Online Commune

THE WELL

A Story of Love, Death & Real Life

in the Seminal Online Community

By Katie Hafner

Carroll & Graf -- 196pp -- $21

Take 10,000 close-knit subscribers and throw in tons of name-brand recognition. A foundation for digital success? For a time, that seemed possible at The Well, one of the original online communities. But as The New York Times tech reporter and former BusinessWeek writer Katie Hafner describes in The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community, the undertaking proved only to be "a lucky cocktail of time, people, and place." Hafner's account is colorful and at times compelling, but she never answers the key question she poses: "Can you build a community and a business as one and the same?"

In 1984, computer-conferencing entrepreneur Larry Brilliant recruited counterculturist Stewart Brand, the brains behind the various Whole Earth magazines and catalogs, to help develop an online community that would test new computer-conferencing technologies. Brilliant figured the Whole Earth patrons represented a base of highly educated, curious boomers perfectly suited to the task. With equipment supplied by Brilliant's company, The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectric Link) set up shop in March, 1985, at Whole Earth's offices on a Sausalito (Calif.) pier.

Like Yahoo! Inc., Napster, and other dot-coms that depend on devoted users, The Well grew through word of mouth. Its first members were drawn from the Bay Area, paying $8 a month plus $2 per hour to link up by modem. In return, they got "content" consisting of conferences on subjects as varied as futurism, gardening, and sexuality. Some topics, such as one called "Weird," were little more than an invitation to free-associate. Subscribers, who called themselves Well Beings, spent hours online swapping observations. The community also became a haven for Deadheads seeking news on the Grateful Dead. (Deadheads' subscriptions, in fact, pushed the site to minor profitability.)

Hafner hitches her narrative to a big personality, a provocateur and futurist named Tom Mandel who was a constant presence on The Well. She gives a flavor for the members' wacky exchanges and the close bonds they formed by quoting liberally--often too liberally--from their postings. And she shows how The Well became a stage where personal dramas--courtships, breakups, battles with serious illness--played out.

As The Well matured, the relationships built online spilled over into real life, often in acts of altruism--such as helping a sick member get medical care--that came to symbolize the potential of online communities. But in spite of the intense ties it fostered, The Well never drew enough subscribers to make a lot of money. Nor did the bottom line improve in response to the efforts of Rockport-shoe multimillionaire Bruce Katz, who bought out Brand and Brilliant in the early '90s and poured millions into the enterprise. The Well Beings' community values clashed with the business imperatives of the new owner, who was seen as intent on creating a McWell. Eventually, Katz sold out to Salon, which still operates The Well.

The Well never rises much above the Wired article from which it sprang. Says Hafner: "The Well succeeded because it was a community first, and the technology was superimposed on it incidentally." Yet the success never translated into dollars and cents--and one can only wonder why.

By Karen Angel

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