Way Down in the WELL

Musical note: today’s title is a nod to a Tom Waits song, “Way Down in the Hole,” that is covered brilliantly on the new album from the Blind Boys of Alabama. But today I’m talking about a well, not a hole. Specifically, the Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link.

I heard New York Times journalist Katie Hafner speak on Friday about the WELL, that seminal online community about which one must remember not to speak in the past tense. It’s an interesting story: founded as a technology experiment and as a way to extend the reach of the Whole Earth catalog and review, it became the quintessential online community experience. Never a particularly solid business, it was sold a few times and is slowly fading today. Yet it holds the same position in the history of the Internet today as the Algonquin Round Table holds in the history of 20th century letters. Internet luminaries such as Howard Rheingold cut their online teeth on the WELL. John Perry Barlow hung out there when he wasn’t writing songs for the Dead and ended up cofounding the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The part I wonder about is how do you recreate it today. It’s hard to find energy around online communities these days–there’s no “new WELL” springing up to take the place of the old, though people like Howard Rheingold have certainly tried.

I think part of this is the nature of community itself. Communities, to borrow a hideous analogy/phrase heard all too often in business plans and discussions about tech companies, do not scale. Above a certain point (by which I mean number of members), there’s no real way to build relationships between the participants that enable them to know each other, trust each other, have context around what the other person is saying, etc.

Also, there’s a problem of attention span. When the WELL was around, online destinations were monolithic. You went to the WELL and stayed there because there was literally nowhere else to go online. Today the problem is not that there’s not another community to visit, the problem is that there are too many. Every news site or content publisher has forums and places where you can “talk back” to the author or talk to the other readers. Even online comic strips have their own reader communities. But typically they’re small communities — 10 or 20 regular contributors, tops.

Then there are webloggers like me and my sister, and Dave Winer, and Doc Searls, and probably thousands of others. We develop voices online, and people come and read our stuff (sometimes). But except for very rare cases, there’s no public, user built community that grows up around these weblogs. How could there be? It’s all about our writing, our agendas.

It’s interesting. The WELL became a bustling online community at the same time that Americans in general were withdrawing from organizations in civic life. Are weblogs evidence of a further sundering of the fabric of community? Are we all calving away into individual isolated voices, floating alone in the freezing void of cyberspace?