John Coate and the WELL: Looking Ahead by Looking Back at an Early Online Community

Vanessa DiMauro
Vanessa DiMauro CEO, Leader Networks

Posted on March 19th 2013

John Coate and the WELL: Looking Ahead by Looking Back at an Early Online Community

A month ago I went to London to give a presentation at the 13th annual VIRCOMM Summit. On a cold and rainy morning (it was London, after all) about a thousand community builders and social media managers from around the world gathered to think and talk about the art and science of our complex profession -- creating and managing online communities. It was a rare luxury to take part in  an industry-specific conference, we all wear many hats and operate in a diverse group of reporting structures: marketing, customer care and sometimes IT. The event was well covered, with lots of blog posts and reports. It even trended on Twitter for a while (#VICROMM13).
Reading through the post-event writings, I was struck by the limited coverage of the opening keynote by John Coate, former head of the WELL. For me, this was a shining moment, a bit of online community building history.  John's keynote offered a pictorial narrative of the history of the WELL. Why it was started, who was involved and what it meant to those who were a part of the online community movement, now almost 30 years old. He shared a view of our collective history as community builders; where we have been and what the future may hold. Coate's presentation offered a view into the origins and growth of our profession, something of real value to the many 20-something attendees who were not part of this history. As virtual communities and online social interactions have become ubiquitous (at last!), it's essential that current practitioner know about this history and consider its lessons – where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
For those not familiar with the WELL, it was the first substantial online community open to ordinary people. While there were online communities prior to the WELL, they were largely for academics and research. The technologies in use – then termed "Computer-Mediated Telecommunications"-- were expensive, difficult to locate and access, and even more difficult to navigate. [Sidenote: Back in the day, many of us had to travel with a screwdriver and spare phone wires so we could disassemble a hotel phone and connect our dial-up modems to the phone lines!]
By and large, VIRCOMM conference attendees haven't had to deal with such inconveniences just to get email or access a chat group. That’s real progress! But they also weren't online during a time when online community was more focused on the pure power and impact of human-to-human connections, nor did they have to answer to the revenue gods. Today, we have come a long way in terms of tools and opportunities for online community to do great things for learning. We live in a world where we can gain instant access to connections and information about everything from a specialist's point of view to travel suggestions to how to fix a fussy smartphone app. These changes are unarguably for the better.
However, there are core principles about online community that John Coate's presentation -- indeed, his whole body of work -- remind us are a fundamental part of whatever flavor of online community building we do. Starting in 1992, and revised twice since, Coate wrote an essay called "InnKeeping  in CyberSpace" which still serves as an up-to-the-minute guide to online community best practices. In it, he identifies the Principles of CyberSpace InnKeeping:

  • The currency is human attention. Work with it. Discourage abuse of it.
  • You are in the relationship business. 
  • Welcome newcomers. Help them find their place.
  • Show by example.
  • Strive to influence and persuade.
  • Have a big fuse. Never let the bottom drop out.
  • Use a light touch. Don't be authoritarian.
  • Affirm people. Encourage them to open up.
  • Expect ferment. Allow some tumbling.
  •  Don't give in to tyranny by individual or group.
  •  Leave room in the rules for judgment calls.
  • Encourage personal and professional overlap.
  • Think "tolerance."

These principles are still true today, 20+ years later.  It doesn't matter if your online community supports a brand, a professional community of practice, or even a gathering of fans.  Human-human connection is the centerpiece of all substantive online community interactions.  Without meaningful exchanges of information, there are no insights to be harvested; without sustained involvement and a sense of comfort, there is no customer retention or connection.  Without people connecting to people, there is no community - online or otherwise.
Vanessa DiMauro

Vanessa DiMauro

CEO, Leader Networks

Vanessa DiMauro is a trusted business advisor, and founder and CEO of Leader Networks, LLC, the world’s premier B2B social business consultancy. Vanessa helps organizations drive top line growth through innovative digital strategy design and thoughtful execution. Her experience as a social business executive spans over 15 years and her award-winning track-record is fueled by passion, experience and consistency.  Vanessa's work has been covered by leading publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CIO Magazine and she was recently named a Social Marketing Master by Forbes. She is serves on the board at a number of leading organizations such as Social Media Today, The Society of New Communication Research and is a former Executive In Residence at Babson College - Olin School of Management. 

See Full Profile >


Good article, but how do you write about The WELL without a mention of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. After all, "W.E.L.L." stands for "Whole Earth 'Lectronic 'Link" and the catalog was, in many ways, the world's first search engine. (I know I spent many hours surfing that thing.)


Thanks for adding to the discussion and bringing out more info about the WELL! Many a book or long feature article has been written about the history about the community so I focused instead on the impact I experienced from the presentation and the relevency to new community managers.  Agreed there is much more to be said on the topic and legacy. I too was a member, we probably know each other from days gone by :)

all the best,