Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 20 Oct 00 23:42
Have you tried any of the current electronic book devices? How do they compare to the vision of the Dynabook?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 21 Oct 00 08:40
There are communities all over the world. When I travelled on my book tours and to speak, people felt compelled to come up to me to testify. As I made clear in the new chapter, not every online social network is a place where people party together, eat meals together, pass the hat to help someone out when they lose a job, form support networks when someone is ill, babysit for each other's kids -- the kinds of things that we expect people in communities to do. But from the testimony I've received from people, it happens everywhere. I had a dinner with dozens of people at a house Shigaraki, in the hills an hour's train ride outside Kyoto, who are members of a community network. I had a lunch with a couple dozen people in Stockholm -- young web designers who were part of a community that was held together by a list that had sometimes hundreds of messages a day (I tried to sell them on the idea of message boards). People travel from all over the world to gather with their friends from IRC channels or newsgroups, even AOL message boards. I suspect it happens MORE than we know. The WELL was unique because of the historical time it started, 1985, because the San Francisco Bay Area is somewhat unique, because of the Whole Earth Review/Catalog community that seeded it, and because of the Figtex (and mmc) experience in communal living. But it isn't unique in terms of it being a home for many communities that extend into the face to face world. Brian, I haven't tried any of these devices. As I recall, without looking it up, the Dynabook was supposed to be about the size of a book, with a high resolution color screen, wireless broadband network capability, powerful processor. Looks to me like the best of today's laptops with wireless connectivity are slightly larger versions. As Alan Kay noted in the new chapter of Tools for Thought, the Web turned out to be less symmetrical than he had hoped, in terms of every consumer of information also being an author.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 21 Oct 00 09:17
Howard, one of the reasons The Virtual Community was such an eye-opener for me is that you did journey to meet people, and do the extensive follow-up. It was great hearing snippets about the hack that made the French Minitel system into an interactive service, and that made it all the more gratifying to get an in-depth story in the book. And I know that because of the book you have continued to do this kind of travel and follow-up... so my question is, does the afterward chapter add any good tales and examples? And are there more you wish you'd had time to tell?
Katie Hafner (kmh) Sat 21 Oct 00 09:26
Gail is right. You've become *the* most experienced anthropologist for the virtual community universe. Were you surprised, between editions, to see how much that universe had expanded? Or, conversely, how little it had?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 21 Oct 00 09:51
I didn't really get into that in the new chapter, I'm afraid. I could have written an entirely new book! I wanted to concentrate on some key questions about the nature of community, about how community-like online social networks are or are not, what this all has to do with the public sphere and civil society. However, after I posted that up above, images immediately flooded into my head, of the good friends and warm times I had with friends in Adelaide (which reminded me in a strange way of Austin) and Amsterdam (http://www.well.com/user/hlr/roadshows/amsterdigital.html) and Tokyo (http://www.well.com/user/hlr/roadshows/tokyopiga.html) and Austin and New York and Seattle and Geneva (http://www.well.com/user/hlr/roadshows/geneva/). I'm sure a dozen more such instances will occur to me. Truly, there are a lot of very similar characteristics to these groups, although I don't pretend to be an ethnographer. People forge strong bonds through some of these groups, and some of those bonds continue for a long time. I remember how gracious Flash was to offer his house for a party after I did a booksigning at the Booksmith on Haight Street in 1988. Almost all the people at the signing and the party were Well friends. For some reason that last sentence triggered off a memory that isn't a happy one, but certainly a poignant one. Who of the people at Dhawk's memorial could deny that the word "community" could be used legitimately to describe our connections. I saw so many people I had not seen in years. There was as much laughter as there were tears, as it should be. When Reet played that pre-release CD of the Persuasions singing "Brokedown Palace," chills went up my spine. And all the testimony about Dhawk. Like everyone, he had his faults. But so many of us had the same story about how he literally took us by the hand and welcomed us to our first WELL party, how he patiently spent hours helping us figure out the complexities of .cfdirs and .cflists and other Picospan technicalities -- long before he was a WELL employee.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 21 Oct 00 10:32
I know that when I was working as a freelance writer I certainly felt the isolation that you talked about earlier, and logging on to the WELL was a way to feel that I was connected, not just to the outside world but also to other writers. That feeling was reinforced at a g writer's party at your house one year, Howard, which felt to me like I had gone to the office Christmas party and actually met my co-workers, some for the first time. That's just one of the ways that the WELL was a community in my experience. As I started going to more and more conferences and meeting more and more people, that feeling of community expanded and was further reinforced. In a way, it was more real than many of the other connections I have with people in face-to-face life.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 21 Oct 00 10:44
That was a special party for me, too. We had an altar. Certainly the Writer's conference is one of the places on the WELL where a strong sense of mutual support has always been encouraged. The hosts have always gone out of their way in that regard, and so have the participants. Clearly, those of us who are somewhat familiar with the WELL understand that it's misleading to call it "a community." Is the News conference a "community?" Or "war?" It's very much like the small town that grows. Sure, there was a time in 1985 or 1986 when it was possible to have a .cflist that included every conference, if not every topic on the WELL. And most people recognized most other people's names. And the people at WOPs represented a significant if nowhere near a majority portion of the population. But the kind of feeling you can get with an online population of 500 changes when that population grows to 1000 and 5000. I think the "community" feeling is somewhat granular -- smaller groups of 50-200, like the writer's conference, are communities. Some people belong to multiple communities. People have portfolios of social ties online. Some of those ties are strong ties. Some of them are weak ties. Some conferences discourage flamefests. Others are hotbeds. At one point, I had to severely curtail my excessive WELL participation -- I didn't have the time or energy during the Electric Minds period. Writers was one of the conferences I trimmed from my list. Not because it failed to meet my needs, but because I didn't have time in my life. Now that I have more time and and doing more writing, I guess I need to return. It's kinda hard to return to a place like that simply because of all the water under the bridge. Thank Gopod for fixseen! [Only a hardcore WELL geek would write something like "Thank Gopod for fixseen!, doncha think?] y
Alan Turner (arturner) Sat 21 Oct 00 12:18
For a while you had a (weekly?) column that you were also posting on The WeLL, and you've also written for magazines and the like; could you comment a bit on these various types of writing that you've done? Do you approach the task differently when you're writing for a periodical instead of writing a book? Do the books influence the articles, or vice-versa?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 21 Oct 00 14:02
Hi Alan. The WELL part was definitely the most fun part about writing that column. I was originally hired by David Talbot to write for the Examiner. He was also interested in talking about starting an Internet publication, but that's another story... In retrospect, a lot of those columns were way ahead. It was called "Tomorrow," but sometimes I think it should have been called "what my friends on the WELL are talking about today but nobody else will understand for five years. ;-)" I would get an idea, post a draft, and let the people who know more than I about the topic have at it. It's a scary thing for a writer to do, but by that time I felt I had a strong enough sense of my own voice, and had played editor long enough, that I could let people question, hammer, nitpick, and not get goofy about it. It was like multiplying my own expertise a hundredfold. But writing a weekly column is like skiing down Everest -- there's always this avalanche behind you. You're never finished. If you want to go away for two weeks, you need to get four columns ahead. I don't know how Jon Carroll does daily columns. It takes a very special form of genius/insanity to do that. I got tired of doing it. I felt like I had learned all I could learn from trying to jam a big idea into 700 words. A bunch of old columns are stashed at http://www.well.com/user/hlr/tomorrow/ Sometimes, books grow out of magazine articles. I wrote "Virtual Communities" for Whole Earth Review in 1988. Kevin Kelly prodded me into it -- he's really a great editor for getting big ideas out of writers, and also a master at helping you rework material. It took years to convince a trade book publisher that this Internet stuff was for people other than electrical engineers. The book industry has changed so much. When I wrote the first edition of The VC, for example, Doubleday, Dell, Ballantine, Random House, and Knopf were all different companies. Now, they are all part of Bertelsmann. There used to be thousands of sales reps who loved books and thousands of independent book sellers who met with them and discussed lists. They had a huge convention every year. Now, there is Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
Katie Hafner (kmh) Sat 21 Oct 00 15:22
So whom (in terms of a reading audience) would you say this edition of VC is aimed at?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 21 Oct 00 15:56
I'm especially interested in the new generations of researchers -- students and graduate students and post-docs in sociology, social psychology, political science. I'm interested in those who feel there is some potential in social cyberspaces for enriching social capital in the face to face world and in using online discourse as part of a strategy for revitalizing the public sphere. There's so much anecdotal (pretty good) theory, anecdotal (total bullshit) theory, preliminary research, shoddy research, fragmentary research, research that ought to be interdisciplinary but isn't -- and journalism and public policy discussion based on this very mixed bag. I'd love to see the field of interdisciplinary cyberspace studies grow. I don't think human social behavior is every going to be quantifiable in the way Skinner and others sought, but I do think good methodology and good samples and the right kinds of questions can lend some substance to debates that seem to me to be based mostly on rhetoric. Students. People who thought the first edition was terrific and are ready for mor depth. People who thought the first edition fell short and might be surprised that I listened to them. It's not a how-to. There are already books by Cliff Figallo and Amy Jo Kim and Jenny Preece, and there will be others. I wanted to try to encompass the phenomena of online socializing, from chat rooms to Usenet to the WELL to the Web, humanize it to show what I've found in terms of real community, try to map out the territory for an interdisciplinary investigation of whether or not these activities are good for (all or some of) us or not, whether they have potential for civic renewal or are (as Fernback & Thompson and others claim) a kind of technological utopianism that is doomed to fail. I'd like to help people get beyond the simplistic questions and start looking at the big picture.
another big question about the big picture... (choco) Sat 21 Oct 00 19:13
In your look backward/forward, Howard, I'm very curious on your thoughts about "early adopters" and "the rest of the world" (I know, it ain't that simplistic, but...) If we are to harness the _potential_ for the social good supported by what we call "community" -- how do we make it _doable_? I think about people who aren't that curious to poke at half built/buggy conferencing tools, with slow modems, who don't have the luxury of time to integrate themselves into places like the Well, who aren't great writers. What might virtual community mean for this larger, less self selected group of people? In terms of literacy, but much much more...???
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 21 Oct 00 21:17
Thomas Brinson e-mails: Howard, yesterday you spoke of "online communication literacy" in post #23 as follows: "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." For some time based upon my experience in online community and working with virtual teams I have felt that CMC has made significant progress on two of its three requisite legs, the hardware and the software. The third leg, however, has been lagging; it deals, I believe, with the spreading of "online communication literacy". An associate, Casey Hughes, has called it the SOS --> the Social Operating System. I term it the "soulware", the protocols, practices, dynamics of creating, implementing and managing online communication. What do you see will enhance the spreading of "online communication literacy"? thomas brinson
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 21 Oct 00 21:30
Hi Nancy! This kind of communication isn't for everybody and won't ever be for everybody. I think you'll agree that communities of practice and virtual teams and support groups and other groups of people who need to have organized, recorded conversations across barriers of time and space will end up using CMC. So there will, I believe, be a larger number of people in the future using message boards and chat and IMs and listservs. I don't know that there are ever going to be that many people who do it for fun the way we do. So one answer is to look for groups who have a real need, and show them how they can do some things better than before and how they can do some things that weren't possible for them before. I think that speaks a little to Thomas' question, too. Literacy with the written and spoken word isn't universal, either. The proportion of the population who gives a rats ass about effective communication or meaningful discourse is not likely to ever be that large. However, I do think norms of behavior emerge eventually with every communication medium. Online media are more complex than telephones, and there are more ways for larger numbers of people to misunderstand each other, so I think it will take longer for norms to diffuse. One thing I wonder about is whether there is a minimum amount of civility and coherence required for social cyberspaces to appeal strongly enough to people for them to contribute their attention and energy. There's the myth of "the September that never ended," before the Web even, about how so many new people started using email and usenet that the older means of diffusing norms of netiquette and cooperation were swamped long ago. But I think we're living in different time scales. Social evolution online was rather slow between 1970 and 1980, accelerated when Usenet started, accelerated even more when the Net started to be a big deal, went into overdrive with the Web. It's hard to figure where things will be a few years from now. It doesn't hurt, though, to try to show more people stuff that works -- like putting your long list of addresses in the BCC field. ;-)
Jeffrey Field (fattymoon) Sun 22 Oct 00 03:12
Good morning, Howard! You and I experienced some ecstatic highs and some gut wrenching lows during our months together at Electric Minds. How did the total Electric Minds experience change your thinking? And, is your experience detailed in the revised "Virtual Community"?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sun 22 Oct 00 10:41
I do talk about Electric Minds in the new chapter, in terms of lessons learned. I'll try to be brief. Your questions is rather large, Fatty. ;-) First, the business part: Why I got into it, what the business model was, why it failed. From the first time I saw the Web, I wanted to experiment with combining publishing and discourse. When Kevin Kelly and Jonathan Steuer invited me to talk Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe into starting an online zine, I jumped at it. In retrospect, if Louis and I had taken even twenty minutes to talk to each other one on one, it would have been clear that the relatiosohip was doomed. Let's just say that he was interested in extending the broadcast model of the magazine, and I was interested in something more participatory and community-like. Of course, if either of us had jumped on an idea that came up in a 1994 meeting -- offer free web pages to subscribers -- the enterprise might have worked out differently. After leaving HotWired soon after launch, I had a fun year working on my Well-based website. I did everything myself and it was great fun being writer, editor, publisher, and art director. The amateurism of the web -- in the best sense of the word -- was intoxicating. I'm amazed at how swiftly most of the world has forgotten that the Web was a labor of love, with absolutely no commercial aspect, before it was a financial arena. I started inviting my friends around the world to contribute. I started wanting to add a message board. Web-based conferencing was still in its infancy. There was Motet and Engaged and, I think Web Crossing started up soon after. But I wasn't enough of a geek to run a server. I started calculating what it would cost to pay my contributors and to run a server and integrate some conferencing software, and it was beyond my means. I had this goofy idea of technically integrating editorial content and conversation, so there was a window from the editorial pages into the conversation about those pages, and vice-versa. There were very few off the shelf application servers available then, so that made the entire enterprise more expensive. I was introduced to a guy who knew how to make my scribblings into a business plan and raise money. He was the wrong choice for a partner, and my first and biggest mistake was not firing him early in the game. But he knew someone who was willing to put a million dollars into the enterprise. The investor was Softbank, which had a worldwide publishing operation before it started investing in Yahoo and Ziff Davis. What I told the Softbank guy was that they should look at Electric Minds not as a big investment but as really inexpensive research and development. I was totally open that we weren't sure what the business model was -- not many enterprises had solid business models in 1996 -- but we would try to get along on advertising. But the payoff to our investors would be in what we could learn about integrating publishing and community. The small investment in Electric Minds might leverage their larger investments. I made more than one bad hire. Of the many mistakes I made, hiring incompetents was by far the worst. Our ad sales guy never sold one ad. That sunk us in Softbank's eyes before we had our first big success in the R&D angle -- the community we created for IBM around the chess match between Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue II (a story that Cliff Figallo tells in his book). In terms of what I learned about community management in a public community that is also a commercial enterprise, I learned that it's more important to throw out obnoxious assholes (the Nazi who hung around for months comes to mind, but there were more than a few ) than to fetishize "free speech." Free speech means "Congress shall make no law..." not "Thou shalt suffer the abuse of bigots and assholes in public discussions." I learned that it's important to have a good hosts contract and to make sure hosts go through training. Then the business of Electric Minds went under, but the community continued. I give a brief description of that in the new chapter. Lessons learned: I should have been more aware of "founder's syndrome" and dropped out of the community discussions. One of the great services Stewart Brand did for the WELL was to more or less disappear for a year, not long after founding it. The other lesson, which I discuss at greater length in the new chapter, is that democracy is a great idea and a messy process and asynchronous online discussions among people who never meet face to face is not the best way to try to put together a constitution or by-laws. Many people want to talk about subject matter, from technology to parenting, not to talk, talk, talk about how to talk about subject matter. Too much meta-process drives off all but the most rabid process freaks. It's become clear that advertising isn't going to support a large number of sites that combine high quality editorial content and online discussion. Salon does a great job of putting quality content online daily, and they are struggling to survive. But nobody knew that in 1996. It's a shame. All in all, although it was a painful experience in many ways, and definitely something I didn't really enjoy doing, I'm glad I tried. We did achieve some cultural excellence, I think. It was a great lesson in capitalism for me. I realized that like a great many intellectuals who had never tried to meet a payroll, I had an unexamined contempt for business. I now understand how much credit people deserve for running an honest business, paying employees, and managing them. I've known for a long time that I'm a terrible employee. Electric Minds taught me that I'm a bad employer (and that management truly is an art). I'm much happier as a freelancer and a contractor who hires subcontractors. It isn't that great a loss to the world that online community doesn't have much of a business model (if you aren't AOL, that is). Fortunately, the cost of setting up a webconferencing or listserv or chat or MOO community has dropped to the point where many amateurs can do it.
Gail Williams (gail) Sun 22 Oct 00 15:06
You know, I was going to type a sentence marveling about the shift from being immersed in a virtual community to managing one with business concerns in mind, and i do marvel, what a different experience that is! But what I experienced in typing a post is something more interesting to ask about. I was going "a computer mediated.. [delete] an asyncronous... [delete] a text-centric..." I don't know how to honestly extrapolate from WELL experiences to online communites in general, though some which are relatively free in spirit and in technology are often very similar. When I want to speak abstractly about the kinds of interrelations and the way perspectives are changes I question whether I can say "in a virtual community," or whether there are more specific causes of the powerful patterns we see. So is the distance most important? The computers? The text? The reader-provided tone? What is it that makes the "virtual" phenomenon and how much is dependent on the medium?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sun 22 Oct 00 15:31
Can you take another run at that question, Gail? I do find it useful to avoid generalizations whenever possible, and to examine the degree to which the generalizations I make really hold true for other people's experience. To say "The WELL" is to generalize, of course, since we each have different histories here, different .cflists, different "forgotten" topics, different interpretations.
John Payne (satyr) Sun 22 Oct 00 16:00
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sun 22 Oct 00 16:39
John Payne (satyr) Sun 22 Oct 00 16:45
Trying to generate a URL for direct reference to responses 12-13 that I could post in <point.vue.>. Didn't work.
John Payne (satyr) Sun 22 Oct 00 16:49
The URL for the Association for Community Networking is <http://bcn.boulder.co.us/afcn/>, without the leading "www".
John Payne (satyr) Sun 22 Oct 00 16:57
Howard, would you characterize ISSUE <http://www.issue.spirit.nl/> as a worthy experiment?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sun 22 Oct 00 17:02
Sounds interesting, John. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. "Support of the relationship between citizens and politicans in daily life between elections. It is all about forming the agenda of politicans, and not so much about decesion making." Sounds like the public sphere. Where public opinion is formed and is made known to politicians. What do you know about this initiative?
John Payne (satyr) Sun 22 Oct 00 17:17
<choco> posted an email about it she received in <vc.18.455>. I've sent her email asking for permission to crosspost here.
Members: Enter the conference to participate