The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community
In 1993, freelance journalist Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier and with it defined a new form of technologically enabled social life: virtual community.1 For the last eight years, he explained, he had been dialing in to a San Francisco Bayĺ─ýarea bulletin-board system (BBS) known as the Whole Earth ĺ─˘Lectronic Link, or the WELL. In the WELLĺ─˘s text-only environment, he conversed with friends and colleagues, met new people, and over time built up relationships of startling intimacy. For Rheingold, these relationships formed an emotional bulwark against the loneliness of a highly technologized material world. As he explained, computer networks like the WELL allowed us ĺ─˙to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology.ĺ─¨2 In the disembodied precincts of cyberspace, we could connect with one another practically and emotionally and ĺ─˙rediscover the power of cooperation, turning cooperation into a game, a way of lifeĺ─ţa merger of knowledge capital, social capital, and communion.ĺ─¨3
In the years since Rheingoldĺ─˘s book appeared, the Internet and the Worldwide Web have swung into public view, and both the WELL and Rheingoldĺ─˘s notion of virtual community have become touchstones for studies of the social implications of computer networking.4 Yet, despite the WELLĺ─˘s prominence, few have rigorously explored its roots in the American counterculture of the 1960s. As its name suggests, the Whole Earth ĺ─˘Lectronic Link took shape within a network of individuals and publications that first came together long before the advent of ubiquitous computer networking, with the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog. In the spring of 1968, Stewart Brand, a former Merry Prankster and coproducer of the Trips Festival that helped spark the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic scene, noticed that many of his friends had begun to leave the city for the wilds of New Mexico and Northern California. As sociologists and journalists would soon explain, these migrants marked the leading edge of what would become the largest wave of communalization in American history.5 Brand had just inherited a hundred thousand dollars in stock and, as he recalled several years later, imagining his friends ĺ─˙starting their own civilization hither and yon in the sticksĺ─¨ got him thinking about the L.L.Bean catalog. This in turn led him to fantasize something he called the ĺ─˙Access Mobileĺ─¨ that would offer ĺ─˙all manner of access materials and advice for sale cheap,ĺ─¨ including books, camping gear, blueprints for houses and machines, and subscriptions to magazines.6
The publication that grew out of that fantasy would quickly become one of the defining documents of the American counterculture. Sized somewhere between a tabloid newspaper and a glossy magazine, the sixty-one-page first Whole Earth Catalog presented reviews of hand tools, books, and magazines arrayed in seven thematic categories: understanding whole systems, shelter and land use, industry and craft, communications, community, nomadics, and learning. Over the next four years, in a series of biannual issues, the Catalog ballooned to more than four hundred pages, sold more than a million-and-a-half copies, won a National Book Award, and spawned dozens of imitators. It also established a relationship between information technology, economic activity, and alternative forms of community that would outlast the counterculture itself and become a key feature of the digital world.
Like other members of the counterculture, those who headed back to the land suffered a deep ambivalence toward technology. On the one hand, like their counterparts on the New Left they saw the large-scale weapons technologies of the cold war and the organizations that produced them as emblems of a malevolent and ubiquitous technological bureaucracy. On the other, as they played their stereos and dropped LSD many came to believe that small-scale technologies could help bring about an alternative to that world. Dancing at the Trips Festival or simply sitting around getting high with friends, many experienced a sense of spiritual interconnection. By the late 1960s, social theorists such as Charles Reich and Theodore Roszak had begun to argue that this interconnection could become the basis for a new social orderĺ─ţnonhierarchical, intimate, and free of the bureaucratic mindset that many thought plagued mainstream America.7
It was this social order that the young communards of the late 1960s hoped to establish. For his part, Stewart Brand aimed to provide those headed back to the land with access to the intellectual and practical tools they would need to change their minds and, with them, the world. In its first edition, for instance, the Whole Earth Catalog listed 133 items, ranging from books by Buckminster Fuller to a $4,900 Hewlett-Packard desktop calculator and a one-man sawmill. But the Catalog provided its readers with more than information about things; it gave them access to one another. Despite its name, the Whole Earth Catalog did not in fact sell the items it featured. Instead, it functioned as a pointer. At the bottom of each listing, after a brief review, usually written by Stewart Brand or a reader, the Catalog listed the itemĺ─˘s price and gave information on where and how to acquire it. At first reviewers tended to come from San Franciscoĺ─˘s bohemia and the back-to-the-land movement, but as the Catalogĺ─˘s popularity grew they came to include scientists and computer technologists from the Bay Area, East Coast artists and engineers, environmentalists, and, ultimately, even do-it-yourself suburbanites. Some knew one another outside the pages of the Catalog; many did not. For reviewers and for many of its other readers as well, the Catalog represented in text and pictures a geographically dispersedĺ─ţand in that sense virtualĺ─ţnetwork of people with countercultural leanings. ĺ─˙I think the whole scene is tantamount to a sort of community in print, with the crafty taciturn old bastards hawking and spitting into the fire, and occasionally laying one on us out of the experience store,ĺ─¨ wrote reader Rolan Jacopetti in March 1969. ĺ─˙ĺ─˛Sheeeeeeeit, son, you talkinĺ─˘ geodesic domes ...hell, I recollect me and Bucky once . . .ĺ─˘.ĺ─¨8
Fifteen years later, when Larry Brilliant, a former resident of the Hog Farm commune (whose members famously provided crowd control at Woodstock), approached Stewart Brand with the notion of putting the various items in the Whole Earth Catalog on-line, that community in print became the model for the WELL.9 In tracing the Catalogĺ─˘s influence on the WELL, this article draws on extensive interviews with Brand, Rheingold, and a dozen other central contributors to the Catalog and the WELL, in addition to research in the archives of both organizations. It thus offers a concrete, detailed account of the processes by which the countercultural celebration of small-scale technologies as tools for the transformation of consciousness and community came to undergird popular understandings of early computer networks. As it recounts this history, the article relocates the WELL, and the increasingly important form of technologically mediated sociability it represents, within a web of technological, economic, and cultural transformations that began long before digital technologies came into widespread use.
At the same time, even as it makes visible a particularly important historical relationship between information, technology, and community, the article also shows how two traditional approaches to that relationship might be synthesized. In its pages, the Catalog both depicted the products of an emerging counterculture and linked the scattered members of that culture to one another. In that sense, it became a ĺ─˙network forum.ĺ─¨ That is, it offered a venue in which members of multiple geographically dispersed groups could communicate with one another and in doing so come to see themselves as members of a single social network. As a network forum, the Catalog provides an analytical context in which to link two important concepts in science and technology studies: the ĺ─˙boundary objectĺ─¨ and the ĺ─˙trading zone.ĺ─¨ In their 1989 study of Berkeleyĺ─˘s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Susan Leigh Star and James Greisemer pointed out that scientific work at the museum required collaboration by members of a wide variety of subdisciplines.10 Those specialists found ways to collaborate and yet retain their individual allegiances to their fields of origin in part through the creation and circulation of ĺ─˙boundary objectsĺ─¨ĺ─ţobjects such as maps and diagrams ĺ─˙that both inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the informational requirements of each.ĺ─¨11 Similarly, in his research into the history of physics Peter Galison has argued that scientific laboratories function as ĺ─˙trading zonesĺ─¨ in which members of subspecialties develop ĺ─˙contact languagesĺ─¨ for the purpose of coordinating their activities within the laboratory.12 This article in turn shows that, as a network forum, the Catalog displayed properties of both concepts. Like the boundary object, it was a media formation around which individuals gathered and collaborated without relinquishing their attachment to their home networks. But like the trading zone, it was also a place within which new networks were built, not only for social purposes but also for the purpose of accomplishing workĺ─ţin this case, the work of building the Catalog itself.13
As it tracks the evolution of the WELL, this article shows how shifts in technology and the organization of labor in the Bay Area transformed the historically specific constellation of technology, information, commerce, and community represented in the Catalog. Like the Catalog, the WELL became a forum within which geographically dispersed individuals could build a sense of nonhierarchical, collaborative community around their interactions. It did so, however, under radically new economic and technological conditions. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the professional communities of the Bay Area from which the WELL drew, and especially those associated with digital technology, witnessed an extraordinary rise in networked forms of economic organization and freelance patterns of employment. For the Bay Areaĺ─˘s engineers and symbolic analysts, the WELL became a place to exchange the information and build the social networks on which their future employment depended.14 In this new climate, notions of virtuality, community, and the socially transformative possibilities of technology associated with the counterculture became key tools with which WELL users managed their economic lives. Much like the Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL became a forum within which information exchange, community building, and economic activity took place simultaneously. In that sense, the virtual community that emerged on the WELL not only modeled the interactive possibilities of computer-mediated communication but also translated a countercultural vision of the proper relationship between technology and sociability into a resource for imagining and managing life in the network economy.15
The Whole Earth Catalog as Network Forum
Given the anticommercial bent of the back-to-the-land movement, it might seem strange that its members should find their community mirrored in the pages of a catalogĺ─ţa preeminently commercial information genre. Some scholars have tried to explain this apparent incongruity by arguing that the Whole Earth Catalog should be read as evidence of the rise of a countercultural style of consumerism.16 At one level, this explanation makes sense: the Catalog was indeed an influential example of the sorts of alternative businessesĺ─ţsuch as food co-ops, free clinics, and underground newspapersĺ─ţthat came to life in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s. At another level, though, it fails to acknowledge both the Catalogĺ─˘s business model and the larger countercultural context.
While its pages did display products, the Catalog did not profit by selling those products to readers. On the contrary, it made its money in large part by selling its readersĺ─˘ product suggestions, reviews, and letters to other readers, and its core readershipĺ─˘s collective worldview to outsiders. When readers reviewed products in the pages of the Catalog they introduced other readers not only to new goods but also to ways of thinking and speakingĺ─ţ about technology, commerce, information, and community in particular. When Brand began publishing a quarterly supplement to the Catalog in 1969 he also developed a correspondence section, in which readers wrote to one another. In both the Catalog and the supplement, Brand marketed not so much goods as a way of looking at how life ought to be lived. And readers who were not members of the back-to-the-land movement often responded to this vision with great passion. Gareth Branwyn, for instance, recalls the day in 1971 when he saw his first copy of the Catalog: ĺ─˙I was instantly enthralled. Iĺ─˘d never seen anything like it. We lived in a small red-neck town in Virginiaĺ─ţpeople didnĺ─˘t think about such things as ĺ─˛whole systemsĺ─˘ and ĺ─˛nomadicsĺ─˘ and ĺ─˛Zen Buddhismĺ─˘. . . . The Whole Earth Catalog changed my life. It was my doorway to Bucky Fuller, Gregory Bateson, whole systems, communes, and lots of other things that formed a foundation to a world model Iĺ─˘ve been building ever since.ĺ─¨17
In the Whole Earth Catalog, then, readers found a media artifact that simultaneously made visible a geographically scattered community of counterculturalists and allowed that community to constitute itself through the forum provided by that artifact, by suggesting and reviewing products and by writing letters.18 Such a network forum accorded well with countercultural ideals regarding the relationship of technology to social life. In the late 1960s, young, predominantly white, middle-class college students developed two distinct, if sometimes overlapping, social movements within which they could challenge mainstream bureaucracies. The first grew out of the struggles for civil rights in the Deep South and the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley and would become known as the New Left. The second bubbled up from a wide variety of cold warĺ─ýera cultural springs, including beat poetry and fiction, Zen Buddhism, action painting, and, by the mid-1960s, encounters with psychedelic drugs. Across the 1960s, this second movement would often be called simply ĺ─˙the counterculture.ĺ─¨19
Both the New Left and the counterculture hoped to transform the technocratic bureaucracies that, in their view, had brought Americans the cold war and the conflict in Vietnam. Both also hoped to return Americans to a more emotionally authentic and community-based way of life. The New Left, led by the Students for a Democratic Society, pursued these goals as insurgent political movements always have: they wrote statements, formed parties, chose leaders, held news conferences. Many members of the counterculture however, stepped away from agonistic politics and sought instead to change the world by establishing new, exemplary communities from which a corrupt mainstream might draw inspiration. For this group, whom I will call the New Communalists, as for many others in the counterculture, the key to social transformation lay not in changing a political regime but in changing the consciousness of individuals. Theodore Roszak, who popularized the term ĺ─˙counterculture,ĺ─¨ spoke for many New Communalists when he argued in 1969 that the central problem underlying the rationalized bureaucracy of the cold war was not political structure but the ĺ─˙myth of objective consciousness.ĺ─¨20 This state of mind, wrote Roszak, emerged among the experts who dominated rationalized organizations and was conducive to alienation, hierarchy, and a mechanistic view of social life. Its emblems were the clock and the mainframe computer; its apogee, ĺ─˙the scientific world view, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness.ĺ─¨21 Against this mode, Roszak and others proposed a return to transcendence, and with it a simultaneous transformation of our selves and our relations with others.
Ironically, to achieve the feeling of transcendent collectivity many relied on small-scale technologies such as stereos and theatrical light kits, and they deployed these technologies in commercialized, if then alternative, settings such as rock concerts. At the 1966 Trips Festival that Brand helped organize, for instance, audience members decked out in Day Glo paint danced and saw their dancing broadcast in real time on a series of closed-circuit televisions. Five slide projectors splashed images on the wall; light machines scanned the room. Two bands played, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and The Holding Company. Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist for the Dead, recalls the feeling that characterized the early Acid Tests and the Trips Festival: ĺ─˙Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a room of thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far-out beautiful magic.ĺ─¨22
At the Acid Tests, and elsewhere throughout the New Communalist movement, ecstatic communion became a form of alternative politics. If the ĺ─˙straightĺ─¨ world was organized into parties and managed hierarchically, and if, in their competition with one another, those parties had brought us Vietnam, nuclear weapons, and widespread pollution, then the ĺ─˙hipĺ─¨ world would choose a different path. On the plains of Colorado near the town of Trinidad, for instance, an early and influential commune called Drop City appeared. Not unlike the Merry Pranksters, Drop City was devoted to pursuing collective harmony and creating traveling pieces of multimedia theater (called, with no apparent irony, ĺ─˙Droppingsĺ─¨).23 Its politics were anarchic and collaborative; where the straight world depended on leaders, this world depended on underlying environmental principles. ĺ─˙There is no political structure in Drop City,ĺ─¨ wrote cofounder Peter Rabbit. ĺ─˙Things work out; the cosmic forces mesh with people in a strange complex intuitive interaction. . . . When things are done the slow intuitive way the tribe makes sense.ĺ─¨24
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Whole Earth Catalog took the tribal, antihierarchical politics of the New Communalist movement, as well as its celebration of disembodied, spiritual unity, and embodied them in a paper-and-ink publication. In keeping with the critique of hierarchical politics and its celebration of collaboration, Brand refused to dictate how the Catalog should be read. Readers could jump from category to category, making their own meanings of the text in collaboration with Brandĺ─˘s reviewers and their choices. The text itself echoed the back-to-the-land orientation of its original target audience: from its plain paper to its archaic typefaces and collage aesthetics, everything about the Catalog had a homespun feel. Yet the Catalog did not shy away from celebrating high technology or high technological theory. Its cover image (fig. 1) had been created by NASA, after all, and throughout the book one could find recommendations for technologies (such as high-end calculators) and publications (such as Norbert Wienerĺ─˘s Cybernetics and the Wall Street Journal) not often thought of in connection with hippies. As Theodore Roszak has pointed out, the Whole Earth Catalog offered a synthesis of the antitechnological idealism of the back-to-the-land movement and the technophilia common to both the acidheads of the Trips Festival and the managers of Americaĺ─˘s nuclear arsenal.25
FIG. 1 The cover of the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, founded in 1968 to offer the New Communalists ĺ─˙access to tools.ĺ─¨ (Photo courtesy of Stewart Brand.)
What held this synthesis together was a mingling of systems theory and countercultural mysticism. For Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog was simultaneously a whole systemĺ─ţin the sense that it was both comprehensive and a model for certain organizing patterns in the worldĺ─ţand an informational tool for its readers to use in improving the whole systems that were their lives and the world in which they lived. On the inside cover of every edition of the Catalog, Brand defined its purpose thus: ĺ─˙We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and gloryĺ─ţas via government, big business, formal education, churchĺ─ţhas succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developingĺ─ţ power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.ĺ─¨
By the early 1970s, then, the Whole Earth Catalog had developed into a publication that celebrated and exemplified the notion that geographically dispersed communities could be linked by the exchange of information in a context that was both communal and commercial. In the process of reviewing products and writing to one another, the readers of the Catalog helped it to become a representation of the network of individuals and institutions linked in its pages and, in that sense, a network forum. Even as counterculturalists rebelled against the hierarchies of government, big business, and formal education, and even as they each developed an individual realm of ĺ─˙intimate, personal power,ĺ─¨ they also helped construct an informational representation of the larger community to which they belonged. Though their bodies might remain scattered, they could come together as voices in print. They could be united as a tribe within an information medium and they could use that medium as a tool, like LSD, to achieve a recognition of the information patterns and energy that linked them to their fellows and to the natural world.
How the Legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog Shaped the WELL
Stewart Brand published what he thought would be the last Whole Earth Catalog in 1971.26 Yet the Catalogĺ─˘s popularity continued to grow. The 1971 edition, for instance, sold more than a million copies and won a National Book Award. Over the next few years, Brand started and ran Co-Evolution Quarterly, later called the Whole Earth Review, a magazine that grew out of quarterly supplements to the original Catalog and served a smaller but similar audience. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he also periodically produced new, updated editions of the Catalog itself. These new editions changed with the times, incorporating new technologies, especially computer technologies, and in 1983 Doubleday offered him a $1.3 million advance to produce a Whole Earth Software Catalog. The Software Catalog never earned back that money, but the size of the advance marks the degree to which the Catalog retained a loyal following even into the 1980s.
It was this audience that Larry Brilliant hoped to tap with the WELL. Brilliant had recently founded Network Technologies International, a company that sold computer conferencing systems. He was looking for a ready-made user community with which to test his system, and he believed that, in the Whole Earth network, Brand had one.27 He proposed a partnership to Brand. Brilliant would supply a computer and the conferencing software it required. Brand would allow Brilliant to post all of the items in the most recent Whole Earth Catalog on-line as topics for discussion and let people respond. In return, Brilliant would split whatever profits the system made fifty/fifty with the Point Foundation, nonprofit owner of the Whole Earth publications. Brand accepted the financial arrangement and took day-today responsibility for the system. He did not, however, agree to post sections of the Catalog. Brand argued instead that users should be allowed to create their own conversation topics. As he had with the Whole Earth Catalog, Brand hoped to allow the systemĺ─˘s users to converse with one another and to market that conversation back to its participants.28 For this he would charge users an eight-dollar subscription fee and two dollars per hour to log inĺ─ţfar less than the twenty-five dollars per hour of use that other systems were charging at the time.
Although he did not put the Catalog on line, Brand did bring two of its essential features to the project: a rich mix of technical, countercultural, and journalistic communities, and a management ethos derived from a blend of countercultural politics and systems theory. In addition to readers and staff of the Whole Earth publications, including the Software Catalog, the WELLĺ─˘s several hundred users in its earliest years included a large number of computer enthusiasts (most drawn from the Hackersĺ─˘ Conference, a gathering of programmers Brand and his colleagues had staged a year earlier).29 They also included staff writers and editors for the New York Times, Business Week, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone, Byte, Harperĺ─˘s and the Wall Street Journal, as well as numerous freelancers. Some of these journalists, such as the then husband-and-wife team of John Markoff and Katie Hafner, or the Chronicleĺ─˘s Jon Carroll, were already well known in the Bay Area and the Whole Earth community. Others heard about the system and logged on in part to keep an ear to the ground. All of them were offered free accounts on the systemĺ─ţa move that in the long term greatly increased the WELLĺ─˘s impact on public perceptions of networked computing. Finally, in 1986, disc jockey and Grateful Dead maven David Gans joined the WELL, bringing with him a congeries of ĺ─˙Deadheadsĺ─¨ whose constant conversations were to be a primary source of income for the WELL for several years.
These multiple, overlapping communities came together as the readers of the Whole Earth Catalog had before them, in a text-based forum that was designed to be both a business and a community, and one that would be governed in a nonhierarchical manner. In 1993, Kevin Kelly, an editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly when the WELL was founded and later executive editor of Wired, recalled that the WELL team had seven design goals at the start:
While popular accounts have focused on the emotional intensity of relationships formed on the WELL and argued that it was this felt connection that constituted the core of the systemĺ─˘s virtual community, Kellyĺ─˘s list reminds us that a countercultural conception of community had already been built into the system. This was true of both the systemĺ─˘s software and its business model. Though today it can be found on the Worldwide Web, when it first went on-line in 1985 the WELL was a bulletin-board system managed with a finicky, Unix-based program called PicoSpan. Housed on a single computer (located in the Sausalito offices of the Whole Earth Review), it allowed users to dial in on what would now be an impossibly slow modem (2400 to 14,400 baud). Once connected, users typed in their login names and passwords and thereby called up a long string of conference names.31 Grouped into broad categories, such as ĺ─˙Arts and Lettersĺ─¨ or ĺ─˙Entertainment,ĺ─¨ conferences dealt with themes ranging from books to cooking to computing to the Grateful Dead. To enter a conference, the user typed a command and the name of the conference; once ĺ─˙inside,ĺ─¨ she would find a series of numbered ĺ─˙topics,ĺ─¨ each created by a user and each representing an ongoing, asynchronous conversation. She could then post her own comment in a conversation or start another topic.
From a technical point of view, PicoSpan mapped a tree of information in a hierarchy extending from the system level down through the conference level to individual topics. Yet users did not need to follow that tree in any but the most limited sense. Just as readers of the Whole Earth Catalog skipped from ĺ─˙Whole Systemsĺ─¨ to ĺ─˙Nomadics,ĺ─¨ linking their reading as they went, so the user of the WELL could move from topic to topic, jumping in and out at will, and starting a new conversation if she liked. Like the Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL marketed its usersĺ─˘ contributions back to them, but it did so under very different terms than competitors such as Prodigy or General Electricĺ─˘s GEnie system. While other systems claimed copyright on every word posted to them, the log-in screen one encountered at the WELL reminded users: ĺ─˙You own your own words. This means that you are responsible for the words that you post on the WELL and that reproduction of those words without your permission in any medium outside of the WELLĺ─˘s conferencing system may be challenged by you, the author.ĺ─¨
Like the Catalog before it, the WELL was a network forum. That is, it offered a medium through which geographically dispersed members of separate networks could write to one another, create a textual record of their interactions, and so begin to build a sense of shared consciousness and collectivity. The WELLĺ─˘s early managers sought to govern this emerging community in terms set by the countercultural critique of hierarchy and the Whole Earth Catalogĺ─˘s trust in the power of tools. They refrained from intervening in fractious debates whenever possible. Though the WELLĺ─˘s member agreement gave conference hosts and the systemĺ─˘s owners the power to remove members from the system, that power was used only three times in the systemĺ─˘s first six years, and each time the member removed was allowed to return.32 Rather than assert their authority directly, the WELLĺ─˘s early managers sought to give users the power of self-rule through information technology. Members who did not like one anotherĺ─˘s postings, for example, could erase them from their own screensĺ─ţthough not from the community as a wholeĺ─ţby using a ĺ─˙Bozo filterĺ─¨ in PicoSpan. Likewise, members who later regretted postings could return to the system and erase them wholesale using a ĺ─˙Scribbleĺ─¨ feature.
Throughout the WELLĺ─˘s early years, these systemic embodiments of countercultural communal ideals, coupled with the lived countercultural experience of many members, provided users with a rhetoric of disembodied collectivity that echoed the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s even as it embraced the computer networking technologies of the 1980s. Ramłän Sender Barayłän, a San Francisco multimedia artist, joined the WELL early on, he said, in part because ĺ─˙I felt the energies on the WELL. It reminded me of the Open Land communes Iĺ─˘d been to in the 1960s. The tribal need is one our culture doesnĺ─˘t recognize; capitalism wants each of us to live in our own little cubicle, consuming as much as possible. The WELL took that need and said, ĺ─˛Hey, letĺ─˘s see what happens if we become a disembodied tribe.ĺ─˘ĺ─¨33 For members like Sender Barayłän, the WELL offered a new, digital context in which to rebuild a communal dream that had in fact fallen apart some ten years earlier.
This was especially true for the WELLĺ─˘s first managers. Soon after he and Brilliant established the WELL, Stewart Brand turned over day-to-day management of the system to a former typesetter for the Whole Earth Catalog, Matthew McClure. McClure in turn hired John Coate as the WELLĺ─˘s marketing director, and when McClure left the WELL in 1986, he hired Cliff Figallo to join Coate in directing the system (fig. 2). McClure, Coate, and Figallo were all long-time veterans of The Farm, a commune set on 1,750 hardscrabble acres in Summertown, Tennessee, that had been founded by Stephen Gaskin (fig. 3), a former professor of English at San Francisco State University who, in the late 1960s, preached in an open forum known as Monday Night Class. Gaskinĺ─˘s lectures there focused on psychedelic drugs and world religion and included a heavy dose of mysticism. When he and about seventy followers established The Farm in 1971, they hoped to create a community of total interpersonal openness. As Coate remembered it, The Farm was a ĺ─˙mental nudist colony.ĺ─¨34 Members were encouraged to work toward a state of transpersonal union of the kind some had felt on LSD. As Figallo recalled, ĺ─˙extending the visions of the psychedelic world into the straight everyday world was one of the foundations of Stephenĺ─˘s teachings.ĺ─¨35 In that context,members were encouraged to challenge one another, to ĺ─˙get intoĺ─¨ one anotherĺ─˘s ĺ─˙thing,ĺ─¨ so as to make it possible to drop oneĺ─˘s personal defenses and become part of a transcendent collective. ĺ─˙We were trying to be tribal,ĺ─¨ Coate explained (fig. 4). ĺ─˙To get back to something that white Euro/American culture had lost. . . . Thatĺ─˘s what all that ĺ─˛getting straightĺ─˘ and ĺ─˛sorting it outĺ─˘ was about. Trying to get real close real fast, so we can get on with the trip.ĺ─¨36
FIG. 2 In the late 1980s, Cliff Figallo (left) and John Coate, both veterans of The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, became day-to-day managers of the virtual community known as the WELL. (Photograph by Kevin Kelly, reproduced with permission.)
Though some of its members still lived there, The Farm as McClure, Coate, and Figallo had known it collapsed in 1983. Burdened by debt and no longer comfortable with the extraordinary authority exerted by Stephen Gaskin, its members voted that year to cease pooling all their resources communally and to reorganize as a cooperative to which individual members paid dues.37 Even as The Farm itself ceased to be a commune, its ethos of disembodied community found a home on the WELL. As Figallo told Katie Hafner, ĺ─˙We [veterans of The Farm] were conditioned to respond to the Community Imperativeĺ─ţthe need to build and maintain relationships between people and to preserve the structure that supported those relationships.ĺ─¨38 On The Farm, those relationships depended on the exchange of invisible energy. The Farm itself, like the Trips Festival and even, to a lesser extent, like the Whole Earth Catalog, existed as a material site for the establishment of dematerialized, harmonious community. By the mid1980s, the New Communalist movement had largely melted away, yet the ĺ─˙Community Imperativeĺ─¨ and its ideal of virtual, as well as material, collectivity lived on in the software, management structures, and day-to-day rhetoric of the WELL.39
FIG. 4 The motor pool at The Farm, 1974; John Coate is in the white cowboy hat. In the late 1980s, Coate brought his commune-born faith in technology and cooperative living to the online world. As a manager of an early and important computer network, the WELL, he helped transform countercultural dreams of communal intimacy into one of the key technosocial visions of the Internet era, virtual community. (Photo by David Frohman, reproduced with permission.)
That Was Then, This Is Now
With this history in mind, we can begin to see Howard Rheingoldĺ─˘s description of the WELL as a virtual community in a new light. Rheingold never lived on a commune and sees himself as slightly younger than most who did.40 Yet when he describes virtual community as a way to restore a ĺ─˙cooperative spiritĺ─¨ that has been lost, itĺ─˘s hard not to hear him pining in part for the very particular cooperative spirit abroad in the counterculture of the 1960s. For many members of the WELL, on-line collaboration offered a chance to revivify that spirit.41
It was a chance, however, that occurred under radically new economic and technological conditions. In the 1960s, mainstream economic life had been dominated by hierarchically organized corporations and, in the minds of many young Americans at least, staid executives in gray flannel suits. This was the world that members of the New Communalist movement had set out to escape. By the time the WELL was created, however, the world had changed dramatically. As a variety of economic sociologists have noted, the mid-1980s saw hierarchical firms in many industries and several nations reorganize themselves as project-oriented networks.42 They laid off workers, broke component elements of firms into semi-independent project teams, and decentralized their management structure. Out of this process there emerged what Walter Powell has called ĺ─˙a new logic of organizing,ĺ─¨ a logic characterized by a movement from ĺ─˙jobs to projects,ĺ─¨ by the ĺ─˙flattening of hierarchies,ĺ─¨ and by ĺ─˙cross-fertilization across industries.ĺ─¨43 Within this logic, the boundaries that had previously surrounded firms and jobs became porous and flexible. Companies themselves became collections of internal networks even as their constituent units reached out and joined networks that reached across traditional lines between firms, industries, and nations. For an increasing number of workers, employment meant not only performing particular tasks within the company but helping to build and maintain interfirm networks.44 In part, this networking helped to build alliances for oneĺ─˘s firm. For some it also helped mitigate the new insecurity of their jobs. Corporations were coming increasingly to the view expressed by James Meadows, vice president for human resources at AT&T, in 1996: ĺ─˙People need to look at themselves as self-employed, as vendors who come to the company to sell their skills. In AT&T, we have to promote the concept of the whole work force being contingent, though most of our contingent workers are inside our walls. Jobs are being replaced by projects and fields of work, giving rise to a society that is increasingly ĺ─˛jobless but not workless.ĺ─˘ĺ─¨45
This was particularly true for the early users of the WELL. As Manuel Castells has pointed out, the electronics industry and its geographical hubs, including the Bay Area, were among the industries and regions most dependent on network patterns of organization.46 In the Bay Areaĺ─˘s computer industries, job tenure in the early 1980s averaged two to three years.47 In such a fluid employment environment, individuals cultivated professional and interpersonal networks as key sources of future employment. As one engineer put it, ĺ─˙A company is just a vehicle which allows you to work.ĺ─¨48 With strong networks, even as oneĺ─˘s employer changed oneĺ─˘s employment could hold stable.49 Throughout its early years, the WELLĺ─˘s population included a substantial number of users from the growing computer industry. Most of its members hailed from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Moreover, its contributors included many professionals from industries that had long depended on networks, including academe, journalism, and consulting. For them the WELL offered an electronic forum in which they could meet, exchange information, build reputations, and collaborate.
At one level, this sort of exchange was nothing new to the Whole Earth network. The Whole Earth Catalog had long served as a site at which members of various local communities could speak up, either by writing letters or by reviewing products, and in so doing contribute to and assert their own membership in the scattered network of counterculturalists. Yet the Catalog had appeared no more than twice a year, with two supplements per year published in the interim. As a paper-and-ink publication, it cost a great deal of time, labor, and money to produce and distribute. As a digital forum, on the other hand, the WELL allowed for instantaneous postings. If the Catalog had represented a community in print, the WELLĺ─˘s digital technology allowed it to become an interactive collectivity in real time. This in turn shaped the roles individuals could have in regard to the system. At the Catalog, individuals could review products, write letters, and perhaps join the editorial staff. But because of the production technologies involved they could assume only one role at a time. That role would in turn be permanently fixed in the pages of the Catalog. At the WELL, by contrast, individuals could adopt one persona in one conference and another elsewhere. They could post in several places, serve as a host to a conference, start a new topicĺ─ţall within a single hour. The WELL in turn often became intertwined with its usersĺ─˘ daily lives in a way that no paper-bound catalog could. As Maria Syndicus, an early and prominent WELL member, explained: ĺ─˙Iĺ─˘d be in the office, working, and at the same time, posting in conferences, sending email, and having a conversation in Sends [an early instant-messaging feature on the WELL]. Iĺ─˘d be at home, cooking dinner, and logging on to check what was new. Relationships developed fast and furious, ideas spread like wildfire. I never laughed so hard, argued so passionately, soaked up so many new ideas. The WELL made me run on high.ĺ─¨50
The WELL as Economic Heterarchy
Together, these changes in media technology and in the economic landscape in which WELL users worked substantially changed the nature and value of information being exchanged. During the late 1960s, when the Whole Earth Catalog first appeared, the American economy was strong and long-term employment prospects were good, particularly for the largely upper-middle-class, college-educated readership of the Catalog. Many of those who struck out for the woods in 1968 did so knowing full well they would have something to go back to if they had to.51 Moreover, while its recommendations certainly had value for its readers and while its reviewers could build a reputation in part by reviewing for it, the Whole Earth Catalog was published too infrequently and at too great expense to be a source of rapid information exchange. While it did pay reviewers ten dollars for a published piece, almost all of the financial value generated by the information contributed to the Whole Earth Catalog returned to its publishers.52
On the WELL, by contrast, it was possible to exchange smaller, time-sensitive pieces of information, ranging from data on a not-yet-announced technology to a bit of gossip about the computer or magazine industries. This sort of information could have a great deal of value to the many professionals on the WELL. Moreover, because the WELL allowed for numerous, rapid interactionsĺ─ţas opposed to the printing of single, carefully crafted letters in the Whole Earth Catalogĺ─ţit also let individuals get to know the working styles of one anotherĺ─˘s minds in a way that was not possible in a paper-and-ink forum. This in turn added a new dimension to the ways in which the forum could enhance the reputations of its users. Whereas the Whole Earth Catalog allowed regular reviewers to establish reputations for know-how and, to some extent, for prose technique and taste, the WELL allowed its contributors to build reputations for these things and moreĺ─ţfor charisma, personality, and style. The Whole Earth Catalog concentrated a wealth of countercultural experiences into a single publication that could be purchased and one whose purchase price returned to the publisher. The WELL, on the other hand, tended to push value out to its users, to distribute and increase value throughout the system.
On the WELL, the boundary between public and private was extraordinarily fluid. As a result, any given contribution to a WELL conference might have value in multiple domainsĺ─ţcollective, interpersonal, and economicĺ─ţsimultaneously. For many users, these domains met in the exchange of information. Like the Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL made visible a wealth of interesting facts and a network of experts who supplied them. By making both facts and experts available in real time, however, the WELL substantially increased the value of each. Reva Basch, a former librarian and at the time a professional freelance researcher, offered a sense of this value when she explained how she used the WELL in 1991: ĺ─˙Although it doesnĺ─˘t host any of the formal databases that I use for research, The WELL is the online hangout of choice for an incredible array of experts: multi-media artists, musicians, newspaper columnists, neurobiologists, radio producers, futurists, computer junkies. I can contact any of them directly, through email, or post a plea for information in a public conference and more often than not, be deluged with insights and informed opinions. Most compellingly, the conferences devoted to non-work issues and to fun and nonsense give me a chance to get to know these folks better, and vice versa.ĺ─¨53
For Basch, as for the many other information professionals on the WELL, the system offered access to information and expertise that could be transformed into income elsewhere. Yet the exchange of information was by no means the only source of economic value on the early WELL. By the accounts of its members, we can recognize at least two others: performance value and reputation value. Carmen Hermosillo, for instance, who wrote under the name ĺ─˙humdog,ĺ─¨ contributed to the WELL for several years and, like many members, engaged in several emotionally charged debates. Toward the end of her time on the system, she later wrote, she began to feel that she had been performing rather than conversing: ĺ─˙i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself ...i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.ĺ─¨54
While the WELL never made much of a profit and while its managers in fact struggled to keep the system in the black, Hermosilloĺ─˘s point has been echoed elsewhere. John Coate, for instance, described the experience of writing on the WELL as ĺ─˙a new hybrid that is both talking and writing yet isnĺ─˘t completely either one. Itĺ─˘s talking by writing.ĺ─¨55 Though text-based, contributions to the WELL constituted a kind of vocal performanceĺ─ţone that many subscribed to the system in part to attend.56
The value of oneĺ─˘s performance to others did not necessarily depend on oneĺ─˘s reputation. Like users of many emerging media forms today, such as reality television or the Worldwide Web, many WELL clients watched others act out their own lives on-line and paid the WELLĺ─˘s owners for the privilege. Yet, though it didnĺ─˘t have to, a well-managed performance could also enhance oneĺ─˘s reputation. As Coate put it: ĺ─˙Freelancers, contractors, entrepreneurs, and others who, because they are always looking ahead to that next job, need to have their shingle hung out . . . With so many people moving from one job to another, online public forums are good places to run into others who may lead you to your next work opportunity.ĺ─¨57A journalist who wrote with flair in a conference unrelated to his professional specialty might be noticed and contacted for work elsewhere. Reva Basch, for instance, recalled that Jon Carroll, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, spotted her writing on the WELL. When he went on vacation, he hired Basch and several other WELL members to fill in for him. Baschĺ─˘s affectionate description of her Apple Powerbook in the Chronicle in turn led to a regular and high-paying column with a Ziff-Davis publication, Computer Life.58
This pattern was common on the WELL. On-line contributions in social and special-interest conferences led to work for Howard Rheingold, for his equally well-known colleague on the WELL John Perry Barlow, and in later years for many others.59 This pattern held true for nonjournalists as well. A computer programmer who built a functional bit of software for the WELL could have his or her skills recognized within the group and elsewhere. According to Coate, these migrations of reputation occurred frequently in the late 1980s.60 Such reputation work ultimately led to a number of collaborations that would have a substantial impact on the early culture of the public Internet, including the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Salon,and even Wired.
This is not to say that journalists who posted witty responses to queries or programmers who built new tools were doing so in pursuit of economic gain. On the contrary, it seems clear that many were acting from a mixture of motives and in a mixture of social contexts simultaneously. As sociologist David Stark has pointed out, such mixtures are characteristic of emerging forms of postindustrial economic activity. In an influential study of firms in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Stark christened this sort of mixture ĺ─˙heterarchy.ĺ─¨61 Within a heterarchy, Stark explained, one encounters multiple, and at times competing, value systems, principles of organization, and mechanisms for performance appraisal. As Stark put it: ĺ─˙Heterarchies create wealth by inviting more than one way of evaluating worth.ĺ─¨62 In the post-Soviet context, for example, if a particular unit of a firm can be characterized simultaneously as a ĺ─˙publicĺ─¨ resource and as the ĺ─˙privateĺ─¨ property of the newly deregulated company, it can attract funds from both the public and private sectors and share financial risks between them as well.63
On the WELL, usersĺ─˘ abilities to characterize their postings as having value in both the social and economic registers depended on both the computer technology of the WELL and the cultural legacy of the New Communalist movement. By allowing users to communicate in real time and to start and end topics more or less at will, the technology of the WELL enabled individual communications to have meaning and value in registers that contributions to the Whole Earth Catalog never could simply because of the mechanics involved in producing a bound paper document.64 Yet, alongside these technical affordances, the WELL depended on a set of cultural tools that it had inherited from the American counterculture, and specifically from the Whole Earth Catalog. In the Catalog, readers contributed letters and product reviews primarily because they supported and wanted to contribute to the geographically dispersed alternative community they saw emerging in its pages. At ten dollars per contribution, no one could make a living, or even part of a living, writing for the Catalog.In many ways, readers offered contributions as gifts to the community the Catalog made visible; the Catalog, in turn, retailed those gifts (albeit at a low per-unit cost) to readers.
Thanks to shifts in technology and in the Bay Areaĺ─˘s economy, the nature and value of the information exchanged on the WELL was qualitatively different. Yet, even in this new environment, WELL users retained the conceptual apparatus of the gift economy to explain their interactions. As Howard Rheingold explained it, the WELLĺ─˘s gift economy consisted of the constant exchange of potentially valuable information without expectation of immediate reward. Individuals contributed information to such a system, wrote Rheingold, because those who contributed would eventually be rewarded with information themselves. For Rheingold and others, it was this lack of expectation of immediate return on investment that distinguished the sorts of information exchange happening in places like the WELL from those of ordinary, cash-and-carry markets. Yet, as Rheingold himself suggested, the success of this gift economy depended not only on the expectation of ultimate reward but also on an intangible feeling of working to construct a new sort of community. In a ĺ─˙gift economy,ĺ─¨ he wrote, ĺ─˙people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this mindset pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an on-line community.ĺ─¨65
In Rheingoldĺ─˘s terms, the felt existence of community allows individuals to exchange information without fearing that they may never see a return for their gift. But in David Starkĺ─˘s terms, we can also see that it is the ability of an information giver to characterize her ĺ─˙giftĺ─¨ as a valuable piece of information (in the economic register), as a demonstration of personal style (in the interpersonal register), and as a contribution to the building of a community (in the social register) that allows the information exchange to go forward in the first place. If there is no ĺ─˙spirit of building,ĺ─¨ then individuals ĺ─˙keep their heads down.ĺ─¨
On the WELL, that spirit found articulation in a communal rhetoric drawn directly from the American counterculture. John Coate put the point succinctly. ĺ─˙Professional and personal interactions overlapĺ─¨ on the WELL.66 For that reason, he wrote, the WELL could be compared to a village: ĺ─˙Because thatĺ─˘s what a village is: a place where you go down to the butcher or the blacksmith and transact your business, and at night meet those same neighbors down at the local tavern or the Friday night dance.ĺ─¨67 To the extent that its members can imagine the WELL as a community, they can speak within multiple registers simultaneously, building their reputations, their friendships, and their businesses. And they can do so in the comforting sense that they have not betrayed their youthful ambitions for alternative community. The communes of the 1960s have largely vanished, but in John Coateĺ─˘s description of a preindustrial village we can hear echoes of the kind of community The Farm hoped to be and the kind of community the Whole Earth Catalog aimed to speak to. Here, as elsewhere in our culture in the 1980s and 1990s, countercultural ideals and rhetoric linger on. This time though, they no longer offer an alternative to life in the economic mainstream. On the contrary, they provide a vision by which to steer oneĺ─˘s way through the complex currents of the increasingly mainstream network economy.
Success and Failure
There is an irony here. In the late 1960s, the New Communalist movement hoped to build communities that could stand as alternatives not simply to American society at large but also to the rationalized bureaucracies of American government and business. In the process, however, with the Whole Earth Catalog and its many imitators the movement developed a new relationship between information, technology, and community that would ultimately facilitate the integration of computing technology and associated work styles into the mainstream of American life.68 As a network forum, the Catalog offered its readers both a communication tool with which to build a new form of geographically distributed sociability and an emblem of the sort of society that that new form might ultimately create. In keeping with New Communalist ideals, that society would be organized nonhierarchically, it would share a collective consciousness, and it would depend on technologiesĺ─ţparticularly technologies of informationĺ─ţto come into being. In recent years, scholars of new media technology have often suggested that the peer-to-peer culture of the Internet emerged out of the New Leftĺ─˘s critique of American political institutions.69 They have also tended to associate the experience of disembodied intimacy with digital communication technologies.70 Yet, as the history of the WELL suggests, this is not quite right. For the New Left, as egalitarian as it aimed to be, building a new world required building new political parties and engaging in political struggles. It was the New Communalists of the Whole Earth Catalog and not the New Left for whom the building of a better society required stepping outside politics and turning instead toward information, technology, and JULY commerce. For the readers of the Catalog, small-scale technologies, and particularly information technologies like the Catalog itself, would be the primary tools by which consciousness could be changed, and with it the world.
In that sense, the WELL represents the establishment of a countercultural ideal: a nonhierarchically organized social form in which scattered individuals are linked to one another by an information technology and through it the experience of a shared mindset. Yet at another level the WELL marks the failure of the New Communalist movement to escape the pull of Americaĺ─˘s technological and economic centers of gravity. Thanks to the simultaneous rise of computer networking and networked forms of organization in the Bay Area, by the late 1980s notions of virtuality and community that once served to bond the commune dwellers of New Mexico to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury had come to support the integration of social and economic life on-line. The early users of the WELL were hardly men in gray flannel suits. But as they bounced from conference to conference and job to job, they remained integratedĺ─ţhour by hour, day by dayĺ─ţinto the productive and increasingly mainstream networks of the WELL.
Čę2005 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved. 0040-165X/05/4603-0001 $8.00
Dr. Turner is assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. He is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (New York, 1996; 2nd rev. ed., Minneapolis, 2001) and Counterculture into Cyberculture: How Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Network Transformed the Politics of Information (Chicago, forthcoming). This article developed from a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in 2003. There it received very helpful comments from Michael William Doyle, Jordan Kleiman, and Thomas Parke Hughes. The author also thanks AnnaLee Saxenian, Nancy Van House, Walter W. Powell, and audiences at the School of Information Management and Systems, University of California, Berkeley, and the Scandinavian Consortium for Organizational Research for their feedback. The article benefited enormously from close readings by Pablo Boczkowski, Geoffrey Bowker, Theodore Glasser, Robert Horwitz, John W. Kim, Chandra Mukerji, Jonathan Sterne, and three anonymous referees. Finally, thanks to John Perry Barlow, Reva Basch, Stewart Brand, Lois Britton, John Coate, Howard Rheingold, Gail Williams, and the many other contributors to the Whole Earth Catalog and the Whole Earth ĺ─˘Lectronic Link who generously shared their time and materials.