A sense of Well being

A most influential online community celebrates its 15th anniversary.


A sense of Well being

“The world’s
most influential online community:” That’s how Wired magazine described the Well in a cover story two years ago. And that’s, of course, in perfect keeping with the original goals of Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and software entrepreneur Larry Brilliant, who started the seminal community 15 years ago — on April 1, 1985. The two, inspired by existing bulletin board services
(BBSs), figured they could create something kind of cool if they set up their own BBS and invited exceptionally interesting people to participate.

Soon a gaggle of writers, artists, scientists and thinkers struggled with the arcane posting software and began conversing online, developing “virtual” relationships and roughing-out guidelines for acceptable behavior
in a text-based community. After a few years, some “Wellbeings,” as they called themselves, expressed consternation that the group had grown so big
and prolific that people could no longer read all the new posts in a day. But they didn’t give up — in fact, it seems they just wrote more; these days, it’s not unusual to find 90,000 words of new posts to the public “conferences” or topic areas in a day.

And plenty of exceptionally interesting people, like the ones Brand and Brilliant hand-picked to start the party 15 years ago, still hang out on the Well, trading ideas, decrying conspiracies, critiquing movies, restaurants and each other. The sum total of their communication has provided an invaluable road map over the years for anyone interested in
exploring the possibilities and problems inherent in the notion of
community online.

To commemorate the first 15 years of the Well — which started with the Whole Earth vision and rounded out with the Well’s acquisition last year by Salon.com — we asked several Well members to share their thoughts about
what makes the Well what it is.

Jon Carroll makes imaginary friends
Farai Chideya learns rules, jargon and how to choose her battles
Mary Mackey decides against summering in Moldova
Susan McCarthy becomes the life of the party
Steve Silberman discovers something better than a time machine
Mary Elizabeth Williams graduates from misfit to Miss Popular

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Table Talk

Plumb the depths of the Well
Got questions?
We’ve got answers.

“My imaginary friends”

By Jon Carroll

I got online in 1987, long enough ago that I had to explain to people what e-mail was. Most of my friends thought I was involved in some sort of geeky hobby, like ham radio; a few thought I was being sucked into a New Age cult. The fact that the Well was based in Sausalito, Calif., and somehow related to “the Whole Earth guy” and “the hive mind guy” did not make it any easier.

During my first year, it was hard for me to shake the sensation that the other “people” on the Well were fictional characters. I called them “my imaginary friends,” and in some sense they were — they lived in a box in my room, no one else could see them and they got me involved in elaborate games that I was unable to explain very coherently. “It’s like jazz, only with words and, uh, on a computer.” I remember saying that once. I remember remembering not to say it again.

As with all fictional characters, I created a corporeal existence for each of my imaginary friends. Some were tall and some were short; some were beautiful and some were plain. I do this with novels all the time — so much so that I am scarcely aware that I am doing it. It did not occur to me that the real people might look differently than my vision of them; it did not occur to me that the real people might be bothered by the personal characteristics I had assigned to them.

Then came Howard Rheingold’s book party. At the time of which I speak, Howard Rheingold stood astride the Well like a Colossus. He was Mr. Virtual Community. He posted in every conference. He was wise and wacky and funny. He was the most popular kid in the school. A book party for Howard was certain to be a major Well scene.

The bookstore was on Haight. I walked in. I was approached by a rotund red-haired woman with a sly smile. “I’m Kathleen Creighton,” she said.

“No you’re not,” I said.

The evening did not get much better. I was profoundly disoriented. It was as though everyone had had major surgery, or had switched bodies with each other in some 23rd century parlor game. The solid fellow given to declaiming turned out to be pale and thin, almost invisible. The gentle flower child wore a business suit and fuck-me shoes. The prickly young technocrat wore tie-dye and did not speak above a whisper. And so on.

I fled early. I did not like the real people very much. I have real friends, which is swell; the point of the Well is that it is filled with my … well, not “un”-real, maybe “other” friends. There’s a reason why I spend time online rather than at endless parties. Social gatherings make me tired; online interactions give me energy. I’m sure this says something deeply troubling about my inner self, but it was a useful thing to learn.

All these years later, I still don’t go the Well parties very much. Why should I drive somewhere when I can just open my box and chat with my friends, people I have now known for longer than my first marriage. One day I shall die, and they will all disappear.

About the writer

Jon Carroll is a daily columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and a monthly columnist for Business 2.0. He is the host of five conferences on the Well.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Farai Chideya learns rules, jargon and how to choose her battles
Mary Mackey decides against summering in Moldova
Susan McCarthy becomes the life of the party
Steve Silberman discovers something better than a time machine
Mary Elizabeth Williams graduates from misfit to Miss Popular

Bleedin’ bigmouths

By Farai Chideya

This place — for me, this home away from home — is rife with rules both written and unspoken, chief among them that there are no anonymous participants in our midst. Everything you say online, every gaseous burst of opinion, ribald joke, restaurant recommendation (immediately countered by a helpful/snide/witless/knowledgeable comment about a better place just down the street) is attributed to you by name. And archived. Let’s not forget archived. There’s nothing like coming across some old comment about the time your mom found the pink bunny vibrator you bought just like the girls on “Sex and the City” and trying to resist the urge to scribble.

Which brings us to jargon. Scribble (erase your old posts, except for the mark that they once existed — a cyber stretchmark to show where text once lay); hide (lengthy text); bozofilter (the words of people you don’t like today, who you might like tomorrow or next year or never); slip (in with a comment ahead of someone who is following the same train of thought). The Well is not real-time conversation, and bully to that! We inhabitants of the asylum allow our words to breathe, typing full-fledged treatises on the topic du jour without benefit of spellcheck or, sometimes, common sense and then — if we reread our posts — trying to resist the urge to scribble.

None of this really gets to the heart of why the Well matters, which is, of course, because the people do. It is a real community, certainly as real as Silicon Valley or the East Village or the Beltway, which are all constructs as well as bricks and concrete. When I first joined the Well, it wasn’t because of a personal introduction. I got a trial subscription as a journalist. I’d already joined New York Online, which introduced me to the Net, MUDs and MOOs and geek picnics. But the Well kicked it up a notch.

Here, some of the pioneers of the Net (and top-notch writers, thinkers and sexologists) were the ones handing out the brain candy, and if you wanted to get in the mix you had to jump right in. I learned early on that someone is always there to bust your metaphorical balls, first ’cause you’re a newbie, then just because.

Community, that unquantifiable essence, really does exist, right here, right now. There is an incredible loyalty — an unthinkable loyalty — that leads members of the Well, like me, to do things their momma told them not to do. Putting strangers up at my house is not among the stranger things. We love each other, we members of the Well do, sometimes physically, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes while spitting verbal venom like cobras across the ether.

You may be getting the feeling by now that the Well is not a Utopia. (They’re overrated anyway.) My own burr-in-the-shorts is that this place is whiter than a blizzard in the Arctic. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that Saturday Night Live sketch, “That Black Girl.”

At first, I used to tilt at every windmill, get into every race fight that came along. But now I pick my battles, same as everywhere, and enjoy the fun. Like watching one (apparently mediocre) article on Silicon Alley mushroom into a 150-post explosion of disdain, defensiveness, loyalty, graciousness and dot-com defenestration. Like getting great recommendations for the best breakbeat tunes, instant literary references, job tips and tech advice. Like making new friends, true friends, and following them out into the desert to a space where, for once, we can disconnect our electronic umbilical cords.

So who are we, those who live among the Well at 15? Talk to one Well devotee and he’ll tell you the place is full of soft-headed bleeding-heart liberals; speak to another and she’ll complain about the smug prattle of libertarians and shoot-from-the-hip conservatives. The reality is that we’re a bunch of bleedin’ bigmouths. All you have to do to be here is listen, think and talk. (Remember that middle one, if you please.)

About the writer
Farai Chideya, the author of “The Color of Our Future” (William Morrow), just launched a political column via the Los Angeles Times Syndicate which
you can also find at Pop+Politics.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Jon Carroll makes imaginary friends
Mary Mackey decides against summering in Moldova
Susan McCarthy becomes the life of the party
Steve Silberman discovers something better than a time machine
Mary Elizabeth Williams graduates from misfit to Miss Popular

That summer not spent in Moldova

By Mary Mackey

In the summer of 1993, I was on my way to Eastern Europe to research several of the archaeological sites that later appeared in my novel “The Fires of Spring.” I was also on my way to lie face down in the mud clawing at the earth while guys in ski masks sprayed machine gun bullets over me; but as I rushed around collecting guide books and trying to learn how to say, “Where is the rest room?” in Bulgarian, I didn’t have a clue what I was about to get into.

As usual, I logged into the Well a couple of weeks before the trip and went to the travel conference to see if anyone could offer me tips. “Don’t take the bus between Varna and Istanbul,” one person warned. “It takes 18 hours, everyone smokes and I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.” “Rent a car in Bulgaria, not Romania,” suggested another. “It’s a lot cheaper.” But the best advice I got was a suggestion to contact an American living in Prague who went by the log-in ID of “antenna.”

“Antenna” was a radio expert who had helped set up several independent stations in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union went bust, and he knew the territory. The first thing he told me was not to fly on a Romanian plane. (“They have the best pilots in the world because they have the worst planes in the world. Rumor has it they cannibalize the crashed planes and refit the parts using hammers.”) When I told him I planned to go to Moldova to see the remains of the great circular cities that had been built 5,000 years ago, there was a bit of cyber-silence followed by a laconic piece of e-mail:

“Do you realize they are having a civil war?”

This was news to me. There had been no travel advisory on the State Department Web page; no hints in any of the sites I’d researched that Moldova was in turmoil.

“How bad is it?” I asked. I don’t recall his exact words, but I do recall that he said that death was a distinct possibility. When I got enough saliva back into my mouth to swallow, I started searching the Web, and sure enough, there in three or four lines in a back issue of the New York Times, I found a brief note indicating that Moldova was in a disturbing and completely unpredictable state of civil unrest.

I went to Romania and Bulgaria, but skipped Moldova. All things considered, I figure those 20 minutes I spent on the Well probably upped my life expectancy by several decades.

About the writer
Mary Mackey is the author of four collections of poetry and nine
novels including “The Year the Horses Came,” “The Horses at
the Gate,” and “The Fires of Spring.” Her work has been translated
into 11 foreign languages including Japanese and Finnish.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Jon Carroll makes imaginary friends
Farai Chideya learns rules, jargon and how to choose her battles
Susan McCarthy becomes the life of the party
Steve Silberman discovers something better than a time machine
Mary Elizabeth Williams graduates from misfit to Miss Popular

The life of the party

By Susan McCarthy

I curse the Well, for it has made me delusional. Over the course of seven years of mercilessly exploiting the Well, strip-mining it for friends, professional contacts and eclectic knowledge, I have also attended Well social events.

I dislike social events, because I am foul at them. I am feeble at introducing myself; inept at introducing people to each other; clumsy at moving conversations from zero to five, let alone 60; infantile at keeping my beverage level so it doesn’t spill.

But at Well social events I can simply blurt my name, and people say “Oh, yes. You hated the ending to ‘Limbo’ — I couldn’t believe that — I thought it was perfect.” And we’re off, pounding round the turns, kicking up mud, striking at each other with our whips! Not reduced, as at most social events, to muttering, “So, what do you do?” or “So, where do you know Gregor and Medea from?” and wishing to be dead and safely buried.

I can ineptly introduce people and they fall into each other’s arms shouting “I LOVED your haiku about peplums!” Or if they don’t know each other, they can puzzle out why: “I mostly post in Spirituality, Dreams and Buddhism.” “Oh. See, I post in Weird and Flame.ind and my own conference, crazedslayer.pri.”

I still have difficulty not spilling my beverage. The Well has let me down here.

As a result of going to gatherings where people I have never seen turn out to know me and talk to me, I have acquired a reverse paranoia (I’ve read on the Well that this is called pronoia). In gatherings of strangers, I unconsciously feel I’m surrounded by people I know. Neighbors. Friends. “I’m ‘sumac’ on the Well,” I could say whenever I chose. And rather than backing away in a flurry of pepper spray, garlic and silver bullets, they would say, “I know you! You posted that Mary Jo Salter poem.” “Oh, hi — did you ever get that extra head looked at?” “Sumac? I loved your planned itinerary in crazedslayer.pri!”

About the writer

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco writer and co-author with Jeffrey Masson of “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Jon Carroll makes imaginary friends
Farai Chideya learns rules, jargon and how to choose her battles
Mary Mackey decides against summering in Moldova
Steve Silberman discovers something better than a time machine
Mary Elizabeth Williams graduates from misfit to Miss Popular

The beginning, again

By Steve Silberman

In the ’70s and ’80s, even if you were into something cool like punk rock, gay sex or computer programming in your garage, it was hard not to notice a malaise hovering over the national psyche. Part of the problem was the lack of channels of communication to allow you to route around big media — the role played by underground newspapers, FM radio, pot-smoking circles and political meetings in the ’60s — and find out what other folks were thinking about the latest gas shortage or fatuous musical trend. In a million individual apartments, by the light of a million TV screens, people rolled their eyes in isolation.

After you got out of college, the most authentic community you could hope to join was couplehood with a mate who shared your embittered sense of humor and secret sense of wonder, and cocoon like hell while the Idiot Wind gusted outside.

The antidote to the 20-year slump turned out not to be a time machine to spirit us all back for a communal wallow in the Woodstock mud, but a proliferation of venues for unfiltered and unpremeditated conversation. Future sociologists will note that the sudden ubiquity of espresso bars and the upsurge in the popularity of online schmoozing networks like the Well addressed the same longing for a “third place” — a public loitering zone, neither at work nor at home, where friends, acquaintances and intriguing strangers could be drawn into discussions on subjects ranging from the highly perishable news of the day to the eternal verities.

A dial-up connection to the Well provided my first look at the online world seven years ago. Most days, I keep a Well window open on my desktop, where I go to take a few breaths among friends and familiar strangers in the crush of overlapping deadlines.

Media accounts of the Well tend to focus on what you might call its poetry — the topics opened by long-standing members diagnosed with a terminal illness, the orchestrated samurai assaults on media outrages like Time magazine’s promotion of a bogus cyberporn study. Like the heroic moments that mark the turning points in one’s family narrative, these occasional breakthroughs remind everyone why they spend so much time staring at the screen in the first place. But the sustained vitality of the Well is in its prose: The minute-to-minute exchange of cranky opinions, expertise, anecdotes, oblique flirtations and particles of revelation among people who know one another just enough to keep up the general level of interest and helpfulness.

I’m not sure why, but there’s something about places where small, daily insights are tested and shared like this that makes them hotbeds of fresh ideas. In the presence of so many articulate outlooks on what’s happening now, it feels particularly wasteful to wallow in nostalgic longings to live in any other time.

I remember talking to a teenage guitarist in 1989 who told me his favorite bands were the Beatles, CSNY, the Stones … the same records I owned in high school 15 years before. When I asked him if he ever played his own music, he said, “It’s hard to write your own songs when all the good songs have been written.”

It struck me that if he discovered that thousands of other kids felt the same way, he might realize there was a kind of scattered identity in all that exile and frustration — pieces of a song that belonged to his generation. The classic rock on the radio wasn’t going to help him find it.

On the Well, it seems like somebody is improvising a fragment of some new melody every few minutes just by saying what’s on their mind. Given places where we can hear one another, the music is inexhaustible.

About the author
Steve Silberman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Jon Carroll makes imaginary friends
Farai Chideya learns rules, jargon and how to choose her battles
Mary Mackey decides against summering in Moldova
Susan McCarthy becomes the life of the party
Mary Elizabeth Williams graduates from misfit to Miss Popular

From misfit to Miss popular

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

I got on the Well at the same time I began my freelance writing career, as a panacea for the loneliness and isolation of
working at home. I liked my new career but missed the social aspects of a “regular job,” the daily chit-chat about movies or
current events that broke up the day. I turned to the Well to be my virtual water cooler, but it soon turned into something
else entirely — it became a way of life.

Joining the Well gave me the same feeling I’d had years before, when I’d first gone away to college. Suddenly I
wasn’t the misfit chick any more, as I’d been in the corporate world or in high school. Now I was part of a group
that shared my sensibility, my sense of humor, even my obscure pop-culture references. I logged on religiously
throughout the day, posting my opinions, cracking one-liners and discovering, to my delight, that people were
actually reading and responding to what I had to say. It was intoxicating and addictive.

I knew I’d truly arrived the day I logged on and saw a new discussion called “Ask Mary Beth.” It was a goofy little
outpost for ersatz sex advice, but it gave me something to write every day and it was an oasis of acceptance in my
morass of rejection slips.

I liked hanging out online so much it wasn’t long before I graduated from casual poster to a regular and vocal
presence to full-fledged community host. And being a host on the Well led to becoming, in 1995, the host of the
interactive area of a start-up called Salon.

I got my first byline in the New York Times because someone I knew from the Well hooked me up with an editor
there. I got in the Nation the same way. I lived in Boston for two-and-a-half years in part because a pal from the
Well who lived there convinced me it was an OK place to reside. I had hoped the Well would provide a social supplement to my work week, a place to goof off. And it was. That it
also turned to out to be a resource for picking up work was an unexpected perk.

I’d only been on the Well a few weeks when I went to my first face-to-face event, and there I met the woman who would become not only one of my
best friends, but the godmother of my child. The Well flavors our whole friendship. She comes over to coo at the baby, and we wind up gossiping about what
we’ve read that day online. Or she’ll be on a business trip and I’ll be housebound with diaper duty, and we’ll wind
up online at the same time, volleying tales of work and motherhood back and forth as fast as our fingers can fly. And I’ve made other friends along the way, some who live on the other side of the country and one who lives two blocks
away, and I’d never have known any of them had we not first connected on the Well.

Some people claim that life online is no life at all, that the Internet isolates us from human contact. But isolation
is exactly what the Well saved me from. At a time in my life when I felt directionless and alone, I found a place I
could talk about my family, I could get career advice, I could report on how I’d dressed in the ’80s or what I’d
eaten for lunch. I found the milestones and the day-to-day. I found home.

About the writer
Mary Elizabeth Williams is the host of Salon Table Talk.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Jon Carroll makes imaginary friends
Farai Chideya learns rules, jargon and how to choose her battles
Mary Mackey decides against summering in Moldova
Susan McCarthy becomes the life of the party
Steve Silberman discovers something better than a time machine

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

Jon Carroll is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "Near-Life Experiences: The Best of Jon Carroll."

Farai Chideya, the author of "The Color of Our Future" (William Morrow), recently launched a political column via the Los Angeles Times Syndicate which you can also find at Pop+Politics.

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