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The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community Hardcover – April, 2001

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers (April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786708468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786708468
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #930,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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 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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Katie Hafner was born in Rochester, New York, and has lived in more cities, towns and hamlets than she cares to count. She started writing about technology in 1983, the year the Apple Lisa was introduced. For nearly a decade, she wrote about technology for the The New York Times's Circuits section. She currently writes on healthcare topics for the paper's Science section. She has also written for Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, the Huffington Post and O Magazine. Her sixth book, Mother Daughter Me, a memoir, was published by Random House in July 2013.

Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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See all 9 customer reviews
The book is about life and death.
Robert W. Fuller
Hafner's writing reads like much of the writing in the Well: personal, insightful, and very human.
Heath Row
It's such an astonishing and compelling story.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Calton Bolick on April 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
First, I should note that I'm a long-time Well member (albeit mostly as an observer, not an active participant) which may color my perceptions. Nevertheless, I tried to read this more-or-less objectively, as a book I might give to friends that would convey exactly why it is that I am a member.
Well, it passes that test easily: in its relatively brief length, "The Well" succinctly and sensitively chronicles the odd birth, growing pains, and interpersonal dynamics that make The Well the unique online community that it is.
I'm buying copies for my ex-girlfriend, who complained that I spent too much time at the computer, and for a friend who, years ago, acidly commented, "Why that's amazing, you've gone a whole thirty minutes without mentioning The Well!"
Maybe this book can explain the things I couldn't. Highly recomended for those who want to understand the possiblities of virtual communities.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Imelda The Hon on April 26, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
[Full disclosure: I am a member of the Well and have been for almost seven years as of the publication of this book.]
It's always been difficult for me to describe the Well to my non-Well friends, because there are so few virtual places that even approximate it, and they're even smaller, and practically no one knows what they're like either. "Computer conferencing" is what I say to my friends in business. "On-line community" is what I say to the people I think Might Get It. I also call it "the Peyton Place of cyberspace" and that metaphor (small town where everyone knows everyone else's history of indiscretions FAR TOO WELL) might be the most apt of the three, at least in my own experience.
Like any big amorphous concept, the Well is difficult to write about for a general audience. So Katie chose a story -- with love and friendship and grief and humor and all the other elements that make up a good story -- to carry her narrative. She chose a good one. Of course there are others. But this book (and before it, the WIRED article the book is based upon) comes closer to conveying the essence of the Well than anything else I've ever seen or read.
When the WIRED article was published I gave a copy to my mother, just to help her understand how it was that I had dozens of close friends I had never met. For a reader who wants to understand the astonishing power of true online community, in the light of human nature in all its ornery glory, I can't think of a better introduction.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Don Pelton on April 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a terrific book. I appreciate that Katie Hafner understands her strength to be narrative. Limiting the focus of her narrative to the lives of a few of the core founders and early pioneers of the Well allows her to reach the sort of depth I recall experiencing there when I was a "Well being" for a time in the late eighties. I mostly hung out in the Parenting conference, because I was the father of teenage children and our family seemed to reel from one crisis to another during those years. The support and love I found there was extraordinary, and I have found it nowhere else since, except within my own dear family. Hafner succeeds remarkably in capturing the intangible essence of the Well, the special human warmth that no one could have predicted or planned ... and no one has succeeded in duplicating since.
Hafner also deals with the core issue of community, an issue central to the Well's success, and possibly central to it's eventual - what? - transformation. I was about to say, "dissolution," but an incarnation of some sort of Well lives on at The early Well, the one I knew, was a pioneering online community, before that phrase became today's buzzword meaning little more than a chat room. The online community was the core of a larger, real-life, flesh-and-blood community, in which people truly lived and loved and became sick and got well, and sometimes died.
Everyone who hungers for community - and that means everyone awake to the grief of modern life - should read this book. Most of us understand true community by its absence. My most vivid and unexpected realization about the meaning of community occurred many years ago, when our children were still little. We lived for a time in an Eichler suburb in Mountain View, California.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 5, 2001
Format: Hardcover
"The Well" chronicles the inception and distinctive days of one of the first forums to cultivate what I believe makes today's "chat room" successful. I found the book to be an engrossing and quick read, made more compelling by the frequent inclusion of actual message exchanges between the more sensational Well denizens. The initial conditions of: restricted membership, difficulty of access, a free spirited era and the San Francisco Bay Area setting resulted in an online experience other companies were unable to duplicate and which eventually proved unscalable by The Well itself. In "The Well" Katie Hafner has captured the essence of an important piece of the early history of online interaction. I think the success of today's chat rooms may have been predictable from the emotional involvement this book demonstrates existed in this early online experiment. At the same time, the failure of many online communities may have been forecast from the turmoil suffered by the Well management trying to keep their community whole. I know Ms. Hafner, but I'm writing this review because I really liked the book and think it makes an important contribution to the history of online computing.
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