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The WELL: Small Town on the Internet Highway System

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                         The WELL: 
      Small Town on the Internet Highway System
                       by Cliff Figallo
                      [email protected]
                       September, 1993

[This document was adapted from a paper presented to the "Public 
Access to the Internet" meeting sponsored by the John F. Kennedy 
School of Government at Harvard University in May, 1993.
You may distribute and quote from this piece as you wish, but
please include the request that my name and contact information be 
included with any quotations or distribution.
Thank you. -- C.F.]


   The Internet serves as a routing matrix for electronic mail 
messages, file transfers and information searches.  Internet 
sites, those machines and sub-networks that are "internetworked", 
have thus far served mostly as file archives, email 
addresses and administrative caretakers for their locally 
serviced users.  Historically, these sites have been universities, 
corporations or military and government installations.  With 
the popularization and commercialization of the Internet, new 
models of Internet sites are connecting to the web of high 
speed data lines.  

   One unique Internet site, accessible by anyone with an Internet 
account, is The Whole Earth Lectronic Link (hereafter referred to 
by its popular name, The WELL).  In the future, the Internet will 
certainly feature many small, homegrown, regional commercial 
systems like The WELL.  Such systems will pay for their own 
operations and for their Internet connections through user fees, 
handling all of the billing and administrative tasks relating to their 
users, developing their own local community standards of behavior 
and interaction.  Their users will often leave the "home" system, 
going out through Internet gateways to other regional systems or 
searching for information in the myriad databases of the Net.  Internet 
voyagers will drop in to visit the unique communities they find 
outside their home systems, sampling the local cultural flavors and 
meeting and conversing with the individuals who inhabit those 

   The main attractions of these local Internet "towns" will prove to be 
their characteristic online conversations and social conventions and
their focus on specialized fields of knowledge or problem solving.  
The WELL is a seminal example of what these small pioneering 
towns on the Internet highway system will be like.

   The WELL is a computer-mediated public conferencing and 
email system linked to the Internet through BARRNet, the 
regional Internet vendor.  The WELL's  headquarters are 
located in Sausalito, California.  It is co-owned by Point 
Foundation (producers of Whole Earth Review and the Whole 
Earth Catalogs) and Rosewood Stone, a financial investment 
company owned the founder and ex-owner of Rockport Shoes.

   The WELL was, from its founding in 1985 until January of 
1992, accessible to its users only via direct or packet switched 
dialup.  It had carried stored-and-forwarded USENET news 
groups since soon after startup.  These files were imported via 
regular phone links with Internet-connected sites.  Among its 
users were some small minority of students, academics and 
technical professionals with Internet accounts on other 
systems.  The feasibility of the WELL connecting to the Internet 
increased steadily through the 1980s until financial, technical 
and political conditions allowed it to happen.  It is significant, 
though, that the character of the WELL developed under 
conditions of relative network isolation.  Indeed, part of the 
justification given by BARRNet, the regional Internet service 
provider, for allowing a commercial system like the WELL to 
connect through their facilities was the unique character of the 
WELL as an established system with thriving and interesting 
discussion, and its perceived value as a an information-
generating resource for the Net.  The WELL would, they 
figured, make an interesting and potentially rewarding 
stopover on any user's Internet Tour.

   The WELL is often associated with the term "online 
community".  The idea that community can develop through 
online interaction is not unique to the WELL.  But the WELL, 
because of its organizational and technical history, has survived  
primarily through the online personal interaction of its 
subscribers and staff rather than through successful business 
strategy developed by its owners and managers.  The 
discussion and dialog contained and archived on the WELL are 
its primary products.  The WELL "sells its users to each other" 
and it considers its users to be both its consumers and its 
primary producers.  Databases of imported information and 
libraries full of downloadable software are scarcely present.  
Third-party services such as stock-trading news, wire services, 
airline reservation access and software vendor support have 
never been offered to any significant extent.

   The WELL today counts around 7,000 paying subscribers.  It 
has a growing staff of over 12 and a gross annual income 
approaching $2 million.  It is a small but healthy business and 
has historically spent very little on advertising and promotion.  
It gets far more than its share of free publicity and notoriety 
through the Press coverage as compared to much larger 
commercial systems.  This is so in spite of what most people 
would consider a "user-hostile" interface and relatively high 

   The WELL had a rather unique upbringing.  I will describe its 
early growth and the foundations of its character in the rest of 
this paper.  I do this from the point of view of having been the 
person in charge for six years, though I took great pains to de-
emphasize the "in charge" part whenever possible.  I tried to 
focus more on maintenance and the distribution of responsibility 
through the user community rather than on control.   Though my 
record for making the WELL a technical showpiece is not 
without blemish, my main emphasis was in preserving 
and supporting the exercise of freedom and creativity by the 
WELL's users through providing an open forum for their interaction.

   It is my assertion that the actual exercise of free speech and 
assembly in online interaction is among the most significant 
and important uses of electronic networking; and that the value 
of this practice to the nation and to the world may prove 
critical at this stage in human history.  I regard the WELL as a 
sample of the kind of small, diverse, grassroots service 
provider that can and should exist in profusion, mutually accessible 
through the open channels on the Internet.  

   The possibility that the future "Internet" (or whatever replaces 
it) may be dominated by monolithic corporate-controlled 
electronic consumer shopping malls and amusement parks is 
antithetical to the existence and activity of free individuals in 
the electronic communications world, each one able to interact 
freely with other individuals and groups there.

A Very Brief Biography of the WELL

   Founded in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant as a 
partnership of Point and NETI , the WELL came online in 
February of 1985 and began taking paying customers April 1, 
1985.  It's initial staff of one full-time and one part-time 
employee grew to 12 paid employees and well over one 
hundred online volunteers by 1992.   As of this date, The WELL 
runs on a Sequent multi- processor mini-computer located in a 
cramped room in a small office building next to the houseboat 
docks in Sausalito, California.  The WELL has full Internet 
connectivity which is currently offered for the use of its 
subscribers at no surcharge.  Most users call in to the WELL 
over regular phone lines and modems., and most long distance 
customers reach the WELL using an X.25 commercial packet 
network for an additional $4.00 per hour.  An increasing 
number of users are logging in to the WELL via the Internet, 
many using Internet accounts on commercial gatewayed 
systems rather than the packet switching nets.

   The WELL's notable achievements are many, not the least of 
which is that it has survived for eight years while so many 
other startup systems, though much better-funded, have failed.  
The Electronic Frontier Foundation was born largely out of the 
free speech ferment that exists on the WELL and out of 
discussions and debate that go on there concerning the unique 
legal and regulatory paradoxes that confront users, managers 
and owners of systems in this new communications medium.  
These discussions also attract a population of journalists who 
find cutting edge ideas and concepts arising constantly in the 
WELL's forums.  Many other formal and informal organizations 
and collaborations that are effecting the world today call the 
WELL home.  

The WELL Story -- a Less Brief Biography

   The WELL was the conceptual and partnered creation of Larry 
Brilliant and Stewart Brand.  They agreed to have their 
respective organizations cooperate in establishing and 
operating a computer conferencing network that could serve as 
a prototype for many regional (as opposed to national) 
commercial systems.   "Let a thousand CompuServe's bloom," is 
how Brilliant put it.

   Initial funding came from Brilliant's company, Networking 
Technologies International (NETI) in the form of a leased VAX 
11/750 computer and hard disks, UNIX system software, a 
"conferencing" program called Picospan, and a loan of $90,000.  
Point Foundation, the non-profit parent corporation of Whole 
Earth Review,  contributed the name recognition of "Whole 
Earth", the personal attraction of having Stewart Brand to 
converse with online and the modest but important 
promotional value of constant mention in the small circulation 
but influential "Whole Earth Review" magazine.

   Business goals for The WELL were, from its inception, 
purposefully flexible.  But the idea that interesting discussion 
would attract interesting discussants was at the core of the 
theory that drove the WELL's growth.  Initially, many free 
accounts were offered to people who had, at one time or 
another, been associated with Whole Earth publications and 
events, or who were known by Whole Earth staff to be likely 
productive and attractive participants (referred to, tongue-in-
cheek, as "shills").  In April of 1985, the WELL began offering 
subscriptions at $8 per month plus $3 per hour.

Initial Design and Rule making
   The WELL presented its first users with the sole disclaimer:   
"You own your own words."  The owners of the WELL sought to 
distance themselves from liability for any text or data posted 
or stored online by WELL users while, at the same time, 
providing a free space for creative, experimental and 
unfettered communication.  An alternative interpretation of the 
original disclaimer (now referred to as YOYOW) held that rather 
than only laying responsibility for WELL postings at the feet of 
the author, the phrase also imparted copyrighted ownership of 
postings to the author under the implied protection and 
enforcement of the WELL.  Management and ownership 
resisted the onus of their serving as legal agent for the WELL's  
users, recognizing the potential expense and futility of pursuing 
people for electronically copying and using customers' words.  
Thus, the evolving interpretation of YOYOW provided fuel for 
years' worth of discussion on the topics of copyright,  
intellectual property and manners in electronic space.  

   A general aversion to the making and enforcement of rigid 
rules has continued at the WELL although incendiary incidents 
and distressing situations have occasionally brought calls for 
"more Law and Order" or absolute limits to speech.  WELL 
management rejected these calls, resisting being put in the role 
of policeman and judge except where absolutely necessary, and 
espousing the view that the medium of online interpersonal 
communication was (and still is) too immature, too formative to 
be confined by the encumbrances of strict rules and 
restrictive software.  The imposition by management of 
arbitrary limitations on language and speech, aimed at 
protecting the feelings or sensibilities of small groups of people 
could not possibly protect all people's feelings and sensibilities.  
Besides, by stifling free and open dialog, we might have lost 
our chance to discover what kinds of interaction really worked 
in this medium.  Interaction in public access systems seemed to 
be much more productive, innovative, educational and 
entertaining where there were fewer prohibitions imposed by 
system management.  If limitations were to be imposed and 
enforced, they could be handled best from within the user 
population on a "local", not system wide basis.  The creation of 
private interactive areas where such local rules held sway 
allowed public forums to retain their openness while providing 
more regulated "retreats" for those who felt they needed them. 

Staff-Customer Collaboration
   Immediately after opening the system to public access, the 
small WELL staff and the original participants began the 
collaborative process of designing of a more friendly interface 
from the raw Picospan software.  Picospan included a toolbox of 
customization utilities that could be used to make changes on a 
system-wide or at-user's-option basis.  Picospan was tightly-
integrated with the UNIX operating system and could therefore 
provide transparent access to programs written to operate in 
the UNIX environment.  The libertarian, anti-authoritarian 
philosophy of Picospan's author, Marcus Watts, showed through 
in its design which prevented un-acknowledged censorship by 
system administrators, forum moderators (hosts) or authors 
themselves.  Picospan also allowed topics (discussion threads) 
to be "linked" into several forums at once...a feature that aids 
the cross-pollination of ideas and groups through the system.  
The influence that Picospan has had on the WELL's 
development as a community and hotbed of discussion cannot 
be underestimated.  Its display of topics as continuously-
scrolling dialog documents (rather than as fragmented 
collections of individually-displayed responses) had a 
tremendous effect on user involvement in ongoing discourse.

Staff Background
   The background of four of The WELL's non-technical senior 
managers--people who worked there during its first seven 
years--must be considered very significant to the formation of 
the WELL's open and independent culture.

   The first director of the WELL, Matthew McClure and myself, 
his successor, both spent the decade of the 1970's living in an 
intentional community of some renown called The Farm as did 
the WELL's first customer service manager, John Coate, and his 
successor, Nancy Rhine..  Undoubtedly, this experience of living 
cooperatively in multi-family situations in a community that 
reached a peak population of over 1500 adults and children, 
had a profound influence on the style of management of The 
WELL.  Principles of tolerance and inclusion, fair resource 
allocation, distributed responsibility, management by example 
and influence, a flat organizational hierarchy, cooperative 
policy formulation and acceptance of a libertarian-bordering-
on-anarchic ethos were all carryovers from our communal 
living experience.  John Coate is known for having been integral 
to the setting of a tone of the WELL where users and staff 
intermingled both online and at the WELL's monthly office 
parties.  He has authored a widely-distributed essay on 
"Cyberspace Innkeeping" based on lessons learned in dealing 
with customers in his time at the WELL..

Maintaining a History
   An important component to the establishment of community in 
any setting or medium is a historical record of its environs, its 
people, and their works and the relationships and organizations 
that defined the direction of the collective entity.  For a variety 
of reasons besides the security of backups,  the WELL still has a 
significant portion of its online interaction saved on archived 
tape, on its user-accessible disks and in the possession of many 
of its conference hosts who have made a practice of backing up 
topics on their home machines before retiring them from the 
WELL.  WELL users were always vocal in their insistence that a 
history be kept and went so far as to create an Archives 
conference where topics judged of historical significance from 
other areas of the WELL were linked and eventually "frozen" 
for future reference.  These valuable conversational threads, 
this "history" of the WELL, contributes to its depth and feeling 
of place and community.  New users and veterans alike can 
refer to these archives for background to current discussion 
and to sample the flavor of the WELL from its early days.  
When new users, experiencing the same revelations that 
stirred WELL veterans years ago, bring up their own 
interpretations of "you own your words", they are referred to  
the several preserved topics in Archives where lengthy online 
deliberations on the subject have been preserved..

   Originally, only direct dial modems could be used to reach the 
WELL, but by the end of its first year of operation, an X.25 
packet system was in place allowing long distance users to 
reach the WELL at reasonable cost.  The WELL kept its San 
Francisco focus because local callers had cheaper access and 
could stay online longer for the same cost, but national and 
international participants were now more encouraged to join in.

   Also, in 1986, Pacific Bell conducted a test of a regional packet-
switched network for which the WELL was enrolled as a "beta" 
site.  For most of a year, users from most of the San Francisco 
Bay Area were able to dial in to the WELL without phone toll 
charges.  This fortuitous circumstance helped boost the WELL's 
subscription base and connected many valuable customers 
from the Silicon Valley area into the growing user pool.

   Over time, the percentage of users from outside of the Bay 
Area climbed slowly but steadily.  As word spread through 
frequent unsolicited articles in the press, the WELL became 
known as a locus for cutting edge discussion of technical, 
literary and community issues, and it became even more 
attractive to long distance telecommunicators.

   On January 2, 1992, the WELL opened its connection to the 
Internet through the regional provider, BARRNet.  After much 
debugging and adjustment and a complete CPU upgrade, full 
Internet service access was offered to WELL customers in June 
of 1992.  Staff and users opened an Internet conference on the 
WELL where discussions and Q&A take place and where new 
features, discoveries and tools are shared.  The Internet 
conference serves as a "living manual" to the resources, use and 
news of the Net.

   In a medium where text is the only means of communication, 
trust becomes one of the most difficult but essential things to 
build and maintain.  With no audible or visual clues to go by, 
the bandwidth for interpersonal communication is quite thin.  
There are, though, ways in which trust can be built even 
through the small aperture of telecommunicated text.

   By being deliberately non-threatening, owners and managers can 
eliminate one of the major barriers to trust on the system.  One of the 
most menacing conditions experienced by new users of public 
conferencing systems is that of hierarchical uncertainty.  Who holds 
the Power?  What is their agenda?  What are The Rules?  Who is 
watching me and what I do?  Do I have any privacy?  How might a 
"Big Brother" abuse me and my rights?  The WELL Whole Earth 
parentage brought with it a historical reputation of collaboration 
between publisher and reader.  Whole Earth catalogs and magazines 
were widely-known for soliciting and including articles and reviews 
written by their readers.  Whole Earth customers knew that the 
publications had no ulterior motives, were not owned and controlled 
by multi-national corporations and did not spend their revenues on 
making anyone rich.  Readers supported the publications and the 
publications featured and came clean with the readers.  We strove to 
continue that kind of relationship with our customers on the WELL 
although the immediacy of feedback often made openness a tricky 

   We realized that we were in a position of ultimate power 
as operators of the system; able to create and destroy user 
accounts, data, communications at will.  It was incumbent on 
us, then, to make clear to all users our assumptions and the 
ground rules of the WELL in order to minimize any concerns 
they might have about our intentions.  Our aim was to be as 
much out front with users as possible.  Indeed, John Coate 
and I took the initiative, posting long autobiographical stories 
from our communal past, inviting users to join us in problem-
solving discussions about the system and the business around 
it, confessing to areas of ignorance and lack of experience in the 
technical end of the business, and actively promoting the users 
themselves as the most important creators of the WELL's 

   Staff members were encouraged to be visible online and to be 
active listeners to user concerns in their respective areas of 
responsibility.  Staff took part in discussions not only about 
technical matters and customer service, but about 
interpersonal online ethics.  When the inevitable online 
quarrels surfaced, staff participated alongside users in 
attempts to resolve them.  Over time, both staff and users 
learned valuable lessons and a "core group" of users began to 
coalesce around the idea that some kind of community was 
forming and that it could survive these periodic emotional 
firestorms.  The ethical construct that one could say whatever 
one wanted to on the WELL, but that things worked best if it 
was said with consideration of others in mind, became 
ingrained in enough peoples' experience that community 
understandings developed.  These "standards" were not written 
down as rules, but are noted conspicuously in the WELL's User 
Manual and are mentioned online as observations of how 
things really seem to work.  Productive communication in this 
medium can take place if it is done with care.

   Beginning in 1986, the WELL began sponsoring monthly face-
to-face gatherings open to all, WELL user or not.  Initially, 
these Friday night parties were held in the WELL's small 
offices, but as attendance grew and the offices became even 
more cramped, the potluck gatherings, still called WELL Office 
Parties (or WOPs) moved to other locations, eventually finding 
a regular home at the Presidio Yacht Club near the foot of the 
North end of the Golden Gate Bridge.  These in-person 
encounters have been an integral and important part of the 
WELL's community-building.  They are energetic, intense, 
conversation-saturated events where people who communicate 
through screen and keyboard day after day get to refresh 
themselves with the wider bandwidth of physical presence.  
Often, the face to face encounter has served to resolve 
situations where the textual communications have broken 
down between people.

Collaboration Part II
   The WELL was a bootstrap operation from its initial investment 
in 1985.  As a business venture, it was undercapitalized and 
struggled constantly to stay ahead of its growth in terms of its 
technical infrastructure and staffing.  At the same time, it stuck 
to the ideal of charging its users low fees for service.  The 
undercapitalization of the WELL and the low user charges 
combined to force management into a constant state of creative 
frugality.  From the first days of operation, the expertise and 
advice of users was enlisted to help maintain the UNIX 
operating system, to write documentation for the conferencing 
software, to make improvements in the interface and to deal 
with the larger problems such as hardware malfunctions and 

   Over the years, many tools have been invented, programmed 
and installed at the suggestion of or through the actual labor of 
WELL users.  In an ongoing attempt to custom design the 
interface so as to offer a comfortable environment for any user, 
the WELL has become, if not a truly user-friendly environment, 
a very powerful tool kit for the online communications 
enthusiast.  One of the basic tenets of the WELL is that "tools, 
not rules" are preferred solutions to most people-based  
problems.  Menu-driven tools were created to give control of 
file privacy to users, allowing them to make their files 
publicly-readable or invisible to others.  The "Bozo filter", 
created by a WELL user, allows any user to choose not to see 
the postings of any other user.  Some WELL veterans, after 
years of teeth-gritting tolerance of an abrasive individual, can 
now be spared any online exposure to or encounter with that 

   Other tools have been written to facilitate file transfers, to 
allow easy setup of USENET group lists, to find the cheapest 
ways to access the WELL, and to extract portions of online 
conversations based on a wide range of criteria.  These tools 
have all been written  by WELL users, who received only free online 
time in exchange for their work, or by WELL employees who were 
once customers.

   Free time on the WELL (comptime) has always been awarded 
liberally by WELL management in exchange for services.  At 
one time, half of the hours logged on the WELL in a month was 
uncharged, going to comptime volunteers or staff.  Hosting 
conferences, writing software, consulting on technical issues 
and simply providing interesting and provocative conversation 
have all earned users free time on the WELL.  Much as we 
would have liked to pay these valuable people for their 
services, almost to a person they have continued to contribute 
to the WELL's success as a business and public forum, 
demonstrating to us that they considered the trade a fair one.

   As can be seen, the WELL developed from its unusual roots in 
some unique ways.  The purpose of this piece is not to advocate 
more WELL clones on the Net, but to demonstrate that if the 
WELL could make it, other systems of the WELL's size and 
general description could spawn from equally unique 
circumstances around the country and offer their own special 
cultural treasures to the rest of the world through the Internet.  
What has been learned at the WELL can certainly be of value 
when planning new systems because the WELL experiment has 
demonstrated that big funding bucks, elegant interface design, 
optimum hardware  and detailed business planning are not 
essential to growing a thriving online community and, in the 
WELL's case, a successful for-profit business.  More important 
is that the owners and managers of the systems openly foster 
the growth of online community and that there be a strong 
spirit of open collaboration between owners, managers and 
users in making the system succeed.  These critical elements of 
viable community systems are attainable by local and regional 
civic networks, small organizations and entrepreneurs with 
limited funding and technical skills... and some heart.


Cliff Figallo ([email protected]) is a Wide Area Community Agent who
also works part time as Online Communications Coordinator 
for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Before coming to work 
at EFF, Cliff was Director of the Whole Earth Lectronic Link for 
six years (Aug '86 through July '92).  Cliff now lives in the San 
Francisco area and works remotely at his job using the 
Internet, Pathways, the WELL, CompuServe and America Online daily.
He can be reached via email at the following addresses:
[email protected]    [email protected]    [email protected]    [email protected]
76711,[email protected]