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The Well: The Epic History of the First Online Community Hardcover – May 2001


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers (May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786708468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786708468
  • Product Dimensions: 19 x 14.2 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,417,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Amazon Review

The term "online community" has been sucked dry of meaning in recent years but there was a time when it connoted exciting possibilities and radical change. The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community tells the story of one early experiment, the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), which united smart, independent, left-leaning folks from all over as early as 1984 and still lives and breathes 17 years later. Though the title isn't strictly accurate--there were comparatively primitive online communities long before 1984--the tale is well told by journalist and long-time WELL member Katie Hafner. Started by visionary Stewart Brand and do-gooder Larry Brilliant, the dial-up BBS offered a wide-open space for communication, developing relationships and, inevitably, conflicts. Spicing up her story with excerpts from online posts, interviews with participants and sometimes sordid details of WELL-being, Hafner shows that not all online communities are the same.

Though the WELL's social and business problems are legion--eventually it was bought by Salon.com--the participants and administrators consistently showed intelligence and determination, essential qualities for homesteading pioneers. Though the book can't begin to address big questions about virtual social environments (Do they help or hinder users' lives? Are they as deeply satisfying as traditional relationships? What makes them so popular?), it does help the reader begin to address them personally. That individual determination, aided by discussion with others, is the WELL's greatest legacy. --Rob Lightner

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By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 11 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
Before there was the Web, there was on-line conferencing. Stewart Brand (originator of The Whole Earth Catalog) and Larry Brilliant (the philanthropic doctor who underwrote the enterprise and orginally conceived of it) combined to develop the Whole Earth 'Lectric Link (thus, WELL). This was a time-sharing service offered on a VAX computer with a monthly membership charge and hourly on-line fees as well. As such, it was one of the first attempts to build a virtual community and create a business at the same time. The book recounts the optimistic origins of the service, the problems it experienced, and its decline in the days of free chat rooms. There do seem to be a number of important lessons here for those who want to build businesses involving on-line communities.
I have never read or participated in the Well (in fact, I had never heard of it until I picked up this book). I am astonished that people would pay $8 a month and $2 an hour in the 1980s to basically put posts on a bulletin board. The group had a cachet in the Bay area. It was "smart and left-leaning without being self-consciously politically correct, [and] it had become something of a club." It had been designed to evolve, and that was its strength. Each person was responsible for their own words, discussions were moderated, and posters could also erase what they had written. Predictably, sex was the first topic of a discussion.
The book focuses around one very active participant, Tom Mandel, a futurist at SRI. Mr. Mandel conducted his life very publicly on the Well, and there are more ups and downs than in most soap operas. I won't steal the book's thunder, but you will find him to have been a most unique individual.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 9 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
What The Well is about 9 April 2001
By Calton Bolick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
First, I should note that I'm a long-time Well member (albeit mostly as an observer, not an active participant) which may color my perceptions. Nevertheless, I tried to read this more-or-less objectively, as a book I might give to friends that would convey exactly why it is that I am a member.
Well, it passes that test easily: in its relatively brief length, "The Well" succinctly and sensitively chronicles the odd birth, growing pains, and interpersonal dynamics that make The Well the unique online community that it is.
I'm buying copies for my ex-girlfriend, who complained that I spent too much time at the computer, and for a friend who, years ago, acidly commented, "Why that's amazing, you've gone a whole thirty minutes without mentioning The Well!"
Maybe this book can explain the things I couldn't. Highly recomended for those who want to understand the possiblities of virtual communities.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
my community - not entirely virtual; not especially virtuous 27 April 2001
By Imelda The Hon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
[Full disclosure: I am a member of the Well and have been for almost seven years as of the publication of this book.]
It's always been difficult for me to describe the Well to my non-Well friends, because there are so few virtual places that even approximate it, and they're even smaller, and practically no one knows what they're like either. "Computer conferencing" is what I say to my friends in business. "On-line community" is what I say to the people I think Might Get It. I also call it "the Peyton Place of cyberspace" and that metaphor (small town where everyone knows everyone else's history of indiscretions FAR TOO WELL) might be the most apt of the three, at least in my own experience.
Like any big amorphous concept, the Well is difficult to write about for a general audience. So Katie chose a story -- with love and friendship and grief and humor and all the other elements that make up a good story -- to carry her narrative. She chose a good one. Of course there are others. But this book (and before it, the WIRED article the book is based upon) comes closer to conveying the essence of the Well than anything else I've ever seen or read.
When the WIRED article was published I gave a copy to my mother, just to help her understand how it was that I had dozens of close friends I had never met. For a reader who wants to understand the astonishing power of true online community, in the light of human nature in all its ornery glory, I can't think of a better introduction.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A remarkable book 25 April 2001
By Don Pelton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a terrific book. I appreciate that Katie Hafner understands her strength to be narrative. Limiting the focus of her narrative to the lives of a few of the core founders and early pioneers of the Well allows her to reach the sort of depth I recall experiencing there when I was a "Well being" for a time in the late eighties. I mostly hung out in the Parenting conference, because I was the father of teenage children and our family seemed to reel from one crisis to another during those years. The support and love I found there was extraordinary, and I have found it nowhere else since, except within my own dear family. Hafner succeeds remarkably in capturing the intangible essence of the Well, the special human warmth that no one could have predicted or planned ... and no one has succeeded in duplicating since.
Hafner also deals with the core issue of community, an issue central to the Well's success, and possibly central to it's eventual - what? - transformation. I was about to say, "dissolution," but an incarnation of some sort of Well lives on at Salon.com. The early Well, the one I knew, was a pioneering online community, before that phrase became today's buzzword meaning little more than a chat room. The online community was the core of a larger, real-life, flesh-and-blood community, in which people truly lived and loved and became sick and got well, and sometimes died.
Everyone who hungers for community - and that means everyone awake to the grief of modern life - should read this book. Most of us understand true community by its absence. My most vivid and unexpected realization about the meaning of community occurred many years ago, when our children were still little. We lived for a time in an Eichler suburb in Mountain View, California. Each house on our block was surrounded by a high fence. After some months of living there, we hadn't met a single neighbor. I was out mowing the lawn one sunny Saturday morning, with no one in sight, and I suddenly understood in a way I never had before that our commercial culture has a vested interest in the destruction of community. Without community, each of us becomes a consuming atom, each with our own lawnmower, each with our own set of tools, each with our own copy of every trinket. In a true community we would be sharing tools and sharing labor. GNP is maximized by eroding community. Our commercial culture has a vested interest in the destruction of community. And conversely, true community subverts this culture.
It's because of this paradoxical dynamic that the Well - to the extent that it *was* a true community - could not retain its character while evolving as a commercial enterprise. This is part of the story.
Read this book. Let it provoke you to examine the role of community in your own life.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Take a look at the beginnings of online community 5 April 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"The Well" chronicles the inception and distinctive days of one of the first forums to cultivate what I believe makes today's "chat room" successful. I found the book to be an engrossing and quick read, made more compelling by the frequent inclusion of actual message exchanges between the more sensational Well denizens. The initial conditions of: restricted membership, difficulty of access, a free spirited era and the San Francisco Bay Area setting resulted in an online experience other companies were unable to duplicate and which eventually proved unscalable by The Well itself. In "The Well" Katie Hafner has captured the essence of an important piece of the early history of online interaction. I think the success of today's chat rooms may have been predictable from the emotional involvement this book demonstrates existed in this early online experiment. At the same time, the failure of many online communities may have been forecast from the turmoil suffered by the Well management trying to keep their community whole. I know Ms. Hafner, but I'm writing this review because I really liked the book and think it makes an important contribution to the history of online computing.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A Helpful Case History of an Early On-Line Community 16 April 2001
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Before there was the Web, there was on-line conferencing. Stewart Brand (originator of The Whole Earth Catalog) and Larry Brilliant (the philanthropic doctor who underwrote the enterprise and orginally conceived of it) combined to develop the Whole Earth 'Lectric Link (thus, WELL). This was a time-sharing service offered on a VAX computer with a monthly membership charge and hourly on-line fees as well. As such, it was one of the first attempts to build a virtual community and create a business at the same time. The book recounts the optimistic origins of the service, the problems it experienced, and its decline in the days of free chat rooms. There do seem to be a number of important lessons here for those who want to build businesses involving on-line communities.
I have never read or participated in the Well (in fact, I had never heard of it until I picked up this book). I am astonished that people would pay $8 a month and $2 an hour in the 1980s to basically put posts on a bulletin board. The group had a cachet in the Bay area. It was "smart and left-leaning without being self-consciously politically correct, [and] it had become something of a club." It had been designed to evolve, and that was its strength. Each person was responsible for their own words, discussions were moderated, and posters could also erase what they had written. Predictably, sex was the first topic of a discussion.
The book focuses around one very active participant, Tom Mandel, a futurist at SRI. Mr. Mandel conducted his life very publicly on the Well, and there are more ups and downs than in most soap operas. I won't steal the book's thunder, but you will find him to have been a most unique individual.
I especially enjoyed hearing about the community's problems, such as when people began to try to hurt the community.
The community's successes were of interest as well. Clearly, the Well benefited from having subscribers meet one another in person. That deepened the connections in a way that typing fast for hours could not have done.
The book also suggests that those who spent the most time there were shy, but felt comfortable letting it all hang out electronically. That is now a well-known phenomenon. I can certainly attest to that, as someone who has little to say about a particular book in person but likes to write long book reviews.
The author includes long sections from actual posts, to give you a feel for the interaction. I didn't particular enjoy reading these, but found them helpful.
Ms. Hafner was a long-time participant, mostly as an observer. The Well provided free subscriptions to journalists from the beginning.
The descriptions of trying to turn this into a long-term business are very interesting. Clearly, those who manage and own such a business need to be comfortable with as well as be part of the very community they serve. Any dissonance from executives or owners towards the community will clearly be harmful.
I also came away with a personal opinion that on-line communities will probably rise and fall quite often, much like physical communities do. I suspect that these will not be the basis of long-term businesses. The connections are too fleeting, and the temptations to go on to something better are too great.
After you read this book, think about how well you communicate your most important thoughts. Who knows them? Who should know them? What reactions would you enjoy having to those thoughts? What feedback do you need? Where can you get it?
Avoid becoming addicted to on-line activities! There's a real world still out there waiting for you.
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