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