inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #0 of 184: Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 18 Oct 00 14:06
    
Our next guest is Howard Rheingold, one of the original Well members, former
editor of Whole Earth Review, and the author of several books that were well
ahead of their time. In fact, "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the
Electronic Frontier" was so ahead of its time when it first came out in 1993
that it was only fitting for the book to be updated and re-issued now.

Howard has not only thought about virtual communities more than anyone else
on the planet, but he has been a part of them, started some of his own,
celebrated some and grown disappointed and disillusioned in others -- all
before most other people had a chance even to digest the concept.

Howard is being interviewed by Katie Hafner, a New York Times writer who is
a long-time fan of Howard's writing and thinking. Katie first met Howard
when the two of them, together with Cliff Stoll, were promoting books back
in 1991. Katie had just finished co-writing "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers
on the Computer Frontier," and Howard had just published "Virtual Reality,"
a ground-breaking work on the subject. They made a joint appearance at Dark
Carnival, a sci-fi bookstore in Berkeley and Katie couldn't figure out who
was stranger, Howard, in his psychedelic outfit, or Cliff, who was jumping
up and down and telling people to buy "The Cuckoo's Egg" because it tasted
great with mustard.

Please join me in welcoming Howard and Katie to inkwell.vue!
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #1 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Wed 18 Oct 00 17:13
    
I look weirder, but Cliff jumps up and down a LOT more than I
do! ;-) There are a couple of levels of WELL irony about Cliff, me, and
virtual community. But enough about me...

Hi Linda, thanks for the welcome.

Hello Wellites. I've never really gone away. I just learned to be a better
lurker. I recommend it for all old-timers!

Katie will be showing up any moment. First move is hers.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #2 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Thu 19 Oct 00 15:58
    

First an obvious question. I see that the first edition of the book
was put out by Addison-Wesley, and this one comes from MIT Press.
What's the back-story of the book's reincarnation? who approached whom,
etc?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #3 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Thu 19 Oct 00 17:30
    
MIT Press sent me a manuscript to evaluate. I thought it was worth
doing. They paid me in books. I emailed them and asked if they were
interested in putting my old books back in print and they said yes. A very
capable acquisitions editor, Jeremy Grainger, got on the case. My agent
didn't want to deal with the infinitesmal sums involved, so I did the
contract myself. My motivation was to update and keep in print Tools for
Thought and The Virtual Community. I also wanted them to publish Virtual
Reality, but it turns out that it is still technically in print,
although...obscure. I thought it would make a nice boxed set. ;-)

Then I got into the meat of trying to update the books. I don't think I
need to go to great lengths to make the case that technology has changed,
my own experiences have changed, the social context of virtual community
has changed, the economic and political implications of online social
communication have changed, the amount of knowledge and research has
changed. It was a golden opportunity to do some rethinking. It was fun to
write both of the books.

Trade publishing has changed a great deal since I last wrote a book.

So I thank MIT Press and Jeremy Grainger.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #4 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Thu 19 Oct 00 21:54
    
Just to digress off the topic of virtual communities for a moment,
tell us a bit about Tools for Thought. 
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #5 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 08:01
    
Around 1982, I read Alan Kay's 1977 Scientific American article about his
dream of a "dynabook," and I thought that the place he worked when he
wrote it, Xerox PARC, had to be about the coolest place on earth. So I
started calling the PR dept there regularly, begging for a job. They
didn't have a job. However, one weekend, they had a problem: A VP of a
company Xerox owned had a big dog and pony show the next week, and nobody
had written a speech. Could I learn all about impact printers and write a
speech and work with their artists to create a slideshow over the
weekend? So I did. After that, there were other gigs. I remember clearly
the time they sent me to help Jim White and Yogen Dalal write a scientific
paper on "higher level protocols for the Ethernet." I was and still am not
too technically proficient. It was like asking me to write a paper in
Greek. But PARC had a lot of people who were knowledgeable but either were
too busy to write or were aversive to writing. So I interviewed them, read
their papers, and tried to put a draft together, then they would help me
debug it. All too technical to be interesting to me personally, but there
were a couple advantages. First, I got to use the Alto computer, which had
a mouse (three buttons) and a big screen (black and white) and a WYWIWIG
editor (Bravo, which was later transformed into Word when its creator,
Charles Simonyi, moved from PARC to Microsoft -- I think he's a
billionaire). And I think PARC was, at that time, the ONLY place in the
world that had laser printers. I used to drive 40 minutes each way, so I
could use the Alto, insead of the Morrow CP/M box with Wordstar 1.0 that I
had been using.

The other advantage was that I could roam around PARC. I convinced the PR
folks that there were some great stories there, and they agreed that I
could find the stories and they would place them in magazines. Around the
time the Macintosh was on its way, I discovered this guy, Bob Taylor, who
had headed up the team Alan Kay had worked on. It was Taylor who started
telling me stories. I realized that while the mass-media-reading world
thought Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had invented the personal computer, the
story of the PARC people was much more interesting. When I started reading
Taylor's papers, they led me to an even earlier guy named Doug
Engelbart. I found out how to contact him and interviewed him. I still
remember what a thrill it was to meet him. Truly a man who saw the future
-- and shaped it. 

After Engelbart, I realized that it was important to my own sense of
history to show how other pioneers fit into the story -- Boole, Babbage
and Lovelace, Turing, von Neumann, Wiener. So I wrote Tools for Thought.

I also had met this very smart and entertaining young woman, Brenda
Laurel, and included her in the book. 

Tools for Thought was a real lesson for me in how publishing is a sausage
factory and authors are piggies. It was supposed to be published in the
fall of 1984, but was delayed until Spring 1985, because Simon &
Schuster's computer books division decided to concentrate on getting the
Apple IIC book out in time. Doy! 

When the book came out, I wanted a publishing party. The PR person at S&S
wouldn't return my calls. So I talked to A Clean Well Lighted Place for
Books in Opera Plaza and paid for the wine and cheese myself. The
bookstore turned me onto the S&S rep. I created this postcard invitation
with a pixellated image of Einstein, and hand painted the invites. We had
a great little party. Then I got a call from the S&S PR woman. I had sent
her a painted card and she had put it up on her wall but someone had
stolen it. Would I send her another? Sure. And did I spend any money on
that party? Well, yes. $500. She sent me a check.

I know this is getting long-winded, but the next thing that happened was
that S&S completely dissolved the computer book division on the very day
my book was published. Then the rep called and told me they had misprinted
the order forms and left my book off! I don't think there is a great deal
more you can do to kill a book. Then S&S called and said the might New
York Times, before whom all writers tremble, had called and asked for my
photograph. This meant almost certainly that they were going to run a
review. I fedexed a pic. I walked down to Haight every day for a month to
get the Times. Review never appeared.

Book sank like a stone. Welcome to the wacky world of trade publishing.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #6 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 09:34
    

Revising Tools for Thought was another rare opportunity that I called
"retrospective futurism." I tried to take what I learned from PARC and
Taylor and Kay and Engelbart and Licklider and Laurel and project a
possible future toward the end of the millennium. It was educational for
me to look at my forecasts, and those of the experts I interviewed, to see
where we were right and where we were wrong. At the end of the book, I
explored the online world of BBSs and The Source (I wasn't connected to an
institution that could connect me to the ARPAnet, although I now realize
that if I had been savvy enough, I could have talked PARC into getting me
an account).

Licklider is no longer with us, but in 1999, I re-interviewed Taylor,
Engelbart, Kay, Laurel, and Avron Barr.


The following words are the first paragraphs of the 1985 book. 



South of San Francisco and north of Silicon Valley, near the  place where
the pines on the horizon give way to the live oaks and radiotelescopes, an
unlikely subculture has been creating a new medium for  human
thought. When mass-production models of present prototypes reach our
homes, offices, and schools, our lives are going to change dramatically. 

The first of these mind-amplifying machines will be descendants  of the
devices now known as personal computers, but they will resemble today's
information processing technology no more than a television resembles a
fifteenth-century printing press. They aren't available yet, but   they
will be here soon. Before today's first-graders graduate from high school,
hundreds of millions of people around the world will join together 
to create new kinds of human communities, making use of a tool that a
small number of thinkers and tinkerers dreamed into being over the past
century.

Nobody knows whether this will turn out to be the best or the worst thing
the human race has done for itself, because the outcome of this
empowerment will depend in large part on how we react to it and what we
choose to do with it. The human mind is not going to be replaced by a
machine, at least not in the foreseeable future, but  there is little
doubt that the worldwide availability of fantasy amplifiers, intellectual
toolkits, and interactive electronic communities will change the way
people think, learn, and communicate
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #7 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 10:55
    
Actually, that sounds pretty prophetic to me (a la Licklider's
thinking). So where do you think you were most off-base in those
paragraphs?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #8 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 11:34
    
In those paragraphs, I did better than I did in some other places. I still
remain somewhat overoptimistic about the "what it is, is up to
us" stuff. The alternative is technological determinism and a kind of
fatalism. But I don't see a great deal of broad and deep critical
discourse regarding technology practices. There is uncritical enthusiasm
and there is rather starkly baby-out-with-the-bathwater criticism, and the
good stuff in between (I would cite Langdon Winner as an example) is not
widely known or discussed. I know the technorealists were mocked, but I
applaud their attempts to initiate some broad-based discussions of the
social impacts of technology that were neither rah-rah nor no-no.

The chapter about "knowledge engineering" and expert systems was way
off. For reasons Avron Barr put forth in the new chapter, the widespread
mediation of human expertise through software never came about -- although
descendents of the systems Barr and others were building in the 1980s are
used in specialized applications.

I was too enthusiastic about the potential for computers in schools. The
PC revolution in education failed because of the inadequacy of the
hardware and software and the widespread lack of understanding of the need
for technical support, teacher training, pedagogical research and
education, dissemination of best practices -- an entire matrix of social
and political factors that technology enthusiasts like myself left out of
the equation. I see similar magical thinking happening in regard to the
"wiring the classrooms" movement these days. As you know, I wrote a rant
about that, which remains unpublished. I'd post it, but it probably strays
off topic. Maybe I should upload it to my website and post a link.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #9 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 11:56
    
You should do that. It's an interesting rant. 

Back to virtual communities, though: How did your views on virtual
communities change in the seven years between the publication of the
first and revised editions of the book? In 1995, I think it was, you
published a column in the Examiner that was a bit of a re-adjustment of
your thinking on the topic, yes?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #10 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 12:16
    
The 1995 column was in reaction to a thoughtful and strong criticism by
Ferback and Thompson, who claimed that hopes for the Internet as a vector
for strengthening the public sphere was a false claim and a dangerous
utopian fantasy -- dangerous because it promoted magical thinking (the
technology, rather than the concerted action of citizens will fix what is
wrong with democracy.)

That criticism led me to look at my own thinking and writing with new
eyes. Around that time, Net-time was emerging as a source of discourse
from mostly left-leaning European critics of Internet technology. Some of
them definitely qualify for Bruce Sterling's description as "goofy
leftists." Richard Barbrook, for example, was under the delusion that
Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, John P. Barlow, Louis Rossetto, and I meet
regularly to discuss our many areas of agreement regarding libertarian
political philosophy. But one of the Nettime group, Geert Lovink, was
quite helpful in challenging my views.

It would be simplistic to say that it is wrong and sheerly "the rhetoric
of the technological sublime" to claim that online information,
publishing, organizing, and discourse have the potential for improving the
public sphere. For one thing, as Chou En Lai said of the French
Revolution, "it's too early to tell." For another thing, the technology
and the economic phenomena associated witht he growth of the Intrnet have
been far more rapid than a widespread understanding of how many-to-many
communication can be used for political discourse. I still think that a
major shift in POTENTIAL political power was signalled by the
transformation of every desktop computer into a printing press,
broadcasting station, and place of assembly. Will a sufficient number of
people grasp the essentials of how to use this technology platform to
enliven citizen to citizen discussion of the issues that concern us? Will
lack of netiquette and online incivility trump their efforts? Will
grassroots groups show some success in using online media to leverag their
efforts? All of these questions are still viable. In the book, I cited
many instances of worthy experiments.

Note that one important change in my own rhetoric is a more meticulous
emphasis on human agency. The tools have certain affordances and certain
potential in social and political contexts. Will people GRASP these
handles and put these tools to work effectivly? The tool is not the
task. I was not sufficiently clear or emphatic about that in 1993.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #11 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 12:23
    
You should do that. It's an interesting rant. 

Back to virtual communities, though: How did your views on virtual
communities change in the seven years between the publication of the
first and revised editions of the book? In 1995, I think it was, you
published a column in the Examiner that was a bit of a re-adjustment of
your thinking on the topic, yes?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #12 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 12:27
    
Oops. Posted that last one again by mistake (I'm using ENGAGED for the
first time and have to admit: I LIKE IT, except for that little glitch
that just happened :-) 
(How does one scribble a post in Engaged, btw?)

Back on topic: You say "worthy experiments?" which ones in particular?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #13 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 12:42
    
Minnesota E-Democracy is one that I failed to adequately cite, but it
brought candidates togethr with citizens in online chats and message
boards and posted position papers.

http://www.capitoladvantage.com offers "Tools for Online Grassroots
Advocacy and Mobilization" -- a comprehensive guide to Congressional
publications, directories to identify state and national congressional
representatives, spot news and issue tracking.

http://www.freedomforum.org is a good example of vibrant political
discussion and advocacy via message boards, Internet radio, and news on
civil-rights related events.

http://www.cpn.org -- the Civic Practices Network -- describes itself as
"...a collaborative and nonpartisan project dedicated to bringing
practical tools for public problem solving into community and
institutional settings across America.

http://www.bcn.boulder.co.us/afcn/ is the locus of community network
builders

And more. There are many many unpublicized efforts. Some are successful
but don't have the financing to scale up. Some have failed, but their
lessons are lost because they are not widely known. Grassroots democracy
is neither lucrative nor sexy. It doesn't get ink and it doesn't get
bucks. Perhaps that will change as the Benton, Pew, Kellogg and other
foundations look into the uses of the Internet in community-building, the
public sphere, and civil society.

Perhaps history will say "at one point, some people had hopes that
informed use of online media could help revitalize democracy and lend
strength to grassroots efforts to build social capital, but of course the
demise of Netiquette, the age of the spammers, the lack of press coverage
and public or private financing caused these efforts to die out." I'd like
to think otherwise. But I now believe the odds are AGAINST a widespread
and intelligent use of the new medium. That doesn't mean I am ready to
give up advocacy. Not while there is a chance of influencing the outcome
by spreading the word about these worthy experiments.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #14 of 184: Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 20 Oct 00 12:46
    

Let me add at this point, that if you have questions or comments for
Howard, and you are not on the WELL to post them for yourself, please
e-mail them to inkwell-hosts@well.com and we will see that they get posted
for you.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #15 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 13:27
    
Howard, that last goof-up with my post put me in mind of a question
that I have always wondered about, and that I hope you don't consider
too esoteric, but here goes:  I'm wondering how the STRUCTURE of
conferencing systems actually influences how a virtual community forms,
grows, thrives or doesn't thrive.... 

I've wondered how Picospan, for instance, has influenced the way in
which members of the Well community interact and how the community
developed over the years. That versus a different type of conferencing
system....
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #16 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 13:46
    
One obvious answer is that we had instant messaging in 1985! Integrating
"presence detection" (what you get from the "u" command) and instant
messaging ("send") with a conferencing system (Picospan) gave a real sense
of place to the WELL from the beginning -- especially for the regulars --
and created a synchronous back-channel and counterpoint to the
asynchronous conversations. I was one of those people who became
intoxicated with the storm of multiple "sends," posts, and emails.

When web-based conferencing came along with Motet and Engaged, I was
excited. Integrating the affordances of the web (links and
multimedia) with conferencing (written, asychronous, strucured,
many-to-many discussion) was, to me, a great breakthrough. I've had my ups
and downs with Engaged, but Motet and Caucus and WebCrossing rock.

This time next year, and probably sooner, we'll see an environment that
integrates IM, chat, web-enabled message boards, and
participation-by-email. It can be kludged together now, of course. And
intgration doesn't necessarily mean a usable UI. But I would like to see
the whole suite of tools at our disposal.

Others have written about the role of Picospan in the development of the
WELL. Stewart Brand isn't often credited with key design decisions,
foremost among them the decision to require real names and to not enable
anonymous posting. Marcus Watts hard-coded into the software the social
characteristic that nobody can delete (scribble) a post without notice --
a note appears that the post was scribbled. The ability to link topics
across conferences creates a great deal of synergy.

I think we're still really at the beginning of learning how to use online
media effectively for different social and political and cultural and
economic goals. Heck, most people don't know how to use mail properly.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #17 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 14:10
    
What do you mean by that, that most people don't know how to use mail
properly?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #18 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 15:01
    
I'm not referring to people sophisticated enough to be Wellites. But it
happens to me often enough to extrapolate wildly that it happens all over
the place: You get email from someone. You are one of 165 people in the
cc: line or even the to: line. Someone -- I was stupid enough to do it
once -- emails the entire list and tells everyone not to reply to the
entire list and not to send unsubscribe messages because it's not an
organized list, it's a nightmare. And then half those messages bounce
because the addresses were obsolete or bogus. Then three people send
unsubscribe messages, sixty people say "fuck you" to the original "please
don't reply to everybody" message, four people say "I don't understand
what's going on here," followed by eighty people telling everyone to shut
the fuck up.

I got one of those. The subject was hiphop happenins in Brooklyn. I
figured they had spidered web pages for keywords including "grafitti," cuz
I had some grafitti pix. I really want hundreds of surly messages a day
about hiphop happenings in Brooklyn.

It died down after four hundred messages. Then I think someone stole the
first moron's list and revived it, weeks later! A year has passed, and I
still live in fear.

I did some business with the subsidiary of a big company based in Hong
Kong. They sent out a message to a bunch of aliases for lists. A friend of
mine in the subsidiary figure the message went to 70,000 people: "Friday
is a holiday in China."

For starters.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #19 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 16:01
    

Oh.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #20 of 184: Katie Hafner (kmh) Fri 20 Oct 00 16:08
    
 
On another note, in the book you write that "The feeling of logging
into the Well for just a minute or two, dozens of times a day, is very
similar to the feeling of peeking into eh cafe, the pub, the common
room, to see who's there."

I'm not sure how many others I speak for, but I have *never* really
known an analog for that virtual peeking in real life. I, for one, have
never had an actual place to peek into periodically, to see who's
hanging around. And it's my suspicion that such places have not really
existed for people for a very long time. Which makes (made?) a place
like the Well all the more extraordinary.
 
What do you think?
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #21 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 16:20
    
You can do it in Paris and NYC and London. There's still some cafe culture
in San Francisco. But of course we spend a lot more time in front of a
computer screen than strolling down the boulevard.

For me, it was definitely a break in the normal isolation of a writer.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #22 of 184: Mary Eisenhart (marye) Fri 20 Oct 00 17:13
    
Re #18 and people not knowing how to use mail properly--

in every non-technical list I'm on, nearly every digest is 
five times longer than it has to be because people don't get it
about not just replying and leaving all the previous 25 messages
in the thread in their text. This makes it pretty hard to sift
out the new and interesting stuff, and I suspect I'm not the only
one who participates less as a result.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #23 of 184: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 20 Oct 00 18:48
    
The larger issue here is that the technology of computer mediated
communication, and the adoption curves, have raced far ahead of the
understanding of and dissemination of literacy in effective use of these
media. Email is the easiest level. Having a useful, effective, convivial,
fun, ongoing many to many conversation in a message board or a chat room
is more complex. Add instant messaging and you have a lot of media that
many people use, and few people know how to use effectively.

I'd say the biggest wild card in trying to see the shape of social
cyberspaces in the future, and their importance in people's lives and the
public sphere, is how far, quickly, and deeply online communication
literacy spreads.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #24 of 184: flash gordon md (flash) Fri 20 Oct 00 22:49
    
in the early days of the well, there was a lot of "communal" kind of
attitude: perhaps tex and fig's time on the Farm contributed to that.

do you think that's unique to the well? it's been my principal online
community; i wonder if you feel "community" is something that's
started in a lot of places online, or if the well really is unique.
  
inkwell.vue.91 : Howard Rheingold - The Virtual Community, second edition
permalink #25 of 184: Martha Soukup (soukup) Fri 20 Oct 00 23:00
    
There were strong communities on GEnie, particularly, in my experience, on
the Science Fiction RoundTable.
  

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