Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Selling the WELL

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 07, 1999

Posted to NewsTrolls April 7, 1999

We could all understand when AOL purchased ICQ. After all, despite having tens of millions of users, ICQ had no identifiable revenue source. We knew the other shoe would have to drop - and to some extent are waiting for it still - and that ICQ would join the ranks of profit-making ventures.

And we were understanding when AOL gobbled Netscape. The company's flagship product - the Navigator web browser - was now being distributed for free. The Enterprise server never did rival Apache in popularity. Netscape was rapidly turning into the NetCenter portal, driven by the default buttons on the browser. And it was suffering defeat at the hands of Internet Explorer. Something had to give.

Hotmail - now a Microsoft product - was commerce driven all the way. They had a cool idea that even Microsoft couldn't copy - not easily, anyways, and not without being really blatant about it - and they had a user base which, in the world of the internet, translates into dollars. And it's not like Hotmail had a loyal following. Like it was just a site, offering web services for the price of (carefully targetted) advertising.

Closer to home, though, patrons of the Hotwired online community felt more than a little let down when the magazine was sold, then the website was sold, and the online community was shut down. The followers of Katz's Media Rants were by the management left out in the cold. But even there the writing was on the wall. It was always clear that the community was Wired's baby, and while there was a certain cachet to being part of that trendy crowd, it's not like the members built the site from the ground up.

Even so, it's hard not to feel sometimes as a website user that you're being treated like a slab of meat, as a commodity, as a pair of eyeballs whose attention may be bought and sold like so much grain at a prairie railway siding. It's hard not to feel a little bit abused when the site and community you as a user have devoted your time and energy to turns around and drops you like a sack of potatos after a hard day's lade.

So one wonders what the members of The WELL are feeling today.

For those of you who haven't heard, The WELL was purchased by our rival down the street, Salon. Here's what The WELL said:

"How gratifying it is to join forces with Salon, and initiate the next chapter in the saga of The WELL," said Gail Ann Williams, The WELL's executive director. "The two companies complement each other superbly." ....

"The WELL and Salon have a shared heritage of stimulating conversation," said former WELL owner Bruce Katz. "The WELL, with its 200 plus hosted discussion areas is a great fit with Salon's interest in enabling and developing online communities."

One wonders whether Gail Ann Williams has been reading Salon lately. The two sites mix together like - well - The WELL and Salon. The former, in their own words, is "dedicated to intelligent conversation."
A unique and world-famous community of writers, technologists, thinkers and quirky pundits exchanges information and opinions on a variety of topics. The subject matter ranges from jazz to Java, from gardening to Generation X. Membership in The WELL, which includes unlimited participation in hundreds of conferences, with an optional WELL homepage and email account, costs $10 or $15 per month.
By contrast, Salon's content today (April 7) includes Sarah Vowell: Was serial killer Andrew Cunanan a monster -- or a hipster like you and me? and Susan Straight: Since my husband left, the funk is all mine. Upscale light and fluffy articles - that's Salon's forte, and if you like it, fine, but it is the antithesis to the WELL.

But there's more to it than just that. Salon is everything the web was not supposed to be - slick, upscale, glossy, corporate, sales-driven, market-oriented schmaltz. Salon is Vanity Fair on HTML. Salon is most emphatically not a user-driven site. Content and discussion - these are for the owners (and presumably their sponsors, MSN, Visa and Lexus) to decide. Salon may sometimes depict itself as a web community, but it is more obviously in broadcast (and upscale sales) mode, as it's advertising information clearly depicts:

- An average of 1.2 million visitors and 13 million page views per month
- 64% male / 36% female
- $69,500 (U.S.) Household Income
- 85% college graduates, 59% professionals
- Mean age: 34
- Mean session time with Salon per visit: 23 minutes per visit
- Mean number of monthly visits to Salon: 23 visits per month

For 1.2 million visitors, the traffic in Table Talk is miniscule. And while the WELL probably has similar demographics, that site sells members access to each other, and not to advertisers.

What's the difference?

Cliff Figallo, director or the WELL for six years (and now buried in Salon's staff list as their 'Director of Community Development' for Table Talk) writes in his book, Hosting Web Communities:

As an online community, the WELL fulfilled its intended purpose of selling its users access to each other, meaning that it deliverately attracted and won the loyalty of people who were themselves attractions to others. I would describe it as a conversation-oriented, rather than commercially-oriented, community. (p.13)
And moreover...
Community is most powerful when membership brings with it a sense of belonging. Unless that feeling is there, no manager, advertiser, or promoter can claim the presence of community....

It's the sense of being included in some greater, mutually recognized social entity that drives people to invest themselves through visiting, participating and contributing, which is exactly what you want them to do. When people invest in this way, they feel a sense of shared ownership in the community, and even in the organization that supports it. (p.16)

If there is anything which defines the WELL, it is that the members built and defined the community. Figallo is very clear about this:
For all the six years I managed the WELL, I wished in vain that i could have afforded to pay some of the individuals who served as hosts for our conferences. clearly, some of those volunteers were major attractions....

We could not have afforded to lose our stars, and the possibility of that worried me often, knowing that at any time, the departure of 20 or 30 key individuals could have done to the WELL what the loss of Kramer and Elaine would have done to Seinfeld in its heyday. (p. 133)

Indeed, the members actually build the computer on which the WELL was housed. Or at least, they bought it. Long-time WELL addict Howard Rheingold describes it,

Half-seriously, Clifford Figallo named a figure. Within a few days, enough people had pledged hundreds 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 new silicon body.

On the WELL, the community was the focus, and the members built the community. This is perhaps best characterized by the oft-used WELL slogan, "You Own Your Own Words". No such slogan exists on Salon, and the closest the magazine gets to ethics or community definitions is a blurb about 'Letters to the Editor'. What sort of community is it which states clearly, "We do not publish every letter?" Can you imagine Salon members pitching in to buy a new server?

The WELL has been through this before. In 1994, the site was purchased by co-founder of Rockport Shoes, Bruce Katz, who intended to build a series of mini-Well sites around the world. The following year, 300 WELL members left to form The River to "develop an on-line community that is owned and governed by the users, the people that create the value."

The River's mission states,

The River is an open, self-governing, uncensored, economically sustainable, computer conferencing system. The central missions of the River are to maintain a medium for conversations among a group of diverse people, and to foster virtual communities which control their own destiny. The River Community is owned and governed by the people who create the high-quality conversations which are the source of the River's value. The River is dedicated to experimentation, and welcomes newcomers.
Cliff Figallo is not listed as one of the 'River Runners'. Howard Rheingold is, however.

If there is an antithesis to Figallo's now commerically-oriented work in online communities, it is Rheingold's classic The Virtual Community. For one thing, Rheingold reprints his entire book on his website. For another thing, Rheingold does not have a chapter titled Support Strategies and Revenue Models.

What Rheingold gets is that

The system is the people.
This is the principle which guided the creation of the WELL:
The same turned out to be true for the WELL, both by design and by happenstance. Matthew McClure understood that he was in the business of selling the customers to each other and letting them work out everything else. This was a fundamental revelation that stood the business in good stead in the years to follow. His successor, Farm alumnus Clifford Figallo, also resisted the temptation to control the culture instead of letting it work out its own system of social governance.

Resisted, for a time, anyways.

But why should we care? Most of us have never been members of the WELL - heck, it costs ten bucks a month and it's all San Francicso based anyways. Perhaps those Deadheads among us might find in the WELL a home, but who cares whether Salon buys the WELL, whether HotWired takes the long count, whether Slashdot 'moderates' its posts, whether players buy games rather than building MUDs?

Rheingold hits this one squarely:

Virtual communities could help citizens revitalize democracy, or they could be luring us into an attractively packaged substitute for democratic discourse.
With the advent of online communities, broadcasters and print media began to lose their hold on public opinion. It was not simply that they could not put eyeballs in front of advertisements, they could not put compliant eyeballs in front of advertisements. From the very obvious product placement in Edtv to the lifestyle choices offered in prime time television, mass media creates and defines an culture of expectations and needs.

Sites like Salon carry this motif onto the internet. An upscale lifestyles and culture E-Zine, it is bringing to us an image of what the hip online consumer should be, think, and buy. From its People coverage (this week: Spiderman is hot, James Cameron, not - guess what movie is coming soon?) to its 'alternative lifestyles' coverage (Our correct attitude? Warning -- lesbian lit ahead!), Salon is creating a clientelle custom-tailored for Lexus and Visa.

As Rheingold says,

The great power of the idea of electronic democracy is that technical trends in communications technologies can help citizens break the monopoly on their attention that has been enjoyed by the powers behind the broadcast paradigm--the owners of television networks, newspaper syndicates, and publishing conglomerates. The great weakness of the idea of electronic democracy is that it can be more easily commodified than explained. The commercialization and commoditization of public discourse is only one of the grave problems posed by the increasing sophistication of communications media. The Net that is a marvelous lateral network can also be used as a kind of invisible yet inescapable cage. The idea of malevolent political leaders with their hands on the controls of a Net raises fear of a more direct assault on liberties.

That's why this is such a big deal. It is too easy - using either clever technology, which Slashdot will probably sell any day now - or hamhanded censorship, as practised by AOL and other service providers - to shape and nurture the messages people are sending to each other.

Online community reaches deeper than broadcast media. It touches us at a more emotional level, probably because we know that there is a person at the other end of the pipe. Community sites which shape the communications between those persons, who redefine what they think their online community and culture is all about, have a reach more deeply into that viewer's soul than broadcast advertising ever could.

If the future of online community lies with the Salons of the world, we are all of us - not just the WELL - in deep trouble. As Rheingold writes,

Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall. Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment to one another. In either case, we need to find out soon.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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