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Slightly Way New Journalism and Virtual Communities

By Howard Rheingold

I came to journalism from cyberspace, not the other way around, and that has affected the way I write this column. As a freelance writer, I was able to overcome the isolation of working at home by plugging my computer into my telephone and having conversations with other people via computer bulletin board systems. I started spending $2 an hour to amuse and educate, and be amused and educated by, the habituees of the Well, an electronic salon created by the Whole Earth Catalog people.

Over the past decade, the Well became part of my personal life through the friends I made there, and influenced my professional life when the Well's users became a kind of online think-tank for me. When I wrote books about virtual reality and virtual communities, I shared my early findings with the other Wellites, and they, in turn, furnished me with material and leads. The Well and the Net became as much a natural part of my toolkit as the word processor and the telephone.

In parallel with the version that is eventually published on newsprint, I post electronic preprints of each Tomorrow column on the Well. From the beginning, I've used the Well as a place to think aloud in public -- floating ideas, soliciting expertise, making myself not just vulnerable to kibitzing, but outright soliciting it.

"Stand up and kick my ideas around" is not a game for the easily bruised. But I'd rather make any mistakes or work out any communication awkwardness with an online audience of a few hundred, before setting type and printing a few million copies. That doesn't mean I surrender control of my words. It means I open myself to suggestions.

Wellites read and comment on pre-print drafts of this column via ongoing "Tomorrow" discussions. Experts I never knew before, columnists for rival newspapers, editors who hang out online, and every Joe or Jane who has the nerve to step up to the plate can take a swing at my topic, my argument, my facts, my way of presentation. Then it goes up on the Web, and I get mail from everywhere and anywhere.

Nobody would help me with tips or critiques if I didn't give them something valuable in return for their help. You can't just barge into a virtual community, announce you are a journalist, and invite people to do your research for you. You must hang out with the locals for a few months before you ask them to divulge their secrets. You have to be helpful when others ask questions. Writers have to let go of their old protective isolation and embrace a more intimate, more interactive relationship with our readers. You must have a strong sense of your own voice to resist attempts to intimidate. You better have a firm grasp of your subject , because there are experts out there you don't even know yet, who have a habit of showing up in an online discussion to debunk bogus assertions.

There are pitfalls to giving one's audience a voice to talk back, but I think my online braintrust portends new relationships between readers and journalists as the communication technologies that move words back and forth grow more interactive. Interactive means dialogue, not just channel-surfing. If more citizens become involved in technology journalism, we'll all be better off. In the next episode of Tomorrow, I'll give you some hints on how to find and feed your own online thinktank.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold