Category Archives: Social Media

Pertaining to social media practice, platforms, strategy

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.

Authentic Authenticity

Authenticity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And it ain’t the same as true identity.

Members of the pre-web online community, The WELL, had to pay for genuinetheir time on the system with a check or credit card. They were also required to include their real names in their registrations. They were encouraged to choose screen names, but by clicking on a screen name you could see their real names.

Other dialup online communities such as CompuServe and The Source had their own naming rules. Our thinking was that if your true name could be known you would be less likely to be an asshole in online public. It didn’t always work. Some people faked us out and some didn’t seem to care what others thought about their behavior. In any case, there was still enough interpersonal conflict to keep things interesting. My opinion was that if conflict was running below 10 percent of total interaction things would become boring.

Knowing someone’s real name did not guarantee that the person you interacted with online was behaving as they would face-to-face. Many WELL members played imaginary roles online, though not all of them did so intentionally. Typing your speech did not come easily to everyone. Writing and speaking styles differ for many of us, especially when joining new communities. We are often surprised when we meet people previously known only by their conversational writing styles. But even this is a superficial level of familiarity. What I believe most of us are looking for, ideally, is a candid and true portrayal of the person we know online. This is authenticity.

Most people who interact socially online find a comfort zone and allow themselves to be who they really are, with some reservations. It’s easy enough to avoid people whose styles feel offensive, even if their behavior expresses their true personalities. But we tend to trust people more if we believe we are seeing their real selves.

Most people don’t decide to be authentic; they relax into it once they’re familiar with the community and the social platform where they meet and interact. Businesses, on the other hand, are beginning to understand that they are being looked at today in much the same way that people regard other individuals. Businesses can be challenged in public by customers and shoppers who expect the same authenticity from them as they expect from individuals. So businesses are shifting their marketing from persuasion to honesty. The business is growing a human-like personality and deciding the most appropriate measures for humanizing themselves. What are appropriate social techniques for becoming authentic in the eyes of the customer?

As customers, we are witnessing this change in branding strategy. Ads are changing tone, meeting customers on the social media fields
is much more common. Social media skills are being adopted and learned. But behaving in ways that engender an authentic image can be counter productive. In the eyes of the typical prospective customer, what is authentically authentic? Representing who you really are as a business – your honesty, transparency, ethics, availability – goes more than skin deep. Let the public know who you really are and good conversations will follow.


The Web & the Fragility of Trust

Every year the Pew Research Internet Project invites experts to respond to a survey and state their opinions regarding the evolution of the Net and emerging threats to the social Web. What will it be like in 10 years? What technologies will have taken leaps forward? What should be targets of our concern?

Flickr CC photo by Kangrex

Having responded to several of these over the years I know that some people give minimal responses and some write whole essays. The folks at Pew are left to sift through the results and – since few people are interested enough to spend hours reading the whole enchilada – offer a summary of the points on which there is some consensus.

I will further condense their summary because there’s an obvious theme here, alluded to in the title of this post. Here are the most grievous threats to what we currently expect from the Web, as identified for 2024 or thereabouts:

  1. countries will interfere with the net to maintain security and control

  2. government and corporate surveillance imperils trust

  3. commercial pressures will endanger the open structure of online life

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to your virtual surroundings during your time online or even offline – reading magazines in the salon or in the waiting room at the tire store – these should not come as a big surprise. Indeed, these threats for a decade hence are already upon us. It’s about who holds power over the online social environment.  It’s about the People’s Web vs the Web of politics and corporate convenience.

How can the individual users of the Web trust huge institutions who (1) don’t get what the social Web is all about and (2) put their interests above all others just because they can. Money (tax money, too) talks.  The users mostly understand that without their presence, the content they provide and the knowledge they share, the Web would simply be an uninhabited  data exchange network. -The users create and share and give life to the Web, which is why government and corporations are compelled to exploit and control them.

Of course government and corporate power have their places in this capitalist republic. They can be useful, though there is growing impatience among the citizenry with incompetence, violating privacy, forcing advertising into the midst of social interaction and unabashed greed among the ignorant self-appointed rulers. The issue of trust is not new, nor has it ever been assumed. It has been elemental since people first began getting online and interacting with one another.

Flickr CC photo by Mr. Fix It

In the social beginnings – the 1980s – people wondered about the authenticity of others’ “personas.” “Is Bob really like he says he is on the message board?” At the personal level people were wary and kept their bullshit detectors set on Stun. Today – though there are plenty of dishonest and tricky scammers online skirting the edges of ethical behavior, businesses increasingly resort to practices like native advertising to lure us into clicking on what looks to be a post by an acquaintance but in reality is a lure and a trap, leading to the advertiser’s effort to sell you something. I call it “attention poaching .” Because it intrudes on a social atmosphere, it’s not the same as a billboard. It’s feigned – not authentic – friendliness.

As to government, we are still – and probably always will be – in under attack mode due to the long reverberations of 9-11. A humongous security industry has arisen from those ashes and the Web has become the barrel of fish that these forces shoot into at will.

Privacy? It’s already so compromised that one wonders how 2024 could be much worse. Our government spies on us while it is the only force powerful enough to protect us from Internet despotism. And it is the only force powerful enough to control or shut down content, access and open communication.

One remark in the Pew’s survey results rang especially true to me. “Commercialization of the Internet, paradoxically, is the biggest challenge to the growth of the Internet”

If the Web becomes a treaturous and overly commercialized place to be, people will leave or drastically cut down on their use of it. They will do what they need to do to feel safe and authentic. The Web will turn itself down. And remember: there are other great forces at work, changing the global gameboard as we progress toward 2024.

Social Monetization: Change Is the Only Constant

How many dollars, worker hours, member hours of attention and words written about it have gone into Facebook’s growth? It now stands as a behemoth of businesses with astronomical growth and activity. For its first few years it didn’t bother itself with ROI or revenue models. But since it went public 2 years ago, the pressure has been on to make money fast for its shareholders.

Facebook news feeds now have increasingly bothersome native advertising interrupting the content its members really want to read. amexNative ads look like posts and are created to catch readers not paying attention and lure them into clicking. So, are they working? It seems that some advertisers have their doubts.

Of course it’s long been known that people who join social media channels do so to socialize, not shop. They converse on Facebook and shop on Amazon.  In this article, @BrendanGahan cites a “recent study” that found that…

companies’ posts only reach around 6% of their fans organically on Facebook. This means if your Facebook page has 100,000 fans, only 6,000 of them are likely to see the post. The other 94,000 won’t know your post existed unless they go to your Facebook page and the chances of that happening are even slimmer. Facebook is hinting in the near future brands and companies should expect organic reach to be zero.

This reality challenges every social platform in its effort to monetize people’s activity as sharers of news and opinion. Being jabbed in the eye with commercial come-ons is not a way to win loyalty, no matter how many of your friends are there to connect with.

What does this mean for Facebook? Hard to say, but as the article suggests, pure content sites like YouTube may very well redirect attention in an environment where video ads allow you to bail after 5 seconds to watch over 5 minutes of action.

What’s the word on the street about the limits to unintentional customer exposure? Are we getting numbed yet as we were to 10 minutes of adds in every half hour of network TV programming?

Community As the Ultimate Solution

Yeah, I know. That’s pretty ambitious and at the same time vague as hell. But really not so preposterous for a blog whose tagline is “hosting Web communities.” Anthropologists agree that our earliest ancestors lived in groups. Not in nations, not in counties or cities, but in nomadic groups. We can guess that it was a protection mechanism or an arrangement that ensured the survival of the clan through procreation. If we began as natural or learned collaborators, we should be able to call up that genetic history and collaborate in this age to ensure survival at a more local level.

There is a “brother” to this blog called Extreme Community. In it I will

Flickr photo by John Spooner

explore and track the re-emergence of community assembly as a crucial survival skill when the impacts of climate change make things, well, different. Local resources and support will rise in importance and neighbors will need to generate and  recognize their own sense of community amidst the disruption.

This blog, on the other hand, is much more about online community – Which I propose is the best outcome of the use of social media technology. The ideal relationship that businesses and member organizations seek is as fellow members of a community where some comment on the quality and usability of a product, asking for help and advice where needed while other community members listen and tailor products and services. In community there must be trust and sincere appreciation between members. Interactivity is open and transparent with loyalty growing through each satisfactory exchange.

Initiating a community is, for a business, a marketing and customer service challenge. Some products are just so cool that their owners spontaneously create mutual-support communities owned by the owners, not by the product providers. In most cases, though, the company realizes that its relationships with customers do not go as deep as the company would like. They want that ideal marriage of demand and supply at the personal level.

A Community Manager must draw on her experiences with populations that live socially online and exhibit a sense of community. Her job is to foster that sense and work to preserve it. She does that by communicating with members and transferring what she reads and interprets to the company, to inform its executives. Where that information leads to change, the Community Manager acts as a preserver of the sense of community – the golden egg of customer and buyer relations. The community, of course, is the goose in this metaphor.

A Social Media Manager – on the other hand – is more like a plumber and/or an aquarium keeper. Setting up social media pages, groups, sites, streams, etc. is a way to move and circulate outgoing information. That’s the plumbing. But there must be content to attract visits if not commenters and that’s where sprinkling fish food on a regular basis provides the metaphor. And that’s where the social engagement ends, depending on the quality of the content shared.

Setting up social media to end up with the dream community is very different. It begins and ends with consideration of the people who would be the community members. Less design time and more market research time is another departure. A Community Manager studies the social sciences and observes actual collective behavior to understand what kind of environment is most appropriate and conducive to conversation among the prospective customers and constituents.  The objective is – as we all now know – engagement. But the Community Manager must get beyond that false summit. The objective is to develop trusting, lasting, appreciative, sustainable relationships that serve the interests of businesses and customers alike.

If you think about this for a second, you may realize that such an arrangement will be impossible to achieve for many companies. Not all companies have appreciative end-customers who would join a “community” around their products. And not every company can afford to tell the truth about itself and its practices. Not every company wants to have its customers up into its grill.

My advice: Don’t take a Community Manager gig for unethical companies. You’ll likely be the face of the company and anger target when the truths are revealed.

If and when you find yourself logging in to your discussion space one morning to find an active message board and Twitter stream of supportive customers where “everybody knows your name,” you’ll feel at home in your title. Not home free – it does take a lot of maintenance – but home in that you’ve got the “sourdough starter” (Google it) for perpetuating that sense of community. You’ll also be working for a smarter organization.

Whack-a-Mole Social Media

As a business or non-profit you don’t need to maintain accounts on more social media platforms than you can effectively manage. Yes, on the face of it that probably sound like “Well, duh” information, but my own experience and that of others whom I have observed tells me that the desire to contact customers and constituents through as many channels as possible leads to spreading social efforts too thin.

Whack a mole creative commons
Flickr creative commons

Your social marketing should be based on establishing valuable and lasting relationships rather than raising metrics and spreading visibility. Yes, those goals are important but little is gained by jumping from one social media account to another, posting whatever can be scrambled together every day just to prove you’re alive.

Instead, consider your options for social media platforms that will provide the most benefit to your company because they are where your most beneficial relationships can be developed. Start with one platform and do a righteous job of using it to connect and engage with influencers in your target population. Work on it to spawn relevant conversations and popular events. Drive people to your website. Build the community to critical mass where users’ contributions sustain a good level of interaction. Once you’ve established sufficient momentum on that platform, begin to develop the next most promising platform.

For most but not all companies a Facebook page will be the prime platform with Twitter serving as a short-form secondary locale. But for many of you, LinkedIn or Pinterest may be your starting point. It may be your best move would be to select platforms that support different types of populations. Or you might want to use a primarily discussion platform and a primarily graphics platform.

In any case, doing a great job of connecting in one environment will serve you better than doing a hurried half-assed job in several.


We’ve Entered a Virtual Reality

A garage-born early stage technical gizmo just got bought by Facebook for 2 f-ing billion American dollars. My first reaction was, “Did they dicker over the price? Or was Zuck just trying to get attention?”

Whenever I see one of these dominating enterprises buying out some small fish with a niche market I have to wonder if that’s the only option. Couldn’t Facebook buy the services of a few brilliant geeks for a mere $1B to build a better product from the ground up? Oculus VR certainly doesn’t have a market-ready product. Outside of video gamers, no other groups have demonstrated a desire or need for wearable, clunky headsets and immersive animation. Second Life has its small coterie of users, but it never really lifted off.

I’m chalking this up to the Too Much Money to Play With disease. Call me on this once Oculus VR comes anywhere close to paying for itself or at least justifying its purchase. Meanwhile I’m glad to see video closing in on the mainstream of user-created content. Keep ’em under a few minutes in length and they do a good job of spurring interaction.