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The WELL's 27-Year-Long Conversation Continues
Posted on September 24th 2012
Last week, a group of people in love with their online community bought the business interests of that community from their owner by pooling their money and that of investors committed to saving a piece of Internet history. The WELL liberated itself from the friendly ownership tethers to Salon.com and became autonomous. One of the first instances of social media became a member-run entity, some would say, "at last."
There are some conversations on The WELL's subscription-supported conferencing system that have literally been active for decades. To my knowledge, the WELL has been operating for longer than any other Internet-based business. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I've been keeping track of such things since I left my job as The WELL's Director in 1992.
Though students, practitioners and leaders of social media are likely to have heard of The WELL, I'm sure that at this time most of them (you, that is) are a bit hazy on what The WELL was, is and has become.
I won't burden this post with historical details, but the fact that a group of people who meet in an online venue daily - many of them having been meeting in that venue for as long as 27 years - have raised the money to buy the entire business from its financially challenged parent/sponsor just to ensure its survival, is a unique and notable event in the social media world.
Though the active population of the WELL is small today, it never did get very big. The people who log in and participate can be numbered in the hundreds, but thousands of people have been active members at one time or another and many of them still think of the community as just that - a true online community that they consider to be their first home in Cyberspace.
The WELL has a distinctive culture of discourse, which is not everyone's cup of tea, but in spite of an interface that is several generations behind the Twitters and Facebooks of today, it serves its primary purpose as a conversational environment. Some members even to this day use The WELL through its raw, text-only interface, driven by commands that have been memorized over the years. Learning to use that interface was a required hurdle to every member until a Web-based version was released in about 1994. That was a testament to the attraction to intelligent conversation and community that The WELL offered.
There are group options in Google, in Facebook, in Yahoo, and in many commercial discussion board systems used in and out of business today, but rarely do you find a place on the Web where the same people converse about such a range of topics, interests and meaning. Communities these days center around more specific notions, and members tend to stick with what used to be called SIGs or Special Interest Groups. The WELL was and continues to be a General Interest Community (a GIC?). And people pay a small fee for the privilege of getting inside of that.
In many ways, The WELL called attention to the social imperative in the early days of the Internet and the Web. It was one of the very first businesses to get an Internet domain name in 1992 - well.sf.ca.us. It inspired early Web developers to design platforms that would support social interaction. In 1996, Wired Magazine put The WELL on its cover, calling it "The World's Most Influential Online Community," and documenting some of the melodrama and technical "exploration" that had made it something more than an online forum.
Though the technology certainly exists today to support the formation and growth of such a social phenomenon, there is little to compare with what The WELL represents - a place where people can get to know each other deeply and carry on relationships day-to-day for years and years. Perhaps such things exist somewhere in the megalopolis of Facebook. I certainly do relate there with many old friends from a pre-WELL community, but Facebook is not a "home."
Many of the early issues that sparked endless discussion on The WELL in the late Eighties are still hot issues today - privacy, security, trust, relationships, Netiquette, listening. There are still no pat answers to how best to deal with these. The WELL was an experiment and its users to this day still treat it as such. It's a wonderful thing that it has found a native community solution for extending its life into the future.