Monday, July 02, 2012

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Will The WELL Survive? Members Pledge $100K+ to Buy Influential Virtual Community from Corporate Owners UPDATE, 7/3: Community Now Looking for Major Investors

Saving The WELL online community

UPDATE, 7/3: Click here for new details (at bottom of post).

The WELL is a virtual online community with user-generated content that was so influential, it was once featured on the cover of Wired magazine, and a top 80's UK pop star created an account, to promote his brand there. (Sound familiar?) As you might have read last week, corporate owner Salon.com laid off the WELL staff and is now looking for a buyer. Now the WELL's last users (it still has over 2,000 subscribers) are making a last-minute bid to buy the WELL from Salon: A thread called "Would you kick in $1,000 for The Well?" (subscriber account required), has already garnered over 120 members pledging $1000 (some less, many more, with at least one pledge of $10,000), for an estimated total of over $120,000. That's a lot of money, especially coming from so few people, but it may not be enough. Many have pointed out that the Well.com domain name is probably quite attractive to organizations willing to pay a lot to own it. (For example, an HMO who wants turn well.com into a wellness resource.) So at the moment, it's still unclear what this user-driven campaign will do, though I hope the WELL can survive in some form.

In any case, as someone who's been a member of the WELL since the mid-90s (I joined with the Gen X contingent), then went on to write a lot about other virtual communities, chief among them Second Life, it's hard to miss the ironies at play:

Wagner James Au the WELLFor one, Salon was in great part inspired by the WELL, since a lot of its first writers and editors were members of the service. For another, it's an example of how virtual communities can fall into jeopardy, no matter how influential they once were. Read the 1997 Wired magazine article by Katie Hafner (which subsequently became a book), with the sub-head, "The World's Most Influential Online Community (And It's Not AOL)". It's an accurate title. Writers like Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, Howard Rheingold, and Neal Stephenson are (or were) members, as were a lot of writers for Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and other leading media outlets. As I noted, an 80s popstar became a big fan, but where it was Duran Duran joining Second Life, in 2006, in the mid-90s and the WELL, it was Billy Idol. (As you might have guessed by now, I owe a lot of my writing career to the WELL too.)

Despite all that influence and media attention, it's now struggling to survive, a victim to a failed revenue model, and the growth of other online communities which do what what the WELL did at its peak, but with more users, on platforms that are easier to use. And despite all that, its remaining members are still pledging a lot of money to keep it operational, in the face of so many changes:

"[T]here's a lot of uncertainty here," as writer Joe Flower put it in a recent WELL post. "We know almost nothing about the behind-the-scenes negotiations. In any of the twists and turns that we are facing, negotiations of various kinds, I have no doubt that it would help a lot for those negotiating to be able to say that they could raise X thousand, that people have pledged that much. Even if they never had to call on those pledges, the very idea that people here are showing that they value the institution and community that is the Well is, I think, hugely important. I'm quite aware that there are people here with hugely varying income levels. That is one of the Well's many charms. And we all value the Well in our lives."

In the future, I see a similar fate for other virtual communities, like Second Life. Which in the end, might not be such a bad thing.

UPDATE, 7/3: Earl Crabb, the WELL host who helped launched the pledge drive effort, recently posted an update in the WELL thread that they're now looking for a large investor to get involved: "We are at a point where we need to be looking at this investment sector. If you have a minimum of $30,000 that you would be willing to invest, given that we have a reasonable business plan, please speak up, here... in email, whatever way you're comfortable with." E-mail him: esoft at well dot com. You can also join the private WELL conference color.pri to discuss the plan (but only after you've pledged money in the effort).

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Iggy

I hope this bastion of "The Old Internet" can make it, Hamlet. My Usenet group of toy-collectors moved to Facebook and a private forum.

If Tim Wu is correct in The Master Switch, and I suspect he is, the Internet as we Gen Xers knew it is fading, as telecom monopolies gain ever more power. Pity.

So why is this turn of events "not. . .such a bad thing"?

Masami Kuramoto

I'm curious: What makes running The WELL so expensive? 2600 subscribers paying $100 per year or more, that's quite a lot of money to maintain what seems to be little more than an online discussion forum. I am probably missing something, and I would like to know what it is.

Hamlet Au

It's slowly losing subscribers, so at some point, Salon would start losing money. More key, I think they're betting that they can make more from selling well.com.

Robbo

It's sad to see things devolve this way. From a true sense of community to - I don't know what - metaphors of main streets torn asunder for shabby malls abound and all are as replete with maudlin laments as any other --- and yet, here, in this ephemeral space of cyber lies moments of meaning and history and with that the human desire to preserve at least a taste of it all. My time amidst the Well was brief but essential. It would be wondrous to see it maintained as, at the very least, a place of history or point of pilgrimage - so contradictory in this world of practical necessities - and yet better as a continuing enclave of thought, culture and conversation. Best of luck - from the depths of this part of the Well.

Alan

I was alanb@well.com around 1987-88. Now reddit.com (part of the same company as Wired) has taken its place for me.

larryr

no 1000 fans? typical
always get someone else to pay for your toyz -egoz

Erbo Evans

Wow. Just...wow.

After having been on the WELL all that time, and writing his book, Howard Rheingold used some of their technology to found Electric Minds, a similar online community, in about 1996. A year or so later, that community was acquired by Durand Communications of Santa Barbara, which I was working for at the time, and Durand itself was later acquired by Webb Interactive Services of Denver. Webb eventually moved to shut down the CommunityWare platform and the Electric Minds community with it, but the members of that community--of which I was now one--didn't let go that easy. We bought our own server, and I personally wrote a new conferencing system to replace the existing software. The "freed" Electric Minds lasted until a couple of years ago, when we were finally done in by hardware failures and internal conflicts.

So, as a veteran of this kind of rescue operation, I wish the WELL denizens luck. Heaven knows they'll need it.

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