The virtual community

howard rheingold's | the virtual community Introduction
Chapter One: The Heart of the WELL
Chapter Two: Daily Life in
Cyberspace: How the Computerized
Chapter Three: Visionaries and
Convergences: The Accidental History
of the Net
Chapter Four: Grassroots
"When you think of a title for a book, you are Chapter Five: Multi-user Dungeons
evocative, like, well, 'The Virtual Community,' even though a more accurate title might be: Chapter Six: Real-time Tribes
'People who use computers to communicate, Chapter Seven: Japan and the Net
form friendships that sometimes form the basis Chapter Eight: Telematique and
of communities, but you have to be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same Chapter Nine: Electronic Frontiers
and Online Activists
Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy
In the summer of 1986, my then-two-year-old daughter picked up a tick. There was this blood-bloated thing sucking on our baby's scalp, and we weren't quite sure how to go about getting it off. My wife, Judy, called the pediatrician. It waseleven o'clock in the evening. I logged onto the WELL. I got my answer onlinewithin minutes from a fellow with the improbable but genuine name of Flash Gordon, M.D. I had removed the tick by the time Judy got the callback from thepediatrician's office.
What amazed me wasn't just the speed with which we obtained precisely theinformation we needed to know, right when we needed to know it. It was also theimmense inner sense of security that comes with discovering that real people--mostof them parents, some of them nurses, doctors, and midwives--are available, aroundthe clock, if you need them. There is a magic protective circle around the atmosphereof this particular conference. We're talking about our sons and daughters in thisforum, not about our computers or our opinions about philosophy, and many of us feel that this tacit understanding sanctifies the virtual space.
The atmosphere of the Parenting conference--the attitudes people exhibit to eachother in the tone of what they say in public--is part of what continues to attract me.
People who never have much to contribute in political debate, technical argument, orintellectual gamesmanship turn out to have a lot to say about raising children. Peopleyou knew as fierce, even nasty, intellectual opponents in other contexts give youemotional support on a deeper level, parent to parent, within the boundaries of howard rheingold's | the virtual community Parenting, a small but warmly human corner of cyberspace.
Here is a short list of examples from the hundreds of separate topics available fordiscussion in the Parenting conference. Each of these entries is the name of aconversation that includes scores or hundreds of individual contributions spread overa period of days or years, like a long, topical cocktail party you can rewind back tothe beginning to find out who said what before you got there.
Great Expectations: You're Pregnant: Now Another Well Baby--Carson Arrives in Seattle! How Does Being a Parent Change Your Life? Pediatric Problems--Little Sicknesses and Sick Talking with Kids About the Prospect of War People who talk about a shared interest, albeit a deep one such as being a parent,don't often disclose enough about themselves as whole individuals online to inspirereal trust in others. In the case of the subcommunity of the Parenting conference, afew dozen of us, scattered across the country, few of whom rarely if ever saw theothers face-to-face, had a few years of minor crises to knit us together and prepare usfor serious business when it came our way. Another several dozen read theconference regularly but contribute only when they have something important to add.
Hundreds more every week read the conference without comment, except whensomething extraordinary happens.
Jay Allison and his family live in Massachusetts. He and his wife are public-radio producers. I've never met any of them face-to-face, although I feel I know somethingpowerful and intimate about the Allisons and have strong emotional ties to them.
What follows are some of Jay's postings on the WELL: Woods Hole. Midnight. I am sitting in the dark of my daughter'sroom. Her monitor lights blink at me. The lights used to blink toobrightly so I covered them with bits of bandage adhesive and nowthey flash faintly underneath, a persistent red and green, Lillie'sheart and lungs.
Above the monitor is her portable suction unit. In the glow of theflashlight I'm writing by, it looks like the plastic guts of ascience-class human model, the tubes coiled around the powersupply, the reservoir, the pump.
Tina is upstairs trying to get some sleep. A baby monitor links ourbedroom to Lillie's. It links our sleep to Lillie's too, and howard rheingold's | the virtual community because our souls are linked to hers, we do not sleep well.
I am naked. My stomach is full of beer. The flashlight rests on it,and the beam rises and falls with my breath. My daughter breathesthrough a white plastic tube inserted into a hole in her throat.
She's fourteen months old.
Sitting in front of our computers with our hearts racing and tears in our eyes, inTokyo and Sacramento and Austin, we read about Lillie's croup, her tracheostomy,the days and nights at Massachusetts General Hospital, and now the vigil overLillie's breathing and the watchful attention to the mechanical apparatus that kept heralive. It went on for days. Weeks. Lillie recovered, and relieved our anxieties abouther vocal capabilities after all that time with a hole in her throat by saying the mostextraordinary things, duly reported online by Jay.
Later, writing in Whole Earth Review, Jay described the experience: Before this time, my computer screen had never been a place to go for solace. Far from it. But there it was. Those nights sitting up late with my daughter, I'd goto my computer, dial up the WELL, and ramble. I wrote about what washappening that night or that year. I didn't know anyone I was "talking" to. I hadnever laid eyes on them. At 3:00 a.m. my "real" friends were asleep, so I turnedto this foreign, invisible community for support. The WELL was always awake.
Any difficulty is harder to bear in isolation. There is nothing to measure against,to lean against. Typing out my journal entries into the computer and over thephone lines, I found fellowship and comfort in this unlikely medium.
Over the years, despite the distances, those of us who made heart-to-heart contact viathe Parenting conference began to meet face-to-face. The WELL's annual summerpicnic in the San Francisco Bay area grew out of a face-to-face gathering that wasoriginally organized in the Parenting conference. We had been involved in intenseonline conversations in this conference all year. When summer rolled around westarted talking about doing something relaxing together, like bringing our kidssomewhere for a barbecue. In typical WELL fashion, it quickly amplified to a WELLwide party hosted by the Parenting conference. Phil Catalfo reserved a picnicsite and the use of a softball field in a public park.
Parents talk about their kids online--what else?--and therefore we all already knewabout my daughter Mamie and Philcat's son Gabe and Busy's son, the banjo player,but we had not seen many of them before. I remember that when I arrived at thepark, Mamie and I recognized one particular group, out of the first half-dozen largeparties of picnickers we saw in the distance. There was just something about the waythey were all standing, talking with each other in knots of two or three, while thekids ran around the eucalyptus grove and found their way to the softball diamond. Iremember playing on the same team with a fellow who never ceases to annoy me when he wrenches every conversation online around to a debate aboutlibertarianism; I remember thinking, after we had darn near accomplished a doubleplay together, that he wasn't such a bad guy.
It was a normal American community picnic --people who value eachother's company, getting together with their kids for softball and barbecue on asummer Sunday. It could have been any church group or PTA. In this case, it was theindisputably real-life part of a virtual community. The first Parenting conference howard rheingold's | the virtual community picnic was such a success that it became an annual event, taking place around thesummer solstice. And kids became a fixture at all the other WELL parties.
Another ritual for parents and kids and friends of parents and kids started in thewinter, not long after the picnic tradition began. For the past four or five years, inDecember, most of the conference participants within a hundred miles, and theirlittle ones, show up in San Francisco for the annual Pickle Family Circus benefit andpotluck. One of the directors of this small circus is a beloved and funny member ofthe WELL community; he arranges a special block of seats each year. After thecircus is over and the rest of the audience has left, we treat the performers, the stagehands, and ourselves to a potluck feast.
Albert Mitchell is an uncommonly fierce and stubborn fellow--many would saypugnacious--who argues his deeply felt principles in no uncertain terms. He can beabrasive, even frightening, in his intensity. He gets particularly riled up by certaintopics--organized religion, taxation, and circumcision--but there are other ways tocross him and earn some public or private vituperation. I discovered that I couldnever again really be too frightened by Albert's fierce online persona--the widelyknown and sometimes feared "sofia"--after seeing him and his sweet daughter, Sofia,in her clown suit, at a Pickle potluck. He gave me a jar of honey from his own hiveat that event, even though we had been shouting at each other online in ways thatprobably would have degenerated into fisticuffs face-to-face. At the Pickle FamilyCircus or the summer picnic, we were meeting in the sacred space of Parenting, notthe bloody arenas of WELL policy or politics.
The Parenting conference had been crisis-tested along with the Allisons, and hadundergone months of the little ups and downs with the kids that make up the normaldaily history of any parent, when one of our most regular, most dear, mostloquacious participants, Phil Catalfo, dropped a bombshell on us.
By: Phil Catalfo (philcat) on Wed, Jan 16, '91 I'd like to use this topic for discussing leukemia, the disease, both as it affects my family and what is known about it generally.
We learned early last week that our son Gabriel, 7 (our middle child), has acute lymphocytic leukemia, aka ALL. I will be openingone or more additional topics to discuss the chronology of events,emotions and experiences stirred up by this newly central fact of our lives, and so on. (I'm also thinking of opening a topicexpressly for everyone to send him get-well wishes.) I intend forthis topic to focus on the disease itself--his diagnosis and progress, but also other cases we know about, resources (of alltypes) available, etc. etc.
If Tina has no objection, I'd like to ask the hosts of the Health conf. to link any/all of these topics to their conf. I can't thinkoffhand of where else might be appropriate, but I'm sure you'll allsuggest away.
howard rheingold's | the virtual community The first thing I want to say, regardless of how it does or doesn'tpertain to this particular topic, is that the support and love myfamily and I, and especially Gabe, have been receiving from theWELL, have been invaluable. This turns out to have a medicalimpact, which we'll discuss in good time, but I want to say outloud how much it's appreciated: infinitely.
With that, I'll enter this, and return as soon as I can to say moreabout Gabe's case and what I've learned in the past week about thisdisease and what to do about it.
# 1: Nancy A. Pietrafesa (lapeche) Wed, Jan 16, '91 (17:21) Philcat, we're here and we're listening. We share your hope and a small part of your pain. Hang on.
# 2: Tina Loney (onezie) Wed, Jan 16, '91 (19:09) Phil, I took the liberty of writing to flash (host of the Health conf) and telling him to link whichever of the three topics hefeels appropriate. I very much look forward to you telling us allthat you can/are able about Gabe. In the meanwhile, I'm thinking about Gabriel and your entire family. Seems I remember Gabe hasquite a good Catalfic sense of humor, and I hope you're able to aidhim in keeping that in top form. . . . Virtual hugs are *streaming*in his direction. . . .
The Parenting regulars, who had spent hours in this conference trading quips andcommiserating over the little ups and downs of life with children, chimed in withmessages of support. One of them was a nurse. Individuals who had nevercontributed to the Parenting conference before entered the conversation, including acouple of doctors who helped Phil and the rest of us understand the daily reportsabout blood counts and other diagnostics and two other people who had firsthand knowledge, as patients suffering from blood disorders themselves.
Over the weeks, we all became experts on blood disorders. We also understood howthe blood donation system works, what Danny Thomas and his St. Jude Hospital hadto do with Phil and Gabe, and how parents learn to be advocates for their children inthe medical system without alienating the caregivers. Best of all, we learned thatGabe's illness went into remission after about a week of chemotherapy.
With Gabe's remission, the community that had gathered around the leukemia topicredirected its attention to another part of the groupmind. Lhary, one of the peoplefrom outside the Parenting conference who had joined the discussion of leukemiabecause of the special knowledge he had to contribute, moved from the SanFrancisco area to Houston in order to have a months-long bone-marrow transplantprocedure in an attempt to abate his own leukemia. He continued to log onto the WELL from his hospital room. The Catalfos and others got together and personallytie-dyed regulation lab coats and hospital gowns for Lhary to wear around thehospital corridors.
Many people are alarmed by the very idea of a virtual community,fearing that it is another step in the wrong direction, substituting more technologicalersatz for yet another natural resource or human freedom. These critics often voicetheir sadness at what people have been reduced to doing in a civilization thatworships technology, decrying the circumstances that lead some people into suchpathetically disconnected lives that they prefer to find their companions on the other howard rheingold's | the virtual community side of a computer screen. There is a seed of truth in this fear, for virtualcommunities require more than words on a screen at some point if they intend to beother than ersatz.
Some people--many people--don't do well in spontaneous spoken interaction, butturn out to have valuable contributions to make in a conversation in which they havetime to think about what to say. These people, who might constitute a significantproportion of the population, can find written communication more authentic thanthe face-to-face kind. Who is to say that this preference for one mode ofcommunication--informal written text--is somehow less authentically human than audible speech? Those who critique CMC because some people use it obsessively hit an important target, but miss a great deal more whenthey don't take into consideration people who use the medium for genuine human interaction. Those who find virtual communities cold placespoint at the limits of the technology, its most dangerous pitfalls, and we need to payattention to those boundaries. But these critiques don't tell us how Philcat and Lharyand the Allisons and my own family could have found the community of support andinformation we found in the WELL when we needed it. And those of us who do findcommunion in cyberspace might do well to pay attention to the way the medium welove can be abused.
Although dramatic incidents are what bring people together and stick in theirmemories, most of what goes on in the Parenting conference and most virtualcommunities is informal conversation and downright chitchat. The model of theWELL and other social clusters in cyberspace as "places" is one that naturallyemerges whenever people who use this medium discuss the nature of the medium. In1987, Stewart Brand quoted me in his book The Media Lab about what tempted meto log onto the WELL as often as I did: "There's always another mind there. It's likehaving the corner bar, complete with old buddies and delightful newcomers and newtools waiting to take home and fresh graffiti and letters, except instead of putting onmy coat, shutting down the computer, and walking down to the corner, I just invokemy telecom program and there they are. It's a place." The existence of computer-linked communities was predicted twenty-five years agoby J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, research directors for the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), who 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 in1968: "In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members,sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They willbe communities not of common location, but of common interest. . . ." My friends and I sometimes believe we are part of the future that Licklider dreamedabout, and we often can attest to the truth of his prediction that "life will be happierfor the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most stronglywill be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents ofproximity." I still believe that, but I also know that life online has been unhappy attimes, intensely so in some circumstances, because of words I've read on a screen.
Participating in a virtual community has not solved all of life's problems for me, butit has served as an aid, a comfort, and an inspiration at times; at other times, it has howard rheingold's | the virtual community been like an endless, ugly, long-simmering family brawl.
I've changed my mind about a lot of aspects of the WELL over the years, but thesense of place is still as strong as ever. As Ray Oldenburg proposed in The Great Good Place, there are three essential places in people's lives : the place welive, the place we work, and the place we gather for conviviality. Although thecasual conversation that takes place in cafes, beauty shops, pubs, and town squares isuniversally considered to be trivial, idle talk, Oldenburg makes the case that suchplaces are where communities can come into being and continue to hold together. These are the unacknowledged agorae of modern life. When the automobilecentric,suburban, fast-food, shopping-mall way of life eliminated many of these "thirdplaces" from traditional towns and cities around the world, the social fabric ofexisting communities started shredding.
Oldenburg explicitly put a name and conceptual framework on that phenomenon thatevery virtual communitarian knows instinctively, the power of informal public life: Third places exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a conditionof social equality. Within these places, conversation is the primary activity andthe major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality andindividuality. Third places are taken for granted and most have a low profile.
Since the formal institutions of society make stronger claims on the individual,third places are normally open in the off hours, as well as at other times. The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and ismarked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more seriousinvolvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for ahome, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychologicalcomfort and support that it extends.
Such are the characteristics of third places that appear to be universal andessential to a vital informal public life. . . .
The problem of place in America manifests itself in a sorely deficient informalpublic life. The structure of shared experience beyond that offered by family,job, and passive consumerism is small and dwindling. The essential groupexperience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness ofindividuals. American life-styles, for all the material acquisition and the seeking after comforts and pleasures, are plagued by boredom, loneliness, alienation, anda high price tag. . . .
Unlike many frontiers, that of the informal public life does not remain benign asit awaits development. It does not become easier to tame as technology evolves,as governmental bureaus and agencies multiply, or as population grows. It doesnot yield to the mere passage of time and a policy of letting the chips fall wherethey may as development proceeds in other areas of urban life. To the contrary, neglect of the informal public life can make a jungle of what had been a garden while, at the same time, diminishingthe ability of people to cultivate it.
It might not be the same kind of place that Oldenburg had in mind, but so many ofhis descriptions of third places could also describe the WELL. Perhaps cyberspace isone of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of communitythat were lost when the malt shop became a mall. Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely howard rheingold's | the virtual community the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool forconviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment toone another. In either case, we need to find out soon.
The feeling of logging into the WELL for just a minute or two, dozens of times aday, is very similar to the feeling of peeking into the caf‚, the pub, the commonroom, to see who's there, and whether you want to stay around for a chat. As socialpsychologist Sara Kiesler put it in an article about networks for Harvard Business Review: "One of the surprising properties of computing is that it is a social activity. Where I work, the most frequently run computer network program is the one called `Where' or `Finger' that finds other people who are logged onto the computer network." Because we cannot see one another in cyberspace, gender, age,national origin, and physical appearance are not apparent unless aperson wants to make such characteristics public. People whosephysical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated--asthinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnalvessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not talking).
One of the few things that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, England, France, and the United States all agree on is that expanding their circleof friends is one of the most important advantages of computerconferencing. CMC is a way to meet people, whether or not you feel theneed to affiliate with them on a community level. It's a way of both makingcontact with and maintaining a distance from others. The way you meetpeople in cyberspace puts a different spin on affiliation: in traditional kinds ofcommunities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; invirtual communities, you can get to know people and then choose to meet them.
Affiliation also can be far more ephemeral in cyberspace because you can get to know people you might never meet on the physical plane.
How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we search throughour pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of acquaintances andacquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values andinterests. We then exchange information about one another, disclose and discuss ourmutual interests, and sometimes we become friends. In a virtual community we cango directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions or who use words in a way we findattractive. In this sense, the topic is the address: you can't simply pick up a phoneand ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art orCalifornia wine, or someone with a three-year-old daughter or a forty-year-oldHudson; you can, however, join a computer conference on any of those topics, thenopen a public or private correspondence with the previously unknown people youfind there. Your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude howard rheingold's | the virtual community over the old methods of finding a peer group.
You can be fooled about people in cyberspace, behind the cloak of words. But thatcan be said about telephones or face-to-face communication as well;computer-mediated communications provide new ways to fool people, and the mostobvious identity swindles will die out only when enough people learn to use themedium critically. In some ways, the medium will, by its nature, be forever biasedtoward certain kinds of obfuscation. It will also be a place that people often end up revealing themselves far more intimately than they would be inclined to do withoutthe intermediation of screens and pseudonyms.
The sense of communion I've experienced on the WELL is exemplified by theParenting conference but far from limited to it. We began to realize in otherconferences, facing other human issues, that we had the power not only to use wordsto share feelings and exchange helpful information, but to accomplish things in thereal world.
The power of the WELL's community of users to accomplish things in the real worldmanifested itself dramatically when we outgrew our first computer. The computingengine that put-putted us around as a group of seven hundred users in 1985 wasbecoming inadequate for the three thousand users we had in 1988. Things startedslowing down. You would type a letter on your keyboard and wait seconds for theletter to be displayed on your screen. It quickly became frustrating.
Because we had such a large proportion of computer experts among the population,we knew that the only solution to the interminable system lag that made it agonizingto read and even more agonizing to write on the WELL's database was to move tomore up-to-date hardware, better suited to keeping up with the communication tasksof a hive numbering in the thousands. But the WELL's managing director, Clifford Figallo, himself an active member of the WELL community, reported that theWELL as a business entity was unable to find the kind of financing we'd need toupgrade our system.
That's when some of the armchair experts online started talking about theirback-of-the-envelope calculations. If the hard-core users who had grown so irritatedabout the system's performance (but had realized that there was no place remotelylike the WELL to turn to as an alternative) were willing to pay their next few monthsbills in advance, how much money would it take to buy the big iron? Half-seriously,Clifford Figallo named a figure. Within a few days, enough people had pledgedhundreds of dollars each, thousands of dollars cumulatively, to get the show on the road. The checks arrived, the computer was purchased, the hardware was installed,and the database--the living heart of the community--was transferred to its newsilicon body.
After suffering through the last months of the Vax, the first months of our newcomputer, the Sequent, was like switching from a Schwinn to a Rolls. And we hadflexed our first barn-raising muscles in a characteristically unorthodox way: herewere the customers, and the producers of the value that the customers buy, raising howard rheingold's | the virtual community money among themselves to loan the owners of the business so they could sellthemselves more of each other.
Casey's operation was another barn raising. This one was her idea. Casey wasanother WELL old-timer who had a job--freelance transcription and word processingservices--that enabled her to work at home. Nobody ever doubts her intelligence,although her manner is often indelicate. The way she would say it, I'm sure, is thatshe has a "relatively low need for affiliation." The way others might say it is thatCasey is a tough cookie.
Casey, whose real name is Kathleen, needed an operation that she could almost, butnot quite, afford; her ability to walk was at stake. So she put up $500 to have aposter of her own design printed. The poster showed the silhouette of a head, withthe title "This Is Your Mind on the WELL," and the head was filled with words andphrases that WELL users would recognize. She offered copies for sale as a benefitfor her operation at $30 each. She raised the money she needed.
The most dramatic barn raising, however, was the saga of Elly, a shy and gentle andmuch-loved WELLite who left the virtual community, possibly forever, to travel tothe farthest reaches of the Himalayas. Her saga, her crisis, and the WELL's responseunfolded over period of months, and climaxed over a few intensely active days: By: Averi Dunn (vaxen) on Wed, Aug 28, '91 This is the place to post any news which may come your way about Northbay's vacationing host, Elly van der Pas.
# 1: Elly van der Pas (elly) Wed, Aug 28, '91 (18:03) Right now, I'm almost finished moving out of my house. Later tonight, I'm going to look at my stuff, and see if I have what Ineed for my trip, and maybe do last minute shopping tomorrow. Cleaning Friday. Gone Saturday to parts unknown. The plane leavesMonday morning. Phew! # 6: Averi Dunn (vaxen) Mon, Sep 23, '91 (18:44) I got another postcard from Elly on Saturday: So far, so good. The weather's been beautiful, and I've been ridingall over by bike. Tomorrow I'm going to London for a few days, andthen to Italy by train. Should be an adventure. I went to a pianoconcert last night with friends of a friend, and may be sailing today. Greetings to everyone. Elly # 22: Averi Dunn (vaxen) Thu, Nov 7, '91 (23:25) Well, Kim, you can post the parts that don't repeat. It's good to hear any news from Elly. And with that in mind I post the followingfrom her-own-self: howard rheingold's | the virtual community I got your letter from Sept 14 yesterday, forwarded from Italy. Apparently they were having a post office strike of something,because one of the workers drowned in the elevator. Anyway, they didn't process mail for at least a week, so I didn't get anyletters.
Anyway, you have no idea how weird it is to be sitting on a mountain in Kathmandu reading about AP2 and the WELL. Oh, I took apicture of the WELL coffee shop in London and sent it to the office. I hope they get it. I thought it was quite appropriate.
Janey Fritsche showed up about a week ago, and then took offtrekking. It was good to see her. My friend Peter will be here, too, in a few days, and I guess I'll come down off the mountain tospend some time renewing visas and stocking up for the month-longcourse. We have to stay put for that, and no mail, either, so this might be it for awhile. Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, andHappy New Year. They've just finished their big holidayhere--everyone was off work for a week, and dressed in new clothes.
The kids made huge bamboo swings and went out kite flying.
I've been studying Dzogchen, which is like Tibetan Zen--meditating on the empty mind. Different from what I've done before. We stayedfor awhile at a monastery way up in the hills, where there's an oldabbot who specializes in pointing out the nature of the mind. It was rather an unusual opportunity.
You guys are all asleep now, except maybe for you. It's 2 pm--too late for lunch and too early for tea. Just about bath time, though,because we have a solar heater on the roof. I'm taking all my bathsnow, because in a week, 300 people will come here for the course, and bathing will be a fond dream. Or showering, that is.
Tell Brian and June and Josephine I said hi, and that I'm OK. I hope they got my card. I'll try to write, but don't know when I'llget time.
# 26: Averi Dunn (vaxen) Sat, Dec 28, '91 (01:26) The following are excerpts from a letter I received from Elly on Dec 21.
The course starts today so I'm incommunicado for a month.
Hmmm. I guess I never finished this. Lots of things have happened since then. Mainly, I've become a nun. I sent details to Hank so hecould post, because I have to write about 10 letters for Peter totake back when he goes.
It's a little strange, but I feel really good about it, and I really feel it's the right move for me. Even Peter agrees.
I never wanted to be a nun (at least not before now). I always felta little sorry for the Catholic nuns. This is a little different,though--much more freedom. It's interesting to have short hair,though. I think I'll grow it out to about 3/4$S0.:-) PPS. My ordination name is Jigme Palmo: Glorious fearless woman (!!!?) She also sent an address she can be reached at for the next six howard rheingold's | the virtual community months. Drop me Email if you want it.
So Elly had decided to become a Buddhist nun in Asia, and therefore threatened topass into the annals of WELL legend. The topic stayed dormant for six months. InJune, former neighbor Averi Dunn, who had been typing Elly's correspondence intothe WELL, reported hearing that Elly had some kind of amoeba in her liver. At theend of July 1992, Flash Gordon reported that Elly was in a hospital in New Delhi. Ina coma. She had severe hepatitis and reportedly suffered liver failure. If that reportturned out to be true, Flash and the other doctors online agreed that the prognosis was not good.
Within hours, people started doing things in half a dozen directions on their owninitiative. The raw scope and diversity of the resources available to us by pooling ourindividual networks was astonishing. People who had medical connections in NewDelhi were brought in; airline schedules and rates for medical evacuation wereresearched; a fund was started and contributions started arriving. Casey used the netto find a possible telecommunications site in New Delhi where they could relayinformation for Frank, Elly's ex-husband, who had flown to Asia to help with what was looking like a grave situation.
After a tense few days, the news made its way through the network that she did havesome liver function left and might need access to special blood-filtering equipmentbefore she could be moved. Within hours, we knew how to get such medicalequipment in New Delhi and whose name to mention. We knew whom to call, howto ask, what it cost, and how to transfer funds to get Elly delivered to a hospital inthe San Francisco region. "It gives me goosebumps," reported Onezie, as the topicunfolded on the WELL. "This is love in action." Elly recovered enough strength to travel without medical evacuation. Her nextmessage was direct, via the WELL: #270: Elly van der Pas (elly) Fri, Sep 11, '92 (16:03) Thanks to everyone for your generous WELLbeams, good wishes, prayers, advice, and contributions of green energy. The doctorthought the fast recovery was due to Actigall, but in fact it was due to beams, prayers, and pujas. He even said I might be able togo back to India in February or so.$SW-) If paying attention to other people's interests is a kind of attracting force incyberspace, Blair Newman was a superconducting megamagnet. He acted the same way in person that he acted in his online persona of Metaview. Metaview had ajillion wonderful schemes for what you could do with new technology. Friends of hishad become billionaires. How could you make a million on the blanking interval intelevision signals? How about a service that records only the television programsyou want to watch? How many other intelligent crazies would pay good money forCompconf Psychserv? He had a story to tell you. His eyes would get wide, and his overgrown mustachewould twitch with excitement. His hair, a magnificent and irrevocably unrulydirty-blond mop, seemed to reflect his mental state; the curlier and more out of howard rheingold's | the virtual community control his hair looked, the faster it seemed his mind had been moving. At WELLparties, his mental state was manic. He'd grab you, laugh in your face, drag youhalfway through the crowd to introduce you to somebody. He would start laughing atsomebody's joke, and the laughter would turn into a spasm of coughing that went onfor frightening lengths of time.
To me, Blair Newman's defining characteristic was his habit of calling me--and anyof several dozen people he liked and admired--via telephone if I wasn't online, to tellme to turn my television or radio to one channel or the other, immediately, because there was something on that I simply must pay attention to. He was often right, and itwas well meant, but there was always something eerie about it. Here is anacquaintance of many years, but not a bosom buddy, who was thinking about whattelevision program he knew I would really like to watch at 11:30 p.m. on aweeknight. That's the way he acted on the WELL, too.
My most important bond with Blair was the kind of bond that regulars in anyinformal public space share. In the late 1980s, Blair and I were among a floatinggroup of ten to thirty WELLites you could count on at any time of day to be online.
We often joke about the addictive qualities of the WELL. And there always seem tobe several nonjoking discussions about WELL addiction going on in different parts of the WELL. At two bucks an hour, obsessive computer conferencing ischeaper than every other addiction except tobacco.
According to my recollection of Blair's own account, he had been a newly mintedHarvard M.B.A. with a high daily cocaine intake, working with Howard Hughes'snotoriously abstemious legal staff, deep in their Vegas bunkers. A chain-smoker anddied-in-the-wool pothead (and also, according to his own account, one of thefounders of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), Blair hadbeen, in his past, a paradigm of the classic addictive personality. He was clean in regard to his cocaine problem when he came to the WELL, however. In a series ofpostings, Blair related to us how he'd realized that the WELL was for him moreinsidiously addictive than cocaine had been.
Years after he had kicked his cocaine habit, he claimed, somebody put a line of thesubstance next to Blair's computer while he was logged on. It dawned on him,several hours later, that the white crystals were still there, and he had known aboutthem, but had not mustered the energy necessary to sniff them. It wasn't a moraldecision but a battle of obsessions, Blair explained--he couldn't tear his hands fromthe keyboard and his eyes from the screen of his current, deeper addiction longenough to ingest the cocaine. Blair shared his insight with us, as he shared everysingle thing that crossed his unpredictable and unrelenting mind for hours a day, every day, for years.
You have to be careful with the addiction model as applied to the range of humanbehavior. Is a prodigy who practices day and night a violin addict? Perhaps. Is agreat actor addicted to the attention of audiences? Probably. Is addiction the properlens for evaluating the violinist's or actor's behavior? Probably not. But nobody whohas let her meal grow cold and her family grow concerned while she keeps typingfuriously on a keyboard in full hot-blooded debate with a group of invisible peoplein faraway places can dismiss the dark side of online enthusiasm. If a person has acompelling--even unhealthily compelling--need for a certain kind of attention from howard rheingold's | the virtual community intelligent peers, the WELL is a great place to find it. Blair called it CompconfPsychserv. It was cheaper than drugs, cheaper than shrinks, and it kept him off thestreet. He was smart enough to know what had happened to him, even as it tightenedits grip.
Going after the juice of people's attention, especially large groups of intelligentpeople, was always part of Blair's story. He wanted to help. He wanted to impress.
Blair also got on people's nerves. His good-natured and totally unbelievablybald-faced self-promotion was part of it. He had a mythology about himself. One ofhis roommates had started one of the most successful software companies, accordingto Blair. He had worked for the upper echelons of the Howard Hughes organization,according to Blair. He had been a principal organizer of the marijuana legalizationmovement, according to Blair. He introduced famous computer entrepreneurs to oneanother in dramatic circumstances, according to Blair. It wasn't difficult to do a parody of a Blair Newman rap.
Then, after years online, and dozens of parties and excursions with other WELLmembers, and all the late-night phone calls with television recommendations tofellow WELLites, Blair Newman removed everything he had ever written on theWELL. For a day and a night and a day, most of the conversation on the WELL wasabout the trauma of mass-scribbling--the term that had emerged for the act ofremoving years' worth of postings. It seemed an act of intellectual suicide. A couple of weeks later, in real life, Blair Newman killed himself. A kind of myth seems tohave grown up around this event, on the Net and in the mass media. The story hasbeen distorted into a more dramatic form. In the urban folklore version that has beenprinted in some magazine articles, people from the WELL allegedly desperately triedto find Blair as his postings disappeared, and when his last comment was scribbled,the legend has it that he killed himself.
Most of the people at the funeral were from the WELL. But there was a surprisingnumber of odd characters. We who were there remember the thoroughly slick fellowin the thousand-dollar suit and the three-hundred-dollar sunglasses who flew thecorporate jet in from L.A. to the funeral, to tell the kind of story about Blair thatBlair so frequently had told about himself. White Rastafarians showed up--marijuanalegalization activists. Founders of successful software companies arrived. It was agreat last laugh. As that amazing parade of people stood up in the funeral home and said their piece about Blair, it dawned on all of us that he had been telling theoutrageous truth.
But when he was alive and in our faces, metaphorically speaking, in everyconference on the WELL, many of us struck back with words: "Calm down, Blair,"was something I said to him publicly. Bandy, who later gave Blair the software toolthat enabled him to mass-scribble, started a topic in the Weird Conference (theWELL's subconscious free-fire zone) on "Day Sixteen of Your Lithium Holiday."Other remarks were even less kind, on my own part and the part of others. When yougrab people's attention often, and monopolize the public soapbox, the response canbe cruel. Like the legendary audience at the Apollo theater in Harlem, the WELL'saudience can create a star or boo a bad performer off the stage. Blair experiencedboth reactions at the same time.
howard rheingold's | the virtual community Sometimes, when the online banter got a little cruel, I would call Blair on thetelephone and try to see what might really be the matter. We'd talk. He'd ramble untilhis beeper wrenched him off to another tangent. Blair was always one step ahead ofthe state of the art in message-forwarding technology.
It was after some weeks of fairly stormy psychic weather on the WELL that Blairobtained the virtual suicide weapon, the scribble tool. Weeks before that, Bandy, oneof the WELL's technical staff, quit his job in a dispute over a personal relationshipwith another online character. When he quit, he used his programming expertise tocreate a tool that searched out everything he had ever posted to any publicconference on the WELL, and deleted it, all of it. Quite a fancy trick, that, an act ofprogramming virtuosity calculated to test the structural integrity of the social system.
Bandy posted the source code for the scribble tool to the Net, which means thatforevermore, anybody who wants to obtain the scribble weapon can post a request onthe Net and sooner or later somebody will point to an archive where the program isstored.
The WELL's early history had established a strong relationship between the WELLand the anarchic subcommunity of volunteer programmers. For years, people hadcreated tools, for free, and for the prestige, and because we needed them. Bandy wasthe first to create a weapon.
Every person who posts words in the WELL has the right to remove--scribble--thosewords later. Hosts have the power to scribble other people's words, but that power isseverely constrained by the knowledge that the act is likely to be followed by weeksof acrimonious and repetitive debate. Hosts traditionally have scribbled commentswritten by other WELL users no more than once a year. Scribbling one's owncomment is not as rare, but it is still far from the norm. Better to think twice beforesaying something, instead of saying too many things that you regret enough to scribble them, seems to be the unwritten law. Perhaps one in a thousand commentsis scribbled.
You used to have to track down each comment, then follow a series of steps toscribble it. Of course, everybody should have the right to automatically removeevery comment they've ever posted, now that the tool/weapon to do that exists, wedecided in the endless arguments that followed its first use by Bandy, then Blair. Butto actually do it is, in the eyes of many, despicably antisocial.
When Metaview used Bandy's scribble tool, the shock of ripping out several years'worth of postings from a very prolific writer made the fabric of recordedconversations, the entire history of the WELL's discourse to that point, look . . .
moth-eaten. Often, as in particularly Metaview-intense topics, so much is missingthat the entire thread is rendered indecipherable. It's annoying. Why be anenthusiastic member of a multiperson, multiyear word-weaving project if you plan torip out your contributions to the conversational fabric when you leave? The novelty of the act tempered our reactions, I think, when Bandy firstmass-scribbled. The design problem of rebuilding our mental models of the WELLwas perversely intriguing. The idea that the WELL seems to have a critical mass ofthought-force in it that is greater than the destructive power of any one person isreinforced by the way it can withstand assaults on the commons. A lot of people howard rheingold's | the virtual community cursed Blair for vandalizing the WELL that had nourished him for so long. I picked up the telephone and called him.
"Why did you do it, Blair?" I asked.
"It seemed like the thing to do at the time" is precisely what he told me. There was aflatness of affect to the way he said it. Nothing unusual there for Blair, who jumpedfrom mood to mood during the course of a conversation. I think he really meant it. Itwas an impulse. The tool/weapon made it possible to follow the impulse. And that'swhat I reported back to the WELL community.
Nobody mistakes virtual life for real life, even though it has an emotional reality tomany of us. Some kinds of impulses are simply more serious than others. Impulsiveacts in real life can have more permanent consequences than even the most drasticacts in cyberspace. I asked Blair if he was feeling suicidal. He talked about it. I toldhim the old clich‚ about suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
After that conversation with Blair, I talked with his friend and psychiatrist. Histoying with suicide was not new. One of these times, Blair was bound to succeed.
This time he did.
From the moment we heard the news, the population of the WELL went through aperiod of transformation. Joking around with words on a computer keyboard is onething. Going to Blair's funeral and talking to his family face-to-face was another.
Several topics on the WELL were devoted to Blair. One of the topics, at his family'srequest, was for people to post eulogies. Many of the other topics, those that werenot donated to his parents, were hideously violent flamewars over the way peoplebehaved and did not behave. In the heat of argument over one topic, people who hadsimmering resentments dating back to previous arguments took the opportunity tohaul out the big guns. Suicide brings up unusual feelings in any family or socialgroup. Fortunately, there were one or two among us who knew exactly how to understand what was happening to us; a fellow who had struggled with years offeelings over his brother's suicide was able to offer wise and caring and crediblecounsel to many of us.
There was the real-life funeral, where we brought our physical bodies and embracedeach other and Blair's family. We were learning how fond we had grown of Blair,and how his death put a milestone in cyberspace. Marriages had happened and othershad unraveled. Businesses had started and failed. We had parties and picnics. Butdeath seems somehow more real, even if your only participation is in the virtual funeral. How could any of us who looked each other in the eye thatafternoon in the funeral home deny that the bonds between us were growing into something real? The feelings ran just as high during the virtual part of the grieving rituals as they didduring the face-to-face part--indeed, with many of the social constraints of properfuneral behavior removed, the online version was the occasion for venting of angerthat would have been inappropriate in a face-to-face gathering. There were thosewho passionately and persistently accused the eulogizers of exhibiting a hypocrisythat stank unto the heavens, because of our not altogether charitable treatment ofBlair online when he was alive. Those of us who had made the calls to Blair and his howard rheingold's | the virtual community shrinks, who went out and met his brother and his mother and tried to provide themsome comfort, had a different attitude toward those who couldn't bring themselves toattend the painful event in person but didn't hesitate to heckle others online. Peoplewho had to live with each other, because they were all veteran addicts of the samesocial space, found themselves disliking one another.
For me, it was one particularly important lesson that has been reinforced many times since then. Words on a screen can hurt people. Although online conversation might have the ephemeral and informal feeling of atelephone conversation, it has the reach and permanence of a publication.
Years have passed. Megabytes of conversation have been added to the WELL. It isn'teasy to find one of the parts of the old fabric where Blair's holes are still visible. Butfeelings that people online have toward one another are still profoundly influenced.
As one WELLite, John P. Barlow, said at the time, you aren't a real community untilyou have a funeral.
read on to
Chapter Two:
Daily Life in Cyberspace:
How the Computerized
Counterculture Built a New
Kind of Place


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