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My Neighborhood On The WELL

Every CMC system gives users tools for creating their own sense of place, by customizing the way they navigate through the database of conferences, topics, and responses. A conference or newsgroup is like a place you go. If you go to several different places in a fixed order, it seems to reinforce the feeling of place by creating a customized neighborhood that is also shared by others. You see some of the same users in different parts of the same neighborhood. Some faces, you see only in one context -- the parents conference, the Grateful Dead tours conference, the politics or sex conference.

My home neighborhood on the WELL is reflected in my ".cflist," the file that records my preferences about the order of conferences I visit. It is always possible to go to any conference with a command, but with a `.cflist' you structure your online time by going from conference to specified conference at regular intervals, reading and perhaps responding in several ongoing threads in several different places. That's the part of the art of discourse where I have found that the computer adds value to the intellectual activity of discussing formally distinct subjects asynchronously, from different parts of the world, over extending periods, by enabling groups to structure conversations by topic, over time.

My `.cflist' starts, for sentimental reasons, with the Mind conference, the first one I hosted on the WELL, since 1985. I've changed my `.cflist' hundreds of times over the years, to add or delete conferences from my regular neighborhood, but I've always kept Mind in the lead. The entry banner screen for the Mind conference used to display to each user the exact phase of the moon in numbers and ASCII graphics every time they logged in to the conference. But the volunteer programmer who had created the "phoon" program had decided to withdraw it, years later, in a dispute with WELL management. There is often a technological fix to a social problem within this particular universe. Because the WELL seems to be an intersection of many different cultures, there have been many experiments with software tools to ameliorate problems that seemed to crop up between people, whether because of the nature of the medium or the nature of the people. A frighteningly expensive pool of talent was donated by volunteer programmers to create tools and even weapons for WELL users to deal with each other. People keep giving things to the WELL, and taking them away. Offline readers and online tools by volunteer programmers gave others increased power to communicate.

The News conference is what's next. This is the commons, the place where the most people visit the most often, where the most outrageous off-topic proliferation is least pernicious, where the important announcements about the system or social events or major disputes or new conferences are announced. When an earthquake or fire happens, News is where you want to go. Immediately after the 1989 earthquake and during the Oakland fire of 1991, the WELL was a place to check the damage to the local geographic community, lend help to those who need it, and get first-hand reports. During Tienamen square, the Gulf War, the Soviet Coup, the WELL was a media-funnel, with snippets of email from Tel-Aviv and entire newsgroups fed by fax machines in China, erupting in News conference topics that grew into fast-moving conferences of their own. During any major crisis in the real world, the routine at our house is to turn on CNN and log into the WELL.

After News is Hosts, where the hottest stuff usually happens. The hosts community is a story in itself. The success of the WELL in its first five years, all would agree, rested heavily on the efforts of the conference hosts -- online characters who had created the character of the first neighborhoods and kept the juice flowing between one another all over the WELL, but most pointedly in the Hosts conference. Some spicy reading in the Archives conference originated from old hosts' disputes - and substantial arguments about the implications of CMC for civil rights, intellectual property, censorship, by a lot of people who know what they are talking about, mixed liberally with a lot of other people who don't know what they are talking about, but love to talk anyway, via keyboard and screen, for years on end.

In this virtual place, the pillars of the community and the worst offenders of public sensibilities are in the same group -- the hosts. At their best and their worst, this ten percent of the online population put out the words that the other ninety percent keep paying to read. Like good hosts at any social gathering, they make newcomers welcome, keep the conversation flowing, mediate disputes, clean up messes, and throw out miscreants, if need be. A WELL host is part salon keeper, part saloon keeper, part talk-show host, part publisher. The only power to censor or to ban a user is the hosts' power. Policy varies from host to host, and that's the only policy. The only justice for those who misuse that power is the forced participation in weeks of debilitating and vituperative post-mortem.

The hosts community is part long-running soap opera, part town meeting, bar-room brawl, anarchic debating society, creative groupmind, bloody arena, union hall, playpen, encounter group. The Hosts conference is extremely general, from technical questions to personal attacks. The Policy conference is supposed to be restricted to matters of what WELL policy is, or ought to be. The part-delusion, part-accurate perception that the hosts and other users have strong influence over WELL policy is part of what feeds debate here, and a strong element in the libertarian reputation of the stereotypical WELLite. After fighting my way through a day's or hour's worth of the Hot New Dispute in News, Hosts, and Policy, I check on the conferences I host -- Info, Virtual Communities, Virtual Reality. After that my `.cflist' directs me, at the press of the return key, to the first new topic or response in the Parenting, Writers', Grateful Dead tours, Telecommunication, Macintosh, Weird, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Whole Earth, Books, Media, Men on the WELL, Miscellaneous, and Unclear conferences.

The social dynamics of the WELL spawn new conferences in response to different kinds of pressures. Whenever a hot interpersonal or doctrinal issue breaks out, for example, people want to stage the brawl or make a dramatic farewell speech or shocking disclosure or serious accusation in the most heavily-visited area of the WELL, which is usually the place that others want to be a Commons -- a place where people from different sub-communities can come to find out what is going on around the WELL, outside the WELL, where they can pose questions to the committee of the whole. When too many discussions of what the WELL's official policy ought to be, about censorship or intellectual property or the way people treat each other, break out, they tended to clutter the place people went to get a quick sense of what is happening outside their neighborhoods. So the Policy conference was born.

But then the WELL grew larger and it wasn't just policy but governance and social issues like political correctness or the right of users to determine the social rules of the system. Several years and six thousand more users after the fission of the News and Policy conferences, another conference split off News -- "MetaWELL," a conference was created strictly to discussions about the WELL itself, its nature, its situation (often dire), its future.

Grabbing attention in the Commons is a powerful act. Some people seem drawn to performing there; others burst out there in acts of desperation, after one history of frustration or another. Dealing with people who are so consistently off-topic or apparently deeply grooved into incoherence, long-windedness, scatology, is one of the events that challenges a community to decide what its values really are, or ought to be.

Something is happening here. I'm not sure anybody understands it yet. I know that the WELL and the net is an important part of my life and I have to decide for myself whether this is a new way to make genuine commitments to other human beings, or a silicon-induced illusion of community. I urge others to help pursue that question in a variety of ways, while we have the time. The political dimensions of CMC might lead to situations that would pre-empt questions of other social effects; responses to the need for understanding the power-relationships inherent in CMC are well represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. We need to learn a lot more, very quickly, about what kind of place our minds are homesteading.

The future of virtual communities is connected to the future of everything else, starting with the most precious thing people have to gain or lose -- political freedom. The part played by communication technologies in the disintegration of communism, the way broadcast television pre-empted the American electoral process, the power of fax and CMC networks during times of political repression like Tienamen Square and the Soviet Coup attempt, the power of citizen electronic journalism, the power-maneuvering of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to restrict rights of citizen access and expression in cyberspace, all point to the future of CMC as a close correlate of future political scenarios. More important than civilizing cyberspace is ensuring its freedom as a citizen-to-citizen communication and publication medium; laws that infringe equity of access to and freedom of expression in cyberspace could transform today's populist empowerment into yet another instrument of manipulation. Will "electronic democracy" be an accurate description of political empowerment that grows out of the screen of a computer? Or will it become a brilliant piece of disinfotainment, another means of manipulating emotions and manufacturing public opinion in the service of power.

Who controls what kinds of information is communicated in the international networks where virtual communities live? Who censors, and what is censored? Who safeguards the privacy of individuals in the face of technologies that make it possible to amass and retrieve detailed personal information about every member of a large population? The answers to these political questions might make moot any more abstract questions about cultures in cyberspace. Democracy itself depends on the relatively free flow of communications. The following words by James Madison are carved in marble at the United States Library of Congress: "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." It is time for people to arm themselves with power about the future of CMC technology.

Who controls the market for relationships? Will the world's increasingly interlinked, increasingly powerful, decreasingly costly communications infrastructure be controlled by a small number of very large companies? Will cyberspace be privatized and parceled out to those who can afford to buy into the auction? If political forces do not seize the high ground and end today's freewheeling exchange of ideas, it is still possible for a more benevolent form of economic control to stunt the evolution of virtual communities, if a small number of companies gain the power to put up toll-roads in the information networks, and smaller companies are not able to compete with them.

Or will there be an open market, in which newcomers like Apple or Microsoft can become industry leaders? The playing field in the global telecommunications industry will never be level, but the degree of individual freedom available through telecommunication technologies in the future may depend upon whether the market for goods and services in cyberspace remains open for new companies to create new uses for CMC.

I present these observations as a set of questions, not as answers. I believe that we need to try to understand the nature of CMC, cyberspace, and virtual communities in every important context -- politically, economically, socially, culturally, cognitively. Each different perspective reveals something that the other perspectives do not reveal. Each different discipline fails to see something that another discipline sees very well. We need to think as teams here, across boundaries of academic discipline, industrial affiliation, nation, to understand, and thus perhaps regain control of, the way human communities are being transformed by communication technologies. We can't do this solely as dispassionate observers, although there is certainly a huge need for the detached assessment of social science. But community is a matter of the heart and the gut as well as the head. Some of the most important learning will always have to be done by jumping into one corner or another of cyberspace, living there, and getting up to your elbows in the problems that virtual communities face.

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