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.