Six lessons on how and why giants can fade from view when we're not paying attention.
When I was 13 I got a ham radio license and took to the airwaves. And while the tech was pretty cool (what teenage boy would turn down the chance to play with high voltage, hot solder, and an excuse to stay up late making odd screeching noises with equipment his parents didn't understand?), it was the thrill of sitting down, flicking a switch, and talking to someone halfway around the world that got me hooked. For a boy on a farm located in the Middle of Nowhere, MD it opened up the world.
But things change. Little boys grow up into teenagers and girls, guitars, and mischief replaced tubes, antennas, and Morse code. Life intervened and I moved on to other things.
Occasionally I've thought of going back to the hobby I loved so much, but then I realize that if I want to talk to someone halfway around the world, all I have to do is go to my computer and jump on IRC or post something to Reddit. I might still get a twinge of nostalgia once in a while for my once beloved hobby, but that quickly fades as I realize that what I loved it for has now become irrelevant. When the whole world is open at the click of a mouse, setting up antennas, fiddling with cranky equipment, and running up the electric bill seems like a lot more trouble than it's worth.
When I heard about Salon's recent offer to sell The WELL (short for "Whole Earth 'Lectrionic Link") I felt the same mixture of sadness, nostalgia, and wistfulness I sometimes get when I see my old Hallicrafters SX101 shortwave receiver sitting on my basement shelf. Truth be told I was never a long-time WELL member, but lots of my friends were and had been since they had to fire up their 2800 baud modems and dial in during the early days before the Internet broke into the public consciousness.
Those were heady days, and the brainpower posting to The WELL was even headier. Founded by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and the aptly named Larry Brilliant, The WELL quickly became the place to be in early cyberspace with techno-visionaries like John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, Howard Rheingold, and pretty much the whole crew that went on to create highly influential magazines like Wired and Boing Boing. I don't think it's an understatement to say that the web we know today wouldn't have existed without The WELL. By today's standards The WELL was never a hugely popular service - as of June 2012 it had less than 3,000 members - but its influence was huge. The WELL may have never sold that many subscriptions, but just about every subscriber went out and did something extraordinary over the years.
So why did The WELL (also known as a major Deadhead hangout) ironically fade away? What caused it to fall from its perch as "The World's Most Influential Online Community" and join the faded ranks of other former tech darlings such as Digg, ThirdVoice, MySpace (to be fair, a site still very much alive), F*ked Company, Friendster (also surviving in reinvented form), ValleyWag.com, and The Industry Standard?
There are a lot more reasons than I can list here, but in these days of social media and mobile hype, I think the demise of The WELL provides more than a few good lessons about how and why giants can fade from view when we're not paying attention.
I have no doubt that The WELL will survive in one form or another - there are just too many smart, good-hearted, and inventive folks dedicated to the service to let it completely die - but it's probably never going to be what it was and sadly isn't going to ever become what it could have been. Learning from the mistakes it made over the years so that we don't make them ourselves is one part of The WELL's legacy that can live on long after it's faded away.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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