WELL, Birthplace Of Online Movement Is Up For Sale

Long before Facebook, there was The WELL. In 1985, The WELL began as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link – an offshoot of the Whole Earth Catalog. David Greene talks to author Howard Rheingold about the influential social network being up for sale.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We often encourage you to follow this program on our Facebook page. Social networking is so much a part of our daily lives that Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg views his company as a utility, you know, like your local power company. But social networking in virtual communities existed long before this round of Harvard dropouts got to Silicon Valley.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Take for example the WELL W-E-L-L or Whole Earth Lectronic Link, that's lectronic without the E on the front. The online community started in 1985 as the digital offshoot of the Whole Earth Catalog.

HOWARD RHEINGOLD: Some people may remember the Whole Earth Catalog which was a big deal in 1968 and 1969. It was kind of like the Sears Catalog for the people who were trying to build communes.

INSKEEP: That's author Howard Rheingold, one of the original members who went to The WELL.

GREENE: Now, despite the relatively small size of that online community, never more than a few thousand members, it has been one of the most influential social networks. Now The WELL is up for sale. Howard Rheingold looks back at the early days.

RHEINGOLD: Communicating online goes back to the Defense Department's Arpanet which started in 1969. There was something called Usenet that started in 1980, and this gave people an opportunity to talk about things that people on these more official networks didn't talk about.

GREENE: And it seems like, I mean, I was checking out The Well, and it still seems very basic as if it's one of those, you know, very primitive bulletin boards online. I mean, I'm looking at the list, you know, and discussion topics, working in a bar, Guinness Stout, you know, celebrity relationship.

RHEINGOLD: You know, it's everything from the profound to the superficial. That general atmosphere of let's talk about anything we want to talk about, I think, was one of the great appeals of The WELL, and one of the reasons I think it still exists.

GREENE: Why did it never grow bigger? I mean, we're still talking, you know, never over more than a few thousand people.

RHEINGOLD: Well, I think one thing is that it costs. It's not expensive, but there's so much available for free online now. It's still pretty much text only, and it does have a kind of peculiar culture that you have to break into. To be honest, they haven't really had a marketing budget. They've been owned by Salon for years, and Salon has not had very much money.

GREENE: I wanted to ask you about that because Salon is trying to sell The WELL, and what has the reaction been, and what are the plans that the members are making?

RHEINGOLD: Well, the reaction was incredible. Members of The WELL pledged individually, anywhere between a hundred and $5,000 each. Many, many, many people pledging a thousand or $5,000. One of the members of The WELL who had gone back to the olden days when I was first there, organized a group of investors, and as I understand it, they've got enough money to make an offer and are negotiating with Salon to buy The WELL on behalf of the community. Now, these are investors. These are not contributions, so they plan to have more money coming in than going out.

GREENE: You know, I wonder if we look at Facebook and Craigslist and these sorts of sights, you know, how much do they owe to The WELL?

RHEINGOLD: Well, I think a great deal. You know, I was friended on Facebook by Steve Case, and I emailed him and I said, I know who are you, why do you know who I am, and he said, well, I lurked on The WELL for years before I started AOL. And I know that Craig Newmark who started Craigslist really derived his community philosophy from The WELL.

Many, many enterprises started from people who got the idea on The WELL. And I that that part of The WELL's success in its early years was the marketing strategy of spending no money on advertising, but giving free accounts to journalists. So many people who later became very prominent journalists, John Markoff, the New York Times technology correspondent, and Steve Levy who was the Newsweek technology correspondent and writes for Wired magazine, just, you know, dozens of names who you would later recognize from writing about technology, used The WELL as a watering hole in the early days, which also made it an interesting place to hang out.

GREENE: I wonder, I mean, The WELL began with the idea of community so embedded in it, and now it feels like we're at a moment in technology where, just, technology breeds loneliness, kind of the opposite effect. I mean, how has that happened?

RHEINGOLD: Well, now, I have to say - you asked about Facebook. Facebook, I have to think if they're doing it deliberately because they're not stupid. They really don't have the kind of interface and technical affordances that enable people to have the kind of long-lasting wide-ranging conversations that The WELL did. I'm afraid that many people think that the threads in group conversations on Facebook, that's the way it's done online, and I'm afraid of the idea that so many people think that Facebook is the Internet.

I think the business about alienation and loneliness is an important cautionary tale, and there are people who escape from their real lives by hanging out online. We can't forget that for many people, life online is a lifeline. You know, when I first started writing about community, it was because I had seen it happen. A parent on The WELL in the late 1980s, got online in the middle of the night and started talking about his son's leukemia diagnosis.

A support group organized itself overnight, and although medical support groups now probably have hundreds of millions of people, that was a new thing back then. I, myself, had a serious illness a few years ago and people signed up to drive me to treatments every day, many of them people that I had known from The WELL decades ago, including that father of the young man with leukemia. So for some people, life online connects to other people.

For some people it's a lifeline. For others it's an alienating force. So I think you really have to take the context of the individual into account. You know, it's everything from the lonely hearts club to the world's greatest encyclopedia all rolled up together.

GREENE: Nicely put. We've been talking to Howard Rheingold. He's the author of "Virtual Community Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier," and if you want to learn more about The WELL, you can go to www.well.com. Howard, great talking to you. Thanks so much.

RHEINGOLD: Sure.

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