Monthly Archives: January 2016

fig’s blog – The WELL’s Rules

Years after The WELL launched, a term was invented to describe what it was made of: User-Generated Content or UGC. The WELL was all text. No graphics, just letters and numbers sent to its Picospan platform in the form of words, sentences, conversations and mutual entertainment.

There was a potential problem, though – liability. What if one of its members wrote something on the WELL that was illegal or libelous or in some other way litigious? Couldn’t yoyowthe business be sued? What exactly was The WELL and what responsibility did it have for the content it carried?

Some discussion took place in the Whole Earth offices concerning this question and Stewart – who was the master of pithiness – offered this simple declaration – You Own Your Own Words.

Where today one is expected to adhere to Terms of Use that run on for pages of fine print, The WELL kept things simple. If you were going to post words (and sentences, paragraphs, short stories, arguments, insults, jokes, etc.) on our system, you agreed to take full responsibility for their legal impact. For their karma, as it were. We described the WELL as a “conduit” for delivering our members’ words to other members who could respond to them, maybe in equally offensive manner. In any case, The WELL would not be held responsible.

Of course there were no legal precedents for this position; it just seemed to make logical sense and we felt confident that the courts would agree with us if and when it ever came to that.

Some WELLbeings later attempted to expand the meaning of YOYOW to mean that one could expect to have total copyrights for words posted to the community, and that The WELL would enforce those copyrights on behalf of its members. We refused to buy in to that interpretation, which implied that we would engage lawyers and go after plagiarists both on and off of the WELL. Our actions would, at most, amount to strong language aimed at journalists who quoted individual members in newspaper or magazine articles without asking for permission. That made sense to us and on several occasions we were successful in persuading writers to honor that arrangement.

Another important factor in WELL governance came with our paid subscription model. In those days before advertising and e-commerce, online systems supported themselves through paid membership and member accounts – in what later became known as Profiles – carried the member’s true name. These were the names attached to their credit cards or checks. Members were expected to choose user names,which appeared with the posts they wrote and submitted, but those user names could be used to reveal the true names.

In other words, there were no anonymous accounts on The WELL. This had a self-regulating effect on behavior. This was not the case on USENET groups, which had no paid membership, true ID or anonymity. A short visit to many USENET groups would quickly demonstrate what the term “flame war” was all about.


fig’s blog – The WELL’s Initial People and Purpose

Over the years it’s been clear that active online communities develop their character and attraction according to the purposes and intentions of their founders and early emergent leaders and content providers. The most direct way to get an online community “off the ground” is to model productive behavior at the outset. So, how did The WELL manage to do this and to grow fast enough to break even, financially, by its fourth year?

The first Whole Earth Catalog was released in 1968. I, like many others, had become disenchanted with the direction mainstream American culture was headed in at that time and I bought myself a copy of the WEC and read it avidly. It made dropping out and going counterculture feasible. So many “tools and ideas” to answer my questions and stoke my curiosity. Plus, the publishing model invited and encouraged its readers to write and contribute their own reviews of the best resources available.

I didn’t realize it then, but the WEC readers constituted a virtual community. Over the next 15 years leading up to the publication of the Whole Earth Software Catalog, that community continued to grow and the values of the WEC cemented in place a culture based on progressive out-of-the-box thinking and knowledge sharing.

It was this virtual community that Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant recognized as a powerful, potential subscriber base for a paid membership electronic discussion platform. The knowledge sharing purpose would gracefully fit into an asynchronous communications environment where the new generation of personal computers would serve as something more important than programmed calculators. The PC would find its rightful place as a tool for connecting people to one another via phone lines.

Both Stewart and Larry recognized this opportunity and agreed, together, to enter into a partnership where Larry’s NETI would provide the technology and a startup loan of $90,000 while Stewart’s Point Foundation would provide a location for the technology and staffing to run the business.

The WELL’s marketing – in the era before the Internet and its interlinked platforms – would take place through Whole Earth’s print publications and word of mouth. Stewart was a celebrity and an attraction unto himself. Larry was a combination of medical doctor, technologist and global do-gooder, well connected to counter culture icons like Ram Dass and the Grateful Dead.

Early in the discussions that led up to the actual installation of The WELL’s tech equipment, Matthew McClure was chosen to be the business’s first director, which made him

THEWELL_003_LH.JPGLeft to right--Tex, Cliff Figallo, and Matthew McClure--founders of The Well, an online community that started as a bulletin board before there were chat rooms. They are celebrating its 20th anniversary. Shot in Sausalito on 4/1/05Creditted to San Francisco Chronicle/Liz Hafalia
Left to right–John Coate, Cliff Figallo, and Matthew McClure–Shot in Sausalito on 4/1/05 Credited to San Francisco Chronicle/Liz Hafalia

a combination general manager, technical manager and editor. Matthew asked me to help out as bookkeeper and billing manager. Not long after The WELL’s launch, John Coate was hired as head of customer support.

Matthew had been on the staff of the original WEC and had been given the role of co-editor of the WESC some 15 years later. In between he spent a decade as a founding member of the intentional community called The Farm – a collective living experiment (so called in retrospect, as its members regarded it as a lifetime commitment) that, at its height, counted a population of 1500 men, women and children. John Coate and I (and Nancy Rhine, who joined the staff several years later) had also spent over 10 years in Farm-based community.

So how did this group of hippie-commune veterans come to be so influential in the founding of this truly experimental and potentially groundbreaking high tech online community? I chalk it up to Stewart Brand’s innovative vision, which recognized that years of total immersion in a collective, collaborative lifestyle was invaluable preparation for sharing virtual space with others in the world of telecommunications and typing-as-talking.

Communal living requires commitment, patience, compassion, consideration, good listening, curiosity, and a willingness to agree to disagree peacefully. Our life on The Farm developed our capacity to tolerate differences of opinion and aberrant behaviors. In a large group dedicated to figuring out how a sharing economy could work indefinitely, we learned that attention was a resource that needed to be allocated fairly. We used to say, “Attention is energy,” understanding that people would, at times, do whatever it might take – good or bad -to attract the attention of others.

Of course none of us had expertise or even basic experience with online technology and group communications. Matthew had – in his role with the Software Catalog – participated in email communications and some multi-user discussions with Catalog authors and reviewers, but The WELL promised to be much more expansive and free-wheeling. Our common experiences of The Farm – which we had all left with some disappointment in the early 1980s – left us with a conviction that there would be no dogma in WELL policies and governance. We were open to surprises. We would not be operating under a rigid business plan. We’d be sensitive to the needs, ideas, talents and criticisms of our customers.

One thing, though, that Stewart insisted that we hang, like a sign, over the online entry to The WELL was this declaration: You Own Your Own Words

Next episode: Early characters and unwritten policies before the commercial launch.

fig’s blog – The WELL’s Initial Kit

The WELL was a partnership between the Point Foundation (parent non-profit organization of the Whole Earth Catalog) and Networking Technologies International (NETI) and was the brainchild of Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. Their idea was to create and offer an online conversational space for early adopters of telecommunications technologies, starting with people who were fans of Whole Earth publications and creative hackers in the new world of personal computing.

NETI had already been instrumental in developing software to support multiple online conversations. It was called Picospan and it was written by Marcus Watts. It ran on the UNIX vax11-750operating system. NETI also committed to providing The WELL (named by Stewart Brand as the Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link) with a host computer – a DEC Vax 11-750 (valued then at around $100K). NETI also contributed several Racal-Vadic modems,  two Fujitsu Eagle hard drives (each with a capacity of 450 Megabytes and a price of $10,000) and a DEC line printer that served as the terminal for the system, cranking out reams of accordion-folded paper recording all system operations.

When the idea and initial planning of The WELL first reached me I was just finishing up my job as coordinator of review submissions for the second and last edition of the Whole Earth Software Catalog. We were shutting down the WESC office and preparing to move back into the cramped spaces of the CoEvolution Quarterly office. There was some remodeling required to fit the new arrangement and I was kept on as the lead carpenter for that project. The WELL needed not only office space for its founding Director – Matthew McClure – but also an air conditioned space for the Vax and its peripherals. This space – “the Closet” – had to be as small as possible to leave room for CoEv staff and to minimize the cooling requirement. To save money, we purchased and installed a window-mount air conditioner from Sears.

In the midst of the construction activities I was also invited to take over the bookkeeping and accounting responsibilities for the Point Foundation. My introduction to personal computing had been through a year and a half of bookkeeping for a communally-based food company – Farm Foods – where I began with an Apple //e and conducted research to purchase a faster, dual-user system from Tandy-Radio Shack that ran a variation of the UNIX operating system. I knew just enough about that technology to be dangerous, but at Whole Earth the accounting was done on an MS-DOS program.

When the VAX and the Fuji Eagle hard drives were delivered, the installation was managed by another of the resources provided by NETI – the UNIX expert and hacker Hugh Daniel, who had moved from NETI’s home base in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Sausalito. Hugh helped Matthew – who had more of a technical background than I – get familiar with the operating system and the administration of Picospan. The WELL was first booted up in the fall of 1984 and the first users were invited from the list of experts and reviewers who wrote for the Software Catalog. Matthew led the way in initiating the interaction and – together with the initial “beta” users – we began exploring the many features and options of Picospan.

The WELL as a community began to develop through experimentation and I was given the responsibility of creating a program that would allow us to process credit card billing once we were open for business following the beta testing.

Next: People as resources and You Own Your Own Words.


fig’s blog – Discoveries from The WELL

This is the first in a series of posts describing social revelations from one of the earliest and most influential online communities – the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or The WELL. As a business, it launched on April 1, 1985. It may be the longest-lasting online business operating today. Longevity and shared history are two important social assets for any organizational community and I will endeavor to describe how The WELL built those assets.

As a small startup business, The WELL charged its users the minimum necessary to break even. At the outset we had no business models to copy or learn from. Its managers for the first 7 years of its life were not technologists but were transitioners from over a decade living in the largest intentional community to emerge from the cultural revolution of the Sixties.

From now through The WELL’s 31st anniversary I will be posting about lessons we learned collectively through our early efforts inventing and hacking what would eventually be labelled “social media.” Most of these learnings are today taken for granted. Many of them are more policy-related than technical, and many describe the new social realities that electronic group communications forced us to deal with.

Of course, the people who populate online social venues today are a very different population – in terms of age, ethnicity and technical proficiency – than those who first inhabited The WELL. But human behavior is full of constants. We, still, are “only human,” and today’s community managers must still know how to deal with many of the same quirks that characterize our species.