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Community is the Online Buzz-word of the Year. Again.

On community building, coming into a complex community, healing torn alliances, growth and other issues of concern.

Some people who log in to The WELL every day -- or even just weekly -- are probably a community by anybody's definition. They have known each other over a period of time, and have a commitment which transcends this medium and gathering place, yet, like the community which convenes at a community center in physical space, or at a corner pub, church or what-have- you, this one is partly defined by this gathering place and how it is laid out and run. And, in point of fact, there are the usual fissures and factions, and might even be multiple communities, depending on what the word means to you.

But mostly it's about hanging out and talking. So the best advice for a newcomer to The WELL (and maybe to any gathering of social beings) might be:

"Make yourself at home, gradually and perhaps a bit respectfully. As in any human gathering, some of the ones who got here before you want respect for that attribute, and some may think there are already too many people here. But you haven't been here, and your community of interest and affinity awaits your assembly. Like any network of relationships, it will take some time to build -- but that very process is the most rewarding journey of all. So welcome and happy community-building."

After a year or two things get more interesting.

Healing Torn Community

My comments, from a private WELL conference in spring of 1992. The rest of that private conversation is not mine to distribute, but here are some of my words from Healing, slightly edited later as I clarified my thoughts:

Healing, 1992: Will Growth Change the WELL Community?

I must confess that at times I've had those scary thoughts about The WELL as Puerto Vallarta before the international airport... prone to being "ruined" by tourism. But you were an outsider who came into an existing community -- as I was when I first logged on -- and made a niche for yourself. When I joined, people were lamenting the loss of the old days. When you joined, people were lamenting the loss of the old days. And it's true. The very beginning of the system won't be repeated.

At one time practically everyone read the entire WELL. Now no one can. By selecting conferences that appeal to you, and forgetting topics that don't, you create a totally different view of the "whole Well" and the community than other users have. Your slice can be just as large as anyone's slice was three years ago, and just as rich and wonderful. It just can't be the same percentage.

Why can't the Well continue to grow, if the conferences are on a human scale? How do we as users experience bigness?

By making one's own conference list, one makes ones own neighborhood. My most important conferences a year ago were environment, sexuality, wow, media, acen (electronic arts), misc, and the compumentor assisted arts management conference (private) which I was cohosting.

Few could possibly have defined that as a neighborhood but me... and yet my sense of community and contrast came from that cluster of places.

In addition, pre-setting clusters of related conferences is a promising idea. Passwords or additional surcharges might be interesting, but an inkling of the concept could be had just by making announcements like "Leaving The Science Department......Entering Funland and Recreational Conferences"

It could help make tone and identity...

Regional alliances make sense for some subject matter. But in other ways the old linked topic might be better. Until the volume became intense, it might be better to have "Southern California Jokes" as a linked topic or set of topics from Jokes to Socal than to have a Jokes conf in the Socal "neighborhood." Because if I was interested in jokes, I'd love having that material among the topics to choose from in the Jokes conference. And if I was interested in Southern Cal, I'd love to get some sense of the jokes told about the region by outsiders as well as the local slant.

I'm fond of planning and structuring... but what I love about PicoSpan is that even though the complexity is daunting at first and the interface is much spat upon, the flexibility of what we've got allows either designed or "organic" experimental expansion and differentiation.

Incredibly flexible, if we use it imaginatively and intelligently.

I think hosts are the essential link in where and how The WELL evolves, and I have a lot of hope.

How we use The WELL, and how we 'use' one another as employees, customers, allies, products, neighbors...all those words we use... is very important. Not just to the community, to the survival of the business that provides "the platform' and the customer and technical support, but also to the way we treat each other on the planet. The microcosm is very important.

If I didn't believe that I wouldn't work here.

Healing, 1992: Flames

[name omitted] did something in this topic that is part of what makes The WELL work. Attempting to faciliate some progress on communication even in conferences where you are not the nominal "host' is one of the reasons the system works. There are a lot of people who try to cool out flames in various ways by acting hostly.

It doesn't always help, but it's a strong characteristic of the system. My hunch of one of the reasons Jeanne was nominated as a representative of the host community is that she often does this in conferences where she isn't an official host. Sometimes having "perceived authority" makes it harder to full that function.

The last two posts bring out some poignant questions about flames and passionate disagreements. Are the arguers playing to win, based on assumptions they've already owned and cannot abandon, or are they exploring the argument?

Most people have some issues they won't budge on.

After that, the question of how to "win" an argument, and whether treating people with respect is more persuasive seems to come into play.

Sometimes a familiar, congenial rudeness seems respectful to one party and cruel to the other. Politeness can seem cold or insincere where there's no trust.

And while each of us makes a learning journey, we have to remain aware that the "reality" is evolving. That to believe you "get it" is not the most helpful stance in a lot of situations. The fluid nature of virtual reality -- even in a text-based version -- is amazing.

Healing, 1992: RE-Visioning The WELL.

So far the policy has been that setting up a private conference and charging people extra for membership is fine... as long as The WELL has nothing to do with the billing or collections. This is a function of The WELL's maxed out accounting system. The relevant staffers are working towards a major upgrade of those capabilities. Doing all sorts of research, estimates, etc.

I've got some hesitations about private conf billing going through The WELL anyway because I like private confs being "buyer beware" and to some extent not endorsed by The WELL, which would be more like a common carrier for those conversations. I like this because if it were otherwise, the Director of Conferencing, or someone else in a similar role, would have to read those confs and have an idea of the content. And that takes time. Having an inkling of the state of the public conferences is hard enough.

For that reason, I'd rather have private confs be private suites in the WELL "Inn" than regular sections of The WELL "Electronic Magazine".

Right now private confs can charge if the billing is directly from host to guest, and not through WELL accounting. My hunch is that this would only be viable with a "celebrity" host or guest star at this point in time.

But I predict that within a year I'll be proven wrong.

And the desirability and methods of getting to a position where major public conference hosts are paid are talked about quite a lot amongst staffers.

We all know that hosting conferences is a powerful "calling"... and that many people believe it should eventually be a career.

But the demands for investment in the technical and hardware capacity of The WELL are a powerful, necessary competeting need. So this isn't quite the time to quit your day job. Unless you can market a value-added private conference yourself.

A dynamic balance between those needs will be a challenge to maintain!

Healing, 1992: Theraputic Effects of New cflists?

Note: a cflist is PicoSpan software jargon for a personal list of regular conferences a user sets up to make a "Neighborhood" of favorite places to visit on The WELL

The different sectors are -- not in the nuclear power sense but in the palentology/evolution sense -- radiating. Expanding, and differentiating. Branching in all directions.

Do you want to live on a different planet? Change your list!

Everyone travels a different list... The WELL as the expanding elephant for more and more Blindmen of the old story. It's great to mix it up for a couple of months.

One discussion I participated in recently brought up this question of how to find what you are interested in. Using the arts critic model, one idea was to have several different tip sheets by different people.

"Tips by the rossneyz" every month on the 1st and 15th, maybe some other tip teams on other days. With a screenful of prose on what the rossneyz look for, so those who haven't read so extensively on The WELL have an idea of who these two are.

I'd love to be able to call up tips by (kooldude), tips by (bigdaddy), tips by (polhack), tips by (wildwomn), tips by (professorx)... (nope, not real user-ids!) Anyway, a selection of four or five connoseurs of the medium, with a little intro to their points of view.

Eventually, this could be a role for people with a strong appreciation for telecom who aren't so good at hosting, as well as for excellent hosts. You can be good at spotting a good conversation wtihout being adept at creating an environment where ongoing interaction flourishes.

"Critics" who would only review things they like. Now, that's a concept! This is doable right now. Seem like a good idea?

(Note: The Tips Conference is now a place where people can do this for one another.)

Healing, 1992: Is The WELL Sexist? (in response to some complaints about online behavior)

The WELL can sure illuminate sexism in a remarkable way. If you are sensitive to who is being addressed and included in conversations, some patterns which have been much discussed become very vivid and are experienced directly.

Spending time on The WELL has taught me a lot more about how I use the language, and the way men and women are (still) talking at one another.

I believe that at times men are granted more authority in making the same assertion that is ignored when a woman advances it. And on the other hand, some people compensate, and make a big effort to respect women's postings.

The contrasts are informative and powerful.

I'd like to see more good, articulate, interesting women on line.

The problem I have with the complaint of sexism, as usually expressed, is that it is too general.

It's specifics that are interesting. Assumptions that the readers are all male stand out in this medium in a way that they seldom do for me in literature or music. The interactive audience, angry and patient, rational and emotional, passionate and critical, is sure to bring an awareness of sexism at times, and to act out sexism at other times.

We're only a couple of generations away from a time when women couldn't own their own property, and when it was illegal in most of the world for women to go to college. The outrage over women voting made for ugly battles and arrests -- and volumes of mocking, nasty prose only a century ago.

The WELL and society reflect this heritage. And many of the people are strongly conscious of respecting the changing roles of men and women, and questioning stereotypes and assumptions, so there is a strong counterpoint.

Both men and women in our time have to struggle with attitudes about power and respect for people who see the world differently... and not just across the border of sex. It's not easy groping through all that static.

The conversations continue.

Healing, 1992: How far do we have to bend to abusive behavior online?

Saying "please don't" is a good starting place.

I feel strongly in favor of dissent and counterpoint in Public conferences. But the style of the comments is very important. And only feedback can teach how that style is going over. "Please, could you restate the idea and skip the personal slur?"

Words and ideas and public discourse and freedom of expression and... abuse. The same words read differently to different people. Striving for as much clarity as possible is all we have.

A couple of years back, with the Easter topic, (which ridiculed religion) I thought a user was playing a strange game to get people to react by describing their spiritual convictions and cultural tolerance. The effects were so mirror-different than what he seemed to want that I thought it was intentional.

All we have is persuasion. We, meaning we who use words. Put-downs may or may not persuade the reader of your cause, but the sure give the reader a feel for your personality.

Attack gets taken as abuse... flaming people doesn't convince them or open a dialog towards compromise, or an agreement to disagree, or even a honing of a persuasive argument.

Hosts can ban users from public conferences. The "Law" as evolved thus far is expressed in the host agreement, and in the intro to the host manual.

To ban a user... a host need only talk to me in email or by telephone. In most cases I'll ask that the host first start a topic backstage, and get some sense of how it feels to the host community. But I try to be flexible, and sensitive to unique situations.

When it's decided, send email to the abusive participant and cc'd to me, saying something like this:

 "You are no longer welcome in the astronomy conference.  Your posts will 
 be scribbled. The ban starts as of the time of this mail.  
 WELL management will check in with the host regarding this situation.  

 If you are interested in participating in astronomy at a future time, 
 don't post in or otherwise disrupt the conference for six weeks.  
 At the end of that time, if you are willing to participate in a less 
 abusive manner, feel free to contact the host about being reradmitted."

On the other hand, if temptation to ban people is strong, it may be a sign that one would be happier as a private conference host... where absolute power is possible. No reason not to do that if it's how a host likes to run a conversation. If you're fun to talk with, you'll attract guests.

The reason to notify the Conf. Mgr. is to be able to say, like in the example, that management is aware and will back up the host.

The host has the power to say "you aren't welcome" to paying Well guests in public areas. The management has interests in tracking that, and being able to prevent an angry deluge of email by having it known in advance that the action is entirely within the rights of the host in order to maintain a conversation of the best quality, as seen by that host.

Certainly informal "get out of my conf" mail goes on. But this way there are some teeth, and also some sense of process. The teeth come from communication and agreement.

Healing, 1992: Private conferences and privacy:

WELL management deplores violations of privacy... by any means from gossip to publication of private files... but doesn't guarantee that it won't happen. I'm not sure how we could guarantee that. There's been talk of a signed user agreement that would state the terms for participation. But would we have to add an attorney and a detective to give clout? How could we guarantee to enforce privacy?

That's my selection of concepts I laid down in 1992, jamming on the keyboards in the private Healing Conference. Most of them have also been restated in Policy, which I have hosted during the five years I have been the Conferencing Manager (now re-titled Director of Conferencing) at The WELL. I've got more ruminations and posts up in these pages if you care to look around a bit.

Other places to discuss these issues with a group include the Virtual Communities Conference.

Copyright Gail Ann Williams, 1992, 1996. (Please drop me a line about your intended use if you wish to quote or offer feedback.)