A bit of User-Generated-History: The WELL


I’m really a great fan of assignment tidbids… so while marking some actually pretty good assignments on social media this weekend (yes,… that time of the year) I found the slightly amusing statement that “online communities were invented in 2004”. I assume the author in question was actually referring to “web 2.0” being used by O’Reilly – but I thought it was time to dig around a bit in the history chest for this post:

So when was the “first” online community invented? Well, that is a tough one, as this is likely to be lost somewhere in the dark corners of the attic of history. It would, of course, also depend what you classify as “online”. I guess something like The Community Memory would likely qualify, though it is probably not the first one (or maybe it is?). Of course, many more dial-up services in the form of Bulletin Board Systems followed, most of whom are no longer around. If you happen to be my age, you may remember the 1983 movie “War Games“, where a geeky teenager almost caused WWIII by playing around with dial-up BBSs… which turned out to be not quite a game…

When it comes to “online communities” which are still in existence, it is a little easier. And then the answer is: the WELL. At least it claims to be the oldest, continually existing online community. Founded in 1985 it was originally a Bulletin Board System located in California. It became an Internet Service Provider in the 1990s, before it was taken over by Salon.com, before being taken over by some of its members in 2012.

The WELL has attracted a varied audience of Internet geeks (of the old  and new days) with a special emphasis on writers and other artists. It became especially well known through some of its famous members, including several founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation – and being the main subject of the book “Virtual Community”, published in 1993. The book was one of the first popular books to describe “online” or “virtual” communities and is available for download here (yes, free!). Actually, I highly recommend the book as an interesting piece of Internet history, as it describes in detail the workings of “virtual communities”.

The WELL remains a quite diverse platform. Though membership is largely US-based, there is a fair amount of “overseas” members. Members can use pseudonyms when posting in forums, but these link to profiles that will always display their real name. This is one of the  distinguishing features of the WELL from many of its main competitors of the (to-)day – and remains a time-honoured tradition. Of course, knowing whom you are talking to also helps to keep discussions civilised and on topic… which doesn’t mean that controversial topics and discussions do not arise. Another point of the WELL, where it is actually different from “modern” online communities such as Facebook who arguably make a business out of providing entertainment around marketing messages, is that the WELL does not have any advertising or other forms of marketing. Rather, it is financed through subscriptions.

Discussion on the website is in forums, somewhat resembling the very traditional BBS-format. Indeed, if you expect a lot of bells and whistles from the WELL you will probably be quite disappointed: The focus remains on discussion of topics, rather than endless pictures of food (or other ‘useful’ information…). The design is equally a bit dated (quite in contrast to it’s UK “cousin” CIX for example), which makes the WELL visually not the most attractive place to hang out. But it does have the advantage that you can use it on pretty much any device…

So, if you are fancying a trip down memory lane, then why not head over to the WELL (be warned, you do need to subscribe to access most of the website!). Or, if you fancy just curling up on the sofa with a good book on Internet history – then have a look at the Virtual Community.

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