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What Brought on the Demise of 'The WELL'?

  |  August 1, 2012   |  Comments

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.

  1. Irrelevance. Just as my ham radio was at one time the only means I had to talk to strangers in far-flung countries, The WELL was at one time the only means that geeks, computer DIY-ers, visionaries, hackers, cyberpunks, techno-hippies, transhumanists, and other misfits of the technology world could find each other. Today, when major news networks provide live coverage of Apple product announcements or wearable computers from Google and geeks barely out of their teens lead multi-billion dollar companies (and have major films made about their lives), the world just doesn't seem to need sites like The WELL anymore.
  2. Bad (or no) business model. Free online communities (we used to call them BBSes) certainly existed before The WELL sprang up, but The WELL didn't have much of a problem charging for access when it began because it offered something that fly-by-night free BBSes couldn't - a sophisticated conferencing system, reliability, and access to people and conversations you couldn't get anywhere else. However, today, in an online world where "free" is the norm and social networks and sites exist for literally every societal niche, a subscription-only online community seems quaint at best and anachronistically out-of-touch and borderline hostile at worst. Like many of the other once-popular sites that have faded into history, The WELL's lack of a good business model that recognized the competitive landscape was a major contributor to its demise.
  3. Lack of openness. While it's very possible to read and post to The WELL via a somewhat simple web interface, the classic way to access The WELL was via a UNIX-based command line-launched interface called PicoSpan…not exactly user-friendly and inviting, especially to folks weaned on graphical user interfaces. But worse than the unfriendliness of the interface was the perceived unfriendliness of the users to newbies, a perception somewhat confirmed by long-time WELL denizen Howard Rheingold who commented to Wagner James Au that "the culture of casual [expletive]-flinging" tended to scare off all but those with "thicker skins." Sure, there may be plenty of [expletive]-flinging every day on Facebook, but at least it's your friends' [expletive] that's being flung at you, not [expletive] from total strangers.
  4. Stubbornness (and myopia). In its early days, The WELL was arguably the epicenter of tectonic cultural change. Unfortunately it never forgot that. Thinking that you're the center of the universe tends to dampen innovation.
  5. Muddled mission. Once the web hit, geeks became billionaires in droves (twice, even!), and the world changed; so what was The WELL's mission? How do you maintain your street cred when your street is suddenly choked with Ferraris? The WELL could have become the place where smart people flocked to debate changes, share ideas, and learn new things (sort of like what's happened with TED Talks), but it never seemed to be interested in positioning itself as anything other than what it had always been.
  6. Neglect of new channels. Visiting The WELL's home page is like stepping back in time. But there's nothing necessarily wrong with simplicity and lack of irrelevant bells and whistles…unless what you consider "bells and whistles" happens to be the stuff that your users have come to expect. In a time where RSS feeds, social media integration, and mobile integration has become the norm (and sometimes the only way in which your users can access your content), neglecting these channels is a sure way to alienate long-time users and drive away new ones.

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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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

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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