View Electronic Edition


I WORK AT THE WELL, Whole Earth's online computer conferencing network. The WELL itself sits in an air-conditioned closet at the Whole Earth office. A bunch of phone lines come into the building. There's a modem for each phone line. These modems in turn are wired up to a Vax computer. The Vax is about the size of a large dishwasher. We can handle up to 23 callers at a time, which we often do with over a thousand people logging in each month. When people visit us they like to go in and look at the equipment. When you see the lights on the modems flickering you know that conversations are happening. Minds are meeting.

Personal computers are amazing communication tools. Put a computer together with a modem and you can converse simultaneously with several people, collaborate on writing projects, find work, gather and refine ideas, get technical updates, swap some stories, argue politics, and get a recommendation on a good restaurant and movie without getting up from your desk. Online conferencing networks can be both a place where you meet people - like a neighborhood pub - and a tool for gathering and storing information.

As I sit at my desk in the WELL office shuttling between conferences, doing mail, writing pieces like this one, and talking online as well as on the phone to new users, I check to see who is logged in every few minutes. I know most of the names. Because we have had a lot of social gatherings I know many faces to go along with the names. Many have become my good friends.

Sometimes when I'm working I feel like I'm in the wheelhouse of a big Mississippi riverboat. On the decks people are strolling and talking as they lean against the rail. There's a casino and parlors and places to eat. Way down below they're talking shop with the machinists. There are regulars and newcomers. Everyone has a unique point of view. Sometimes it's choppy, but usually it's steady as she goes.
WELL stands for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. It's the collaborative brainchild of Whole Earth's Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, best known for his work with the SEVA Foundation and head of Network Technologies (NETI). Whole Earth and NETI each own half of the WELL. After spending time working on projects through the EIES network, Stewart and Larry conceived the WELL as a place where a variety of people could meet online without spending an arm and a leg. Early on Stewart said the WELL is the "kind of thing coffee shops were supposed to be about, but are pretty hard to find these days."

Although there is a lot of useful information stored on the WELL like in a library, it is through conversing in conferences, electronic mail (email) and real-time that the fabric of the community is knit.
There are over ninety WELL conferences. Some are computer specific, some are technical, and some consist of people throwing out their ideas, telling their stories or arguing social and political issues. After talking with people about all kinds of different things over time you get the feeling that you know that person even if you have never met face to face.

So you cruise around to different conferences and you find out what people think about things. The information moves "horizontally" among the peer group of the participants. Anyone can start a discussion topic in a conference. Topics can be linked between different conferences. After awhile I think the word "community" begins to describe what goes on better than does "network." In a community, the interactions are ongoing. You run into some of the same people every day. Over time, professional and personal interaction can overlap. There becomes a sense of place to it. It often reminds me of an electronic Greenwich Village. Logging in can be like going down to the street to check the action.

We don't have a lot of rules; we manage the WELL in a very low key style. It really can't be done any other way. The keystone of the WELL organization is the conference hosts. Every conference has a host. That word was very deliberately chosen. Public online conferences are a lot like ongoing parties and someone has to make sure there's ice in the cooler, food on the table, continuity in the discussions, and good general organization.

Online conferencing is talking by writing. You setup your context, get to the point, and get out. Because it's a conversation between sometimes fairly large groups, you don't want to "dominate the rap" and you don't want to be repetitive. You have to remember that people are looking at computer screens, which seem to put unique demands on people's ability to focus on long-winded pieces. If your "posting" runs longer than one or two screen lengths, it had better be pretty interesting. And you will hear from people if they think you ramble too much.

The flip side of that, though, is if you have a good story to tell or enjoy quality repartee, or can lay out and quickly back up an argument or insight, then the chemistry can be there for a kind of ad hoc think tank that has soul and is fim. We talk about everything from war and law, music, work, birth, death, where this "info age" is going, and AIDS to online talk shows, tales of past experiences and exploits, online gift notifications (better known as Pokeybux), your thoughts on human relationships, bugs in the latest version of PageMaker, reports of WELL weather, the Maddog Improvement Society, and critiques of the latest Grateful Dead show.

Ah yes, the Deadheads. There's plenty of action around the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead Conference is the WELL'S largest, with people logging in from all over the country. It's mostly good talk, but some on line collaboration happens too. Once we designed a WELL T-shirt together. We chose the design, had someone take the money and another person got them printed up.

The WELL is a confluence of social and cultural elements. Similar to Chesapeake Bay, where nine different rivers merge, the WELL's character comes from hackers, writers, artists. Deadheads, knowledge workers, fugitives from the counter-culture, educators, programmers, lawyers, musicians, and many more.
The Info conference, for example, is regularly visited by a magazine editor, a college journalism teacher, an author, a consultant to a state assembly committee, an info age muckraker, a retired Army colonel turned info age pioneer, a manager from Pacific Bell, a librarian, and members of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. We evaluate news, laws, discuss government hearings, and theorize about the forces at play that are attempting to capture their piece of the action as these new information tools become more widespread. It's exciting, relevant stuff because it has to do with basic Constitutional freedoms. In these discussions, age, race, or culture don't matter. Your contribution to the discussion is the only thing that counts.

I think if the WELL establishes one thing it is that meeting through computers doesn't have to be a step in some inexorable march toward an Orwellian society with people droning away at isolated terminals. There is a kind of magic to the fact that real human emotions, "vibes" if you will, can carry through the chips and wires.

If you can get your computer and modem to dial a phone number, you can log in to the WELL. Usually the default settings that come with the communications program work fine. The WELL does cost money to use, but at $8/month + $3/hour the rates are among the lowest in the country for comparable facilities.
Actually, the phone company makes more on this than we do. But we have ways of tipping the balance sheet more in your favor on the cost of the phone call. If you live outside of the San Francisco Bay Area you can save substantial money on the phone call by reaching the WELL via Internet. If you live in the Bay Area call us and we'll give you tips on cheaper phone access through special local lines. In addition, the WELL is one of the few places where an individual account has full access the worldwide UNIX community through USENET and UUCP mail.

To sign up just call 415/332-6106 with your modem and type new user at the Login: prompt. Or call us at 415/332-4335 if you'd like more information.