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The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, normally shortened to The WELL, is one of the oldest virtual communities in continuous operation. It currently has about 4,000 members. It is best known for its Internet forums, but also provides email, shell accounts, and web pages. The discussion and topics on the WELL range from the deeply serious to the generally silly, depending on the nature and interests of the participants.
The WELL was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, and the name is partially a reference to some of Brand's earlier projects, including the Whole Earth Catalog. The WELL began as a dial-up bulletin board system (BBS), became one of the original dial-up ISPs in the early 1990s when commercial traffic was first allowed, and changed into its current form as the Internet and web technology evolved. Its original management team—Matthew McClure, soon joined by Cliff Figallo and John Coate—collaborated with its early users to foster a sense of virtual community. From 1994 to 1999 the WELL was owned by Bruce Katz, founder of Rockport, a manufacturer of walking shoes. Since April 1999 it has been owned by Salon.com, several of whose founders such as Scott Rosenberg had previously been regular participants there. Gail Ann Williams was hired by Figallo in 1991, and has continued in management roles into the current era.
Notable items in WELL history include being the forum through which John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor, the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, met. Howard Rheingold, an early and very active member, was inspired to write his book The Virtual Community by his experience on the WELL. Craig Newmark started his original Craigslist mailings there. The WELL was a major online meeting place for fans of the Grateful Dead, especially those who followed the band from concert to concert, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The WELL also played a role in the book Takedown about the pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick. Founded in Sausalito, California, the service is now based in San Francisco.
In August 2005 Salon Media Group announced that it was looking for a buyer for the WELL, in order to concentrate on other business lines. In November 2006, a press release of The WELL said, "As Salon has not found a suitable purchaser, it has determined that it is currently in the best interest of the company to retain this business and has therefore suspended all efforts to sell The WELL."
Topics of discussion
The WELL is divided into general subject areas known as conferences. These conferences reflect member interests, and include arts, health, business, regions, hobbies, spirituality, music, politics, games, software and many more.
Within conferences, members open separate conversational threads called topics for specific items of interest. For example, the Media conference has (or had) topics devoted to the New York Times, media ethics, and the Luann comic strip. An example of a local conference is the one on San Francisco, which has topics on restaurants, the city government, and neighborhood news.
"Public" conferences are open to all members, while "private" conferences are restricted to a list of users controlled by the conference hosts, called the ulist. Some "featured private" or "private independent" conferences (such as "Women on the WELL" and "Recovery") are listed in the WELL's directory, but are access restricted for privacy or membership-restriction reasons. Members may request admission to such conferences. There are also a large number of unlisted secret private conferences. The names of these conferences are public, but the contents, hosts, and members are restricted to members of a particular conference. Membership in private conferences is by invitation. WELL members may open their own new public or private independent conferences.
Policy and governance
The directors of The WELL have included Matthew McClure and Cliff Figallo, both veterans of the 1970s commune called The Farm, and since 1998, Gail Ann Williams, previously known as one of the principals in the political satire group the Plutonium Players. Collaboration, counterpoint and irreverence are respected values in the WELL community, nurtured by these unusual leaders over two decades.
The community forums, known as Conferences, are supervised by conference hosts who guide conversations and may enforce conference rules on civility and/or appropriateness. Initially all hosts were selected by staff members. In 1995, Gail Williams changed the policies to enable user-created forums. Participants at the Complete membership level can create their own independent personal conferences—either viewable by any WELL member or privately viewable by those members on a restricted membership list—on any subject they please with any rules they like.
Overall support and supervision of the conferencing services is handled by several staff members, often referred to collectively as confteam, the name of the UNIX user account used by staff for conference maintenance. They have more system operational powers than conference hosts, along with the additional social authority of selecting featured conference hosts and (rarely) closing accounts for abuse.
WELL members use a consistent login name when posting messages, and a non-fixed pseudonym field alongside it. The pseudonym (or pseud in WELL parlance) defaults to the user's real name, but can be changed at will and so often reflects a quotation from another user, or is an in-joke, or may be left blank. The user's real name can be easily looked-up using their login name. WELL members are not anonymous.
There is a time-honored double meaning to the WELL slogan coined by Stewart Brand, "You Own Your Own Words" or ("YOYOW"): members have both the rights to their posted words and responsibility for those words, too. (Members can also delete their posts at any time, but a placeholder indicates the former location and author of an erased or scribbled post, as well as who scribbled it.)
Joining and reading
WELL membership is available to almost anyone, but requires a paid subscription and use of one's real name. Most postings on the WELL can be read only by members; however, there are some external member web sites, and a few publicly readable conferences:
- inkwell.vue, an interview conference featuring online conversations with artists, journalist and authors such as Neil Gaiman, Bruce Sterling and Farai Chideya.
- pre.vue, a catch-all where WELL members post tidbits of all kinds.
- deadsongs.vue, a conference to discuss Grateful Dead song lyrics.
Forums can be read using a regular browser or by logging into a command-line UNIX system via secure shell and using a classic text-based interface called PicoSpan.
Journalists on The WELL
The WELL was frequently mentioned in the media in the 1980s and 1990s, probably disproportionately to the number of users it had relative to other online systems. This has diminished but not disappeared in recent years, with other online communities becoming commonplace. This early visibility was largely the result of the early policy of providing free — comped — accounts for interesting journalists and other select members of the media. As a result, for many journalists it was their first experience of online systems and, later, the Internet, even though other systems existed. Although accounts are now seldom provided for free to journalists, there are still a sizable number on The WELL; for example columnist Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, Wendy M. Grossman of The Inquirer, and critic Andy Klein of Los Angeles CityBeat.
The WELL in the news
Publications about The WELL
- (1994) Perennial ISBN 0-06-097643-8 (Hardcover) — ISBN 0-262-68121-8 (2000 revised paperback edition)
- John Seabrook, Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace
- Katie Hafner, The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community
- (2001) Carroll & Graf Publishers ISBN 0-7867-0846-8
- Katie Hafner's book, expanded from a Wired Magazine article, chronicles the odd birth, growing pains, and interpersonal dynamics that make The WELL the unusual, perhaps unique, online community that it is.
- Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
- (2006) University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-81741-5
- "When the Counterculture met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community", Technology and Culture, Vol.46, No.3 (July, 2005), pp. 485–512.
- Roy Ascott and Carl Eugene Loeffler, Guest Editors, Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications, Leonardo 24:2, 1991. Includes documentation of early artworks on ArtCom Electronic Network, a WELL Conference and archive started in 1986 by Carl Loeffler and Fred Truck. Artworks created or published on ACEN on the WELL included John Cage, (The First Meeting of the Satie Society) Judy Malloy, (Uncle Roger, Bad Information, Thirty Minutes in the Late Afternoon) Jim Rosenberg,(Diagram Series) and Sonya Rapoport. (Digital Mudra Online) Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecomunications includes papers about art on the WELL by Ron Buck, ("Poetry Online") Carl Loeffler, ("Modem Dialing Out") Anna Couey, ("Art Works as Organic Communications Systems") Roger Malina, ("FineArt Forum and F.A.S.T.: Experiments in Electronic Publishing in the Arts) Gil MinaMora, ("Hidden Bearers: An Exquisite Corpse Online") and Judy Malloy, ("Uncle Roger, an Online Narrabase").
- The WELL
- The WELL Gopher — retained as a text museum but now served via HTTP.
- Wired news: Salon buys The WELL
- Wired magazine: "The Epic Saga of the WELL" by Katie Hafner
- The WELL: Small Town on the Internet Highway System by Cliff Figallo
- C|net News.com: "The WELL celebrates 20th birthday"
- Net Wars at The Inquirer: "You own your own 20th anniversary"
- C|net News.com: "Salon places The WELL up for sale"