My Deeper Background

My History in Community

As a child I lived in a block of duplex brick houses sharing their backyards. The fathers were all WW II veterans and the kids were all about the same age. There was a strong sense of community but I just figured that was the way the whole world lived.

We moved to the sparsely settled suburbs where houses were much further apart and we depended on school buses for transport. That intimate sense of sharing was no longer there and through the 1960’s I became disenchanted with the consumerist direction the country seemed to be taking. I got my degree in social psychology and six months later joined up with a couple hundred strangers with whom I shared the “back to the land” intention. We traveled the country in a caravan of school buses looking for our own piece of land and soon settled, in 1971, on 1850 acres of rugged property in southern middle Tennessee.

We called our little village The Farm and for 12 years it was my community, my home and my vocation. As a collective we shared all but our most personal possessions and whatever we earned (in my case, as a home builder) was turned in to our common bank, to be distributed to cover food and living essentials. We moved out of our school bus homes into surplus army tents and then into self-built homes of various living standards. What most stuck with me, to this day, from my Farm experience was the importance of commitment, honesty, generosity and sacrifice in making our sense of community strong and resilient. We learned to distribute responsibility and to respect diversity of viewpoints and experiences. From a spiritual standpoint, we based our philosophy on the Golden Rule.

My History in Social Media

In 1983 my family left the Farm and moved to northern California where I had a job waiting working with Stewart Brand – founding editor of the Whole Earth Catalog – on the Whole Earth Software Catalog.

In 1986 I became Director of an online community called The WELL. This was before there was an Internet or what we now know the Web. The WELL was a smart (mostly), creative and groundbreaking conversational business experiment in a time when there were no models to emulate or learn from. It was an invent-as-you-go collaborative testing ground for how  social conventions work in electronic space.  In 1996 Wired Magazine retrospectively called the WELL  the world’s “most influential online community.”

I left my job at the WELL after 6 formative years and have continued to learn and apply my experience in community for a wide diversity of clients, from huge multi-nationals to small startup non-profits.

Up Periscope – Trouble on the Way

Having grown up just outside of Washington, D.C. I’ve always kept up with national and global issues. At the Farm I paid attention to how we experimented with self-governance, when our whole purpose was to separate our lives from the ineffectual politics that were practiced in the rest of the USA. I lived and worked in the Guatemalan highlands for 2 years as field director for the Farm’s international aid non-profit, Plenty. Witnessing the brutal injustice practiced by the military government brought my attention back to politics and how important it was for the Farm to make its model of local self-government work. As it turned out we were too slow in adopting a working system and the Farm gave up on its collective model.

Once in California I began following the advance of climate change and it soon became clear that in whatever form it took, the impacts from one location to another would be different and would require the attention of local leaders and groups to fittingly adapt and mitigate the effects of drought, flooding, heat and changes in local flora and fauna. I could see that my experience with new and different models of community would be valuable as a novel perspective for re-visioning the definition of “community” for smaller groups that would not be bogged down by the dysfunction of higher levels of government. As with the Farm and the WELL, citizens of local towns and hyperlocal neighborhoods would find themselves with “skin in the game” once the combination of problems landed in their laps.

This brings us, again, to a redefinition and deeper meaning of the term Community. And that is where I might come in with stories, research, working models and guidance for those poised to take action in preparation for what we might call “the shit hitting the fan.” That time may be closer than you think.

One thought on “My Deeper Background

  1. Hello Cliff,
    I am a radio maker coming from Germany and I am in San Francisco right now, to do research and interviews for my documentary on the influence of the counterculture on the cyberspace. I have visited John Coate yesterday, we talked about the WELL and his experiences on The Farm and he thought it would be good to talk with you, too. Would you have time to share for an interview?
    That would be very nice!
    With all best wishes,

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