Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 23 Mar 05 19:35
Cue the inevitable Sergeant Pepper music: Twenty years ago today the Whole Earth Lectronic Link was tuning up, ready to begin to play! The WELL opened up registration to the public on April 1st, 1985. It may be a misnomer to say that the community is 20 years old, since it took a little fermentation before complicated social glue began to bubble up here, but the entire experiment began two decades ago, and it seems that it became captivating rather rapidly. We've discussed several books about The WELL and online communities in Inkwell in recent years, including a few by our two featured guests, but this time we're going to celebrate and dissect The WELL itself, and look at the promise of online communities, networks and gathering places. So let's take a break from the "what is your book about" format, and the designated discussion leader, and join into more of a casual round table and shmooze with Howard Rheingold and Cliff Figallo.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 23 Mar 05 19:49
First, I want to say something about Howard and Cliff as authors and experts. I have loved and admired these guys and their online ascii for many years. They are two of a handful of people who inspired me to do whatever was needed to learn how to work in this realm, leading to my fourteen years working here. I could say a lot about my early impressions, but I wanted to get their input for a short introdution that works for the general public as well as for those who know them. Howard told me that The WELL was really the gateway for his entire career and life work over the past twenty years. Here's his skeletal list of where that career has taken him: Howard Rheingold <http://www.rheingold.com> is the author of: Smart Mobs <http://www.smartmobs.com> The Virtual Community <http://www.rheingold.com/texts/tft/> Tools for Thought <http://www.rheingold.com/texts/tft/vc/book> was the editor of: The Whole Earth Review <http://www.wholeearthmag.com/> The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog <http://www.well.com/user/hlr/mwecintro.html> HotWired <http://www.hotwired.com> founded: Electric Minds <http://www.abbedon.com/electricminds/html/home.html> Brainstorms <http://www.rheingold.com/community.html> teaches: Toward A Literacy of Cooperation (Stanford) <http://cooperation.smartmobs.com> Howard was writing about culture and technology before signing up, and had published a book about PCs and online communications the previous year. He had previously explored BBSs and The Source, but joining The WELL different. He found it personally and professionally all-consuming almost as soon as he joined in August, 1985. By 1987 he wrote the first article to use the term "virtual communities" for the Whole Earth Review, edited by Kevin Kelly. (Yep, that Kevin Kelly.) It took five more years before book publishers realized he was onto something. You can see the discussion of that book, "The Virtual Community," in <inkwell.vue.91> and his "Smart Mobs" in <inkwell.vue.166> Happy to have you here again, Howard.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 23 Mar 05 19:51
Cliff Figallo was a founding member of both The Farm and The WELL who stuck around for years because he thought they were important and fun enough. He says he met a lot of great people and learned a lot both times, in both places. Those are part of him now, and he continues to try to put what he learned to work. He says is SO over talking about the process and interface of online communities, social networks or whatever they're called this year, though he and Nancy Rhine wrote a book about that just that a few years back and talked about it in <inkwell.vue.165> Cliff is stubbornly attached to his conviction that online communities are essential to saving our collective species' ass, and thinks we should be doing more now and talking less. He continues straining his eyes and typing away, believing that solid reality can be impacted through his keyboard and monitor. He still lives twenty minutes up the bike path from the original WELL offices and still dreams of backpacking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Here are some current projects and people Cliff's working with today: Berkana Institute/Berkana Exchange (www.berkana.org) WebLab (www.weblab.org) Viewpoint Learning (www.viewpointlearning.com) Trilogy (www.trilogyir.com) American Health Inititative (www.americanhealthinitiative.org) What Retirement? (http://whatretirement.typepad.com/what_retirement/) CP Square (www.cpsquare.org) When I asked Cliff for his comments he told me "the WELL's longevity has to be a testament to the durability, resiliency and flywheel effect of the community's early personal relationships, formed in times of stress and promise." Good to see you here again, Cliff.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 23 Mar 05 19:56
Cliff, you mention stress (both ecomomic and social) and promise. Howard, you were hooked very early on, an experience a lot of us can relate to in later years. What was different about this place, in an era with hundreds of little low-budget dial-up BBS scenes all over the place?
Cliff Figallo (fig) Thu 24 Mar 05 12:14
The WELL had such diverse roots, while most BBSs at the time were very focused in their interests - more like clubs. The WELL's members could talk about current technology and past shared experiences with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. If I hadn't been able to recognize the sublimated hippie heritage among many of the early WELLers, I'd have been completely lost and ineffective. Compared to most of what was happening in narrow-focused BBSland, the WELL's conferences reflected an uninhibited expansion on one system of perspectives on life, science, current events, spirit, entertainment and vocation. The fluidity of Picospan allowed them all to flow and moosh together. And the WELL had its own ongoing version of small town soap opera politics and psychodrama to keep everyone enthralled, outraged and tickled. I went to a BBSCON conference in Colorado once, when BBSs and other online communities were just beginning to discover their common ground - both socially and technically. The WELL felt more like a university compared to the vocational schools of the traditional BBSs. We were the oddballs. But the oncoming freight train of the Internet was about to transform us all.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 08:07
What else was different about the WELL? We figured that the people who signed up and joined it would determine its interests. Our role in managing it was more to encourage social interaction, friendliness, and an open, uninhibited tone. One of the first conferences Matthew opened was called the Pub, and he aliased himself as Pegleg, as I recall. It was a place for pure jive. There was plenty to be serious about, and we had plenty of very smart people who could post intelligently about topics devoid of humor. Remember, Matthew, Tex and I came from over a decade of communal live where our living situations often begged for an excuse to laugh. When you first get online, especially when it's the first time for most people, it's disorienting - you don't know how your writing is going to come across. You tend to be serious and a little paranoid. You need some assurance that intentionally typing something silly is not only OK, it's welcomed.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 25 Mar 05 08:45
The mixture of humor and substance is a hallmark of the place at its best. By the way, most of the very early content has been lost to early disk space crunch, as you know, but the pub has been kept as an easter egg, to use a time-appropriate bit of computer jargon. It's tucked away and fun to read back though. (For those who are logged in, go to the <pub.> ) It's got a "Star Trek Bar" sense to it in that people were posting requests for ficticious drinks and substances, and reponding as if under the influence of mysterious intoxicants. Five years later, when I signed up, I had a feeling of a sort of contact high at times. I think If I'd looked back through the pub then I might have appreciated the way imagination was expressed early on, and where it took the local culture. On the other hand, it's not so unusual for today, when roll playing and goofing around are ubiquitous. The pleasure then as now is in seeing smart, talented people -- or people you know well -- being creative. It's a little time machine. I'm sure the complete novelty of the online medium for so many of the early participants was a strong factor in unleashing all that playfulness.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 10:01
I had been an avid BBSer for a while -- the mists of time cloud the exact interval -- before I happened on the WELL. In fact, in one of those BBSs named "Skateboard," I met one of my early mentors on the WELL, the late David (dhawk) Hawkins. It was a one-line BBS, so you had to try for a while to be able to log on. And as I recall, there was only one thread/topic! But it was great fun, and we actually got together ftf at a Chinese restaurant from time to time. But the WELL was a big, blooming, buzzing, university-salon-community-prank-in the making. The breadth and level of conversation was stunning -- as well as the sense of "we're building this new thing, whatever it is, together." That, and the Whole Earth mystique -- Stewart Brand and Art Kleiner and Kevin Kelly were actually posting. I was an early devotee of the Pub and pegleg. I remember very clearly dropping in on Matthew at the Gate Five Road home of the WELL/Whole Earth Catalog/Whole Earth Review. It was a pilgrimage. Like many others, I had been inspired by the Catalog, and the community that created the Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review seemed like a mythic land to me -- like that commune in Tennessee where all those hippies in schoolbuses had gone to create their own society. I accompanied Larry Gonick, the cartoonist, who had some art to drop off at the magazine. I went down the hall and introduced myself to Matthew. I think Hugh might have been sysop then. He showed me the Vax and the modem bank. All those lights blinking on and off were people posting! This was a whole vast new universe compared to a one-line BBS! I asked Matthew if I could get free WELL time for hosting a conference -- it cost $3/hr when I joined, and a struggling writer with multi-hundred-dollar WELL bills was getting some heat from his wife about this new drug-like habit. I was concerned that hosting would eat up too much of my time. Matthew said, with what I later realized was a Mephistophelean gleam in his eye, that "some hosts spend less than an hour a week." So I started the Mind conference. I was probably spending two-three hours a day on the WELL in the Fall of 1985. I had a one-year old daughter and was trying to make a living as a freelance writer. It was definitely a guilty pleasure. Without a doubt, a strong motivation for writing about the WELL was to prove to my wife that it was a source of income as well as a time sink. I didn't get to know Cliff for a while, and Matthew was a godlike figure whose every word of praise made my day -- I remember that when I wrote a book review for the SF Chronicle, he sent me unsolicited email in praise of it, and I was floating all day. But it didn't take long for Tex to start checking me out. I'd get sends from him. Then when I first moved to Mill Valley, he started visiting me at my house, which was only a few minutes from Sausalito. Why was this guy cultivating me? Then I started noticing that I wasn't getting billed for my WELL time AT ALL, and got mysterious smileys from Tex when I asked about it.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 10:01
Oh yeah, early WELLer Hoover Chan was also a member of Skateboard
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 10:43
Don't get me started! The first WELL party I went to was at the home of Lila Forest in San Rafael. There were all these strange faces there -- and I knew that I knew many of them. We all have that sensation at our first WOPs, I'm sure. I met dhawk that night. Lila Forest was a Sufi. She left the SF Bay Area and the WELL -- it still required a long-distance call to Sausalito. When she left, she asked if anyone wanted to take over caring for her Tibetan monk. Tsultrim Gyaltsen was a young novice at a monastery in India. She sent him $100 a year to pay for his food and support his studies, and they exchanged letters. So I took over. I've been corresponding with him for 20 years now! He's no longer a novice. ;-) And I raised his stipend to $200. ;-)
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 11:30
I remember first seeing Howard as he came in one day to visit Matthew. Didn't have a clue who he was, but the Whole Earth offices attracted a wild variety of folks. I had my head down, either doing the Point Foundation's books or putting together the billing program for the WELL or formatting files to be uploaded to the typesetter for the second edition of the Software Catalog. I was hanging on by my fingernails to any job Whole Earth had for me. I'd helped do the remodel of the office space. I'd built the small, odd-shaped room that would be the air-conditioned home of something called a Vax 11-750. That time in my life was a personal crucible. Matthew had left the Farm at least 6 months before me and he had a headstart on getting adjusted to life in uncommunal America. I'd arrived in California from the Farm flat broke, with 5 kids and a marriage on the verge of collapse. When the WELL was founded, my home life was in turmoil. And once I took over Matthew's job, I had not only sole custody of my kids, but the responsibility of running a cutting edge business rapidly burning through its initial cash loan. I lived in Bolinas, a 40-minute drive over dangerous winding roads, and I could not handle the standard startup regimen of coming in early and working late. The Farm had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but the remaining idealist in me embraced the idea of working for Stewart Brand, and between living in Bolinas and working at Whole Earth, I was blessed with "halfway houses" to buffer the culture shock. The daily volleyball games at the office were a godsend, and the people working at 27 Gate Five Road were a great bunch, working for little in a funky little building, but exploring some of the most important knowledge in the world. Matthew and I occupied one of the bigger partitioned spaces in the Whole Earth office, just across the hall from the "Vax closet." This was an awkward space to get into and to be within, with its solid-core door mounted the only way it would work, intruding rudely into the tiny office nextdoor to it. You'd open the door and a blast of white noise would hit you - fans for the CPU, fans for the huge Fujitsu hard disks, and the blower from the Sears Roebuck window-mounted air conditioner that tried valiantly to offset the heat being generated by the computer gear. The Vax was the size of an industrial washer, and the rack holding the disks was the size of a narrow refrigerator. You had maybe two feet of space to move in surrounding them with their tangles of cables and phone wires. If there were two of you in there, you had to suck in your gut to fit and yell to be heard. Hugh, our first sysop, came as part of the deal from NETI, who paid the lease on the Vax and its peripherals. Hugh was a big guy - a big, young, smart (and smart-ass) guy who had an even harder time fitting behind the Vax than the rest of us. Hugh knew everything I didn't, and I had to get on the right side of him for him to let me in on the secrets of Unix and the Vax. That I would end up in the Director's chair of this operation a year-and-a-half after its launch was about as conceivable to me as being invited to be an Apollo astronaut. But that's typical of the Whole Earth story. Stewart blessed the idea because he trusted Matthew and he recognized the relationship between social chops learned on a commune and the social savvy required to build an online community. Stewart was a scientist who loved to hypothesize and experiment. I was scrambling to invent a job I could hold on to, that would support my family. Before long, I began to love it.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 11:41
One of Stewart's great virtues has always been his knack for picking the right people, then letting them do what they want to do. And I think his absence from the WELL when he was writing The Media Lab had a lot to do with the "inmates running the asylum" atmosphere.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 11:49
I agree. It was a similar time to when Stephen was in jail during the Farm's fourth year. That provided enough psychic room for people to try stuff that would have been possible with him around. Matthew did what I've ever since advised all of my online community clients to do - he assembled and nurtured a great core of initial users and allowed them the freedom to begin a series of interesting conversations, in which they got to know each others' "licks" just as musicians do who jam together for a while. During that first year, the WELL found itself to the extent that its members understood the turf. It was an imperfect infrastructure, with plenty of potholes, service outages, bad signage and odd echoes, but it was also liberated territory, and those defects could be worked around in pursuit of mind food and entertainment. When Tex came to work with us, we felt like the Three Amigos. Matthew was one of the first friends I'd made on the Farm, when our buses were parked in the same section of woods. I'd lived with Tex and his family in our Farm "embassy" in Washington, D.C. We'd hung and mudded sheetrock together, gone through a bout of hepatitis together, and we knew how to laugh stuff off together. He'd been fixing Peugeots and was new to keyboards, not to mention computer networking, which made him a good one to lead other newbies through the learning trials required to use the WELL. His natural folksiness soon proved to be an even greater asset to the WELL community. We all three agreed: the WELL would NOT be like the Farm. There would be no infallible authority figure. And even if there had to be an ultimate decision-maker, community deliberation would have to take place before decisions would be made. It was a business, but it had to be a community, with improvements over the commune model we'd experienced. We'd seen the deterioration of the Farm under the hovering influence of Stephen, its founder and "teacher." Stewart was fascinated by our Farm experience and strongly resisted the teacher role at Whole Earth, but it's hard for such a visionary to avoid being recognized as a teacher by people who consider themselves to be his students. And it's hard for a founder to not express his druthers about his creation. But our intention was to allow the WELL to be a self-creating entity and hope it would make enough money to keep going.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 11:51
Of course I meant to write "that would have been IMPOSSIBLE with him around."
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 12:26
The ghosts have been awakened. Just starting to write about this has conjured spirits in my mind. Thoughts of dhawk, casey, mandel, and rab are entering my mind, seemingly unbidden, as I go about my other tasks. As so many people testified at his memorial, dhawk had this quiet way of taking newcomers under his wing and showing us the ropes. I know that Cliff has written about this before -- the geekiness of PicoSpan and Unix made it necessary for old-timers to teach newcomers the ropes. And that turned out to be important. Casey used to smack me around so much about the "community" business. Over the years, I've come to agree with much of what she was saying -- and yet, she was also one of the secret sharers who took so many newcomers under her wing. And toward the end, she was certainly a beneficiary of quiet community outreach.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 12:41
It's true...community-shmoonity...who knows what that word *really* means. In some sense, it's just the people and their social relationships. Power to the people! It didn't mean that everyone liked everyone else; that surely wasn't the case. I've often talked about the WELL as a sustainable ecology, with a balance of different types of complementary, symbiotic and parasitical organisms making a stable whole. Sometimes the hassles between different characters would be as entertaining as a good TV sitcom. Some of the most maddening people were also the most endearing. As Tex called it, the WELL was the commune you could go home from. And as we often advised members, "Log off, shut down and take a walk outside." It didn't have to become another vexing part of your life unless you invited it to be. But the fact that it mattered to so many people is what made it so real to so many of us. I, of course, had another concern, which was that the social fabric could be worn through by too much friction. And that a single individual could cause so much friction that the core of the community would abandon us. And that I'd have to look for another job. There weren't a lot of job openings for online community managers in those days. (Not that there are today.)
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 12:48
Frankly, the friction wore me down over the years -- after a decade, the same old predictable feuds became tiresome. And I didn't like having to be thick-skinned regarding the people who were on MY case in order to handle self-disclosure. So I stopped disclosing. Undoubtedly, I should have learned to care less about what some turd thought of me, made more judicious use of the bozofilter, and refused to rise to the bait or get sucked into the thrash. The River thrash was kinda terminally fatiguing for me. But that was so much later. Those first years -- the first decade, really -- was such a love-fest, even with the feuds and flames. I came to the WELL because of Mary Eisenhart's MicroTimes article, BTW, and Mary also dragged my ass to a Grateful Dead show -- after a twenty year absence from GD shows -- and got me into that whole part of the community. Oh man! Another ghost! Mudshark!
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 13:48
The BIG ghost of Blair just snuck up to kick my ass. How could I forget? Now there was a quintessential character.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 25 Mar 05 14:37
It's great to be marking the Well's 20th anniversary! I can testify to what Howard said, about going to a Well party and feeling that connection to people whose faces you'd never seen. I felt my own city of Oakland transformed... I'd sit at the sidewalk tables at Royal Coffee, looking at the other folks there, and think, maybe some of these people I already know on the Well. I've also learned to think, maybe this person is very different inside from what I think based on their appearance. Fourteen years on the Well has helped me become gracious as well as argumentative.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 14:39
I think that by 1986, I was easily spending six hours a day on the WELL, multitasking with whatever writing I was supposed to be doing. I probably wrote 500-1000 words a day for my bread and butter work and 4000 words a day on the WELL. Whenever I found out something new, I rushed to the WELL to report it.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 14:41
Yeah, thinking of Blair is a heartbreaker. He was one of those maddening but endearing characters who, for me, got caught in the squeeze between eccentricity and business. I had to cut off his access cuz he refused - or just couldn't get it together - to cut down his disk space usage. That sounds so funny to say these days when disk space is almost as cheap as the air we breathe. And every time I use my Tivo to record a program I think of Metaview and the pre-VCR contraption he was inventing to record programs automatically on video tape. For those of us willing to lay it all out there for strangers to see and get to know, those ghosts - gone in their prime - are a bit haunting. In some way, I feel that I was involved in their deaths.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 25 Mar 05 15:00
It's sad. I remember a wrangle with crunch about nonpayment for something that is dirt cheap now: access while in Europe. Billing and collections is the hardest part of being vile management. On the other hand, subscription payment allowed us to survive the bubble and bust of 1999-2000. Advertising was not ready for prime time at the time, and didn't give advertisers much for their moeny, and WELL people hated the idea of it anyway. That was so lucky for us.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 25 Mar 05 15:01
There was KJ, who was, I recall, rather caustic online, who started dying, and let it be known that she was losing her sight and didn't have family around. I can't recall how many people got involved in sitting with her in shifts, reading to her and talking. I know I did a few shifts. And I recall the irony that Cliff Stoll did at least one shift -- he who wrote, very soon after that, about the bogosity of online relationships. The funerals were very much rites of passage for the community, as Barlow pointed out at the first one -- Blairs.
Cliff Figallo (fig) Fri 25 Mar 05 15:51
Those first years of the WELL were nothing but ascii text scrolling up the screen. No graphics. No using the mouse. No links (except in terms of Picospan's linked topics), and only the most sophisticated users understood or took part in file transfers. The WELL was, for most of its users, their entire online universe. The online world beyond the WELL was made up of BBSs and the fragmented pieces of what would soon be the Internet. Sure, some people had accounts on CompuServe, the Source, EIES, the early platform-specific ancestors of AOL and even Prodigy, but I spent my first couple years almost all day looking at little green words moving up a black background on the tiny screen of my Compaq luggable PC. These days, when I can edit and upload hi-res photos in minutes and Google gobs of information about anything in known creation, take part in four conversations at a time, and move shit around at speeds that were once inconceivable, I have deep and humble appreciation for how fast the toolmakers were able to advance the medium and catch up with Doug Engelbart's vision from so long ago. Why I remember <spit> when you had to walk 4 miles to school through the snow every day....you younguns don't know how good you got it.
Nancy White (choco) Fri 25 Mar 05 17:42
Keep telling stories. I'm lovin it!
Rick Brown (danwest) Fri 25 Mar 05 18:12
Members: Enter the conference to participate