Life and death on the Well

Author Katie Hafner says the online community made history -- from a legendary fight against anti-porn hysteria to the simple task of providing information on head lice.


Janelle Brown
April 17, 2001 11:30PM (UTC)

As a Well member I may be biased, but I think it's fair to say that the Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Links) is not your average online community. Tens of thousands of members have passed through the Well over the years, but for its core constituency the Well has provided a close social network for more than a decade. Home to ex-hippies, academics, New Agers, baby boomers, oddballs, the tech-savvy and the simply intellectually curious, the Well has welcomed diversity in humans and ideas.

It is impossible to fully capture the intricate community lore of the Well and all its stories, but in her new book, "The Well: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community," New York Times reporter Katie Hafner delivers the Well's essential experience. Based on her Wired cover story from 1997 Hafner's book tracks the social history of the Well from its inception in 1985 through its acquisition by Salon.com in April 1999.

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Although the book is ostensibly about whether you can, as Hafner puts it, "build a community and a business as one and the same," "The Well" works best as a story about relationships. Hafner skillfully draws the human side of this community through the life of Tom Mandel, a mercurial, controversial and beloved Well member who lived (and died) a very public life in the Well's forums. Through extensive interviews and hundreds of reprinted Well posts, Hafner turns Mandel's battles with both his Well girlfriend and lung cancer into a symbol of the impact the insular community has had on the daily lives of its most devoted members.

As Hafner puts it, "The Well didn't mirror reality. It was reality." Salon Technology spoke with Hafner about the process behind her book and the Well's community legacy.

When did you first get on the Well, and why?

I was working on my first book, "Cyberpunk," about computer hackers. I was spending a lot of time in Berlin and I needed a way to get online there. The Well was one way to do it; this was in 1988. I got on the Well in January of 1989. It's the account I used for years.

But I never really spent time in conferences because I was too shy and intimidated; it's all cliquish. What would I say and how would people react? There is a whole self-selecting thing about the Well.

Where do you go on the Well?

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I go into the parenting conference; I remember when I thought my kid had lice, there was a lice discussion. It was incredibly helpful. And when I was looking for an apartment in Berkeley, I went into the Berkeley conference and posted quite a bit. Everybody was so nice.

I don't know what my problem was about participating, because every time I have participated people have been incredibly nice. But I'm shy. I think a lot of reporters are shy.

One of the big reasons that I haven't spent a lot of time on the Well interacting is that I don't have the time. I have a job and I am always either working on a book or a magazine piece, and I have a family. And a lot of stuff I do [when I'm not working] isn't computer-related just to save my sanity. I don't want to spend any more time in front of a computer than I have to.

Do you think the fact that the Well was dominated by men changed the feeling of the place, or shaped the kind of discourse that happened there?

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It's interesting to contrast the Well with Echo [a similar online community, but based in New York]. When Stacy Horn started Echo she made a really conscious effort to bring women in. There was a notable difference in tone vs. the Well, which did, in the early days when it was predominantly male, tend to be geeky and macho and self-conscious, especially if you look at those very early conferences. So when Women on the Well started -- which I don't get into much in the book and I was criticized for -- it's interesting how women sort of helped bring more balance to the tone, I think.

Well members are famous for being hypercritical; what has their reaction to your book been like?

No one has said anything to me yet. It's on Amazon, but it's not officially out until May.

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When the Wired article came out, reaction was mostly positive, although some women weren't happy because women weren't mentioned enough. There was one guy who attacked the article, then everyone attacked him -- typical Well behavior -- and then he went back and reread the story and apologized and said, "Katie, good job."

I've learned over the years that it's much easier to criticize than to compliment. It's kind of a knee-jerk criticism, and the Well has more of its share of those [kinds of people]. But the Well also has such incredible humanity; it will really take your breath away. I barely mentioned all the incredible things that have happened on the Well -- people raising money to send people to school, paying for people's medical bills, buying people's houses. It's amazing.

What was your favorite Well story that you didn't include?

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The most amazing story which ever took place on the Well is the story of Gabe Catalfo, who got leukemia many years ago as a 7-year-old. He died in 1998, when he was a teenager. Through all those years, there was an amazing outpouring of support and everything for Phil -- Gabe's father -- and Gabe and the whole family.

There's nothing like it. It's an absolutely heartbreaking story: You can read it; the whole thing is up there. It's riveting, heartbreaking, uplifting. But I only mention it in passing. Entire civilizations rose and fell on the Well, and I produced this slim little book. It's something that I've got to address: the fact that I wrote what is essentially a very tightly focused story, the spine of which is Tom Mandel. Some people will say that's not the story of the Well. Well, it's one story of the Well, and one way of getting at the quintessential Well.

Why did you choose Tom Mandel as the subject of the book? What about his story seemed "quintessential" Well?

I knew the story needed a focus; my strength as a reporter is not analysis, it's narrative. So I knew when Wired asked me to do the piece that the story would need some kind of narrative spine, but I didn't know what it would be because I had no preconceptions. My assignment was to "write the history of the Well" -- it took about two seconds to get the assignment. I was left totally on my own.

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But every interview I did, this guy Tom Mandel came up. And I thought, This is it, this is my thread. I talked to my editor on the piece, Katrina Heron, and she agreed that it made a great focal point.

So, the story wasn't your idea: What was it about the Well that interested you?

I immediately thought, Bingo, great topic, because I knew in the back of my head that there had been a lot of melodrama -- interesting, very human stuff. What interests me in any technology story is the human aspect. It was completely up my alley, and just technical enough so that I could chew on some of that.

But the other thing that interested me was the technology of Picospan, the system that was used, and how it shaped the culture. For me that's an endlessly fascinating riddle: how we are shaped by the technology we use. Picospan [was so difficult to use that it] made it hard for just anybody to go on the Well -- you had to have a rudimentary command of Unix. So in that respect, you had to fight pretty hard if you weren't at all technical, to just get going. People for years struggled with the more arcane aspects of Picospan.

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And also the way it was a threaded discussion was interesting, with posts one after another; the way you can go back and read a discussion from the beginning. It is not a chat room. You can start at the beginning [of the Well's history], and read it all.

How did you find all those posts that you republished? Did you spend a lot of time reading the back history of the Well?

I spent a lot of time reading it. A lot of that stuff wasn't archived, so I had to go back to people who would hand me stuff they had archived on disks; a lot of people had created their own archives on floppies. That was pretty neat.

What was one of the most disheartening things you learned about the Well as you investigated it?

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When Stewart Brand co-founded the Well, one of his big goals was accountability. When he came up with "You own your own words," he didn't mean [you had a] copyright, he meant you are going to have to be accountable for the words you post. The other thing [he instituted] for accountability was no anonymity.

What was disheartening as time went on was that people would erase their words, scribble them. That made it a mockery of something. You can argue that if you own your own words, then it's your right to erase them. But I would argue that one lives a life, and one lives a life whether it's on the Well in the virtual world or in reality. We can't erase a marriage, or erase a mistake we make with raising a child. These are things we accept; we know we've done it and messed up. But you can't blot it out. I think people abuse one of the features of the Well, which is the scribbling command.

Like what Tom Mandel did when he mass-deleted his posts after breaking up with his girlfriend, the Well member Nana?

Exactly.

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I've noticed that you use the past tense when writing or talking about the Well. Why?

I think the Well is still obviously alive and well, but it isn't the force that it once was. It's a very, very small place in cyberspace now. In the past, it wasn't huge either but it was disproportionately influential. I don't think that's the case anymore. Things that started in the Well -- like founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or the Marty Rimm [child porn] debate -- that wouldn't happen now. The Well is still there, a lot of interesting discussions take place, but it just isn't what it used to be.

Have any communities supplanted the Well, in your opinion? Or successfully replicated it?

There's Echo, it trundles along, but I don't think it was as influential as the Well was in its heyday. There are pockets of AOL, but they aren't that kind of community either. It's a mystery to me, and as I go and talk about the book more it will be interesting to see what people have to say about feelings about community in cyberspace now; what engenders that and nourishes that. I can say that I think a lot of community now is not in the U.S.; I think that when one tends to see communities, it's far more international.

I have a community of friends I talk to all the time on e-mail; those people mean a lot to me, and I've stayed in touch with people via e-mail. But a place where you go and log in and hang around, like the Well? I haven't seen that. But there sure has been no shortage of attempts to create that place.

So what do you think the role of the Well is in 2001?

It's two things. One is historical, obviously, but I dearly hope the Well never goes away. I think it should always be there as a place to go -- it has the same look and feel, whatever you feel about engaged, it's there. You can log on to the Well today using Picospan and feel like it's 1990. Maybe I'm just a conservative, I don't know. But it's this little pocket you can rely on and depend on, and there will be people you know. I like going to the Well and seeing who's logged on, though I recognize fewer and fewer log-ins than I used to.

Considering how insular the Well is, why do you think there will be a widespread interest in the book?

Well, I don't know, but I hope so. For one thing, it's just a good yarn. It brings -- this may be a cliché -- but it does put a human face on something that is essentially driven by technology. One reviewer described my book as being about "a phenomenon difficult to believe if you've never been part of it." It's really hard to describe the Well -- "Oh, well, everyone's sitting there typing!" It is kind of difficult to believe: Who would have believed that the kinds of emotions that ran so high on the Well could have happened online like that? How can it be so emotional, so destructive, if you're just reading a description, words?


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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