In the Digital Age, people need only a computer with an Internet connection to hook up with one another all over the world -- and few sites exemplify the kind of rich, cross-cultural dialogue the Web makes possible as well as The Well.
Launched in 1985 by millionaire philanthropist Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand, who also founded the perennial counterculture sourcebook The Whole Earth Catalog, The Well (an acronym for "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link") soon became known as a thriving online community of articulate, often left-of-center, opinion.
Katie Hafner's new book, The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community, follows the growth of the site -- and the intense relationships it spawned among its members -- from its inception through its 1999 acquisition by Salon.com (see BW, 5/28/01, "Online Commune"). The idea for the book came out of an article Hafner did about The Well for Wired magazine. Recently, Hafner spoke with former BusinessWeek Online editor Karen Angel. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: Tell me about your personal experience with The Well.
A: I got on The Well in late 1988 or early 1989 from an e-mail connection from Berlin, where I was working on a book about Germany. I never did get very involved in the community as such, perhaps because the connection from Germany was expensive, perhaps because there was no one incident or reason for me to go visit any of the conferences.
Q: How did The Well differ from other online communities?
A: It was -- and still is -- decidedly more intense. People really know each other on The Well, there's no doubt about it. They are also extremely articulate people, which isn't to say that people in other online communities aren't articulate, but this is a particularly word-oriented bunch.
Q: Explain the significance of the rule that requires members to post under their real names.
A: [Co-founder] Stewart Brand wanted people to be accountable for their words, and not just post and run without having to worry about consequences. He felt strongly that that would foster a better sense of community, and he was right. Look at today's chat rooms. I wouldn't call those places real communities.
Q: Why were The Well's various owners never able to capitalize on the members' devotion and the brand recognition?
A: For one thing, they didn't try all that hard. And although [former CEO] Bruce Katz did try, the community rose up against him and basically thwarted his efforts. They didn't want to be another AOL.
Q: Why did membership peak at 10,000? Was the proliferation of free online communities with strong content the main factor?
A: I don't think that was it, really. I think [The Well] was just a self-referential corner of cyberspace that didn't consider itself much else.
Q: How many members does The Well have today? Who are they, and how loyal are they?
A: Salon.com, which now owns The Well, doesn't release current subscriber numbers, but I believe it's 8,000 or so. I could be wrong. I think those people are terribly loyal. There are some of the old guard remaining, but also a fresh, new generation of younger, very interesting people.
Q: You don't have any revenue figures for The Well in your book. Were you unable to get them?
A: I don't remember, actually. I think I did have them, but didn't consider them all that relevant. Remember, this isn't a business book and never pretended to be one. It is, in the end, a book about people and human nature and love and disappointment.
Q: How did The Well's sale to Salon.com come about? Why was Salon interested, given the site's mediocre financial track record?
A: I believe that the Salon.com folks believed The Well would be a perfect fit. And actually, it was. Folks on The Well were very relieved and happy when they heard about the purchase. At the time of the purchase , the financial prospects at Salon.com weren't quite so dire.
Q: Can you build a community and a business as one and the same?
A: If you consider eBay a community, then perhaps so. But I don't consider eBay a community in the sense that I understand community: a place where people have a stake in what happens in that place. If eBay shut down tomorrow, people would simply seek another place to buy and sell their vintage lunch boxes.
Q: What is The Well's legacy -- its most-lasting contributions to cyberspace?
A: The high level of discourse.