'counterculture' Episodes

The WELL, an Early Internet Community

     3/12/2021

The Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, or WELL, was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, and is still available at well.com. We did an episode on Stewart Brand: Godfather of the Interwebs and he was a larger than life presence amongst many of the 1980s former hippies that were shaping our digital age. From his assistance producing The Mother Of All Demos to the Whole Earth Catalog inspiring Steve Jobs and many others to his work with Ted Nelson, there’s probably only a few degrees separating him from anyone else in computing. 

Larry Brilliant is another counter-culture hero. He did work as a medical professional for the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox and came home to teach at the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan had been working on networked conferencing since the 70s when Bob Parnes wrote CONFER, which would be used at Wayne State where Brilliant got his MD. But CONFER was a bit of a resource hog.

PicoSpan was written by Marcus Watts in 1983. Pico is a small text editor in many a UNIX variant and network is network. Why small, well, modems that dialed into bulletin boards were pretty slow back then. 

Marcus worked at NETI, who then bought the rights for PicoSpan to take to market. So Brilliant was the chairman of NETI at the time and approached Brand about starting up a bulletin-board system (BBS). Brilliant proposed NETI would supply the gear and software and that Brand would use his, uh, brand - and Whole Earth following, to fill the ranks. Brand’s non-profit The Point Foundation would own half and NETI would own the other half. 

It became an early online community outside of academia, and an important part of the rise of the splinter-nets and a holdout to the Internet. For a time, at least. 

PicoSpan gave users conferences. These were similar to PLATO Notes files, where a user could create a conversation thread and people could respond. These were (and still are) linear and threaded conversations. Rather than call them Notes like PLATO did, PicSpan referred to them as “conferences” as “online conferencing” was a common term used to describe meeting online for discussions at the time. EIES had been around going back to the 1970s, so Brand had some ideas abut what an online community could be - having used it. Given the sharp drop in the cost of storage there was something new PicoSpan could give people: the posts could last forever. Keep in mind, the Mac still didn’t ship with a hard drive in 1984. But they were on the rise. 

And those bits that were preserved were manifested in words. Brand brought a simple mantra: You Own Your Own Words. This kept the hands of the organization clean and devoid of liability for what was said on The WELL - but also harkened back to an almost libertarian bent that many in technology had at the time. Part of me feels like libertarianism meant something different in that era. But that’s a digression. Whole Earth Review editor Art Kleiner flew up to Michigan to get the specifics drawn up. NETI’s investment had about a quarter million dollar cash value. Brand stayed home and came up with a name. The Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, or WELL. 

The WELL was not the best technology, even at the time. The VAX was woefully underpowered for as many users as The WELL would grow to, and other services to dial into and have discussions were springing up. But it was one of the most influential of the time. And not because they recreated the extremely influential Whole Earth catalog in digital form like Brilliant wanted, which would have been similar to what Amazon reviews are like now probably. But instead, the draw was the people. 

The community was fostered first by Matthew McClure, the initial director who was a former typesetter for the Whole Earth Catalog. He’d spent 12 years on a commune called The Farm and was just getting back to society. They worked out that they needed to charge $8 a month and another couple bucks an hour to make minimal a profit. 

So McClure worked with NETI to get the Fax up and they created the first conference, General. Kevin Kelly from the Whole Earth Review and Brand would start discussions and Brand mentioned The WELL in some of his writings. A few people joined, and then a few more. 

Others from The Farm would join him. Cliff Figallo, known as Cliff, was user 19 and John Coate, who went by Tex, came in to run marketing. In those first few years they started to build up a base of users.

It started with hackers and journalists, who got free accounts. And from there great thinkers joined up. People like Tom Mandel from Stanford Research Institute, or SRI. He would go on to become the editor of Time Online. His partner Nana. Howard Rheingold, who would go on to write a book called The Virtual Community. And they attracted more. Especially Dead Heads, who helped spread the word across the country during the heyday of the Grateful Dead. 

Plenty of UNIX hackers also joined. After all, the community was finding a nexus in the Bay Area at the time. They added email in 1987 and it was one of those places you could get on at least one part of this whole new internet thing. And need help with your modem? There’s a conference for that. Need to talk about calling your birth mom who you’ve never met because you were adopted? There’s a conference for that as well. Want to talk sexuality with a minister? Yup, there’s a community for that. It was one of the first times that anyone could just reach out and talk to people. And the community that was forming also met in person from time to time at office parties, furthering the cohesion. 

We take Facebook groups, Slack channels, and message boards for granted today. We can be us or make up a whole new version of us. We can be anonymous and just there to stir up conflict like on 4Chan or we can network with people in our industry like on LinkedIn. We can chat real time, which is similar to the Send option on The WELL. Or we can post threaded responses to other comments. But the social norms and trends were proving as true then as now. Communities grow, they fragment, people create problems, people come, people go. And sometimes, as we grow, we inspire. 

Those early adopters of The WELL inspired Craig Newmark of Craigslist to the growing power of the Internet. And future developers of Apple. Hippies versus nerds but not really versus, but coming to terms with going from “computers are part of the military industrial complex keeping us down” philosophy to more of a free libertarian information superhighway that persisted for decades. The thought that the computer would set us free and connect the world into a new nation, as John Perry Barlow would sum up perfectly in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.

By 1990 people like Barlow could make a post on The WELL from Wyoming and have Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, makers of Lotus 1-2-3 show up at his house after reading the post - and they could join forces with the 5th employee of Sun Microsystems and GNU Debugging Cypherpunk John Gilmore to found the Electronic Foundation. And as a sign of the times that’s the same year The WELL got fully connected to the Internet.

By 1991 they had grown to 5,000 subscribers. That was the year Bruce Katz bought NETI’s half of the well for $175,000. Katz had pioneered the casual shoe market, changing the name of his families shoe business to Rockport and selling it to Reebok for over $118 million. 

The WELL had posted a profit a couple of times but by and large was growing slower than competitors. Although I’m not sure any o the members cared about that. It was a smaller community than many others but they could meet in person and they seemed to congeal in ways that other communities didn’t. But they would keep increasing in size over the next few years. In that time Fig replaced himself with Maurice Weitman, or Mo - who had been the first person to sign up for the service. And Tex soon left as well. 

Tex would go to become an early webmaster of The Gate, the community from the San Francisco Chronicle. Fig joined AOL’s GNN and then became director of community at Salon.

But AOL. You see, AOL was founded in the same year. And by 1994 AOL was up to 1.25 million subscribers with over a million logging in every day. CompuServe, Prodigy, Genie, Dephi were on the rise as well. And The WELL had thousands of posts a day by then but was losing money and not growing like the others. But I think the users of the service were just fine with that. The WELL was still growing slowly and yet for many, it was too big. Some of those left. Some stayed. Other communities, like The River, fragmented off. By then, The Point Foundation wanted out so sold their half of The WELL to Katz for $750,000 - leaving Katz as the first full owner of The WELL. 

I mean, they were an influential community because of some of the members, sure, but more because the quality of the discussions. Academics, drugs, and deeply personal information. And they had always complained about figtex or whomever was in charge - you know, the counter-culture is always mad at “The Management.” But Katz was not one of them. He honestly seems to have tried to improve things - but it seems like everything he tried blew up in his face. 

So Katz further alienated the members and fired Mo and brought on Maria Wilhelm, but they still weren’t hitting that hyper-growth, with membership getting up to around 10,000 - but by then AOL was jumping from 5,000,000 to 10,000,000. But again, I’ve not found anyone who felt like The WELL should have been going down that same path. The subscribers at The WELL were looking for an experience of a completely different sort. By 1995 Gail Williams allowed users to create their own topics and the unruly bunch just kinda’ ruled themselves in a way. There was staff and drama and emotions and hurt feelings and outrage and love and kindness and, well, community.

By the late 90s, the buzz word at many a company were all about building communities, and there were indeed plenty of communities growing. But none like The WELL. And given that some of the founders of Salon had been users of The WELL, Salon bought The WELL in 1999 and just kinda’ let it fly under the radar. The influence continued with various journalists as members. 

The web came. And the members of The WELL continued their community. Award winning but a snapshot in time in a way. Living in an increasingly secluded corner of cyberspace, a term that first began life in a present tense on The WELL, if you got it, you got it.

In 2012, after trying to sell The WELL to another company, Salon finally sold The WELL to a group of members who had put together enough money to buy it. And The WELL moved into the current, more modern form of existence.

To quote the site:

Welcome to a gathering that’s like no other. The WELL, launched back in 1985 as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, continues to provide a cherished watering hole for articulate and playful thinkers from all walks of life.

For more about why conversation is so treasured on The WELL, and why members of the community banded together to buy the site in 2012, check out the story of The WELL.

If you like what you see, join us!

It sounds pretty inviting. And it’s member supported. Like National Public Radio kinda’. In what seems like an antiquated business model, it’s $15 per month to access the community. And make no mistake, it’s a community. 

You Own Your Own Words. If you pay to access a community, you don’t sign the ownership of your words away in a EULA. You don’t sign away rights to sell your data to advertisers along with having ads shown to you in increasing numbers in a hunt for ever more revenue. You own more than your words, you own your experience. You are sovereign. 

This episode doesn’t really have a lot of depth to it. Just as most online forums lack the kind of depth that could be found on the WELL. I am a child of a different generation, I suppose.

Through researching each episode of the podcast, I often read books, conduct interviews (a special thanks to Help A Reporter Out), lurk in conferences, and try to think about the connections, the evolution, and what the most important aspects of each are. There is a great little book from Katie Hafner called The Well: A Story Of Love, Death, & Real Life. I recommend it. There’s also Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and John Seabrook’s Deeper: Adventures on the Net. Oh, and From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, And the Rise of Digital Utopianism from Fred Turner and Siberia by Douglas Rushkoff. At a minimum, I recommend reading Katie Hafner’s wired article and then her most excellent book!

Oh, and to hear about other ways the 60s Counterculture helped to shape the burgeoning technology industry, check out What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff. 

And The WELL comes up in nearly every book as one of the early commercial digital communities. It’s been written about in Wired, in The Atlantic, makes appearances in books like Broad Band by Claire Evans, and The Internet A Historical Encyclopedia. 

The business models out there to build and run  and grow a company have seemingly been reduced to a select few. Practically every online community has become free with advertising and data being the currency we parlay in exchange for a sense of engagement with others. 

As network effects set in and billionaires are created, others own our words. They think the lifestyle business is quaint - that if you aren’t outgrowing a market segment that you are shrinking. And a subscription site that charges a monthly access fee to cgi code with a user experience that predates the UX field on the outside might affirm that philosophy -especially since anyone can see your real name. But if we look deeper we see a far greater truth: that these barriers keep a small corner of cyberspace special - free from Russian troll farms and election stealing and spam bots. And without those distractions we find true engagement. We find real connections that go past the surface. We find depth. It’s not lost after all. 

Thank you for being part of this little community. We are so lucky to have you. Have a great day.


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020