The WELL Host Manual


Version 4.4, January 1996

by John David Hoag
Revised by Gail Ann Williams with Michelle Fox

Copyright 1996, The WELL, All Rights Reserved.




1.1 Conference Ideas: The Good, The Bad, & the Unforeseen
1.2  Proposing a New Featured Conference
1.3   The Hosts Agreement With The WELL
1.4  The WELL Policy Regarding Censorship


2.1   What Exactly Does a Host Do?

2.2  Welcoming New Participants

2.3  General Conference Rules

2.4 Special Conference Rules

2.5  Handling Problems

2.6  Participants as Guests

2.7  Moderating Tips

2.8 To Solo-Host Or Co-Host?

2.9  How Much Time Does it Take?

2.10 Hosts Needn’t Be Wizards

2.11  The Hosts Conference & Backstage

2.12  What You Should Know Before You Begin



3.1 Looking Around

3.2 The ‘Real’ Name of Your Conference

3.3 Displaying the Hosts


4.1 The Welcome Message

4.2 The Bulletin

4.3 The Login Banner

4.4 The Logout Banner

4.5 The Index

4.6 The Web Login, or wlogin

4.7 The Userlist, or ulist (Limited Access and Private Conferences Only)

4.8 Some Users Will Not See Your Banners


5.1 Topic Order

5.2 How Many Topics Should You Start With?

5.3 The Mysterious Summary File


6.1 Taking Over Hosting an Existing Conference

6.2 Building Traffic




8.1 Freeze and Thaw

8.2 Retire and Unretire

8.3 Censoring with Hide and Scribble

8.4 Killing Topics


9.1 Advantages & Disadvantages

9.2 Murphy’s Linking Laws

9.3 Technical Side-Effects of Linking

9.4 The Linkfrom Command

9.5 Listing Linked Topics




11.1 What is a Conference Directory?

11.2 Your Conference Directory’s Full Pathname

11.3 The Conference Info Directory

11.4 The Conference Front Page Web Directory (Featured Conferences only)


12.1 What Are the RC and URC Files?


13.1 Moving & Copying Files Into the Info Directory

13.2 Removing Files From the Info Directory

13.3 How Menus Work

13.4 Preparing Your Files

13.5 Amenu


14.1 Your Conference Web Directory (Featured Conferences only)

14.2 Creating your Conference Front Page on the Web


15.1 Using the !conflog Command to Check Conference Visits

15.2 Census: Comparing Conference Activity

15.3 Using Extract -U for Topic Statistics


16.1 Hitlist: A Utility for Inactive Topics

16.2 Conference Archives


1.1 Conference Ideas: The Good, The Bad, and the Unforeseen

What is a good idea for conference on The WELL? No one knows, ahead of time. New conferences come from that mysterious realm of creativity which is generally recognized after the fact, but completely unheralded before it happens. Further, the success of a conference can depend as much upon the energy, creativity and approach of its host(s) as it does upon the proposed subject matter. Still, if you have an idea for a new conference on The WELL, there are a few questions you might ask yourself to help you decide on the feasibility of a new conference idea:

1. Does it cover ground which is already being covered by an existing conference? If so, is there some basic differentiating quality which would make your new idea clearly unique?

2. Is the theme broad enough to support a multitude of topics? A conference which relies too heavily on a single issue or topic of discussion can get tiring quickly, like a one-issue candidate or a one-joke movie.

3. Do you think there would be enough interest in, and knowledge of, the subject area to promote lively participation? Starting a topic in a related conference may help you test the waters, and looking for related topics may show you where the audience for your concept regularly gathers. Developing an audience is the major challenge of opening a new conference.

New conference ideas are born in a multitude of ways. Perhaps you’ve noticed a gaping “hole” in The WELL, an obvious need for a conference which doesn’t exist. Perhaps a general subject is being discussed in topics scattered across a number of conferences, which would be better organized under a single conference heading. Perhaps you simply have a completely new idea for a conference which no one has ever thought of before.

Some conferences don’t click, others become successful online scenes. Perhaps you have decided to give it a try, and put time and energy into cultivating an exciting conversational space.

What then?

1.2 Proposing a New Featured Conference

One of the first steps in developing your conference idea is to choose which conference type would best suit your subject matter and target audience. There are five different types of conferences available: Featured, Featured Limited-access, Independent, Independent Limited-access and Private. For a more in-depth description of each type, type hosts at the OK prompt or point your web browser at You can also take a look at topic 289 in the hosts conference for a few more tips on constructing a good conference proposal and the things that make a good online host.

To propose the creation of a new Featured conference, email the Conferencing team (confteam) with your idea. Proposals needn’t be formal. Just tell them as much as you can, in your own words, about how you envision the new conference and include some specific examples of possible new topic titles, some old topics elsewhere that would make good links, and samples of the banners and, most important, the cfinfo description of the conference. (Type cfinfo cooking at an OK prompt for an example.).

If you have started topics about related subject matter in other conferences, point them to those discussions as examples of enthusiasm about the subject, or as an example of how there is not a good existing environment for hanging out and discussing the subject! Either approach just might work. They may have some additional questions to ask you — they may suggest that you team with a cohost with other online talents or knowledge, or she may just accept it or reject it based on your original proposal. The decision of what volunteers to work with, and what conferences to feature, is theirs.

Even if they reject the idea, there’s no need to feel dejected. With more than 150 Featured conferences presently on The WELL, much of the ground for new conferences has already been covered, and even talented hosts of long association with The WELL have had new conference ideas rejected. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no new conferences out there waiting to be born. There are plenty! It’s just a question of deciding which ones are likely to work. While the task of making that decision is an unenviable one, confteam has experience with building lively conferences and an appreciation for diversity and difference, and they might surprise you by accepting an idea you didn’t think they’d go for. So keep those ideas coming, or create an Independent conference and prove there’s a demand for your area of discussion.

1.3 The Hosts Agreement With The WELL

(This agreement is for hosts of Featured Conferences Only — anyone may have an Independent, Independent Limited-access, or non-listed Private conference to use as an adjunct to email and to run as he or she chooses. The Hosts Conference is a good resource for all hosts.

Agreement Between Featured Conference Hosts and The WELL

The WELL seeks Hosts for its Featured conferences among users who are exemplary citizens of the online community, who offer help and support to other users, and who are willing to share their expertise on specific subjects. It is expected that the Host will continue to display these characteristics.

The duties of a Host include keeping the conference running smoothly, managing it in consistency with the technical needs and limitations of The WELL, ensuring that users can find information as easily as possible, and helping maintain an open and useful conversational environment in the conference.

The WELL and its Hosts jointly agree to cooperate in maintaining a hospitable environment for conference users. The WELL appoints and supports Hosts, and Hosts donate their efforts, for the benefit of the conference participants and The WELL community.

Technical Conference Management

The Host of a Featured conference can hide or scribble any responses, freeze, retire or kill any topics, and install or modify menu information and banners within the conference.

* Censoring another user’s response (by means of the hide or scribble commands) should be never be done lightly. Scribbling another user’s response should be considered only in the most extreme circumstances, and only where simply hiding the response is insufficient to accomplish the Host’s purpose.

* The Host of a conference has the right to ban users whom the Host judges to be nuisances within his or her conference from further posting in that conference. This is a serious and very, very rare move. It should be done only with notification of The WELL management, and it should be considered only as a last resort, after discussion with the problem user has failed and where the problem user is posing a serious obstacle to others’ participation. In general, it is wise to discuss moves of this nature in the Backstage conference first, and seek advice from other Hosts as well as from the Conferencing Manager; often the problem can be resolved in this way.

* The Host(s) of one Featured conference may link appropriate topics from other conferences, with the permission of the Host(s) of the other conferences.

* Hosts should post a notice in the conference some time before killing topics, so that users have time to download topics if they wish. Hosts are also encouraged to consider archiving topics before they are killed, and making them available to users, if practical for the Host.

* The conference’s directories in /well/info and /well/web are the places for archives, special programs, and other files for the use of all conference participants. It is not an appropriate place for personal files of the Host.

Making Information Easy to Find

* Since, if the list of topics is allowed to grow indefinitely, users eventually will find the browse list so long as to be useless, Hosts should prune inactive topics regularly. In particular, Hosts should periodically remove outdated topics (such as announcements of an event now past), or other information that conference users will probably not find interesting or useful.

* The Host of a conference can reformat or otherwise organize inactive topics into read-only files which may be accessed from within that conference by menu-driven or other commands. Hosts can add to or delete from such conference material at their discretion.

* Occasionally, a topic will be started with an inappropriate or mistaken name. In such cases, the Host can ask confteam to change the topic name.

* Hosts are encouraged to set up a single topic devoted to administrative matters, questions for the conference Host, and discussions of conference policy.

Maintaining the Conversation

Hosts of Featured conferences are empowered to set policy within their conferences, subject to overall policy of The WELL.

* The purpose of almost all Featured conferences is open conversation. Hosts should make and revise policies with an eye toward the goal of maintaining a good conversational environment.

* The frequent introduction of new perspectives is an asset to the conversation. Therefore, Hosts are encouraged to pay particular attention to inviting the contributions of newcomers to the conference, particularly users who are new to The WELL or to computer conferencing. Hosts should consider whether their conference is welcoming and interesting when seen through the eyes of a newcomer reading it for the first time.

* Hosts should be aware that due to their position of authority, they may inadvertently intimidate users in their conferences. Consequently, if a Host takes a strong position in a controversial discussion within the conference, the Host should keep this possibility in mind and try to mitigate it. At all times, Hosts should resist any temptation to misuse their technical powers to squelch opposing viewpoints.

* Personal attacks by a Host on a user within the Host’s conference are never appropriate. One way of dealing with a user with whom you have a personality conflict is to make arrangements with a co-host who will handle all communications with that user. In any case, Hosts are expected to deal with personality conflicts in a way that does not infringe on users’ rights to participate constructively in the conference.

* Hosts are responsible, along with their co-hosts, for being aware of what is happening in their conference(s). Any host using the bozo-filter or forget commands within the conference must make sure that this responsibility is covered; for example, by making arrangements between co-hosts to make sure no topic is forgotten by all the Hosts. This will ensure that the entire conference is being read by at least one person in a Host capacity.

Obligations of the Host and The WELL

* The WELL Conferencing Team is the Hosts’ liaison to The WELL staff, and should be the first contact for questions or requests for Host support issues. Hosts may be notified if complaints are received regarding conference contents. The Conferencing Team will confer with the Host if a conference appears to be poorly hosted, and will work with the Host to improve the conference.

* The WELL will provide current Host Manual online.

* Hosts are expected to visit their conferences at least once every 30 days; most Featured conferences require attention considerably more often. It is important for Hosts to notify the Conferencing Manager if they are planning to be away from the conference for more than 30 days, since Hosts who fail to visit their conference for 30 days without such notification are subject to replacement.

A vacationing Host may wish to appoint a temporary co-host to watch the conference during his or her absence. If you need help in finding a co-host or a temporary substitute Host, ask the Conferencing Team for assistance.

* Hosts are expected to keep up-to-date on the discussion in Backstage (the private Hosts’ conference) and hosts (the Featured conference), where policy and other discussions between Hosts and staff take place. These conferences each contain a condensed “banter-free” topic with important Host information, for time-saving purposes.

* Hosts have no proprietary rights to the material in their conferences, with the exception of material they have authored.

* Hosts of Featured conferences may be granted extra storage space on the system. Please email confteam at well dot com if you want more space in which to save, organize and archive conference material.

* The Host of a Featured conference may, at the discretion of The WELL, be exempted from our monthly service charge to allow the Host to tend his or her conference(s), to read the Backstage and Hosts conferences, and to participate in The WELL at large. To preserve their accounts, Hosts must pay all non-exempt charges according to The WELL billing policy, as posted in the Policy conference.

* The WELL awards and revokes hostships at its sole discretion. Either party has the right to terminate this agreement at any time. The WELL reserves the right to change the conditions of this agreement. These changes will be preceded by a period of discussion, the length of which will vary depending on the urgency of the change, but will normally be at least 30 days.

* Hosts are customers of The WELL, and not employees, consultants, staff or partners, nor are they in any other way related to the business entity The WELL.

1.4 The WELL Policy Regarding Censorship

Hosts of conferences, in the community interest, may delete a comment, but may not edit it. In the event that a user has a comment deleted by the host of a conference, and disagrees with the deletion, the user has a number of options: email the host and discuss the deletion privately, start his or her own topic, post the deleted message in a read-only file with a pointer in the conference, quit the conference, post a complaint in the Hosts conference, or change his or her tack to make the presentation more acceptable within the conference.

The WELL administration does not and will not impose explicit rules upon hosts governing such deletions. To do that would, we believe, undermine the freedom of hosts to exercise their creativity in handling their conferences. Hosts are also empowered, under duress, and with a warning, to ban a nuisance member from their conference. Nevertheless, because hosts are not always present online, or necessarily knowledgeable, they cannot be held responsible for damaging comments that may appear in their conferences. Responsibility rests with the writer. The WELL reserves the right to refuse service to anyone, for any reason, and termination of an account on The WELL should not be construed as censorship.

For more details about member’s rights, please see The WELL Member’s Agreement.


2.1 What Exactly Does a Host Do?

The duties of a host fall within three broad categories: taking care of the technical aspects of the conference, stimulating participation, and dealing with people.

The technical aspects of the conference are the simplest. New conferences need to be set up with their initial messages and topics, while ongoing conferences occasionally need to have topics frozen, retired, or killed. The “Basic Host’s Toolkit” sections of this manual cover all of this, plus a number of additional technical options available to adventurous hosts.

The creative aspects of hosting are the most fun, the most work, and the most difficult to describe. A good host wants his or her conference to be an interesting place to visit. Whether that can best be achieved by active participation in the conference’s topics or by simply staying out of the way is a decision only the host can make, depending on the style and mood of the conference. In most cases, shifting between active participation, and backing off and letting the guests run with a conversation or provide support to one another, is the best ongoing strategy.

Some hosts do considerable research and present thought-provoking materials on a regular basis for participants to discuss. Other hosts let the conference milieu generate discussion material for itself. Some of the most successful low-key hosts keep lists of topic ideas in case their conference goes for a week or so with no new topics. In an older, larger conference, this is easily done by keeping lists of concepts that were discussed in old topics when those topics are retired and killed, and re-starting those conversations with the current participants. Many topics are timeless, and can be discussed again and again by newcomers who’d like to have a chance to describe their experiences. Some conferences are fairly self-sustaining while others need regular infusions of hostly enthusiasm, expertise or control. The nature of a conference will determine the proper role of its host.

Bear in mind that it’s not merely interest in a particular subject or the opportunity to interact that draws people to a conference, but the quality of that interaction, the scope and setting of it, what kinds of topics are available, how they are introduced, and the tone which is set for the conference by its host.

The final broad category concerned with hosting is dealing with people. Over the years, a number of general rules of thumb have been noted which hosts may wish to consider when dealing with the marvelous, and sometimes troublesome, human species online. We’ll take a look at some of them now.

2.2 Welcoming New Participants

Many hosts like to help people feel more at home in their conferences by welcoming them after their first arrival, either in email or in a topic set aside just for people to introduce themselves. If you’d like to welcome new visitors via email, whether they post anything or not, you can check the participation file for your conference generated by the “conflog” program (see the section, “Tracking Conference Activity” later in this manual), and look for userids you’ve never seen before.

On the other hand, many hosts feel that a welcome in email is too intrusive unless the visitor has actually posted something. And an “Introductions” topic is not appropriate for every conference.

There’s one thing a host can be fairly sure of, however. Nobody likes to go into a conference for the first time, post a response, then have it sit there without ever being acknowledged. Learning to welcome, inspire and incorporate new visitors into the conversation is perhaps the most important talent a host can acquire.

At the very least, as host, you will want to keep an eye out for postings by folks who have never responded in your conference before, and acknowledge their participation. Even a simple “Hello! Could you tell us more about your experiences with…” can mean the difference between someone feeling snubbed, and feeling like a welcomed participant in the conference. If a newcomer posts, “Hi, I’m a published expert on Foo,” he or she may be waiting to be invited to open a topic about Foo, or about how to publish a book on Foo, feeling it is presumptuous to barge in. New users are frequently shy, or polite, and may be waiting for suggestions and cues on how to best participate in your conference.

2.3 General Conference Rules

Paying to use the system doesn’t entitle users to trample on your conference. If a user is disrupting either the content or operation of your conference, don’t be shy about asserting your authority as host. See also sections 1.3 and 1.4 above.

2.4 Special Conference Rules

Some conference designs proceed upon special rules of one sort or another as part of their initial concept. If you have such rules in mind for your conference, think them through very carefully. Then think them through again!

Whatever rule you make, someone will eventually question it — even if it is “no rules at all”. The most casual glance at human history shows that humans love making, and arguing over, rules. Such argumentation can quickly get to the point where the main subject matter of a conference or topic is completely obscured in favor of heated arguments over rules, and it can be very destructive to the spirit of a conference. If the rules of a conference are in dispute, the best places to discuss them are in email, in the Hosts Conference, or in a special topic in your conference devoted to discussing your guidelines.

There are, however, ways to avoid some of the more common rule-pitfalls. If you feel your conference needs a special rule, take care to consider its fairness before implementing it and try to imagine how it might be circumvented. Words are a malleable medium, and they can be made to say things by inference, innuendo, and ambiguity which are very hard to pinpoint. Suppose you had a conference in which you wanted everyone to be nice to each other, and you made a rule saying just that. You might have a difficult time enforcing it because language can be made to imply something unkind even while saying something ostensibly respectful. Excessive niceness, through hyperbole, can even convey an insult.

By the same token, knock-down-drag-out arguments, especially those involving personal insults, are non-productive and can easily get to the point of dominating the interaction in discussions which might otherwise be, though perhaps controversial, potentially fruitful. Hosts can do a lot to keep the tone in their conferences positive by making general ground rules which encourage courteous argumentation, and with reminders, when necessary, to “attack the idea, not the person” and to “take personal disputes to email, please.” Calmly asking people in email to clarify whether an insult was meant is often a useful way to deal with argumentative dissent, and requires no rule-making.

If a rule is inherent in, or indispensable to, the basic design or operation of your conference, be consistent in enforcing it. Avoid like the plague situations in which a rule applies to one person or group, and not to another. If your conference has a hard and fast rule, apply it always, not just when you feel like it. And most of all, abide by the rule yourself.

2.5 Handling Problems

If someone posts something that violates your conference’s rules or guidelines, there are several options at your disposal. We’ll take them in increasing order of severity.

1. Post a response after the posting in question indicating that you would prefer folks to avoid that type of posting, then lead the topic gently back in the right direction with some substantive discussion of the subject matter.

2. Notify the person via email and explain how the response is not within the conference guidelines, and request that further responses of that nature not be entered.

3. Hide the response in question, and send email informing the poster that it has been hidden and why it was hidden. Hidden responses can be unhidden by the host or by the poster, and may be read with the extract, see nof (no-forget) or only commands. They show up as a clickable link in the Engaged interface.

4. Scribble the response in question so that it cannot be read even using the extract, nof or only commands. This is a serious matter. If the poster has not kept a copy, you may be destroying his or her only copy of the words in question, and may be subject to some debate on censorship and freedom of expression. On the other hand, clearly hurtful material, such as stolen passwords or credit card numbers, for example, may be scribbled without concern about causing an uproar. The WELL policy clearly states that such blatantly illegal uses of The WELL are not appropriate. Use your own best judgment, or ask for advice Backstage or in email to confteam.

5. Retire and freeze the entire topic, thereby removing it temporarily from circulation. Since retired topics can be unretired later, this gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate the subject matter and change your mind later, if you wish. (See section 8.2 for more on retiring topics.)

6. Kill the entire topic, thereby removing it permanently from the conference. This is the most severe option a host has in dealing directly with material which is outside the conference guidelines. It permanently removes the writings of all who participated in the topic.

7. If a user is a chronic problem and you cannot reach an understanding in email, you have the power to ban the user from posting in your conference. (You may not ban a member of The WELL from reading a Featured conference). This should be discussed with The WELL conferencing team first, and it should be very clear to the user that he or she is behaving unacceptably and has been formally informed of the terms of continued participation before a banning. Since the guest may feel censored and stifled, the host should be certain that the banning is not undertaken simply to silence dissent with popular views. However, not every argument belongs in every conference, and you may ask that certain subject matter or behavior is taken to a more appropriate area. If you are uncertain about this course of action and wish to discuss it with other hosts, you can bring it up in the Backstage conference (see “The Hosts conference & Backstage” section below).

2.6 Participants as Guests

Now that we have covered all the horrible things you can do to the troublesome individual who would disrupt your conference, it’s worth mentioning that such instances are rare. If you find that you are tempted to hide or scribble every other posting, freeze conversations or kill active topics frequently, or regularly boot people from your conference, you might pause to reconsider whether the source of the problem is the users or your approach to hosting the conference.

Remember, the people in your conference are guests, and a variety of personalities and opinions enriches your conference. Treat them with courtesy, make them feel welcome, and by and large they will respond in kind.

2.7 Moderating Tips

The following are excerpted from the Kerr Report, a report on Moderating Online Conferences produced by Elaine B. Kerr of the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at New Jersey Institute of Technology in February 1984. Emphasis added by The WELL staffers:

Imposing too much structure early in the group’s electronic life can be a mistake. Begin with a minimal amount of structure and allow the group process to evolve over time. Sanctioning people for entering items in the wrong conference or introducing topics that do not conform to the structure does not help them become comfortable communicating in this medium.

Although complete control over the process is possible,* it is seldom desirable. While the general rule is to retain control over the meeting, in some conferences the leader is properly only a coordinator.

Don’t let the group lose sight of its objectives. Don’t allow the more verbal members to dominate the group. Encourage the members to talk to each other rather than just to you as the leader, and not to lecture to a vague audience. React to the comments of others and encourage them to do the same. There is a need for explicit agreement and disagreement in this medium, since and non verbal cues (such as smiles and frowns) are absent.

Use private messages (email or sends) as reminders, perhaps pointing to specific items about which you would like feedback, and for positive reinforcement, especially of early entries. Messages should be a regular supplement to the more featured comments.

Reinforce participation by thank you notes, to both individuals and the group. Compliment and praise.

Stress the informality of this communications medium. Let people know that perfect grammar and typing are much less important than making their meaning clear.

Gently correct the “Misinformed”.

* The WELL staffers smile and shake their heads in disagreement with the idea that complete control of anything is possible, especially online where users have access to email to carry on a private subtext to the conference dialog. The point that the degree of control will vary depending on the purpose of the gathering is an important one, however.

2.8 To Solo-Host Or Co-Host?

Solo hosting gives the host relative freedom over the specifics of a small conference without ongoing need of regular consultation and agreement for one’s actions. Conferences hosted by a single individual sometimes, though not always, have a more coherent sense of direction or guidelines. And the potential for disagreements as to how the conference should be run is obviated.

Co-hosting can leverage and jump-start a conversation, in addition to being a good way to get a small or lackluster conference going again, since the hosts can post interesting material and discuss it with one another. The experienced host can also pass along what he or she has learned to a newer host, or two new hosts can offer one another support and feedback while learning. It’s a way to team an expert in a subject matter with an expert in using this medium. And it can be a rewarding and entertaining experience, especially if you and your co-host share a common vision of what you’d like the conference to be, if you communicate well, and if both of you are willing to put equal effort into the undertaking or come to an agreement about who will take major responsibility.

It can come in very handy when one of you needs to be absent from The WELL for a vacation or due to some other circumstance, or if the conference requires more work than one person can handle and you need to split up the material you want to “forget.” If you are setting up a new conference with a cohost, this is the time to decide which hosting acts (linking, freezing, retiring, etc.) you need to discuss with each other before taking action, and which you can do autonomously. If you are careful to be clear on when you may act without checking in with one another and when a hostly huddle to figure out the next move is required, a good co-hosting team should be a genuine pleasure.

2.9 How Much Time Does it Take?

The amount of time it takes to host a conference depends largely on how many postings the conference gets. A large, busy conference can take an hour or more each day simply to keep abreast of, and more to maintain. A small, relaxed conference with just a few new posts a day is hardly any work at all. The type of conference makes a difference, as well. Some conferences, by nature, need nearly constant supervision or stimulation, while others can sail along for days at a time without need of any hostly attention beyond simple reading of topics. Your style as host has a big effect on the time you put into it, also. A very active and involved host may spend hours not only online, but offline, as well, preparing materials for the conference. If you want to focus on one subject area, and lighten your hosting load in a high volume conference, you may be able to split specific hosting duties with your co-host.

Conferences which lend themselves to heated argumentation take much more time to host than relatively placid, happy conferences. Conferences which offer software libraries can require considerable time in organizing, virus-checking and maintaining those programs.

So, you see, there’s no one answer to “How much time does it take?” It all depends.

2.10 Hosts Needn’t Be Computer Wizards

Potentially excellent hosts with great ideas for new conferences are sometimes scared away from the endeavor because they think that hosting a conference is technically difficult, that they must know all kinds of fancy Unix commands in order to function, or that they should be able to answer any question in the book to a puzzled new user. Thankfully, none of that is accurate.

Technically, there are only seven new and exciting commands a host needs to learn in order to host, and none of them are any more difficult than the standard commands with which any acclimated member is already familiar. We’ll be covering these commands in section 4 below.

Hosts may occasionally get a technical question from a guest, but any questions the host cannot answer can be referred to The WELL support staff. Hosts, too, can mail (support) for technical user help. Don’t worry about who to ask, if it’s a hosting-related technical question, support may pass it back to (confteam).

2.11 The Hosts Conference & Backstage

Two conferences which are of specific interest to hosts are the Hosts Conference and the Backstage Conference. All hosts of Featured conferences are asked to add them to their personal conference lists. This can be done via the menu you see when you type custom at an OK prompt or by the tools available to Engaged users.

The Hosts conference is a Featured conference for open discussions between hosts of any kind of conference, our members and The WELL management. It keeps hosts abreast of new tools, and provides an open forum for discussing the various mundanities of hostship.

The Backstage Conference is a private conference where hosts of Featured conferences can discuss between themselves and The WELL staff any issues that are felt to be better left out of the public arena. Any Featured conference host can gain access to Backstage by typing: g back at an OK prompt. If you get a “permission denied” message, it simply means that you have not yet been added to the userlist for Backstage. Email confteam and ask to be admitted.

2.12 What You Should Know Before You Begin

The technical sections of this manual assume you know the basics covered in The WELL Member’s Guide or User’s Manual.

Can you start a topic? Go to the test conference to practice this simple trick if you are not utterly comfortable with topic starting from both the OK and the respond prompts.

Can you change your online bio, and edit other files online? You’ll need to learn basic online editing if you don’t edit files online already. For one thing, you’ll want to promote your new conference in your bio, or .plan file.

We will not be explaining again, here, how to create or respond to a topic, how to see the new responses in each conference on your list, nor will we explain how to create a file. If you are not familiar with these basics, you’ll want to refer to The WELL User’s Manual and get comfortable with them first before proceeding with the rest of this manual.

Both the Member’s Guide and the User’s Manual (older, and not up to date, but much more extensive) are available online by typing manual at an OK prompt.



3.1 Looking Around

Some hosts come to conferencing by taking over an existing conference hostship, or joining an old time host as a cohost. A few special problems of getting a handle on an old conference will be covered later. To start, let’s assume your conference is brand new.

Once The WELL conferencing team has created your new conference for you, they’ll send you email to let you know. They’ll also tell you how to get to your new conference. For instance, if you were starting a new conference on dinosaurs and the fossil record of Mesozoic times, they might tell you to “g meso”. (In the following sections, we’ll use this imaginary brand new “mesozoic” conference in most of our examples.)

This is where things get exciting! The first thing you’ll probably want to do is to log in to the Picospan text interface to The WELL, go to your new conference and take a look around. Go ahead and do that now. When you get there, check to make sure you’ve arrived in the right conference. At the OK prompt,

Type: g
You’ll see something like this:

File is: /well/confs/mesozoic (meso)
That’s a lot of answer for a little question. What does it mean? Well, it says “mesozoic,” so you must be in the right place! But what about the rest of it?

3.2 The “Real” Name of Your Conference

Before we explain it, let’s pause, for a moment, and consider what that message implies:

File is: /well/confs/mesozoic (meso)
It would seem that our new conference has two different names! We went to the conference by typing g meso, but this message shows a strange sequence of slashes. And, as if that’s not confusing enough, it’s followed by the name of our conference, as we usually think of it — in parentheses.

What’s going on here? And what’s the real name of our new Mesozoic Life conference? Very Important Questions, these. Many of the tools you’ll be using as a host will require that you provide the “real” name of the conference, and they just won’t settle for any cheap imitations. So let’s clear up any confusion you might have about your conference’s name right now.

Your conference is referred to in different ways in order to make things easy for conference visitors — not, alas, for you, the host. But fear not! There are a mere four ways your conference can be referred to, depending on what you need to do:

The “go name”: meso

This is an abbreviation which can be used to “go” to the conference. It’s defined for our system by the staff to save users the trouble of having to type out a long string like “g mesozoic” whenever they want to go to your conference, and is sometimes called the conference’s alias.

The “full pathname”: /well/confs/mesozoic This is the name our operating system (UNIX) uses to access your conference. All conference “full pathnames” begin with “/well/confs/”. We’ll take a closer look at the full pathname later in this manual.

The “real” name: mesozoic

At last! The REAL NAME of your conference! This is the name which appears at the end of the full pathname (after /well/confs/) when you type: g at the conference’s OK prompt. Whenever we remind you to substitute the “real” name of your conference for “mesozoic” in our examples, this is the name we’ll be talking about. Some host utility programs will not work with anything but this “real” name. So it’s important that you know what it is.

Let’s move on now and check out the rest of our sparkling new Mesozoic Life conference.

3.3 Displaying the Hosts

You’ll want to check the host(s) of the conference to make sure they are listed correctly.

Type: d host
(short for “display hosts”). The conference’s hosts will be displayed for you. If either the conference name or the list of hosts is incorrect, send email to confteam to have them corrected.

There won’t be much else to see, of course. No topics, no welcoming message, just a blank slate. Not terribly exciting. But it’s a bit like walking into a new house. The sheer emptiness is suggestive of its untold potential. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the empty space, there are a few things you should do to get the place in readiness before you enter the conference’s first topics or invite anyone in. Let’s look at them one by one.


Conference messages, or banners, are shown to users in the PicoSpan interface when they enter or leave a conference. They are a way of welcoming people to the conference, letting them know about important information or general announcements, and saying good-bye to them when they leave. There are five basic types in the text interface which give you varying degrees of control over when, and how often, a given message is seen. We’ll cover them in the order in which they would appear to a user joining your conference for the first time. (It’s a good rule of thumb to keep these messages fairly short — eight lines or less is best.) Those members of your conference who participate via the Engaged interface will not see the five basic banners. You may display announcements for them with one special banner, which is covered in section 4.6.

4.1 The Welcome Message (PicoSpan text interface users only)

The welcome message is the first thing users will see when they enter your conference for the first time. This message will be shown to them only once, when they join the conference. After that, they will never see it again, even if you revise it. Conferences don’t have to have a welcome message. Some hosts prefer to use only the login message (explained below) for their conferences. It’s entirely up to the host(s). But the same procedure will be followed for creating and changing all of the conference messages.

To create a welcome message (or to change it later) at an OK prompt,

type: change welcome
You’ll be put into the same editor you normally use for topic responses. When you’re finished typing your welcome message, enter it just as you would a topic response and you’ll get a prompt like this:

Ok to install?
Type: y …to install the message.
Type: n …to abandon it.
You will then be returned to an OK prompt.

To see the welcome message without changing it,

Type: d welcome (short for “display welcome”).
Only hosts may change the conference banners, but any user may display them by using d welcome at any time. To get a look at how other conferences use particular banners, you can use the d commands in various places around the system to compare. All of the following messages will display in the same manner.

4.2 The Bulletin (PicoSpan text interface users only)

The Bulletin message is shown to users just once. But unlike the welcome message, if you make any changes to it in the future, it will be shown to all your users once again. You can change it as often as you like, and each time, users will see the new message only once.

Like the welcome message, the bulletin is considered optional by most hosts. But because changing it will allow users to see it again, it is used more often than the welcome message. The bulletin is particularly useful for conference announcements that change periodically.

To create or change the bulletin message,

type: change bull
After that, the procedure is exactly the same as it was for the welcome message.

To see the bulletin without changing it,

type: d bull (short for “display bulletin”).

4.3 The Login Banner (PicoSpan text interface users only)

The login banner is used as the standard defining message for most conferences. It is shown to users each time they enter the conference. Typically, the login banner identifies the conference and states the names of the hosts. It can set a tone or style, giving some context to discussions in that conference. It may also remind users of special files or conference menus which may be available. (These will be covered later in this manual.) There is a wide variety of login banner styles, and like the other conference messages, you can design it to suit your own tastes. Please try to keep it to about six lines.

To create or change the login banner,

type: change login
After that, the process is the same as it was for the welcome and bulletin messages. To see the login banner without changing it,

type: d login (short for “display login”).

4.4 The Logout Banner (PicoSpan text interface users only)

The logout banner is displayed to users whenever they leave the conference. As with the other conference messages, it’s best to keep the logout banner brief. It’s generally used to remind the user of which conference he or she is leaving, and to wave good-bye, perhaps with a salient quote or attractive graphic design.

To create or change the logout banner,

type: change logout
After that, the process is the same as that for the other conference messages. So, to see the logout banner without changing it,

type: d logout (short for “display logout”).

4.5 The Index

The conference index is slightly different from the preceding conference messages. It’s not shown to users automatically, at all. To see it, users must

type: d index
The index can be used for any reference text which the host wishes to make available to users of the conference who might care to see it. It could, for example, be a list of several topics which the host feels are the best of the conference. Hosts may put a short message at the bottom of their login banner saying something like:

To see type: d index
To create or change the conference index banner,

type: change index
then follow the same procedure as with the other conference messages.

4.6 The Web Login, or wlogin (Engaged interface users only)

A special login banner has been developed for use with the Engaged interface. If you are familiar with HTML (HyperText Markup Language — the language used for building documents on the World Wide Web) you may use any HTML commands you wish in this file. Because this code is incorporated into another document before it is displayed, you don’t need the or tags.

If you don’t know any of the html language, simply


on the first line of the message (be sure to include the "<" and ">" symbols), enter about six lines of information (or whatever you did for the standard login banner mentioned in section 4.3), then type:

on the last line.

NOTE: Links to other web documents will work as active, clickable links in this banner, but please avoid things like large or numerous graphics that could slow down the loading of the conference page for your participants.

4.7 The Userlist, or ulist (Limited-access and Private Conferences Only)

The ulist is a list of users which determines who will be admitted to a limited-access and private conference. Users not on the list cannot be admitted.

To create or change the userlist,

type: change ulist
Enter one login name (userid) per line, then follow the same procedure as with the conference messages to install it. You will need to be able to use an online editor to maintain a ulist. See the discussion of the response editor in the printed or online versions of The WELL Member’s Guide or User’s Manual.

4.8 Some Users Will Not See Your Banners

Hosts should be aware that users have many choices in customizing their online environment, including turning off all conference login and logout banners. Only a small fraction of The WELL PicoSpan interface users have done this, but if someone in your conference is behaving as if they don’t know where they are or is ignoring information in your login banner, this may be the reason. In some cases you may have to mail the text in your banner to a participant as a (hopefully gentle!) reminder of context.

If you have your own banners off, be sure to turn them back on now and then to get a feel for how most users experience your conference. To do this, type !banners at the OK prompt.


Now that you’ve got all of your conference messages set up just the way you want them and the conference is beginning to look a bit less forlorn, you’re ready to enter the first topic. Only a host can enter the first topic in a conference. That’s you, right? Well then, it’s almost time to jump in! …almost.

Before you do, you may want to consider one or two small points that can make a difference to you later.

5.1 Topic Order

Once you, or anyone else, enters any topic in any conference, that topic is given a number which never changes. Even hosts, in the magnificence of their hostliness, cannot re-order the topics in their conferences. Topic number 1 will always be topic number 1, and as long as it exists it will appear first to participants who read the conference in the ordinary order. (It needn’t exist forever, by the way. It can be killed just like any other topic when it has outgrown its usefulness. Topic 2 will then take on the role of the first topic in the conference; and so on.)

Many hosts have found that reserving topic 1 for frozen short conference announcements has come in very handy as their conferences began to grow and flourish. “Why would I need yet another space for conference announcements?” you may wonder. “There are already FIVE conference messages I can use — the welcome, the bulletin, the login, the logout and the wlogin — in almost any combination I please for presenting conference announcements.”

True. But as we’ve said, some users choose to streamline their set-ups and skip banners. And consider the advantages of a topic. You can present information of more than a single screenful without taxing users’ patience (much). You can hide the topic (with the “retire” command, to be described shortly) when you don’t want it to be generally available for reading. You can add new announcements, in the form of responses, to older ones and thereby create a collection of essential information and a sense of continuity. Your guests will be able to search for keywords by use of the extract command, which won’t work on banners. You can hide or scribble any previous announcement in the topic you wish. You keep it short and pertinent by freezing it after each new announcement. And you’ll always know that whenever you add a new response to topic one, it will be the first new response people see in the conference. If you don’t have anything to say in such a topic just now, you can always create it with a simple announcement of the birth of the conference, and freeze and retire it right away, then unretire and thaw it later when you need it.

Finally, a topic has a different feel to it than a conference banner. It’s the perfect place to get into just a bit more detail about your initial concept for the conference and the general direction in which you might like it to head. And it’s easier for most users to go back to and find later than a welcome or bulletin banner, if they want a reminder about the rules of the conference.

Those are a lot of good reasons for choosing the option of reserving the first topic (or several retired topics) in your new conference for short announcements and introductions of one kind or another. Still, options are meant to be optional, so if you have your heart set on something a bit more colorful for the first topic, by all means do it.

When you are ready to open the first topic in the conference, you’ll create it by typing start (or e for enter if you prefer to be prompted for the response 0 before entering the topic title) just as you would any other topic. Go to it!

5.2 How Many Topics Should You Start With?

Different people have different answers to this question, and they’re all right. It depends entirely on the nature of the conference. Some successful conferences have opened with just one initial topic awaiting the arrival of the first visitor. Others have opened with a dozen or more brand-spanking-new topics, or with many older topics linked in to make a searchable ‘past’ for a new conference. But those are the extremes. In general, the rule of thumb is to open with just a few non-frozen topics; five, or maybe ten at most; and allow the conference to grow at its own pace.

Just to get you thinking, here is one sample approach to the opening topics for a hypothetical conference about making a living doing metal sculpture, and some tips on how to build it.

A sample set of initial topics:

1 Metal Sculpture Conference guidelines (short, frozen)
2 Conference Business and Feedback
3 Conference Business continued (topic retired until needed)
4 Step Right up and Introduce Yourself!
5 More introductions! (retired until needed)
6 Welding, fumes and art safety (some lively issue of interest to
folks in the group)
7 What are you working on now?
Topic order, and addition of new topics, can help get and keep the conversation going. The retired topics are simply a way to insure that your introduction topic doesn’t later become number 812 as the conference grows. However, as you travel around The WELL you’ll see that many hosts are content to ignore the issue, and people still manage to find the intro topics, often with the help of pointers in the conference banner.
Once you get going, keep an ongoing list of interesting topic ideas. You can do this online, perhaps in a retired topic you and your cohost can post to. (It’s possible for your guests to see it, but few will stumble across it, and perhaps those that do will help you open some topics.

Encourage posters to contribute, praise their good posts! If this is more comfortable in email, by all means use that channel of reinforcement. Some people respond more favorably to private encouragement, others to thanks in the company of the group.

Consider inviting in a few expert guests for short visits. In addition, consider sending invites to people who are not experts in your subject matter per se, but who are adept at online conversation. And let them know why they’ve been invited, so they don’t just politely observe.

Become a regular in at least one other lively conference yourself, and note how people keep those conversations going.

Casually use topic “drift” to inspire new topics. It helps to have a light touch, digression is probably better than silence, after all, but if a topic on metal corrosion in damp climates suddenly shifts to memories of childhood gardens, after a response or two you can start a new topic on childhood gardens, put your own nostalgia there (along with ideas about kids sculpture, in this mythical sample conference here), and possibly quote the posted text from the climate topic. Then try to think of an interesting tidbit or question that’s on topic for corrosion and damp places and post it back to the original topic. But digression is part of making community, and of having conversation rather than “entering data” so go very easy with this approach.

Some additional classic topics have been adapted over and over: If you want a chatty informal feel, a check-in topic is a good idea. It can have a professional theme, such as “How Did Your Sculpting Day Go?”, or a more personal or stylized format. Other good topics that you can use with almost any group are “What are we reading?” where books and magazines are evaluated, “Quotations” where interesting quotes are swapped, “Metal Sculpture in the News” where any current events with special interest for your group can be mentioned. If the news items stimulate a debate, or lengthy discussion, you can move the discussion from ” …in the news” to a topic you create expressly for that issue. “Pointers to interesting topics elsewhere around The WELL” is another topic you can update as you become aware of discussions. Since Engaged handles URL’s so nicely, you can have a topic like “Found on the Web,” where people can collect interesting pointers for one another. You might put adaptations of these topic ideas in your reserve idea list at first, and add them gradually, say once a week or once every other day, depending on the tempo and volume of your conference.

Be sure to encourage your guests to start topics. This helps take the burden off of you, and encourages more fluid discussions. Encouraging email that reminds people of how to do this, by using the “Add Topic” button in Engaged or typing “start” in PicoSpan, can help reinforce this habit.

If a topic doesn’t go well the first time around, retire it, and bring it back later, or kill it and start another topic with a slightly different title and a similar context later, when there’s a different mix of active participants. They may even surprise you and restart a similar topic when you don’t expect it.

Since when you enter a conference for the first time you automatically mark everything as “seen” this is an unusual opportunity to link long topics in without subjecting your readers to the entire contents of those topics as “new” in one session. You may want to use the welcome or login banners to suggest what topics are the best starting point or background, if you want to set some common ground rules. Remember to also include these in your wlogin file.

There are plenty of theories about why which conferences work, how the number of topics with which they opened had what effects on their success, the right way to open a conference, the wrong way, etc. But no one really knows. The best thing to do is to look at some existing conferences for ideas, follow your best instincts and take it from there. Every conference is different.

5.3 The Mysterious Summary File

Every conference has something called “a summary file.” Participants and hosts can’t read the file, nor is it visible anywhere in the conference.The summary file is built by the conference software. Its purpose is to help the system detect new responses more quickly.

Occasionally the summary file may become corrupted. If your conference members or you notice that the conference is acting strangely, or if you see a message similar to this: — ” is the summary file” — the conference’s summary file may be corrupted.

You can usually fix this by removing and rebuilding the file. Go to the OK prompt of the conference and then,

Type: c sum
(Note: This process used to take two separate commands. Now one command will do the whole job in fewer keystrokes.)

You can run “c sum” any time there’s a problem with the technical functioning of the conference. It’s OK to try it even when you don’t see an error message instructing you to do it.

Depending on the size of your conference, running the “c sum” command can take 30 seconds to several minutes. When the process is complete, you’ll be returned to the OK prompt.

If you can’t get to the OK prompt of the conference you host to run “c sum”, please contact helpdesk or confteam. Explain as best you can what difficulty you encountered and we’ll get the conference working smoothly again for you.


Your conference messages are in place, your first topics have been created, you’re all set to go… mail confteam to ask that the conference be “unlocked.”

You can announce the Grand Opening of your conference in the News conference topic “News from Around The WELL” and invite people in. You may also want to send email to users you know will be interested in your conference, and mention it in related conferences.

Having set up your conference and announced its opening, sit back and relax a bit. There’s no hurrying the birth of a conference. Users will begin checking in by ones or twos or threes — who can say? But it usually takes a little while for a conference to build up speed. So don’t worry if a frenzy of postings doesn’t appear right away. There is time. So good luck and have fun with it!

In Parts III and IV, we’ll take a look at some of the tools you have at your disposal for running your conference, checking its progress, keeping it in shape, customizing its appearance, and adding a few other bells and whistles.

6.1 Taking Over Hosting an Existing Conference

But first a word of encouragement for the host who is taking over a preexisting hostship. Reading through the manual, from creation to topic trimming, is as an excellent way to get a feel for the choices that have been made by the hosts who’ve gone before you.

Another perspective you need is how the conference looks to newcomers now.

In the PicoSpan text interface, go to your conference, and type


Now type

You will find yourself at a mysterious no conf prompt, but never fear — just go back to your conference by using the go command as always. You’ll get to experience the sensation of going into your conference as a newcomer might. Pay attention to the banners, and take a look at the last several days of responses as a newcomer would. At the OK prompt, type browse

You may decide this is just the time to spruce up your conference and make a browse more useful.

You should have a pretty good idea of whether some topic trimming is in order, and Part III of this manual will give you the tools to make the choices and weed your informational garden. Your choices of what to edit and what to keep are yours alone, but you may wish to ask the conference participants for advice, or at least list topics and warn users that it’s time to download them if they want a copy. If you want to do some topic trimming and don’t know where to begin, contact the Conferencing Manager for help.

6.2 Building Traffic

So, you have a fabulous conference, but it’s pretty quiet?

While it’s possible your conference just doesn’t currently command the audience you could gather in a good topic within an existing conference, it’s more likely people simply don’t know you’re conference is there.

First off, encourage the visitors you do have, even if it’s just your cohost, by continuing to post and trying to start a topic every week if nobody else does. If you do get a good topic going, you can promote it in The WELL News conference, where there is usually a topic called “News From Around The WELL” for that purpose.

Plugs in related conferences can be effective too, as can good linked topics. Say you’re the host of a fictitious conference about Dinosaurs and the Mesozoic times. If you can come up with some active linked topics to share with other hosts, pretty soon you’ll see posts like “Linked to the mesozoic conference? Wow, I didn’t know we had a conference about dinosaurs!”

If you have a delightful topic, type “tips” and read the instructions on getting your topic reviewed by the Tips Team.

Start more topics, and set up a few you post to every week, even if you are the only poster. You might try “What fossils have you collected?” with the intent of describing one of your fossils or field trip adventures in a post each week, whether others post there or not. Or “Dinosaurs in the news” where you can post mini-reviews of any media coverage of your area of interest.. Start topics relating to natural topic drift whenever the conversation strays off course, and if they don’t blossom, cheerfully retire them and get them out of the way. So what if you end up with a topic called “Other Kids Toys (Beyond Dinosaurs)” so long as it’s interesting digression for your participants. There’s nothing like experimenting.

Check out the newtops conference for lists of topics which you might want to link. This conference provides an index of all the topics started in open access conferences each day.

Use your own online bio, your web home page or .plan file. If you’re visible and colorful in other conferences and people are always looking you up, give them something to read about that great conference where they can usually find you.

Visit the Welcome conference and greet newcomers who post, ask them what they are interested in, and help them find places to visit. Help them add your conference to their conference list!

Build a fabulous Front Page web site for your conference. Either do this yourself, or put out a call for a volunteer conference webster to help create a web site with your conference members.

And last but not least, read the hosts conference to learn what other hosts are doing to promote their conferences.



Some tools are nearly indispensable to a host, especially the host commands built in to the PicoSpan software. We’ll be covering those first. Others have been added by hosts who know how to make UNIX scripts or programs, and are so generally useful you’ll almost certainly want to take advantage of their capabilities. And some are more esoteric and complex, but can come in handy occasionally, when you have a particular job you want to do.

Let’s look at the basic host’s toolkit now, the indispensable tools. Besides the use of the banners discussed in 4.0, there are only a handful of commands you really need to know about to get hosting: freeze and thaw, retire and unretire, hide and unhide, scribble, kill, and linkfrom.


8.1 Freeze and Thaw

As a topic starter, any member of The WELL may freeze a topic he or she has started and make it a read-only announcement. You may experiment with the following commands as a topic starter in the Test conference.

The host of a conference may freeze and/or thaw any non-linked topic in that conference, no matter who started it. Freezing a topic simply replaces the Respond prompt at the end of the topic with another prompt which says “Response not possible. Pass?”, thereby making it impossible for anyone, including the host, to add a new response to that topic. The converse of the freeze command is thaw, which returns the topic to its original state and allows anyone to add a new response.

Let’s say that the discussion in topic number 5 in your conference has pretty much run its full course for the time being, and you’d like to give it a rest, perhaps until new developments arise which are relevant to the topic. There are two ways to freeze the topic. At the OK prompt,

type: freeze 5
or, at the Respond prompt of topic 5,

type: freeze
Thawing a topic is the same, except you replace the word “freeze” with “thaw”. For example:

type: thaw 5
The topic starter, whether a host or not, can also thaw that topic, as well as freeze it.

8.2 Retire and Unretire

Retiring a topic is a way of taking it out of general circulation while leaving it in existence. Retired topics will not show up in ordinary b or s new commands at the OK prompt. However, they can still be browsed by adding the suffix nof (short for “no forget”) onto the command. NOTE: Linked topics shouldn’t be retired without consulting with the hosts of the linked conferences. If you kill a linked topic rather than retiring it, the topic lives on in all the other linked conferences. This will be discussed further in Chapter 9.

Suppose you want to retire topic 5. At an OK prompt,

type: retire 5
Like the freeze and thaw commands, retire commands can also be given at the Respond prompt of a topic:

type: retire
If you now type: b …at an OK prompt, topic 5 will not show up in the list of topics. Nor will it show up when people are looking, in the usual manner, for topics which have new responses.

To see a list of the conference’s topics, including all retired (and forgotten) topics,

type: b nof
It is also possible to get a list of ONLY those topics which have been retired. To do this, add the suffix “ret” to the browse command:

type: b ret
Any retired topic can still be read and responded to, provided one knows its topic number and it hasn’t been frozen. Thus, even though topic 5 is retired, if you

type: s 5
you can read and respond to it in the usual way. For this reason, you will usually first want to first freeze and then retire a topic.

Why would you want to respond to a topic which has been retired but not frozen? There could be any number of reasons. For one example, suppose you want to create a topic whose introduction you’d like to break up into several parts, putting each part in one of the topic’s first responses. If you have a busy conference, it’s possible that as soon as you create the topic, someone may come along and respond to it before you have finished entering the responses you intend to be part of the topic’s introduction. To avoid this possibility, you could retire the topic immediately after you create it, then add the responses you want while the topic is hidden from general view. When the topic is ready to present to everyone for reading and responding, unretire it.

To unretire topic 5,

type: unretire 5
Or, if you are at the Respond prompt of that topic, just

type: unretire
Any topic can be retired or unretired by its creator, whether he or she is a host of the conference or not.

If you’d just like a quick way to check and see how many, if any, topics have been retired in your conference without seeing an actual browse list of those topics with their titles, at an OK prompt,

type: d retired (short for “display retired”)
You’ll be told how many topics are retired and shown a several column list of their numbers.

Ranges can be used (at the OK prompt) with both the retire and unretire commands, as well as the * wildcard character designating all topics in the conference. For example,

retire 5-10
will retire topics 5 through 10, and

unretire *
will unretire every non-linked topic in the conference.

8.3 Censoring with Hide and Scribble

Hosts can either hide or scribble any response made by anyone in any non-linked topic in their conference. Generally, these commands are considered a last resort by hosts as a way to control what appears in their conference. (See “The WELL Etiquette” section of this manual and The WELL Host Agreement printed in section 1.3 for further details about The WELL policy regarding Featured conference hosts’ censoring powers.)

The hide command applies only to individual topic responses and can only be given at the Respond prompt of the topic containing the response to be hidden. Hiding a response does not erase it, but merely conceals it under a message which says: .

To hide a response, go to the Respond prompt of the topic in which it appears and type the word “hide” followed by the number of the response. For example, if you wanted to hide response 53 in topic 7, at an OK prompt you would:

Type: s 7 nor
which would take you directly to the Respond prompt of topic 7 (“nor” is short for “no read”). You would then:

Type: hide 53
Users who wish to read that response can still do so. Depending on where they are on The WELL, they have several options.

Type: extract meso 7 53
will show them response 53 only of topic 7 in the mesozoic conference from any place on The WELL. The conference go name must be specified. The other way to see this is with no-forget or only commands:

From an OK prompt in your conference, type: s 7 noforget
This shows you all of topic 7, including hidden posts. Or, from the respond prompt of the topic, you can see hidden posts if you look at them explicitly. Go to the respond prompt of the topic.

Then type: only 53
NOTE: In the Engaged interface, click on the message to see a hidden response.

Now and then a host will hide a message due to its length. In such cases it’s courteous to post a one line explanation of the reason for hiding the post, then continue the conversation:

The previous post is an essay on mesozoic plant life; it has been hidden due to its length.
Scribbling, in contrast to hiding, completely obliterates the contents of a response from a topic, and instead of the message , the message will be displayed in place of the text of the topic response. Once a response is scribbled, it can’t be restored.

The scribble command works in exactly the same way as the hide command. Thus, to scribble response 53 in a topic, go to that topic’s Respond prompt ( s 7 nor will do that for you) and:

Type: scribble 53
Scribbling another member’s post is something that should only be done with a lot of forethought and only in extreme cases. Please see the censorship section of the Host’s Agreement for more discussion about scribbling posts in your conference. You can, of course, scribble any of your own posts any time you wish.

8.4 Killing Topics

Killing a topic gets rid of it forever. Once a topic is killed, unless it is linked elsewhere it ceases to exist. It’s erased from The WELL and it goes immediately to Topic Heaven (or Hell, as the case may be). Two people in a conference can kill a topic:

The host(s) can kill any topic in the conference, at any time. A topic’s starter can also kill a topic, provided no one other than the author has posted a response to it.

The most general use of the kill command is to prune old, inactive, or unsuccessful topics from the conference, both to keep your conference navigable and to save disc space on The WELL — which has occasionally approached maximum capacity. Another use is to get rid of a newly created topic which you realize, as soon as you’ve entered it, has some horrific error in its title or introduction.

Suppose you’ve decided that you want to kill topic 54 in your conference. At the OK prompt,

type: kill 54
You’ll then be asked:

Ok to kill 54?
Typing: y will do the awful deed; typing n will rescue the topic from destruction.

You can also kill ranges of topics. For instance, you could

type: kill 54-57
You’d then be asked, just as before, to verify your intention to kill each of the topics in the range 54 through 57. You will not be shown the topic titles as you do this, so it is wise to have a print-out of the topics you are about to kill at your side, so you can verify.

If you find it useful, you can also combine ranges with individual topics to be killed. For instance, you could:

Type: kill 54 56 59-63 99 101
Finally, you can kill a topic from its Respond prompt, with the simple command: kill. Again you will be asked to verify it before it is actually killed.

NOTE: If you should ever need to kill a large number of inactive topics in your conference, you may want to use the utility program, !hitlist, covered later in this manual. Before killing topics, consider freezing and retiring them, announcing they are going to go away, and perhaps sending email to the host of The WELL Attic conference, who will link them there and keep them for a few months after you kill them, so that when someone comes back to look for specific old material, it will be stored in the Attic conference.

Type: cfinfo attic
to see the host(s) of the Attic conference and a description of its function.


It is possible to “link” a topic from one conference to another. When this is done, the linked topic will appear in both conferences with exactly the same title and text, but with a different topic number in each conference. Users in either conference can respond to the topic, and all new responses will appear in the linked topic in both conferences. Topics can even be linked between several conferences. (As a Featured conference host, you can only link topics *into* your own conference. You cannot link topics from your conference out to conferences not hosted by you. Independent conferences do not support linking, though a Featured conference host may link an Independent topic into his or her conference with permission.)

9.1 Advantages & Disadvantages

Linking a topic presents a unique set of advantages and disadvantages to ordinary topics. The obvious advantage is that a topic which is germane to two or more conferences can appear in both or all. For example, some topics might well belong in both the Science Conference and our imaginary Mesozoic Life Conference. But some users may only frequent one of these conferences. Linking a topic between them makes the topic available to all users who visit either conference. A user who visits both conferences will see the linked topic in each conference until he/she “forgets” the topic in one or the other.

The disadvantages to linking topics are less obvious, but very important. First and foremost is the issue of a topic’s compatibility between two conferences. Different conferences have different rules, expectations and userships. It’s entirely possible (and, indeed, it has happened) that a topic whose subject matter appears to apply to two conferences is a poor choice for linking because the people in one conference expect the subject to be discussed in one context, and the people in the other conference expect it to be discussed in another context. Such links can lead, inadvertently, to misunderstandings between both the participants and hosts of the different conferences.

For example, the Mesozoic Life conference is full of serious discussion, scientific fact, and proven biological premise. The TV conference is a much more social atmosphere with discussions geared towards popular culture, the production aspects of broadcasting and general banter. Someone starts a topic in Mesozoic Life on National Geographic specials that the hosts then link into the tv conference. Suddenly you have a topic full of clashing dialogue between scientific fact and discussion of content, and lighthearted banter and a discussion of Barney. Though the subject applies to both conferences, the tone of each conference is significantly different and therefore makes for poor discussion on both sides.

For example, the Mesozoic Life conference is full of serious discussion, scientific fact, and proven So, careful forethought is advised for all hosts concerned before topics are linked between conferences.

9.2 Murphy’s Linking Laws

Because of the potential for incompatibility between the approach of two different conferences to the same topic of discussion, it is imperative that the hosts and cohosts of the respective conferences communicate with each other and come to an agreement regarding their linking policies prior to making any links. The following rules of thumb by Dan Murphy are recommended as standard procedure for hosts wishing to link topics:

* When you link a topic from another conference, you must first obtain the permission of a host there. Cohosts in multi-host conferences should work out among themselves the protocol for how this decision is made, etc.

Hosts may waive this rule for any hosts/conferences they wish. If, for example, the hosts of the lawn conference want to give blanket permission to the hosts of the chair conference to link topics there, they may do so, allowing the hosts of chair to skip rule #1 if they see a topic they want to link. This permission may be withdrawn at any time, but until then, the hosts of lawn pretty much have to live with the results.

* When you link that topic, the system automatically posts a message indicating from which conference and topic number it was linked, and which conference and topic number it was linked to.


* If you kill a linked topic, you should leave a message in your conference administrivia or business topic to let users know this was done, as they may have forgotten the topic in another conference but wish to continue reading it there.

9.3 Technical Side-Effects of Linking

Once a topic is linked between two conferences, the ability to scribble responses in the topic is changed. Thereafter, only the original author of the post, and The WELL confteam staff can perform this action. Neither of the hosts will be able to scribble responses (other than their own). If it becomes necessary for the hosts to do so, they must contact The WELL conferencing team, who can do it for them. The hosts of both conferences should agree on the need to scribble in a linked topic before contacting the staff with such a request.

Linked topics are also immune to the host’s use of the “retire” command.

The hosts in both conferences do retain, however, their abilities to kill the topic within their own conference. When a linked topic is killed in any conference, it lives on in the other conferences to which it was linked. (This little feature is a handy way for hosts to transfer topics from one conference to another: link it into the new conference then kill it in the old conference. This is also how the attic conference can store killed topics — they are linked there before killing in their place of origin.)

9.4 The Linkfrom Command (Featured Conferences Only)

Now that you know the ins and outs of linking, the actual command may be of interest. Let’s say you are the host of the Mesozoic Life conference, and you want to link topic 234 of the Science conference into Mesozoic Life. You’ve determined who the hosts of the science conference are either by going there and typing display host, or by typing hosted science at any OK prompt, and emailed them to confirm that the link is fine. It’s ok to link with permission from one host unless that host says to wait for a reply from their cohost(s) It’s wise to inform all hosts of a cohosted conference since hosts may have divided up their duties or have different schedules for logging in. Here’s the command (given from the OK prompt in the Mesozoic Life conference):

type: linkfrom science 234
Both topics will then be marked as in their headers and browse lists, and you will be told the new topic numbers of the linked topic in your conference. PicoSpan will now make an automatic post logging the numbers of the topic and noting that you made the link.

That’s all there is to it. Now your guests know something about how the conversation has been expanded. To see where any topic is linked, you can type linked followed by the conference name and topic number to see where a particular topic is linked. For example:

type: linked science 234
To unlink a topic, kill it in your conference.

9.5 Listing Linked Topics

If you’d like to see a quick list of all the topics in your conference which are linked to/from other conferences,

Type: linked confname
This command will produce a list of conferences and topic numbers (without their corresponding titles) for each topic in that conference that is linked. For example, for the words conference, the output of linked words might look like this:

science.404 words.1041
archives.208 health.444 medroll.260 words.413
cbooks.104 media.892 oldsoft.187 software.139 words.1008
flying.142 words.794
eff.546 words.902
… etc.


It’s entirely possible to host a conference, and do it well, using only the tools we have covered so far. Hosting a conference is much more than just knowing special commands, and acquiring more technical expertise will not necessarily make you a better host or make your conference more successful.

So, we suggest that you work with the tools above for a while until you feel comfortable with hosting before you move on to Part IV.



11.1 What is a Conference Directory?

A directory is a special kind of computer file which can contain other files. Mac users will feel comfortable thinking of a directory as a folder which can hold files and, sometimes, other directories. Whenever you log on to The WELL, you are always located in your own personal Home Directory which remains “underneath” your conferencing, so moving from one conference to another does not move you out of your Home Directory. And whenever you create a new file by typing “ped filename” or “red filename”, the new file automatically lands in your Home Directory.

Exactly what is a conference directory? In a way, it’s your conference’s home. Just as you have your own (Home) directory, each conference has its own directory, as well. That’s where it stores its files. In fact, as far as Unix is concerned, a conference is nothing but a directory that holds PicoSpan files.

The most common type of PicoSpan file is a topic file, which is where all the text in a topic is stored. These topic files cannot be changed directly by either hosts or users — PicoSpan makes certain of that to ensure the integrity of the material posted in topics.

So, while we won’t be creating any fireworks in this section, it’s an important one as background to the sections that follow. We’re almost ready to jump in!

11.2 Your Conference Directory’s Full Pathname

A pathname is a lot like a street address. It’s the exact location of something. There’s a bit more to it than that, but we’ll keep things simple. Just to refresh your memory, to find the full pathname of the Mesozoic Life conference’s directory, go to an OK prompt in meso and:

Type: g
Again, you’ll see this:

File is: /well/confs/mesozoic (meso)
The part of this message which interests us now is:

File is : /well/confs/mesozoic (meso)
This is the conference’s
full pathname
This full pathname describes the unique location of the conference directory, itself.

But for now, let’s move our tour forward to a new and exciting directory — your conference’s second directory.

11.3 The Conference Info Directory

Each conference, like our imaginary mesozoic life conference, has three possible directories available to it. We’ve just located the first one — /well/confs/mesozoic — where all of its topics and essential conference files reside. To make use of the second available directory, you need to specifically request (in email to confteam) that it be created.

This second directory will have the same name as the first, but for one small difference. Instead of the word “confs” in the middle of the full pathname, the word will be “info”. That is, the full pathname of our mesozoic conference’s second directory will be

instead of

We’ll refer to this second directory as the conference’s info directory. It is for files of interest to your conference’s users, usually presented in menu form. It’s only readable to our members, and in the case of private conferences, only to conference members.

11.4 The Conference Front Page Web Directory (Featured Conferences only)

The third directory will have the same name as the first, except (you guessed it) for one small difference. Instead of the word “confs” in the middle of the full pathname, the word will be “web”. That is, the full pathname of our mesozoic conference’s second directory will be

This directory has the peculiar attribute of being “mounted” to another machine which serves its contents to the World Wide Web. Any material you publish here will be reachable from the entire web, as an introduction to your conference or a gift or resources your conference has to offer to the world. This is similar to the functionality of the WEB subdirectory in your own Home Directory, where your own web home page may already reside.

Your conference’s URL (Universal Resource Locator) will be in the form of
Note that this outside URL address uses “conf” not “confs” but like the interior path names, it includes the all important real name of your conference.

One more note for the Unix savvy. You will not be able to write directly to any of these directories, but through special host tools you can easily move materials in and out of the info and web directories.

Now that we know our way around, we can start using more of the tools hosts have in their toolkits.


Your conference’s “rc” and “urc” files are two of the most versatile tools you have at your disposal as a host. Command shortcuts can also be defined in the “rc” file which can make access to specific files or special programs very easy for the PicoSpan user. The potential uses for the “rc” file are nearly limitless. We’ll cover some of the more common ones here.

12.1 What Are the RC and URC Files?

Your conference’s RC File is a lot like an individual user’s .cfonce file, but it belongs to the conference itself. Whenever a user enters your conference, the contents of the RC File (the “Run Command” File) are read into PicoSpan’s environment for that user. The URC file is a file of commands that are also read into PicoSpan’s environment for that user, but are executed as the user him/herself. The URC file of your conference allows you to make a menu area available just for your guests. The RC file is available for you to create any customizations you wish for your conference. For example, if you want your guests to be able to type a command to access a list of concert dates or a particular document about something, you could program that command into your RC file, or put the document in your web directory, and use the RC file to point the lynx web browser to it automatically.

The RC file is located in your conference’s directory. Hosts cannot make changes to the URC file directly, but they can directly play with the contents of the RC file. At the OK prompt in your conference, just:

Type: c rc
The URC is protected for user privacy reasons and can only be changed by the confteam staff. If you have a command you wish to add to your conference’s URC file, and you’ve experimented to be sure it will not work in the RC file, just email confteam and they can install it for you.

Like the other special files in your conference directory, the RC file may be seen by any conference user in the PicoSpan environment by use of the “display” command. At an OK prompt, just:

Type: d rc
You’ll see something like this:

define signit 9 “lynx”

define menu 9 “system /usr/local/bin/amenuinfo -c screen -F -b -s”
The line in the RC file defines a specific command so when a guest types “signit” they are sent to a particular web site; in this case, it’s a web page on another system. The URC command sets up a menu system specific to The WELL that the host can customize to provide information, access to files, and so on that they have chosen as possible interest points for conference participants. More information about menus is covered in Section 13.

Take a look around some of your favorite conferences’ RC files and menu options. There are many examples of clever and creative uses of this resource. There have been changes over time to the way the RC and URC files are utilized, so your conference may differ if it still contains the more archaic set up. If you have questions or don’t under stand the RC files in your conference, just ask confteam and they’ll be glad to help you interpret. If you would like to experiment with macros, take a look at the material on using your .cfonce in The WELL User’s Manual.

RC and URC commands will not work for Engaged users. You will want to use the wlogin file and make direct links to files instead of using the RC to build commands or menus for those users.


A menu for your conference is entirely optional, and is likely to have less traffic than either topics or a conference web site. However, for some purposes it may be just the ticket. And it’s fairly simple to set up.

13.1 Moving & Copying Files Into the Info Directory

The Info Directory cannot be accessed by users of Engaged. However, if your conference is mostly visited by users of PicoSpan, you may find it useful for menus and archives.

There are a number of simple ways to arrange and manipulate the information you want to present in your conference’s menu. The tool you use to move your offerings in and out of the info directory is simply called “!infomenu”. By calling up this simple menu-making menu, you can copy your prepared files into the info directory from your home directory, move a file from one directory to the other, create subdirectories, edit the files, and list the contents of your conference’s main info directory or any of its subdirectories. You can access this special menu of tools at the OK prompt:

Type: !infomenu
After entering the conference name, you will see a menu of hostly tools that looks something like this:


1 – List info directory contents (short)
2 – List info directory contents (long)
3 – View info file with pager
4 – Copy file into info directory
5 – Copy file from info directory
6 – Remove info file
7 – Edit info file
8 – Move (rename) info file
9 – Make info subdirectory
10 – Remove info subdirectory
11 – List info subdirectory contents (short)
12 – List info subdirectory contents (long)
13 – List contents of your working directory

q=Quit this menu p=turn Pager OFF

Select one of the above items (1-13 or a letter) ==>
The first two menu options allow you to list the contents of your conference info directory in either short or long format. The short format gives you just a list of the name of the files and sub directories present. The longer format tells you how big each file is, whether it is a subdirectory or a file, when it was last modified, and other such information. Options 11 and 12 work the same way for any subdirectory in your info directory. Once you know the name of the file you want to work with, you can take a look at the file contents by selecting option 3 – View info file with pager.

Probably the most common option you’ll use is option 4 – Copy file into info directory. Suppose you have a file named “stuff” in your Home Directory (your working directory when you log on to The WELL) and you’d like to put a copy of it into your Mesozoic Life conference’s info directory. After typing !infomenu to access the info menu for your conference and choosing option 4, it will prompt you for the name of the file you want to copy in.

Type: stuff
The file “stuff” will now exist in both your home directory and in your conference’s info directory. You can remove or alter either of them without affecting the other copy. It will then ask you what you want to name the file in your info directory. You could just name it “stuff” again, or come up with something more creative or descriptive for your menu’s readers if you wish. Once you’ve finished this, you can go back to option 1 or 2 and check to see if the name of your new file is now listed.

You can use this same procedure to copy files into a subdirectory by including the subdirectory name in the name of the destination file. For example, if you wanted the “stuff” file to go in the “things” subdirectory, when it prompted you for the name of the file for the info directory, you would

type: things/stuff
You could also, if you wanted to, change the name of any file in your info directory or move it to a subdirectory with option 8 – Move (rename) info file. For instance, if you wanted the “stuff” file to be renamed as “fossils”, after filling in the name of the original “stuff” file, you could:

Type: fossils
as the name of the new file, including a subdirectory if applicable.

13.2 Removing Files From the Info Directory

To remove a file or a subdirectory from your conference’s info directory, select option 6 – Remove info file, or option 10 – Remove info subdirectory. Remember to include the pathname of the file from the info directory onward, such as things/stuff, if needed. This will erase the file, so you might wish to Copy file from info directory (option 5) before nuking it permanently.

13.3 How Menus Work

Now that we’ve told you all this stuff about moving files in and out of the info directory, creating subdirectories, and editing these files, you’re probably saying to yourself “Well, that’s all well and nice, but why the heck do I want to do that?” The answer is menus.

Before we get into just how you create a conference menu, let’s take a look at a simple example of how one works after it’s already been installed.

You are gazing restfully upon the facade of a verdant, if somnolent, OK prompt. You’ve seen a message, perhaps in the login banner as you entered the conference, which said,

To be transported to Mesozoic’s Special Menu, type: menu

What could be in there, you wonder. So you type menu to find out, and you see this:



1 – Corals (12K)

2 – Montana Dinosaur Dig (4K)

3 – Fossils (13K)

q=Quit p=turn Pager OFF
u=go Up one menu level v=reView what you’ve seen r=Return to main menu

What do you want to do?

You type: 1 …and the Corals article is presented to you, complete with pauses. When you’re finished with it, you are returned to the menu once again, where you can choose another selection or quit the menu and return to an OK prompt.

It’s very simple from the user’s point of view. To set it up is almost as simple.

13.4 Preparing Your Files

The first thing you’ll need for your conference menu is something to put into it — a number of files you wish to include. In the example above, there are three separate files which the menu will access, one for each selection number. We’ll assume that you’ve already created these files in your home directory, and that you are ready to place them in a subdirectory in your conference’s info directory under the following names: “Montana_Dinosaur_Dig”, “Corals”, and “Fossils”.

First type:

to make sure you are in your home directory. You can now move the files to the info directory through the info menu accessible by typing:

If you don’t have three files ready to put in a menu of your own yet, go ahead three test files up with a line or two of text, and try this out. A menu of one to ten files is simple indeed. However, you may want to separate items into categories and make lower levels for your menu (submenus) if you will have many files to display.

First, you will need to create a subdirectory for your lower menu level. Let’s call it “Fossil_Field_Trips.” From the !infomenu menu, select the option to create a subdirectory and to name it,

type: Fossil_Field_Trips
You can now move the files to the menu subdirectory in your conference’s info directory with the Copy file into info directory option from the menu. For example, to move a file named “Africa” into your newborn subdirectory, you would

type: Fossil_Field_Trips/Africa
As the new name of the file, once again including the relative pathname.

13.5 Amenu

What exactly is making this menu magic? If you display your URC file (or RC file in some of the older conferences), you may see that the curious term “amenu” is included in the expression there. This nifty, easy to use automatic menu program was written for The WELL in 1993 by Pete Hanson. More documentation is available by typing:

!man amenu
You may have noticed the three files in your new menu show up in alphabetical order. If you’d like to control that order, name the files so that they begin with numbers, which will not display, as in “010Fossils” or “020Montana_Dinosaur_Dig”. Later, you could add files beginning with numbers such as 011, 012, and so forth, into the sequence.

You’ll also notice that underscores or dashes do not normally display. Since UNIX file or directory names must not contain spaces, this is a crafty way to allow spaces in the amenu output, which explains the reason for naming that file “Montana_Dinosaur_Dig,” and the subdirectory “Field_Trips.”


Every Featured conference has a basic web page. Hosts who are interested in expanding the content of their conference’s web pages are welcome to enhance them.

14.1 Your Conference Web Directory (Featured Conferences only)

Each Featured conference is set up with a simple web page containing a description of your conference, the hosts’ names and logins, links to the conference categories and other useful information and help, and a log in box to the conference itself via a web browser.

Your conference’s basic page is composed of several files that are assembled “on the fly” by our content management system. Some of the files are managed by WELL staff and are standard elements of all the Featured conference web pages. Others are files hosts may access and update themselves.

You can view your conference web page via your browser. Substitute your conference name for “mesozoic” in the following example:

At the top and the bottom of the web page, you’ll see horizontal color bands with a variety of links to information and support. In the large white band in the middle, you’ll see your conference name, a conference description, the hosts names and logins, and a log in box. By design, all our Featured conferences have these same elements. Some of the files that create these elements are in our content management sysytem and aren’t directly editable by hosts.

The files you can edit will be found in your conference’s web directory. You can view those files when you are logged in via PicoSpan. Substitute your conference name with “mesozoic” in the following path: /www/conf/mesozoic

The file displays on the left side of the page below the conference’s name. By default, it is a plain-text file containin the conference description that matches the conference’s cfinfo file. If you wish to update the conference description, edit the file. (NOTE: If you edit that file, please contact confteam so we may update the cfinfo file to match, if appropriate)

The file by default contains the names and logins of the current conference hosts. If you want to embed a link to further information about yourself or to an email pop-up to you, you would want to edit the file.

There are other enhancements you can add to your conference web page. For example, the web page can have a customized conference banner. If you want a customized banner, please contact confteam for details on file size limits and display size parameters, and to ask for assistance in getting it installed, since hosts can’t install these banners directly.

You can also add a photo or graphic to the conference web page. The image will appear on the right side of the page above the login box. In order to display, the file must be in your conference web directory, and be named more.jpg, more.jpeg, or more.gif. The file shouldn’t exceed 50KB, and the dimensions should be no more than 350 pixels vertically or horizontally.

You can add additional text to your conference web page below the host listing by creating a file called in your conference’s web directory. The file can be done in plain text, and can also contain html.

14.2 The How-to of Enhancing your Conference Web Page

If you are comfortable in a UNIX environment, you may choose to create and edit files directly in your conference’s web directory. To access the directory, you’ll need to change ownership to yourself by typing:

!webowner mesozoic
You’ll now have write permissions to all files there. Your cohost may change it back to his or her ownership using the same command.

Many people prefer to create the files on their own computers, then upload them to the conference web directory. If you prefer this mode, you can access the conference web directory through a simple menu system in PicoSpan. The menu will allow you to manipulate files, create subdirectories, list the directory contents, and so on.

To invoke the menu, type:

You’ll be prompted for the real name of your conference. Once you enter it, you’ll be shown this menu of choices.


1 – List contents (short)
2 – List contents (long)
3 – View file(s) with pager
4 – View file with lynx
5 – Copy file(s) into web directory
6 – Copy file from web directory
7 – Remove file(s)
8 – Edit file
9 – Move (rename) file(s)
10 – Make subdirectory
11 – Remove subdirectory
12 – List subdirectory contents (short)
13 – List subdirectory contents (long)
14 – List contents of your working directory

q=Quit this menu p=turn Pager OFF
Select one of the above items (1-14 or a letter) ==>

These commands will work much as the !infomenu command does. One different choice you have is option 4 – View file with lynx. Lynx is an old text-based means of looking at the Web. It’s rarely used these days, feel free to ignore option 4.

Whether you choose to build your conference web page enhancements directly in the conference web directory or to upload files you’ve created on your own computer, once the file is in the web directory and has 644 permissions (-rw-r–r–), it will immediately display on your conference web page. So be sure to have a browser tab open to your conference’s web page while you’re altering it. That way, if something doesn’t look the way you mean it to, you can change the file permission or its name, then tweak the file to correct whatever error you discovered.

14.2 More Extensive Enhancements

If you want to expand your conference’s web page offerings, you can build additional pages in your conference’s web directory, and install links to those pages in the or file.

For some examples of what hosts have done with conference front pages, you might want to check out the web pages of some conferences that have enhanced web pages. Some examples include Cooking, Games, and Linux conferences.

If you point to graphics or pages in other web directories, on The WELL or elsewhere, you’ll want to check your pages now and then to be sure the links still work. There’s nothing more frustrating than clicking on an interesting link and getting an error message saying the material isn’t there anymore.

If you use your conference directories to present graphics, sounds or words created by your conference members, you’ll want to be sure to have permission to publish the material. You may want to save email containing the assurance that the conference participant is the author or artist, or otherwise has the rights to give you permission to publish the material in your conference web directory.

Most importantly, let your creativity reign and have fun! The conference web pages are one of the prime ways to put your conference on the map and attract great participants from elsewhere on the Net.


15.1 Using the !conflog Command to Check Conference Visits

Have you ever wondered who is reading your conference, and when? A simple host tool called conflog, written by Bryan Higgins, can answer that question. It displays a log of PicoSpan visits to any conference you host. If you were to type

!conflog mesozoic
using our example, you’d see visits to our fictitious mesozoic conference during the current month, listing the conference, user and time.

mesozoic: zipidy Mon Nov 3 00:00:38 2005
mesozoic: puffball Mon Nov 3 00:22:35 2005
mesozoic: madmoth Mon Nov 3 00:54:16 2005
mesozoic: hydrant Mon Nov 9 01:03:53 1994
A visit is counted only if the user reads topics or posts in a conference.
Note: The !conflog command does not keep track of visitors using Engaged.

The !conflog command works for Featured, limited-access or private conferences. You must be a host of the conference to run conflog. If you host more than one conference, you may specify multiple conferences on the conflog line if you want, separating them with spaces.

You might want to use !conflog to display a list of the visits since the last time you ran conflog on that conference. The very first time you run it, you will be shown all the visits since the beginning of the month (you may type q to quit out of the pager if you don’t want to read the entire list).

Using !conflog creates and maintains a file called .conflog.conf in your home directory, where .conf is the conference’s real name. In our example, you’d find a file called .conflog.mesozoic in your home directory. This file has no contents, simply a date and time which is updated each time you look at conflog output.

If you like to see the most recent visits to your conference each time you log on, you can put a command in your own .profile (or .login if you are a C-shell user.)

To add the command to your profile, from an OK prompt, in your own home directory, type:

!echo “conflog mesozoic” >> .profile
The quotes are necessary, and you would use your own conference name (or several conferences you host separated by single spaces) in place of “mesozoic” inside the quotes. You can also edit your .profile with your favorite editor and type in

conflog mesozoic
directly as text, which does the same thing as using the !echo command to add it. If you get tired of seeing the visits when you log on, you can remove this line at any time by editing your .profile (or .login if your account is in a C-shell) again.

There are also some handy options for your non-automated use of conflog. If you type

!conflog -a mesozoic
at an OK prompt, you will see all the visits in a month, even if you’ve been checking more frequently. A typical use of this is to dump a larger list of visits to a file to sort and count, on your own machine, or with Unix tools on The WELL.

It’s also possible to look at a certain span of time. If you type

!conflog -s 2 mesozoic
you will see all the visits since 2 days ago (or any date you choose in the current month), while

!conflog -s 2 mesozoic | tail -20
will show you the last 20 lines or the last 2 days worth, whichever is shorter. The character between “mesozoic” and “tail” is called a pipe and is simply a vertical line. It shares the backslash key on most standard keyboards. Each of the above commands can also be executed when you log on, by putting the command in your .profile or .login, without that leading !.

Conflog can let you know who is an avid but quiet reader so that when that person posts for the first time, you can encourage them. However, it will not tell you who is reading by using the extract tool or reading through Engaged, so not showing up in conflog is not proof that a user didn’t see a post. You may also want to keep in mind that knowing when someone read your conference is not proof of what they read, since they could have been reading either new responses, or older topics, and may have forgotten some current topics.

Use of this tool is entirely optional and many hosts decide not to spend time looking at who is reading, but to focus instead on who is posting.

15.2 Census: Comparing Conference Activity

“Census” gives you a list of the number of visits to all open access conferences for the previous month. To access this list,

Type: census
and you’ll see something like this:

Conference Activity for March 1, 2008 through March 31, 2008

Unique Unique
Rank Conference #Posts Posters Visitors Participation
==== ============ ====== ======= ======== =============
1. news 3214 177 365 542
2. media 4862 151 323 474
3. tv 2433 155 282 437
4. wellcome 112 31 360 391
5. popcult 592 88 240 328

The actual list will, of course, be much longer. It’s good for getting a feel for how your conference is doing, activity-wise, relative to the other conferences on The WELL. Host visits are not counted in their own conferences. If you would like to compare census statistics over time, go to the backstage conference via PicoSpan and type stats.

15.3 Using Extract -U for Topic Statistics

Have you ever wondered who’s contributing how much to a given topic? Extract is just the tool to tell you just that. Suppose you’d like to look at statistics for topic 233 in our example Mesozoic Life conference. At any prompt,

Type: extract -U mesozoic 233
You’ll see something like this:

Userid Responses Bytes Topics New topics

zipidy 17 34% 7256 65% 1 100% 1 100%
geenada 17 34% 2859 25% 1 100% 0 0%
hydrant 4 8% 312 3% 1 100% 0 0%
puffball 4 8% 163 1% 1 100% 0 0%
mirrori 2 4% 202 2% 1 100% 0 0%
rrrev 2 4% 142 1% 1 100% 0 0%
fluffy 1 2% 142 1% 1 100% 0 0%
attitune 1 2% 126 1% 1 100% 0 0%
techie2 1 2% 34 0% 1 100% 0 0%
disturbo 1 2% 33 0% 1 100% 0 0%

The column “Responses” tells you how many responses each user has posted in that particular topic. The % columns tell you what percentage of the total responses, bytes, topics and new topics each user has entered. (When !extract -U is run on a single topic, each user is posting in 1 topic, so each user posts in 100% of the topics sampled, and one user has done 100% of the topic starting. Those fields are much more interesting when you look at a series of topics, or a whole conference.)

To run extract -U on the entire Mesozoic Life conference, you would:

type: extract -U mesozoic
It will display the same statistics as above for the entire conference. (It may take a while if your conference is large.)

Extract will give you the number of posts per user for a Featured, limited-access or private conference, and allows you to see this count for the whole conference or one topic since (or before) a particular date.

Type: extract -U -s 5/11 mesozoic
for example, to see the number of posts per user in the whole conference since 5/11 of the current year, or any particular date. Typing extract by itself will give you a screen full of options to customize your extract searches as you wish.


Keeping your conference well-pruned not only saves space on The WELL, but it can help keep the conference active and lively. Users are more enthusiastic about a conference when most of the topics they read have current responses in them rather than many conversations which, though they may contain interesting information, have long been inactive. In addition, a large conference takes longer for a new user to “join” on first entry even if the conference has only a few currently active topics.

As topic discussions reach their natural conclusions and time passes, a conference can amass a good many inactive topics — many of which may contain nothing worth archiving at all.

The first step, then, in pruning a conference of dead topics is to determine which topics have received no new activity in some specified amount of time. Perhaps you’d like to evaluate just those topics which haven’t had a new response made to them in over a year — or maybe any topic without activity in a month or more may become a candidate for your hostly kill command. The time element you wish to apply to topics will depend greatly on the nature of the conference you are hosting. A conference devoted to archiving material of a certain type, for instance, may want to keep certain topics open, regardless of activity, for quite a while. Conferences that are strictly conversational and ephemeral in nature might consider a month of silence to be a signal that a topic should be considered for pruning. Such decisions are entirely up to your discretion as host, with the overall constraint that disk space is not infinite, and some choices must be made.

16.1 Hitlist: A Utility for Inactive Topics

“Hitlist” is a menu-driven program designed primarily to help hosts identify inactive topics. It lets you find which topics in your conference are old so you can kill, freeze or retire them. You have the option to create different lists of topics that are saved to your home directory. These lists include the conference name, topic number and topic title for each topic. Other menu options then let you view and edit this list and, finally, process all topics on the list in one shot. You can also create additional topic list files from other utilities such as extract and use the hitlist menu to process them.

To use “hitlist”, give the following command at any OK prompt:

Type: !hitlist
You’ll be prompted for a conference name then presented with a menu of options.


1 – Create a list of topics with no responses for a given number of days
2 – Create a list of all topics
3 – Create a list of retired topics
4 – View the topic list with pager
5 – Edit the topic list
6 – Kill the topics in the list
7 – Retire the topics in the list
8 – Freeze the topics in the list
9 – Link the topics in the list to another conference

q=Quit this menu p=turn Pager OFF
Select one of the above items (1-9 or a letter) ==>

The first three options create lists of topics, sorted in different ways. For example, the first menu option will prompt you for the number of days you wish, find the topics that have not had any new responses for at least that many days, then create and save the file for you. Other choices let you build lists of retired topics only or of all topics in the conference. The lists are named mesozoic.list by default (with mesozoic being replaced by the name of your conference).

Note: Each time you create a new list the !hitlist tool will overwrite the previous list.

The fourth and fifth options allow you to view and edit these lists to verify that you do indeed want to modify all of these topics.

The last four options let you either kill, retire, freeze or link all the topics on the current mesozoic.list in a batch. Linking the topics as a group is particularly helpful, for example, if you are archiving them. Remember that killing a topic will permanently delete it from the system, so make sure that your list doesn’t include any still-viable or priceless historical topics. (By the way, since cohosts have equal power to kill topics, if you are keeping track of topics you never wish to kill, be sure to coordinate with your cohosts, so they know which ones you’ve designated as classics.)

If you like, you can go back and select a different conference or number of days and overwrite your first attempt at a new current list without having to quit hitlist and start over.

Creating the topic lists themselves does not actually kill any topics and is a good way to take the pulse of your conference. For more information about this command, you can take a look at topic 408 in the WELL hosts conference. You may also wish to explore the topic handling tool, !topper, if you are comfortable with the full extract command, and want even more ways to find and handle batches of topics. See the !man topper information for further details.

16.2 Conference Archives

There comes a time in the life of every long-lived conference when it has so many old, dormant topics it becomes unweildy for conference members.

To get a feel for this, simply type resign in your conference.

Next type: leave
From the no conf prompt, go to your conference. Notice how long registration takes. This is dependent on how many long or linked topics there are. And finally, imagine you are a new user looking for good stuff:

Type: browse
Every Featured conference can have an archive zone where hosts can store topics that no longer generate discussion but that are worth saving because of their historic or reference value. A conference archive generally has the same name as the active conference, but with a .old appended.

If your conference doesn’t already have an archive zone, email confteam and ask to have one built. You (and your cohost, if you have one) will be the hosts of the .old archive as well as the active conference. Regular conference maintenance is part of hosting, so having a place to store valued topics that no longer need to reside in the active conference is important.

Once that is done, the host can link topics, in any order, from the old conference into the new conference. They will now appear (with new numbers) in the order in which they were linked.

We have reached the bottom of our Hosts’ Toolkit for now. Be sure to watch the hosts and backstage conferences for innovations and peer support. And feel free to email confteam with technical questions, for help with touchy situations, or to brainstorm creative ideas. The WELL Conferencing staff can be reached by phone at The WELL offices at (415) 343-5731, M-F, 9:00 to 1:00 Pacific Time or leave a voicemail.



Copyright 1996, The WELL