The term "online community" has been sucked dry of meaning in recent years, but there was a time when it connoted exciting possibilities and radical change. One early experiment, the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), united smart, independent, left-leaning folks from all over as early as 1984, and still lives and breathes 17 years later. Journalist and long-time member Katie Hafner tells the story of its early days in The Well: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community
Though the title isn't strictly accurate--there were comparatively primitive online communities long before 1984--the tale is well told and compelling. Started by visionary Stewart Brand and do-gooder Larry Brilliant, the dialup BBS offered a wide-open space for communication, developing relationships, and, inevitably, conflicts. Spicing up her story with excerpts from online posts, interviews with participants, and sometimes sordid details of WELL-being, Hafner shows that not all online communities are the same.
Though the WELL's social and business problems are legion--eventually it was bought by Salon.com--the participants and administrators consistently showed intelligence and determination, essential qualities for homesteading pioneers. Though the book can't begin to address big questions about virtual social environments (Do they help or hinder users' lives? Are they as deeply satisfying as traditional relationships? What makes them so popular?), it does help the reader begin to address them personally. That individual determination, aided by discussion with others, is the WELL's greatest legacy. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
If this slim volume about a model online community is any indication, there's no end in sight to accounts of the trailblazers of the Internet revolution, despite the recent fits in the market. Standing for Whole Earth `Lectronic Link, the Well was founded in 1984 by two visionary men: Stewart Brand and the aptly named Larry Brilliant. Brand was the legendary founder of the holistic do-it-yourself guide The Whole Earth Catalog, who contributed space in Sausalito, Calif., to the project, while Brilliant was a millionaire philanthropist who put up the software and hardware. They went online in 1985 with the idea of creating a virtual, latter-day salon rather than just another electronic bulletin board. Word of mouth spread quickly and soon the Well developed a distinctly Bay Area, post-hippie ambience that proved intensely magnetic to its members. Although membership peaked at only around 10,000, the Well's influence extended well beyond its members (another book could be written on the failed craze to build Well-like online communities throughout the Web). Hafner spices up the not-always dramatic story of the Well's business troubles with lengthy examples of the sort of literate, leftist, free-range discussions that were its bread and butter. Avoiding hyperbole, her style reflects her ease with a topic she's covered for the New York Times and in such respected books as Cyberpunk and Where Wizards Stay Up Late, though some readers may feel she skims too quickly over some dramatic stories about the love, rage and tears that the Well Beings (as they called themselves) poured into their keyboards over the years.
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