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
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.