Starting Out in WELL Conferences (Using PicoSpan)

Conferences are the heart of The WELL, providing forums for the exchange of information, opinions, support, and conversation. Now most members use their web browsers as described in the newer guide to direct engagement using your browser. Here we describe the cherished older method of access, PicoSpan, using the 1995 Menus overlay.

  1. An introduction to conferences on The WELL
  2. Opening the Conferencing Basics menu
  3. Seeing the list of available conferences
  4. Going to a conference
  5. Seeing the topics in a conference
  6. To see a list of recently active topics
  7. Reading responses in a topic
  8. To read responses in a single topic
  9. To read the responses in several topics at once
  10. About the prompts you see while reading responses
  11. Contributing your own responses
  12. Starting a new topic

An introduction to conferences on The WELL

Discussions on The WELL can be as tightly focused as you’d find in a classroom, or as loose and free-flowing as you’d find at the corner pub. If you want to talk about science, you can go to the Science Conference. If you want to meet people and talk about anything and everything, you can head for the Miscellaneous Conference or to conferences such as New York or Berkeley that bring together people in a particular region.

There are hundreds of conferences (forums that will keep your place in the conversation) on The WELL. Each conference is devoted to a general category, such as parenting, travel or weird. Conferences vary in tone, customs, and purpose. It’s useful to pay attention to the context as you join in the conversation.

Within each conference you’ll find you’ll find a variety of discussions, called topics, each started by a WELL member. Within the Parenting Conference, for example, there hundreds of topics. Here are some examples:

  • Single parents
  • Looking for a good school in the East Bay
  • The “D” word, Disneyland
  • Writer wants information about talking about sex to children

As in any gathering of communicative people, you’ll find many different kinds of discussions on The WELL. Some topics stay focused on a specific subject, while others veer wildly off the subject matter (“topic drift”). You’ll find serious discussions, heated debates, light-hearted banter, story telling, and even word-based parlor games in your exploration of The WELL.

You can read as much or as little of a topic as you like. You can read an entire topic from beginning to end and see all the responses people have posted. Or you can visit a conference regularly, each time reading just the new responses that have been posted since your last visit. You can read responses since a particular day, or from a particular person.

Each conference has one or more hosts—people who have volunteered to take care of the conference and in general be something like a host at a party.

Opening the Conferencing Basics menu

From the Main menu choose 2 Conferencing basics. The Conferencing Basics menu appears (commonly known as the Basics menu).

 CONFERENCING BASICS                             .  Menu name : basics
                                                 .  Conference: wellcome
  1  List WELL conferences                       . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
  2  Go to a conference by name                  .  HELP and INFORMATION:
  3  List the topics in this conference          .    
  4  List 10 recently active topics              .    
  5  Read a particular topic                     .
  6  Read recently active topics                 .                                                
  7  Go to the main Conferencing menu...         .
                                                 .  GETTING AROUND
                                                 .   66  Go back one menu
                                                 .   77  Go to the Main menu
                                                 .   88  Go to a menu by name
                                                 .   99  Turn off these menus
                                                 .  100  Exit from the WELL
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

OK (type a number or command):

The Basics menu is designed to introduce you to the basic features of participating in the conferences on The WELL. Here you can see conferences and topics, go to other conferences, and read topics.

The Main Conference menu offers the additional features described in Working with WELL Conferences.

Your current conference location is always displayed in the upper-right corner of all menus. In the menu pictured above, the conference is the Wellcome conference.

Seeing the list of available conferences

What conferences are available on The WELL? The answer is important not only to become familiar with The WELL’s resources, but because you need to know the conference name (or its abbreviation) when you want to go to it to read what’s in it.

From the Conferencing Basics menu choose 1 List WELL conferences. The WELL displays a list of conference categories.


To see a list of conferences in a particular category, type the number of
the category.  To see a list of all the available WELL conferences, type

  1  Art and Literature             11  Music
  2  Body, Mind and Health          12  Recreation and Adventure
  3  Business and Livelihood        13  Regional Communities
  4  Computers and the Internet     14  Science, Nature and Environment
  5  Education and the Future       15  Social Sciences, Cultures & Religion
  6  Etc, Etc, Etc....              16  WELL Customs, Policies and Help
  7  Events and Entertainment       17  Women and Men
  8  Hangouts and Social Scenes     18  World Affairs, Politics and Law
  9  Home and Family                19  Featured Limited Access Conferences
 10  Media and Publications         20  Vue Conferences
                     21  The Independent Zone
                     22  All Available Conferences

Enter a number (1-20), or q to return to the Main menu:

You can now open any of these categories to see the specific conferences in each. To see the conferences in any category, enter the category number.

Going to a conference

When you issue a command, such as list topics, the software shows you the topics in the current conference. The conference you are currently in is shown in the upper-right corner of each menu.

You start out in the Wellcome conference when you first log in. You can participate in the Wellcome conference immediately – seeing the list of topics, reading responses, and so forth.

In order to participate in a different conference, you must go to it. You need to know the conference name.

From the Conferencing Basics menu choose 2 Go to a conference by name. The WELL prompts you for the name of the conference. Enter the conference name.

The WELL displays the closing message of the current conference (if it has one) and the opening message of the new conference (if it has one).

Here is an explanation of what happens when you go to another conference: When you first go to a conference, The WELL goes through a process of registering you in that conference. This process marks all the responses in the conference as seen, so that when you return to the conference, any responses that have are posted later, since your visit, will show as new. This is just a technical event; don’t let it throw you.

Seeing the topics in a conference

Topics are smaller divisions in the broad category denoted by the conference name. Some conferences have hundreds of topics, and there may be up to several hundred responses in each topic.

Each topic has been started by a WELL member. The topic is made up of the responses posted by many different people, expanding the original idea, digressing, returning to the topic, keeping the discussion alive as long as it remains relevant to The WELL community.

All lists of topics show three things for each topic:

  • the topic number
  • the number of responses in the topic
  • the topic header (its title)

Here is an imaginary list of topics:

Equivalent command: browse

Topic - Number of responses - Header

  1   4 Conference Business
   <topic is frozen>
  2 166 Tomato soup as the basis for a restaurant?
  3 168 Popcorn and kids
  4  83 The worst thing I ever cooked
  5  31 BBQ experimentations
  6  45 Herb garden surplus
  7  28 Eggs and backyard chickens
  8  44 Cake. Really, cake!
  9  31 Celebrity Chefs
 11  29 New cookbooks I must buy
 12  74 why parboil?
OK (Return for menu):

In this list, the first topic is number 1, with 4 responses, and its title is “Conference Business.” You can tell from the number of responses about how big it is. You need to know the topic number if you want to read it.

If a topic displays <topic is frozen>, as the Conference Business topic does in the above list, it can be read but it can’t be changed (no new responses are being accepted). Typically, a topic is frozen when it contains announcements, or interesting but out-of-date information. For additional information about frozen topics, see How to freeze or thaw a topic.

You may also see a topic displaying <linked topic>. A linked topic belongs to two or more conferences, and is available from any of those conferences. Linked topics are created by the hosts of featured conferences


HANDY HINT: When you see a topic you are interested in reading, note the topic number. You will need it to inform The WELL which topic you want to see.

You can quickly see a list of all the topic titles in a conference.

Go to the conference you are interested in. For help, see Going to a conference.

From the Conferencing Basics menu choose 3 List the topics in this conference. The WELL displays a list of topics in the conference. (The Quick Command is “b” for browse.) If the list is too long to display on a single screen, you see the More prompt:

  --More--[Hit space to continue or q to stop.]

The More prompt lets you know that there are more topic titles in the list. In order to display another screenful, press the spacebar. To stop looking at the list of topic titles, press q.

The More prompt is explained in more detail in About the prompts you see while reading responses.

To see a list of recently active topics

Some topics are active—that is, people have recently contributed responses to them. If you want to see a list of topics that have been active recently in this conference, you can do so. From the Conferencing basics menu choose 4 List recently active topics.

The WELL displays titles of the ten topics that have been active most recently. For example, in the Popular Culture Conference, you might see something like the following as the result of this choice:

 Equivalent command: browse recent 10

 Topic - Number of responses - Header

  17 1052 More TV ads, cool and stupid.
  34  47 Soap Operas
  36  21 Quien Es Mas Macho?
  39  98 The Celebrity Body Part I Want
  85  39 My first celebrity crush
  91 437 Jargon Watch
 106  44 Cancelled Show Refugees Post Here!
  85  39 Must See Web Videos
  91 437 Is radio dead?
 106  44 I have to admit I laughed

  OK (Return for menu):

Reading responses in a topic

Reading the responses people post in a topic is one of the basic activities of using The WELL. Here is a sample response:

Topic 1182 [writers]:  Introductions:  How to intro another writer.
 #12 of 13: Gail Williams (gail)        Thu Mar 9 '95 (10:28)  5 lines
  I have started by touching base to ask the writer, or any
  speaker, what the audience might need to know. But describing the
  impact of the first thing you read by that author might be fun if you
  have no way to talk first. That way the author and the audience
  are both listening to you with interest.

The first line indicates the topic number (1182), the conference (writers), and the title of the topic, “How to intro another writer.” The second line shows the response number (12) and the total number of responses (13), the writer’s name (Gail Williams) and her login (gail), the date and time of the posting, and the number of lines in the response. The last two lines are the response she posted. All the basic information you need to identify this response is included: the conference name, the topic number, and the response number.

To read responses in a single topic

So, you’ve seen a topic you want to read, and you know the topic number. Jump right in!

When you read a topic, the menu disappears from the screen, and the text of people’s responses replaces it. From the Conferencing basics menu choose 5 Read a particular topic.

The WELL prompts you for the topic number. Enter the number of the topic you want to read.

The WELL displays the first responses in that topic.

Equivalent command: see 2

Topic 2 [popcult]:  Pop Culture: An Oxymoron?
Started by: Lethal Lolita (marybeth) on Mon, Aug 8, '94
        166 responses so far

Will "Sugar Sugar" someday have the historical relevance of a Bach fugue?
Does the Nick at Night lineup say something about our society? Is
"Fantasia" as much a work of art as "Citizen Kane?" Or is it all just a
load of hooey?

166 responses total.

Topic 2 [popcult]:  Pop Culture: An Oxymoron?
#1 of 166: Avante Garde A Clue (mnemonic)    Mon Aug 8, '94 (18:04)     4

I'm waiting for revisionism to revive the reputation of Paula Abdul.

I still think the "Straight Up" video is pretty keen.

Topic 2 [popcult]: Pop Culture: An Oxymoron?
#2 of 166: 800-lb guerrilla (marionsd)    Mon Aug 8 '94 (20:45)     1 line

 Paula Abdul is one hell of a choreographer.

--More--[Hit space to continue or q to stop.]

To see the next screenful of responses, press the spacebar. If you read all the responses, or if you press q at the More prompt, you will see the Respond prompt:

  Respond (r), pass (Return) or help (?):

The Respond prompt gives you an opportunity to write your own response. Writing a response is described later in this chapter. To return to the OK prompt, press Return.

To read the responses in several topics at once

You can read the responses in the recently active topics, moving directly from one topic to the next.

  1. From the Conferencing basics menu choose 6 Read recently active topics. The WELL displays the responses in first of the ten topics that have been recently active in this conference.
  2. Press the spacebar at the More prompt to move through the responses screen by screen. When all of the new responses for a topic have been displayed, you see the Respond prompt, so you can either respond or pass. The next topic follows immediately when you pass or respond to a topic.
  3. When you want to stop reading responses in a topic, at the More prompt enter q and then, when you see the Respond prompt press Return.
  4. When you want to stop reading all the topics, at the Respond prompt enter stop. The OK prompt appears.

About the prompts you see while reading responses

While reading responses, you will see two different prompts:

  • the More prompt.
  • the Respond prompt.

You see the More prompt at the bottom of the screen following a group of responses:

   --More--[Hit space to continue or q to stop.]

The More prompt means that there are more responses to see. The More prompt here works similarly to how it works in the list of topic titles:

  • To see another screenful of the responses in the topic, press the spacebar.
  • To see just one more line, press Return.
  • To stop looking at this topic, type q.

When you type q to stop, or when you reach the end of the topic, you see the Respond prompt:

  Respond (r), pass (Return) or help (?):

The Respond prompt means that there are no more responses in the topic for you to see. Here is what you can do:

  • To compose a response to contribute to the topic, enter r
  • To leave the topic without responding, just press Return
  • To see a list of choices for this prompt, enter ?
  • To return to the OK prompt, enter stop

Note: When a topic is “frozen” the Respond prompt looks like this:

  Response not possible. (Return) or (?):

A frozen topic accepts no responses. You can see a list of available commands by entering a question mark (?).

Contributing your own responses

The WELL conferences are like conversations with many voices, extended over time and not limited by place. You can add your voice to the conversation at any time by writing and posting a response.

To add a response, you need to be reading a topic. The WELL knows which topic you are responding to because it is the topic that is visible when you start writing your response. Responding always begins at the Respond prompt:

  Respond (r), pass (Return) or help (?):

The Respond prompt appears after the last response in a topic, and when you type q at the More prompt.

  1. To write a response, enter r at the Response prompt. The WELL displays the following message:
  Enter message, command, or :? for help
  1. Type the text of your response. When you’re finished typing your response, press Return to start a new line, then type . (a period) on a line by itself, and press Return again. Entering a period by itself on a new line is the signal to post the response.The WELL displays the confirmation prompt:
  OK to enter this response?

This prompt gives you a chance to read over and consider your response – its tone, its ramifications, and so forth.

  1. To post the response, enter y. If you want to rewrite your response, enter n.

If you make a mistake as you type, you can usually use the Backspace key to erase the mistake and then continue typing. But you can’t easily go to a previous line. If you want to edit your message substantially, you can do so.

  1. Press Return to start a new line, and enter 😡

The screen presents the “Ped” editor and displays everything you have written up to this point. You can write and edit your response on this screen.

The Ped editor is similar to the Pine email program. The editing commands are displayed at the bottom of the screen. For example, you can delete a whole line by pressing Control-K. You can use the Arrow keys to move the cursor into position.

  1. Type and edit your response
  2. When you have finished, leave the editor by pressing Control-X. The screen displays the confirming prompt: Ok to enter this response?
  3. Post the response as usual, by reading over what you have written and then entering y to confirm that you want it posted.

Note: You can permanently change to the “Ped” editor for writing responses as well as for editing them. For information, see How to change your response editor.

Suggestions for writing a response

  • You can use a word processor to write and edit your responses. Then you can copy and paste the text. If you do, be alert about special characters (such as curly quotes, for example) that may display badly. PicoSpan takes plain text only.

Use the test conference!

If you want to try out writing responses in a completely risk-free conference, use the test conference. Nobody cares what you do there, or what you say. It’s designed for practice, practice, practice.

Starting a new topic

You are taking the plunge at last! Everyone does, sometime – you have a burning question, you have a sermon to test against other people’s consciousness, you have an experience you want to examine with the help of The WELL community. It’s time to start a new topic.

The following description assumes that you are already in the conference in which you want to start a topic. That is, if you want to start a topic in the Games Conference, for example, you should go to that conference first.

When you create a topic, you first write the header, or topic title. Then you write a short statement or question that states the topic and invites people to respond. For these directions, we start at the Main menu.

  1. From the Main menu choose 3 Conferencing.
  2. Then from the Conference menu choose 10 Start a new topic in this conference. The WELL prompts you for the title of the new topic.
  3. Enter the topic title. The WELL prompts you to enter the message that explains what you want this topic to be about. You create this message in exactly the same way you created responses to topics.
  4. When you have finished, enter a period on a line by itself. You are given a final chance to change your mind with the following prompt:
  OK to enter this item?
  1. To create the topic, enter y. The WELL assigns a topic number (called an “item”) and then presents the OK prompt.

Here is an example of creating a topic in the test conference:

  OK (Return for menu): 10

  Equivalent command: start

  Title of new topic: This is the title of the new topic

  Enter message, command, or :? for help
  To end, type . (a period) on a line by itself

  This is the first line of the new topic
  this is the second line
  And this is the last line

  OK to enter this item? y

  Saving as item 313...saved.
  OK (Return for menu):

Use the test conference!

For instructions about using PicoSpan menus, see Menu basics. Note that to Enter a command, you type the command followed by the Return or Enter key.

Look for more documentation of legacy commands in the picohelp conference. For documentation of the newer web-based access to the same conference content, see the newer guide to direct engagement using your browser.