Please consider a donation to the Higher Intellect project. See or the Donate to Higher Intellect page for more info.

A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community

From Higher Intellect Vintage Wiki
Revision as of 22:27, 24 July 2020 by Netfreak (talk | contribs) (Created page with "<pre> A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community by Howard Rheingold June 1992 Editor Whole Earth Review 27 Gate Five Road Sausalito, CA 94965 Tel: 415 332 1716 Fax: 415 33...")
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community

by Howard Rheingold  June 1992

Whole Earth Review
27 Gate Five Road
Sausalito, CA 94965
Tel: 415 332 1716
Fax: 415 332 3110
Internet: [email protected]

Note: In 1988, _Whole Earth Review_ published my article, "Virtual
Communities." Four years later, I reread it and realized that I had
learned a few things, and that the world I was observing had changed.
So I rewrote it. The original version is available on the WELL as

Portions of this will appear in "Global Networks: Computers and
International Communication," edited by Linda Harasim
for MIT press. Portions of this will appear in "Virtual Communities,"
by Howard Rheingold, Addison-Wesley. Portions of this may find their
way into Whole Earth Review.

This is a world-readable file, and I think these are important issues;
encourage distribution, but I do ask for fair use: Don't remove my
name from my words when you quote or reproduce them, don't change
them, and don't impair my ability to make a living with
them.  Howard Rheingold

        I'm a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone in a room with my words 
and my thoughts. On occasion, I venture outside to interview people or to find 
information. After work, I reenter the human community, via my family, my 
neighborhood, my circle of acquaintances. But that regime left me feeling 
isolated and lonely during the working day, with few opportunities to expand my 
circle of friends. For the past seven years, however, I have participated in a 
wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating, professionally rewarding, sometimes 
painful, and often intensely emotional ongoing interchange with dozens of new 
friends, hundreds of colleagues, thousands of acquaintances. And I still spend 
many of my days in a room, physically isolated. My mind, however, is linked 
with a worldwide collection of like-minded (and not so like-minded) souls: My 
virtual community. 
        Virtual communities emerged from a surprising intersection of humanity 
and technology. When the ubiquity of the world telecommunications network is 
combined with the information-structuring and storing capabilities of 
computers, a new communication medium becomes possible. As we've learned from 
the history of the telephone, radio, television, people can adopt new 
communication media and redesign their way of life with surprising rapidity. 
Computers, modems, and communication networks furnish the technological 
infrastructure of computer-mediated communication (CMC); cyberspace is the 
conceptual space where words and human relationships, data and wealth and power 
are manifested by people using CMC technology; virtual communities are cultural 
aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough 
in cyberspace.
        A virtual community as they exist today is a group of people who may 
or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange words and ideas 
through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. In cyberspace, 
we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of 
commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, 
gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and 
metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do 
everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on 
computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. Millions of us have already built 
communities where our identities commingle and interact electronically, 
independent of local time or location. The way a few of us live now might be 
the way a larger population will live, decades hence.
        The pioneers are still out there exploring the frontier, the borders 
of the domain have yet to be determined, or even the shape of it, or the best 
way to find one's way in it. But people are using the technology of 
computer-mediated communications CMC technology to do things with each other 
that weren't possible before. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe 
it and participate in it today, is going to be a crucially important factor. 
The ways in which people use CMC always will be rooted in human needs, not 
hardware or software. 
        If the use of virtual communities turns out to answer a deep and 
compelling need in people, and not just snag onto a human foible like pinball 
or pac-man, today's small online enclaves may grow into much larger networks 
over the next twenty years. The potential for social change is a side-effect of 
the trajectory of telecommunications and computer industries, as it can be 
forecast for the next ten years. This odd social revolution -- communities of 
people who may never or rarely meet face to face -- might piggyback on the 
technologies that the biggest telecommunication companies already are planning 
to install over the next ten years.
        It is possible that the hardware and software of a new global 
telecommunications infrastructure, orders of magnitude more powerful than 
today's state of the art, now moving from the laboratories to the market, will 
expand the reach of this spaceless place throughout the 1990s to a much wider 
population than today's hackers, technologists, scholars, students, and 
enthusiasts. The age of the online pioneers will end soon, and the cyberspace 
settlers will come en-masse. Telecommuters who might have thought they were 
just working from home and avoiding one day of gridlock on the freeway will 
find themselves drawn into a whole new society. Students and scientists are 
already there, artists have made significant inroads, librarians and educators 
have their own pioneers as well, and political activists of all stripes have 
just begun to discover the power of plugging a computer into a telephone. When 
today's millions become tens and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, what 
kind of place, and what kind of model for human behavior will they find? 
        Today's bedroom electronic bulletin boards, regional computer 
conferencing systems, global computer networks offer clues to what might happen 
when more powerful enabling technology comes along. The hardware for amplifying 
the computing and communication capacity of every home on the world-grid is in 
the pipeline, although the ultimate applications are not yet clear. We'll be 
able to transfer the Library of Congress from any point on the globe to any 
another point in seconds, upload and download full-motion digital video at 
will. But is that really what people are likely to do with all that bandwidth 
and computing power? Some of the answers have to come from the behavioral 
rather than the technological part of the system. How will people actually use 
the desktop supercomputers and multimedia telephones that the engineers tell us 
we'll have in the near future. 
        One possibility is that people are going to do what people always do 
with a new communication technology: use it in ways never intended or foreseen 
by its inventors, to turn old social codes inside out and make new kinds of 
communities possible. CMC will change us, and change our culture, the way 
telephones and televisions and cheap video cameras changed us -- by altering 
the way we perceive and communicate. Virtual communities transformed my life 
profoundly, years ago, and continue to do so.

A Cybernaut's Eye View

        The most important clues to the shape of the future at this point 
might not be found in looking more closely at the properties of silicon, but in 
paying attention to the ways people need to, fail to, and try to communicate 
with one another. Right now, some people are convinced that spending hours a 
day in front of a screen, typing on a keyboard, fulfills in some way our need 
for a community of peers. Whether we have discovered something wonderful or 
stumbled into something insidiously unwonderful, or both, the fact that people 
want to use CMC to meet other people and experiment with identity are valuable 
signposts to possible futures. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe 
it today on the nets and in the BBSs, gives rise to important questions about 
the effects of communication technology on human values. What kinds of humans 
are we becoming in an increasingly computer-mediated world, and do we have any 
control over that transformation? How have our definitions of "human" and 
"community" been under pressure to change to fit the specifications of a 
technology-guided civilization?
        Fortunately, questions about the nature of virtual communities are not 
purely theoretical, for there is a readily accessible example of the phenomenon 
at hand to study. Millions of people now inhabit the social spaces that have 
grown up on the world's computer networks, and this previously invisible global 
subculture has been growing at a monstrous rate recently (eg, the Internet 
growing by 25% per month). 
        I've lived here myself for seven years; the WELL and the net have been 
a regular part of my routine, like gardening on Sunday, for one sixth of my 
life thus far. My wife and daughter long ago grew accustomed to the fact that I 
sit in front of my computer early in the morning and late at night, chuckling 
and cursing, sometimes crying, about something I am reading on the computer 
screen. The questions I raise here are not those of a scientist, or of a 
polemicist who has found an answer to something, but as a user -- a nearly 
obsessive user -- of CMC and a deep mucker-about in virtual communities. What 
kind of people are my friends and I becoming? What does that portend for 
        If CMC has a potential, it is in the way people in so many parts of 
the net fiercely defend the use of the term "community" to describe the 
relationships we have built online. But fierceness of belief is not sufficient 
evidence that the belief is sound. Is the aura of community an illusion? The 
question has not been answered, and is worth asking. I've seen people hurt by 
interactions in virtual communities. Is telecommunication culture bapable of 
becoming something more than what Scott Peck calls a "pseudo-community," where 
people lack the genuine personal committments to one another that form the 
bedrock of genuine community? Or is our notion of "genuine" changing in an age 
where more people every day live their lives in increasingly artificial 
environments? New technologies tend to change old ways of doing things. Is the 
human need for community going to be the next technology commodity?
        I can attest that I and thousands of other cybernauts know that what 
we are looking for, and finding in some surprising ways, is not just 
information, but instant access to ongoing relationships with a large number of 
other people. Individuals find friends and groups find shared identities 
online, through the aggregated networks of relationships and commitments that 
make any community possible. But are relationships and commitments as we know 
them even possible in a place where identities are fluid? The physical world, 
known variously as "IRL" ("In Real Life"), or "offline," is a place where the 
identity and position of the people you communicate with are well known, fixed, 
and highly visual. In cyberspace, everybody is in the dark. We can only 
exchange words with each other -- no glances or shrugs or ironic smiles. Even 
the nuances of voice and intonation are stripped away. On top of the 
technology-imposed constraints, we who populate cyberspaces deliberately 
experiment with fracturing traditional notions of identity by living as 
multiple simultaneous personae in different virtual neighborhoods.
        We reduce and encode our identities as words on a screen, decode and 
unpack the identities of others. The way we use these words, the stories (true 
and false) we tell about ourselves (or about the identity we want people to 
believe us to be) is what determines our identities in cyberspace. The 
aggregation of personae, interacting with each other, determines the nature of 
the collective culture. Our personae, constructed from our stories of who we 
are, use the overt topics of discussion in a BBS or network for a more 
fundamental purpose, as means of interacting with each other. And all this 
takes place on both public and private levels, in many-to-many open discussions 
and one-to-one private electronic mail, front stage role-playing and backstage 
        When I'm online, I cruise through my conferences, reading and replying 
in topics that I've been following, starting my own topics when the inspiration 
or need strikes me. Every few minutes, I get a notice on my screen that I have 
incoming mail. I might decide to wait to read the mail until I'm finished doing 
something else, or drop from the conference into the mailer, to see who it is 
from. At the same time that I am participating in open discussion in 
conferences and private discourse in electronic mail, people I know well use 
"sends" -- a means of sending one or two quick sentences to my screen without 
the intervention of an electronic mail message. This can be irritating before 
you get used to it, since you are either reading or writing something else when 
it happens, but eventually it becomes a kind of rhythm: different degrees of 
thoughtfulness and formality happen simultaneously, along with the simultaneous 
multiple personae. Then there are public and private conferences that have 
partially overlapping memberships. CMC offers tools for facilitating all the 
various ways people have discovered to divide and communicate, group and 
subgroup and regroup, include and exclude, select and elect.
        When a group of people remain in communication with one another for 
extended periods of time, the question of whether it is a community arises. 
Virtual communities might be real communities, they might be pseudocommunities, 
or they might be something entirely new in the realm of social contracts, but I 
believe they are in part a response to the hunger for community that has 
followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world. 
        Social norms and shared mental models have not emerged yet, so 
everyone's sense of what kind of place cyberspace is can vary widely, which 
makes it hard to tell whether the person you are communicating with shares the 
same model of the system within which you are communicating. Indeed, the online 
acronym YMMV ("Your Mileage May Vary") has become shorthand for this kind of 
indeterminacy of shared context. For example, I know people who use vicious 
online verbal combat as a way of blowing off steam from the pressures of their 
real life -- "sport hassling" -- and others who use it voyeuristically, as a 
text-based form of real-life soap-opera. To some people, it's a game. And I 
know people who feel as passionately committed to our virtual community and the 
people in it (or at least some of the people in it) as our nation, occupation, 
or neighborhood. Whether we like it or not, the communitarians and the venters, 
the builders and the vandals, the egalitarians and the passive-aggressives, are 
all in this place together. The diversity of the communicating population is 
one of the defining characteristics of the new medium, one of its chief 
attractions, the source of many of its most vexing problems. 
        Is the prospect of moving en-masse into cyberspace in the near future, 
when the world's communication network undergoes explosive expansion of 
bandwidth, a beneficial thing for entire populations to do? In which ways might 
the growth of virtual communities promote alienation? How might virtual 
communities facilitate conviviality? Which social structures will dissolve, 
which political forces will arise, and which will lose power? These are 
questions worth asking now, while there is still time to shape the future of 
the medium. In the sense that we are traveling blind into a technology-shaped 
future that might be very different from today's culture, direct reports from 
life in different corners of the world's online cultures today might furnish 
valuable signposts to the territory ahead.
        Since the summer of 1985, I've spent an average of two hours a day, 
seven days a week, often when I travel, plugged into the WELL (Whole Earth 
'Lectronic Link) via a computer and a telephone line, exchanging information 
and playing with attention, becoming entangled In Real Life, with a growing 
network of similarly wired-in strangers I met in cyberspace. I remember the 
first time I walked into a room full of people (IRL) whose faces were 
completely unknown to me, but who knew many intimate details of my history, and 
whose own stories I knew very well. I had contended with these people, shot the 
breeze around the electronic water cooler, shared alliances and formed bonds, 
fallen off my chair laughing with them, become livid with anger at these 
people, but I had not before seen their faces. 
        I found this digital watering hole for information-age hunters and 
gatherers the same way most people find such places -- I was lonely, hungry for 
intellectual and emotional companionship, although I didn't know it. While many 
commuters dream of working at home, telecommuting, I happen to know what it's 
like to work that way. I never could stand to commute or even get out of my 
pajamas if I didn't want to, so I've always worked at home. It has its 
advantages and its disadvantages. Others like myself also have been drawn into 
the online world because they shared with me the occupational hazard of the 
self-employed, home-based symbolic analyst of the 1990s -- isolation. The kind 
of people that Robert Reich, call "symbolic analysts" are natural matches for 
online communities: programmers, writers, freelance artists and designers, 
independent radio and television producers, editors, researchers, librarians. 
People who know what to do with symbols, abstractions, and representations, but 
who sometimes find themselves spending more time with keyboards and screens 
than human companions.
        I've learned that virtual communities are very much like other 
communities in some ways, deceptively so to those who assume that people who 
communicate via words on a screen are in some way aberrant in their 
communication skills and human needs. And I've learned that virtual communities 
are very much not like communities in some other ways, deceptively so to those 
who assume that people who communicate via words on a screen necessarily share 
the same level of committment to each other in real life as more traditional 
communities. Communities can emerge from and exist within computer-linked 
groups, but that technical linkage of electronic personae is not sufficient to 
create a community.

Social Contracts, Reciprocity, and Gift Economies in Cyberspace

        The network of communications that constitutes a virtual community can 
include the exchange of information as a kind of commodity, and the economic 
implications of this phenomenon are significant; the ultimate social potential 
of the network, however, lies not solely in its utility as an information 
market, but in the individual and group relationships that can happen over 
time. When such a group accumulates a sufficient number of friendships and 
rivalries, and witnesses the births, marriages, and deaths that bond any other 
kind of community, it takes on a definite and profound sense of place in 
people's minds. Virtual communities usually have a geographically local focus, 
and often have a connection to a much wider domain. The local focus of my 
virtual community, the WELL, is the San Francisco Bay Area; the wider locus 
consists of hundreds of thousands of other sites around the world, and millions 
of other communitarians, linked via exchanges of messages into a meta-community 
known as "the net."
        The existence of computer-linked communities was predicted twenty 
years ago by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, who as research directors for 
the Department of Defense, set in motion the research that resulted in the 
creation of the first such community, the ARPAnet: "What will on-line 
interactive communities be like?" Licklider and Taylor wrote, in 1968: "In most 
fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped 
in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities 
not of common location, but of common interest..." 
        My friends and I sometimes believe we are part of the future that 
Licklider dreamed about, and we often can attest to the truth of his prediction 
that "life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with 
whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of 
interests and goals than by accidents of proximity." I still believe that, but 
I also know that life also has turned out to be unhappy at times, intensely so 
in some circumstances, because of words on a screen. Events in cyberspace can 
have concrete effects in real life, of both the pleasant and less pleasant 
varieties. Participating in a virtual community has not solved all of life's 
problems for me, but it has served as an aid, a comfort and an inspiration at 
times; at other times, it has been like an endless, ugly, long-simmering family 
        I've changed my mind about a lot of aspects of the WELL over the 
years, but the "sense of place" is still as strong as ever. As Ray Oldenburg 
revealed in "The Great Good Place," there are three essential places in every 
person's life: the place they live, the place they work, and the place they 
gather for conviviality. Although the casual conversation that takes place in 
cafes, beauty shops, pubs, town squares is universally considered to be 
trivial, "idle talk," Oldenburg makes the case that such places are where 
communities can arise and hold together. When the automobile-centric, suburban, 
highrise, fast food, shopping mall way of life eliminated many of these "third 
places," the social fabric of existing communities shredded. It might not be 
the same kind of place that Oldenburg had in mind, but so many of his 
descriptions of "third places" could also describe the WELL.
        The feeling of logging into the WELL for just a minute or two, doezens 
of times a day is very similar to the feeling of peeking into the cafe, the 
pub, the common room, to see who's there, and whether you want to stay around 
for a chat. Indeed, in all the hundreds of thousands of computer systems around 
the world that use the Unix operating system, as does the WELL, the most widely 
used command is the one that shows you who is online. Another widely used 
command is the one that shows you a particular user's biography. 
        I visit the WELL both for the sheer pleasure of communicating with my 
newfound friends, and for its value as a practical instrument forgathering 
information on subjects that are of momentary or enduring importance, from 
childcare to neuroscience, technical questions on telecommunications to 
arguments on philosophical, political, or spiritual subjects. It's a bit like a 
neighborhood pub or coffee shop. It's a little like a salon, where I can 
participate in a hundred ongoing conversations with people who don't care what 
I look like or sound like, but who do care how I think and communicate. There 
are seminars and wordfights in different corners. And it's all a little like a 
groupmind, where questions are answered, support is given, inspiration is 
provided, by people I may have never heard from before, and whom I may never 
meet face to face.  
        Because we cannot see one another, we are unable to form prejudices 
about others before we read what they have to say: Race, gender, age, national 
origin and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make 
such characteristics public. People who are thoughtful but who are not quick to 
formulate a reply often do better in CMC than face to face or over the 
telephone. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new 
friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to 
be treated -- as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not 
carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not 
walking and not talking). Don't mistake this filtration of appearances for 
dehumanization: Words on a screen are quite capable of moving one to laughter 
or tears, of evoking anger or compassion, of creating a community from a 
collection of strangers.
        From my informal research into virtual communities around the world, I 
have found that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, England, 
and the US agree that "increasing the diversity of their circle of friends" was 
one of the most important advantages of computer conferencing. CMC is a way to 
meet people, whether or not you feel the need to affiliate with them on a 
community level, but the way you meet them has an interesting twist: In 
traditional kinds of communities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then 
getting to know them; in virtual communities, you can get to know people and 
then choose to meet them. In some cases, you can get to know people who you 
might never meet on the physical plane. 
        How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we search 
through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of acquaintances and 
acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values 
and interests. We then exchange information about one another, disclose and 
discuss our mutual interests, and sometimes we become friends. In a virtual 
community we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being 
discussed, then get acquainted with those who share our passions, or who use 
words in a way we find attractive. In this sense, the topic is the address: You 
can't simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to 
talk about Islamic art or California wine, or someone with a three year old 
daughter or a 30 year old Hudson; you can, however, join a computer conference 
on any of those topics, then open a public or private correspondence with the 
previously-unknown people you find in that conference. You will find that your 
chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old 
methods of finding a peer group. 
        You can be fooled about people in cyberspace, behind the cloak of 
words. But that can be said about telephones or face to face communications, as 
well; computer-mediated communications provide new ways to fool people, and the 
most obvious identity-swindles will die out only when enough people learn to 
use the medium critically. Sara Kiesler noted that the word "phony" is an 
artifact of the early years of the telephone, when media-naive people were 
conned by slick talkers in ways that wouldn't deceive an eight-year old with a 
cellular phone today.
        There is both an intellectual and an emotional component to CMC. Since 
so many members of virtual communities are the kind of knowledge-based 
professionals whose professional standing can be enhanced by what they know, 
virtual communities can be practical, coldblooded instruments. Virtual 
communities can help their members cope with information overload. The problem 
with the information age, especially for students and knowledge workers who 
spend their time immersed in the info-flow, is that there is too much 
information available and no effective filters for sifting the key data that 
are useful and interesting to us as individuals. Programmers are trying to 
design better and better "software agents" that can seek and sift, filter and 
find, and save us from the awful feeling one gets when it turns out that the 
specific knowledge one needs is buried in 15,000 pages of related information. 
        The first software agents are now becoming available (eg, WAIS, 
Rosebud), but we already have far more sophisticated, if informal, social 
contracts among groups of people that allow us to act as software agents for 
one another. If, in my wanderings through information space, I come across 
items that don't interest me but which I know one of my worldwide loose-knit 
affinity group of online friends would appreciate, I send the appropriate 
friend a pointer, or simply forward the entire text (one of the new powers of 
CMC is the ability to publish and converse with the same medium). In some 
cases, I can put the information in exactly the right place for 10,000 people I 
don't know, but who are intensely interested in that specific topic, to find it 
when they need it. And sometimes, 10,000 people I don't know do the same thing 
for me.
        This unwritten, unspoken social contract, a blend of strong-tie and 
weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives, requires one 
to give something, and enables one to receive something. I have to keep my 
friends in mind and send them pointers instead of throwing my informational 
discards into the virtual scrap-heap. It doesn't take a great deal of energy to 
do that, since I have to sift that information anyway in order to find the 
knowledge I seek for my own purposes; it takes two keystrokes to delete the 
information, three keystrokes to forward it to someone else. And with scores of 
other people who have an eye out for my interests while they explore sectors of 
the information space that I normally wouldn't frequent, I find that the help I 
receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: A marriage of 
altruism and self-interest. 
        The first time I learned about that particular cyberspace power was 
early in the history of the WELL, when I was invited to join a panel of experts 
who advise the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The subject 
of the assessment was "Communication Systems for an Information Age." I'm not 
an expert in telecommunication technology or policy, but I do know where to 
find a group of such experts, and how to get them to tell me what they know. 
Before I went to Washington for my first panel meeting, I opened a conference 
in the WELL and invited assorted information-freaks, technophiles, and 
communication experts to help me come up with something to say. An amazing 
collection of minds flocked to that topic, and some of them created whole new 
communities when they collided.
        By the time I sat down with the captains of industry, government 
advisers, and academic experts at the panel table, I had over 200 pages of 
expert advice from my own panel. I wouldn't have been able to integrate that 
much knowledge of my subject in an entire academic or industrial career, and it 
only took me (and my virtual community) a few minutes a day for six weeks. I 
have found the WELL to be an outright magical resource, professionally. An 
editor or producer or client can call and ask me if I know much about the 
Constitution, or fiber optics, or intellectual property. "Let me get back to 
you in twenty minutes," I say, reaching for the modem. In terms of the way I 
learned to use the WELL to get the right piece of information at the right 
time, I'd say that the hours I've spent putting information into the WELL 
turned out to be the most lucrative professional investments I've ever made.
        The same strategy of nurturing and making use of loose 
information-sharing affiliations across the net can be applied to an infinite 
domain of problem areas, from literary criticism to software evaluation. It's a 
neat way for a sufficiently large, sufficiently diverse group of people to 
multiply their individual degree of expertise, and I think it could be done 
even if the people aren't involved in a community other than their company or 
their research specialty. I think it works better when the community's 
conceptual model of itself is more like barn-raising than horse-trading, 
though. Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the 
arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy where 
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 online community.
        I think one key difference between straightforward workaday 
reciprocity is that in the virtual community I know best, one valuable currency 
is knowledge, elegantly presented. Wit and use of language are rewarded in this 
medium, which is biased toward those who learn how to manipulate attention and 
emotion with the written word. Sometimes, you give one person more information 
than you would give another person in response to the same query, simply 
because you recognize one of them to be more generous or funny or to-the-point 
or agreeable to your political convictions than the other one. 
        If you give useful information freely, without demanding 
tightly-coupled reciprocity, your requests for information are met more 
swiftly, in greater detail, than they would have been otherwise. The person  
you help might never be in a position to help you, but someone else might be. 
That's why it is hard to distinguish idle talk from serious context-setting. In 
a virtual community, idle talk is context-setting. Idle talk is where people 
learn what kind of person you are, why you should be trusted or mistrusted, 
what interests you. An agora is more than the site of transactions; it is also 
a place where people meet and size up one another. 
        A market depends on the quality of knowledge held by the participants, 
the buyers and sellers, about price and availability and a thousand other 
things that influence business; a market that has a forum for informal and 
back-channel communications is a better-informed market. The London Stock 
Exchange grew out of the informal transactions in a coffee-house; when it 
became the London International Stock Exchange a few years ago, and abolished 
the trading-room floor, the enterprise lost something vital in the transition 
from an old room where all the old boys met and cut their deals to the screens 
of thousands of workstations scattered around the world. 
        The context of the informal community of knowledge sharers grew to 
include years of both professional and personal relationships. It is not news 
that the right network of people can serve as an inquiry research system: You 
throw out the question, and somebody on the net knows the answer. You can make 
a game out of it, where you gain symbolic prestige among your virtual peers by 
knowing the answer. And you can make a game out of it among a group of people 
who have dropped out of their orthodox professional lives, where some of them 
sell these information services for exorbitant rates, in order to participate 
voluntarily in the virtual community game.
        When the WELL was young and growing more slowly than it is now, such 
knowledge-potlatching had a kind of naively enthusiastic energy. When you 
extend the conversation -- several dozen different characters, well-known to 
one another from four or five years of virtual hanging-out, several hours a day 
-- it gets richer, but not necessarily "happier."
        Virtual communities have several drawbacks in comparison to 
face-to-face communication, disadvantages that must be kept in mind if you are 
to make use of the power of these computer-mediated discussion groups. The 
filtration factor that prevents one from knowing the race or age of another 
participant also prevents people from communicating the facial expressions, 
body language, and tone of voice that constitute the inaudible but vital 
component of most face to face communications. Irony, sarcasm, compassion, and 
other subtle but all-important nuances that aren't conveyed in words alone are 
lost when all you can see of a person are words on a screen. 
        It's amazing how the ambiguity of words in the absence of body 
language inevitably leads to online misunderstandings. And since the physical 
absence of other people also seems to loosen some of the social bonds that 
prevent people from insulting one another in person, misunderstandings can grow 
into truly nasty stuff before anybody has a chance to untangle the original 
miscommunication. Heated diatribes and interpersonal incivility that wouldn't 
crop up often in face to face or even telephone discourse seem to appear with 
relative frequency in computer conferences. The only presently available 
antidote to this flaw of CMC as a human communication medium is widespread 
knowledge of this flaw -- aka "netiquette."
        Online civility and how to deal with breaches of it is a topic unto 
itself, and has been much-argued on the WELL. Degrees of outright incivility 
constitute entire universes such as alt.flame, the Usenet newsgroup where 
people go specifically to spend their days hurling vile imprecations at one 
another. I am beginning to suspect that the most powerful and effective defense 
an online community has in the face of those who are bent on disruption might 
be norms and agreements about withdrawing attention from those who can't abide 
by even loose rules of verbal behavior. "If you continue doing that," I 
remember someone saying to a particularly persistent would-be disrupter, "we 
will stop paying attention to you." This is technically easy to do on Usenet, 
where putting the name of a person or topic header in a "kill file" (aka "bozo 
filter") means you will never see future contributions from that person or 
about that topic. You can simply choose to not see any postings from Rich 
Rosen, or that feature the word "abortion" in the title. A society in which 
people can remove one another, or even entire topics of discussion, from 
visibility. The WELL does not have a bozo filter, although the need for one is 
a topic of frequent discussion.

Who Is The WELL?

        One way to know what the WELL is like is to know something about the 
kind of people who use it. It has roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in 
two separate cultural revolutions that took place there in past decades. The 
Whole Earth Catalog originally emerged from the counterculture as Stewart 
Brand's way of providing access to tools and ideas to all the communes who were 
exploring alternate ways of life in the forests of Mendocino or the high 
deserts outside Santa Fe. The Whole Earth Catalogs and the magazines they 
spawned, Co-Evolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review, have outlived the 
counterculture itself, since they are still alive and raising hell after nearly 
25 years. For many years, the people who have been exploring alternatives and 
are open to ideas that you don't find in the mass media have found themselves 
in cities instead of rural communes, where their need for new tools and ideas 
didn't go away. 
        The Whole Earth Catalog crew received a large advance in the mid-1980s 
to produce an updated version, a project involving many 
geographically-separated authors and editors, many of whom were using 
computers. They bought a minicomputer and the license to Picospan, a computer 
conferencing program, leased an office next to the magazine's office, leased 
incoming telephone lines, set up modems, and the WELL was born in 1985. The 
idea from the beginning was that the founders weren't sure what the WELL would 
become, but they would provide tools for people to build it into something 
useful. It was consciously a cultural experiment, and the business was designed 
to succeed or fail on the basis of the results of the experiment. The person 
Stewart Brand chose to be the WELL's first director -- technician, manager, 
innkeeper, and bouncer -- was Matthew McClure, not-coincidentally a 
computer-savvy veteran of The Farm, one of the most successful of the communes 
that started in the sixties. Brand and McClure started a low-rules, high-tone 
discussion, where savvy networkers, futurists, misfits who had learned how to 
make our outsiderness work for us, could take the technology of CMC to its 
cultural limits.
        The Whole Earth network -- the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power 
enthusiasts, serious ecologists and the space-station crowd, immortalists, 
Biospherians, environmentalists, social activists -- was part of the core 
population from the beginning. But there were a couple of other key elements. 
One was the subculture that happened ten years after the counterculture era -- 
the personal computer revolution. Personal computers and the PC industry were 
created by young iconoclasts who wanted to have whizzy tools and change the 
world. Whole Earth had honored them, including the outlaws among them, with the 
early Hacker's Conferences. The young computer wizards, and the grizzled old 
hands who were still messing with mainframes, showed up early at the WELL 
because the guts of the system itself -- the Unix operating system and "C" 
language programming code -- were available for tinkering by responsible 
        A third cultural element that made up the initial mix of the WELL, 
which has drifted from its counterculture origins in many ways, were the 
deadheads. Books and theses have been written about the subculture that have 
grown up around the band, the Grateful Dead. The deadheads have a strong 
feeling of community, but they can only manifest it en masse when the band has 
concerts. They were a community looking for a place to happen when several 
technology-savvy deadheads started a "Grateful Dead Conference" on the WELL. GD 
was so phenomenally successful that for the first several years, deadheads were 
by far the single largest source of income for the enterprise. 
        Along with the other elements came the first marathon swimmers in the 
new currents of the information streams, the futurists and writers and 
journalists. The New York Times, Business Week, the San Francisco Chronicle, 
Time, Rolling Stone, Byte, the Wall Street Journal all have journalists that I 
know personally who drop into the WELL as a listening post. People in Silicon 
Valley lurk to hear loose talk among the pros. Journalists tend to attract 
other journalists, and the purpose of journalists is to attract everybody else: 
most people have to use an old medium to hear news about the arrival of a new 
        Things changed, both rapidly and slowly, in the WELL. There were about 
600 members of the WELL when I joined, in the summer of 1985. It seemed that 
then, as now, the usual ten percent of the members did 80% of the talking. Now 
there are about 6000 people, with a net gain of about a hundred a month. There 
do seem to be more women than other parts of cyberspace. Most of the people I 
meet seem to be white or Asian; African-Americans aren't missing, but they 
aren't conspicuous or even visible. If you can fake it, gender and age are 
invisible, too. I'd guess the WELL consists of about 80% men, 20% women. I 
don't know whether formal demographics would be the kind of thing that most 
WELL users would want to contribute to. It's certainly something we'd discuss, 
argue, debate, joke about.
        One important social rule was built into Picospan, the software that 
the WELL lives inside: Nobody is anonymous. Everybody is required to attach 
their real "userid" to their postings. It is possible to use pseudonyms to 
create alternate identities, or to carry metamessages, but the pseudonyms are 
always linked in every posting to the real userid. So individual personae -- 
whether or not they correspond closely to the real person who owns the account 
-- are responsible for the words they post. In fact, the first several years, 
the screen that you saw when you reached the WELL said "You own your own 
words." Stewart Brand, the WELL's co-founder likes epigrams: "Whole Earth," 
"Information wants to be free." "You own your own words." Like the best 
epigrams, "You own your own words" is open to multiple interpretations. The 
matter of responsibility and ownership of words is one of the topics WELLbeings 
argue about endlessly, so much that the phrase has been abbreviated to "YOYOW," 
As in, "Oh no, another YOYOW debate."
        Who are the WELL members, and what do they talk about? I can tell you 
about the individuals I have come to know over six years, but the WELL has long 
since been something larger than the sum of everybody's friends. The 
characteristics of the pool of people who tune into this electronic listening 
post, whether or not they every post a word in public, is a strong determinant 
of the flavor of the "place." There's a cross-sectional feeling of "who are 
we?" that transcends the intersecting and non-intersecting rings of friends and 
acquaintances each individual develops.

My Neighborhood On The WELL

        Every CMC system gives users tools for creating their own sense of 
place, by customizing the way they navigate through the database of 
conferences, topics, and responses. A conference or newsgroup is like a place 
you go. If you go to several different places in a fixed order, it seems to 
reinforce the feeling of place by creating a customized neighborhood that is 
also shared by others. You see some of the same users in different parts of the 
same neighborhood. Some faces, you see only in one context -- the parents 
conference, the Grateful Dead tours conference, the politics or sex conference. 
        My home neighborhood on the WELL is reflected in my ".cflist," the 
file that records my preferences about the order of conferences I visit. It is 
always possible to go to any conference with a command, but with a .cflist you 
structure your online time by going from conference to specified conference at 
regular intervals, reading and perhaps responding in several ongoing threads in 
several different places. That's the part of the art of discourse where I have 
found that the computer adds value to the intellectual activity of discussing 
formally distinct subjects asynchronously, from different parts of the world, 
over extending periods, by enabling groups to structure conversations by topic, 
over time. 
        My .cflist starts, for sentimental reasons, with the Mind conference, 
the first one I hosted on the WELL, since 1985. I've changed my .cflist 
hundreds of times over the years, to add or delete conferences from my regular 
neighborhood, but I've always kept Mind in the lede. The entry banner screen 
for the Mind conference used to display to each user the exact phase of the 
moon in numbers and ASCII graphics every time they logged in to the conference. 
But the volunteer programmer who had created the "phoon" program had decided to 
withdraw it, years later, in a dispute with WELL management. There is often a 
technological fix to a social problem within this particular universe. Because 
the WELL seems to be an intersection of many different cultures, there have 
been many experiments with software tools to ameliorate problems that seemed to 
crop up between people, whether because of the nature of the medium or the 
nature of the people. A frighteningly expensive pool of talent was donated by 
volunteer programmers to create tools and even weapons for WELL users to deal 
with each other. People keep giving things to the WELL, and taking them away. 
Offline readers and online tools by volunteer programmers gave others increased 
power to communicate. 
        The News conference is what's next. This is the commons, the place 
where the most people visit the most often, where the most outrageous off-topic 
proliferation is least pernicious, where the important announcements about the 
system or social events or major disputes or new conferences are announced. 
When an earthquake or fire happens, News is where you want to go. Immediately 
after th e 1989 earthquake and during the Oakland fire of 1991, the WELL was a 
place to check the damage to the local geographic community, lend help to those 
who need it, and get first-hand reports. During Tienamen square, the Gulf War, 
the Soviet Coup, the WELL was a media-funnel, with snippets of email from 
Tel-Aviv and entire newsgroups fed by fax machines in China, erupting in News 
conference topics that grew into fast-moving conferences of their own. During 
any major crisis in the real world, the routine at our house is to turn on CNN 
and log into the WELL.
        After News is Hosts, where the hottest stuff usually happens. The 
hosts community is a story in itself. The success of the WELL in its first five 
years, all would agree, rested heavily on the efforts of the conference hosts 
-- online characters who had created the character of the first neighborhoods 
and kept the juice flowing between one another all over the WELL, but most 
pointedly in the Hosts conference. Some spicy reading in the Archives 
conference originated from old hosts' disputes - and substantial arguments 
about the implications of CMC for civil rights, intellectual property, 
censorship, by a lot of people who know what they are talking about, mixed 
liberally with a lot of other people who don't know what they are talking 
about, but love to talk anyway, via keyboard and screen, for years on end. 
        In this virtual place, the pillars of the community and the worst 
offenders of public sensibilities are in the same group -- the hosts. At their 
best and their worst, this ten percent of the online population put out the 
words that the other ninety percent keep paying to read. Like good hosts at any 
social gathering, they make newcomers welcome, keep the conversation flowing, 
mediate disputes, clean up messes, and throw out miscreants, if need be. A WELL 
host is part salon keeper, part saloon keeper, part talk-show host, part 
publisher. The only power to censor or to ban a user is the hosts' power. 
Policy varies from host to host, and that's the only policy. The only justice 
for those who misuse that power is the forced participation in weeks of 
debilitating and vituperative post-mortem. 
        The hosts community is part long-running soap opera, part town 
meeting, bar-room brawl, anarchic debating society, creative groupmind, bloody 
arena, union hall, playpen, encounter group. The Hosts conference is extremely 
general, from technical questions to personal attacks. The Policy conference is 
supposed to be restricted to matters of what WELL policy is, or ought to be. 
The part-delusion, part-accurate perception that the hosts and other users have 
strong influence over WELL policy is part of what feeds debate here, and a 
strong element in the libertarian reputation of the stereotypical WELLite. 
After fighting my way through a day's or hour's worth of the Hot New Dispute in 
News, Hosts, and Policy, I check on the conferences I host -- Info, Virtual 
Communities, Virtual Reality. After that my .cflist directs me, at the press of 
the return key, to the first new topic or response in the Parenting, Writers', 
Grateful Dead tours, Telecommunication, Macintosh, Weird, Electronic Frontier 
Foundation, Whole Earth, Books, Media, Men on the WELL, Miscellaneous, and 
Unclear conferences. 
        The social dynamics of the WELL spawn new conferences in response to 
different kinds of pressures. Whenever a hot interpersonal or doctrinal issue 
breaks out, for example, people want to stage the brawl or make a dramatic 
farewell speech or shocking disclosure or serious accusation in the most 
heavily-visited area of the WELL, which is usually the place that others want 
to be a Commons -- a place where people from different sub-communities can come 
to find out what is going on around the WELL, outside the WELL, where they can 
pose questions to the committee of the whole. When too many discussions of what 
the WELL's official policy ought to be, about censorship or intellectual 
property or the way people treat each other, break out, they tended to clutter 
the place people went to get a quick sense of what is happening outside their 
neighborhoods. So the Policy conference was born. 
        But then the WELL grew larger and it wasn't just policy but governance 
and social issues like political correctness or the right of users to determine 
the social rules of the system. Several years and six thousand more users after 
the fission of the News and Policy conferences, another conference split off 
News -- "MetaWELL,"  a conference was created strictly to discussions about the 
WELL itself, it nature, its situation (often dire), its future. 
        Grabbing attention in the Commons is a powerful act. Some people seem 
drawn to performing there; others burst out there in acts of desperation, after 
one history of frustration or another. Dealing with people who are so 
consistently off-topic or apparently deeply grooved into incoherence, 
long-windedness, scatology, is one of the events that challenges a community to 
decide what its values really are, or ought to be.
        Something is happening here. I'm not sure anybody understands it yet. 
I know that the WELL and the net is an important part of my life and I have to 
decide for myself whether this is a new way to make genuine committments to 
other human beings, or a silicon-induced illusion of community. I urge others 
to help pursue that question in a variety of ways, while we have the time. The 
political dimensions of CMC might lead to situations that would pre-empt 
questions of other social effects; responses to the need for understanding the 
power-relationships inherent in CMC are well represented by the Electronic 
Frontier Foundation and others. We need to learn a lot more, very quickly, 
about what kind of place our minds are homesteading.
        The future of virtual communities is connected to the future of 
everything else, starting with the most precious thing people have to gain or 
lose -- political freedom. The part played by communication technologies in the 
disintegration of communism, the way broadcast television pre-empted the 
American electoral process, the power of fax and CMC networks during times of 
political repression like Tienamen Square and the Soviet Coup attempt, the 
power of citizen electronic journalism, the power-maneuvering of law 
enforcement and intelligence agencies to restrict rights of citizen access and 
expression in cyberspace, all point to the future of CMC as a close correlate 
of future political scenarios. More important than civilizing cyberspace is 
ensuring its freedom as a citizen-to-citizen communication and publication 
medium; laws that infringe equity of access to and freedom of expression in 
cyberspace could transform today's populist empowerment into yet another 
instrument of manipulation. Will "electronic democracy" be an accurate 
description of political empowerment that grows out of the screen of a 
computer? Or will it become a brilliant piece of disinfotainment, another means 
of manipulating emotions and manufacturing public opinion in the service of 
        Who controls what kinds of information is communicated in the 
international networks where virtual communities live? Who censors, and what is 
censored? Who safeguards the privacy of individuals in the face of technologies 
that make it possible to amass and retrieve detailed personal information about 
every member of a large population? The answers to these political questions 
might make moot any more abstract questions about cultures in cyberspace. 
Democracy itself depends on the relatively free flow of communications. The 
following words by James Madison are carved in marble at the United States 
Library of Congress: "A popular government without popular information, or the 
means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps 
both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be 
their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." 
It is time for people to arm themselves with power about the future of CMC 
        Who controls the market for relationships? Will the world's 
increasingly interlinked, increasingly powerful, decreasingly costly 
communications infrastructure be controlled by a small number of very large 
companies? Will cyberspace be privatized and parcelled out to those who can 
afford to buy into the auction? If political forces do not seize the high 
ground and end today's freewheeling exchange of ideas, it is still possible for 
a more benevolent form of economic control to stunt the evolution of virtual 
communities, if a small number of companies gain the power to put up toll-roads 
in the information networks, and smaller companies are not able to compete with 
        Or will there be an open market, in which newcomers like Apple or 
Microsoft can become industry leaders? The playing field in the global 
telecommunications industry will never be level, but the degree of individual 
freedom available through telecommunication technologies in the future may 
depend upon whether the market for goods and services in cyberspace remains 
open for new companies to create new uses for CMC. 
        I present these observations as a set of questions, not as answers. I 
believe that we need to try to understand the nature of CMC, cyberspace, and 
virtual communities in every important context -- politically, economically, 
socially , culturally, cognitively. Each different perspective reveals 
something that the other perspectives do not reveal. Each different discipline 
fails to see something that another discipline sees very well. We need to think 
as teams here, across boundaries of academic discipline, industrial 
affiliation, nation, to understand, and thus perhaps regain control of, the way 
human communities are being transformed by communication technologies. We can't 
do this solely as dispassionate observers, although there is certainly a huge 
need for the detached assessment of social science. But community is a matter 
of the heart and the gut as well as the head. Some of the most important 
learning will always have to be done by jumping into one corner or another of 
cyberspace, living there, and getting up to your elbows in the problems that 
virtual communities face.


Sara Kiesler, "The Hidden Messages in Computer Networks," Harvard Business 
Review, January-February 1986.

J.C.R. Licklider, Robert Taylor, and E. Herbert, "The Computer as a 
Communication Device," International Science and Technology, April 1978.

Ray Oldenburg, "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, 
Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through 
The Day," New York: Paragon House, 1991.

M. Scott Peck, M.D.,"The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace," New Y 
ork: Touchstone, 1987.

Howard Rheingold, "Tools for Thought," Simon & Schuster 1986.