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Who Is The WELL?

One way to know what the WELL is like is to know something about the kind of people who use it. It has roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in two separate cultural revolutions that took place there in past decades. The Whole Earth Catalog originally emerged from the counterculture as Stewart Brand's way of providing access to tools and ideas to all the communes who were exploring alternate ways of life in the forests of Mendocino or the high deserts outside Santa Fe. The Whole Earth Catalogs and the magazines they spawned, Co-Evolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review, have outlived the counterculture itself, since they are still alive and raising hell after nearly 25 years. For many years, the people who have been exploring alternatives and are open to ideas that you don't find in the mass media have found themselves in cities instead of rural communes, where their need for new tools and ideas didn't go away.

The Whole Earth Catalog crew received a large advance in the mid-1980s to produce an updated version, a project involving many geographically-separated authors and editors, many of whom were using computers. They bought a minicomputer and the license to Picospan, a computer conferencing program, leased an office next to the magazine's office, leased incoming telephone lines, set up modems, and the WELL was born in 1985. The idea from the beginning was that the founders weren't sure what the WELL would become, but they would provide tools for people to build it into something useful. It was consciously a cultural experiment, and the business was designed to succeed or fail on the basis of the results of the experiment. The person Stewart Brand chose to be the WELL's first director -- technician, manager, innkeeper, and bouncer -- was Matthew McClure, not-coincidentally a computer-savvy veteran of The Farm, one of the most successful of the communes that started in the sixties. Brand and McClure started a low-rules, high-tone discussion, where savvy networkers, futurists, misfits who had learned how to make our outsiderness work for us, could take the technology of CMC to its cultural limits.

The Whole Earth network -- the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, serious ecologists and the space-station crowd, immortalists, Biospherians, environmentalists, social activists -- was part of the core population from the beginning. But there were a couple of other key elements. One was the subculture that happened ten years after the counterculture era -- the personal computer revolution. Personal computers and the PC industry were created by young iconoclasts who wanted to have whizzy tools and change the world. Whole Earth had honored them, including the outlaws among them, with the early Hacker's Conferences. The young computer wizards, and the grizzled old hands who were still messing with mainframes, showed up early at the WELL because the guts of the system itself -- the UNIX operating system and "C" language programming code -- were available for tinkering by responsible craftsmen.

A third cultural element that made up the initial mix of the WELL, which has drifted from its counterculture origins in many ways, were the deadheads. Books and theses have been written about the subculture that have grown up around the band, the Grateful Dead. The deadheads have a strong feeling of community, but they can only manifest it en masse when the band has concerts. They were a community looking for a place to happen when several technology-savvy deadheads started a "Grateful Dead Conference" on the WELL. GD was so phenomenally successful that for the first several years, deadheads were by far the single largest source of income for the enterprise.

Along with the other elements came the first marathon swimmers in the new currents of the information streams, the futurists and writers and journalists. The New York Times, Business Week, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone, Byte, the Wall Street Journal all have journalists that I know personally who drop into the WELL as a listening post. People in Silicon Valley lurk to hear loose talk among the pros. Journalists tend to attract other journalists, and the purpose of journalists is to attract everybody else: most people have to use an old medium to hear news about the arrival of a new medium.

Things changed, both rapidly and slowly, in the WELL. There were about 600 members of the WELL when I joined, in the summer of 1985. It seemed that then, as now, the usual ten percent of the members did 80% of the talking. Now there are about 6000 people, with a net gain of about a hundred a month. There do seem to be more women than other parts of cyberspace. Most of the people I meet seem to be white or Asian; African-Americans aren't missing, but they aren't conspicuous or even visible. If you can fake it, gender and age are invisible, too. I'd guess the WELL consists of about 80% men, 20% women. I don't know whether formal demographics would be the kind of thing that most WELL users would want to contribute to. It's certainly something we'd discuss, argue, debate, joke about.

One important social rule was built into Picospan, the software that the WELL lives inside: Nobody is anonymous. Everybody is required to attach their real "userid" to their postings. It is possible to use pseudonyms to create alternate identities, or to carry metamessages, but the pseudonyms are always linked in every posting to the real userid. So individual personae -- whether or not they correspond closely to the real person who owns the account -- are responsible for the words they post. In fact, the first several years, the screen that you saw when you reached the WELL said "You own your own words." Stewart Brand, the WELL's co-founder likes epigrams: "Whole Earth," "Information wants to be free." "You own your own words." Like the best epigrams, "You own your own words" is open to multiple interpretations. The matter of responsibility and ownership of words is one of the topics WELLbeings argue about endlessly, so much that the phrase has been abbreviated to "YOYOW," As in, "Oh no, another YOYOW debate."

Who are the WELL members, and what do they talk about? I can tell you about the individuals I have come to know over six years, but the WELL has long since been something larger than the sum of everybody's friends. The characteristics of the pool of people who tune into this electronic listening post, whether or not they every post a word in public, is a strong determinant of the flavor of the "place." There's a cross-sectional feeling of "who are we?" that transcends the intersecting and non-intersecting rings of friends and acquaintances each individual develops.

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