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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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