well. It was to be a collection of "conferences," each devoted to a topic likely to spark lively conversation. Each conference would spawn any number of "topics" devoted to more specific discussions. And each conference would have a host, someone who could act as a latter-day George Sand in guiding, shaping, and monitoring discussions. McClure had observed the civility with which people in his parents' sphere treated one another. "A lot of the challenge was figuring out what the online equivalent of that was," McClure recalled years later.
The Well had a few other models to rely on. Of course, there was EIES. And in 1979, a conferencing system called Participate was designed for The Source, the first commercial online system. But those early systems were expensive for the user as much as $25 an hour during peak times. As a result there was no online discussion, just dueling essays as people logged on, downloaded, wrote treatises in response, posted them, and logged off. "Deadly," Brand recalled years later.
Brand insisted on designing everything around making conversation as inviting as possible, which meant charging as little possible. "But not nothing per hour," Brand said, "because then the rap-dominators would be motivated to really take over."
No one had yet tried to create a system accessible not just to researchers or corporate executives but to anyone who signed up. McClure played around with a spreadsheet, trying to figure out the absolute minimum The Well could charge users and still pay the bills. He and Brand decided on a monthly fee of $8, plus $2 an hour, with the novel idea of decreasing it over time.
Meet the Author
Katie Hafner is a writer for the New York Times's Circuits section. Before that, she was technology correspondent for Newsweek. She has written three books: "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet," (with Matthew Lyon), "The House at the Bridge: A Story of Modern Germany," and "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier" (with John Markoff). She has also written for The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Working Woman, Wired and Upside. Hafner's fascination with Germany began when she was in college, and studied with Rheinhard Lettau, a well-known German novelist and playwright.
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