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Cliff Figallo
Cliff Figallo

The WELL: Small Town on the Information Highway System

by Cliff Figallo (fig@well.sf.ca.us)

[September, 1993 : This document was adapted from a paper presented to the "Public Access to the Internet" meeting sponsored by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in May, 1993. You may distribute and quote from this piece as you wish, but please include the request that my name and contact information be included with any quotations or distribution. Thank you. -- C.F.]


The Internet serves as a routing matrix for electronic mail messages, file transfers and information searches. Internet sites, those machines and sub-networks that are "internetworked", have thus far served mostly as file archives, email addresses and administrative caretakers for their locally serviced users. Historically, these sites have been universities, corporations or military and government installations. With the popularization and commercialization of the Internet, new models of Internet sites are connecting to the web of high speed data lines.

One unique Internet site, accessible by anyone with an Internet account, is The Whole Earth Lectronic Link (hereafter referred to by its popular name, The WELL). In the future, the Internet will certainly feature many small, homegrown, regional commercial systems like The WELL. Such systems will pay for their own operations and for their Internet connections through user fees, handling all of the billing and administrative tasks relating to their users, developing their own local community standards of behavior and interaction. Their users will often leave the "home" system, going out through Internet gateways to other regional systems or searching for information in the myriad databases of the Net. Internet voyagers will drop in to visit the unique communities they find outside their home systems, sampling the local cultural flavors and meeting and conversing with the individuals who inhabit those systems.

The main attractions of these local Internet "towns" will prove to be their characteristic online conversations and social conventions and their focus on specialized fields of knowledge or problem solving. The WELL is a seminal example of what these small pioneering towns on the Internet highway system will be like.

The WELL is a computer-mediated public conferencing and email system linked to the Internet through BARRNet, the regional Internet vendor. The WELL's headquarters are located in Sausalito, California. It is co-owned by Point Foundation (producers of Whole Earth Review and the Whole Earth Catalogs) and Rosewood Stone, a financial investment company owned by the founder and ex-owner of Rockport Shoes.

The WELL was, from its founding in 1985 until January of 1992, accessible to its users only via direct or packet switched dialup. It had carried stored-and-forwarded USENET news groups since soon after startup. These files were imported via regular phone links with Internet-connected sites. Among its users were some small minority of students, academics and technical professionals with Internet accounts on other systems. The feasibility of the WELL connecting to the Internet increased steadily through the 1980s until financial, technical and political conditions allowed it to happen. It is significant, though, that the character of the WELL developed under conditions of relative network isolation. Indeed, part of the justification given by BARRNet, the regional Internet service provider, for allowing a commercial system like the WELL to connect through their facilities was the unique character of the WELL as an established system with thriving and interesting discussion, and its perceived value as a an information-generating resource for the Net. The WELL would, they figured, make an interesting and potentially rewarding stopover on any user's Internet Tour.

The WELL is often associated with the term "online community". The idea that community can develop through online interaction is not unique to the WELL. But the WELL, because of its organizational and technical history, has survived primarily through the online personal interaction of its subscribers and staff rather than through successful business strategy developed by its owners and managers. The discussion and dialog contained and archived on the WELL are its primary products. The WELL "sells its users to each other" and it considers its users to be both its consumers and its primary producers. Databases of imported information and libraries full of downloadable software are scarcely present. Third-party services such as stock-trading news, wire services, airline reservation access and software vendor support have never been offered to any significant extent.

The WELL today counts around 7,000 paying subscribers. It has a growing staff of over 12 and a gross annual income approaching $2 million. It is a small but healthy business and has historically spent very little on advertising and promotion. It gets far more than its share of free publicity and notoriety through the Press coverage as compared to much larger commercial systems. This is so in spite of what most people would consider a "user-hostile" interface and relatively high pricing.

The WELL had a rather unique upbringing. I will describe its early growth and the foundations of its character in the rest of this paper. I do this from the point of view of having been the person in charge for six years, though I took great pains to de-emphasize the "in charge" part whenever possible. I tried to focus more on maintenance and the distribution of responsibility through the user community rather than on control. Though my record for making the WELL a technical showpiece is not without blemish, my main emphasis was in preserving and supporting the exercise of freedom and creativity by the WELL's users through providing an open forum for their interaction.

It is my assertion that the actual exercise of free speech and assembly in online interaction is among the most significant and important uses of electronic networking; and that the value of this practice to the nation and to the world may prove critical at this stage in human history. I regard the WELL as a sample of the kind of small, diverse, grassroots service provider that can and should exist in profusion, mutually accessible through the open channels on the Internet.

The possibility that the future "Internet" (or whatever replaces it) may be dominated by monolithic corporate-controlled electronic consumer shopping malls and amusement parks is antithetical to the existence and activity of free individuals in the electronic communications world, each one able to interact freely with other individuals and groups there.

A Very Brief Biography of the WELL

Founded in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant as a partnership of Point and NETI, the WELL came online in February of 1985 and began taking paying customers April 1, 1985. It's initial staff of one full-time and one part-time employee grew to 12 paid employees and well over one hundred online volunteers by 1992. As of this date, The WELL runs on a Sequent multi-processor mini-computer located in a cramped room in a small office building next to the houseboat docks in Sausalito, California. The WELL has full Internet connectivity which is currently offered for the use of its subscribers at no surcharge. Most users call in to the WELL over regular phone lines and modems, and most long distance customers reach the WELL using an X.25 commercial packet network for an additional $4.00 per hour. An increasing number of users are logging in to the WELL via the Internet, many using Internet accounts on commercial gatewayed systems rather than the packet switching nets.

The WELL's notable achievements are many, not the least of which is that it has survived for eight years while so many other startup systems, though much better-funded, have failed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was born largely out of the free speech ferment that exists on the WELL and out of discussions and debate that go on there concerning the unique legal and regulatory paradoxes that confront users, managers and owners of systems in this new communications medium. These discussions also attract a population of journalists who find cutting edge ideas and concepts arising constantly in the WELL's forums. Many other formal and informal organizations and collaborations that are effecting the world today call the WELL home.

The WELL Story -- a Less Brief Biography


The VAX 11/750 computer that
originally housed The WELL

The WELL was the conceptual and partnered creation of Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand. They agreed to have their respective organizations cooperate in establishing and operating a computer conferencing network that could serve as a prototype for many regional (as opposed to national) commercial systems. "Let a thousand CompuServe's bloom," is how Brilliant put it.

Initial funding came from Brilliant's company, Networking Technologies International (NETI) in the form of a leased VAX 11/750 computer and hard disks, UNIX system software, a "conferencing" program called Picospan, and a loan of $90,000. Point Foundation, the non-profit parent corporation of Whole Earth Review, contributed the name recognition of "Whole Earth", the personal attraction of having Stewart Brand to converse with online and the modest but important promotional value of constant mention in the small circulation but influential Whole Earth Review magazine.

Business goals for The WELL were, from its inception, purposefully flexible. But the idea that interesting discussion would attract interesting discussants was at the core of the theory that drove the WELL's growth. Initially, many free accounts were offered to people who had, at one time or another, been associated with Whole Earth publications and events, or who were known by Whole Earth staff to be likely productive and attractive participants (referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as "shills"). In April of 1985, the WELL began offering subscriptions at $8 per month plus $3 per hour.

Initial Design and Rule making

The WELL presented its first users with the sole disclaimer: "You own your own words." The owners of the WELL sought to distance themselves from liability for any text or data posted or stored online by WELL users while, at the same time, providing a free space for creative, experimental and unfettered communication. An alternative interpretation of the original disclaimer (now referred to as YOYOW) held that rather than only laying responsibility for WELL postings at the feet of the author, the phrase also imparted copyrighted ownership of postings to the author under the implied protection and enforcement of the WELL. Management and ownership resisted the onus of their serving as legal agent for the WELL's users, recognizing the potential expense and futility of pursuing people for electronically copying and using customers' words. Thus, the evolving interpretation of YOYOW provided fuel for years' worth of discussion on the topics of copyright, intellectual property and manners in electronic space.

A general aversion to the making and enforcement of rigid rules has continued at the WELL although incendiary incidents and distressing situations have occasionally brought calls for "more Law and Order" or absolute limits to speech. WELL management rejected these calls, resisting being put in the role of policeman and judge except where absolutely necessary, and espousing the view that the medium of online interpersonal communication was (and still is) too immature, too formative to be confined by the encumbrances of strict rules and restrictive software. The imposition by management of arbitrary limitations on language and speech, aimed at protecting the feelings or sensibilities of small groups of people could not possibly protect all people's feelings and sensibilities. Besides, by stifling free and open dialog, we might have lost our chance to discover what kinds of interaction really worked in this medium. Interaction in public access systems seemed to be much more productive, innovative, educational and entertaining where there were fewer prohibitions imposed by system management. If limitations were to be imposed and enforced, they could be handled best from within the user population on a "local", not system wide basis. The creation of private interactive areas where such local rules held sway allowed public forums to retain their openness while providing more regulated "retreats" for those who felt they needed them.

Staff-Customer Collaboration

Immediately after opening the system to public access, the small WELL staff and the original participants began the collaborative process of designing of a more friendly interface from the raw Picospan software. Picospan included a toolbox of customization utilities that could be used to make changes on a system-wide or at-user's-option basis. Picospan was tightly-integrated with the UNIX operating system and could therefore provide transparent access to programs written to operate in the UNIX environment. The libertarian, anti-authoritarian philosophy of Picospan's author, Marcus Watts, showed through in its design which prevented un-acknowledged censorship by system administrators, forum moderators (hosts) or authors themselves. Picospan also allowed topics (discussion threads) to be "linked" into several forums at once...a feature that aids the cross-pollination of ideas and groups through the system. The influence that Picospan has had on the WELL's development as a community and hotbed of discussion cannot be underestimated. Its display of topics as continuously-scrolling dialog documents (rather than as fragmented collections of individually-displayed responses) had a tremendous effect on user involvement in ongoing discourse.

Staff Background

The background of four of The WELL's non-technical senior managers--people who worked there during its first seven years--must be considered very significant to the formation of the WELL's open and independent culture.

The first director of the WELL, Matthew McClure and myself, his successor, both spent the decade of the 1970's living in an intentional community of some renown called The Farm, as did the WELL's first customer service manager, John Coate, and his successor, Nancy Rhine. Undoubtedly, this experience of living cooperatively in multi-family situations in a community that reached a peak population of over 1500 adults and children, had a profound influence on the style of management of The WELL. Principles of tolerance and inclusion, fair resource allocation, distributed responsibility, management by example and influence, a flat organizational hierarchy, cooperative policy formulation and acceptance of a libertarian-bordering-on-anarchic ethos were all carryovers from our communal living experience. John Coate is known for having been integral to the setting of a tone of the WELL where users and staff intermingled both online and at the WELL's monthly office parties. He has authored a widely-distributed essay on "Cyberspace Innkeeping" based on lessons learned in dealing with customers in his time at the WELL.

Current logo of The WELL

Maintaining a History

An important component to the establishment of community in any setting or medium is a historical record of its environs, its people, and their works and the relationships and organizations that defined the direction of the collective entity. For a variety of reasons besides the security of backups, the WELL still has a significant portion of its online interaction saved on archived tape, on its user-accessible disks and in the possession of many of its conference hosts who have made a practice of backing up topics on their home machines before retiring them from the WELL. WELL users were always vocal in their insistence that a history be kept and went so far as to create an Archives conference where topics judged of historical significance from other areas of the WELL were linked and eventually "frozen" for future reference. These valuable conversational threads, this "history" of the WELL, contributes to its depth and feeling of place and community. New users and veterans alike can refer to these archives for background to current discussion and to sample the flavor of the WELL from its early days. When new users, experiencing the same revelations that stirred WELL veterans years ago, bring up their own interpretations of "you own your words", they are referred to the several preserved topics in Archives where lengthy online deliberations on the subject have been preserved.


Originally, only direct dial modems could be used to reach the WELL, but by the end of its first year of operation, an X.25 packet system was in place allowing long distance users to reach the WELL at reasonable cost. The WELL kept its San Francisco focus because local callers had cheaper access and could stay online longer for the same cost, but national and international participants were now more encouraged to join in.

Also, in 1986, Pacific Bell conducted a test of a regional packet-switched network for which the WELL was enrolled as a "beta" site. For most of a year, users from most of the San Francisco Bay Area were able to dial in to the WELL without phone toll charges. This fortuitous circumstance helped boost the WELL's subscription base and connected many valuable customers from the Silicon Valley area into the growing user pool.

Over time, the percentage of users from outside of the Bay Area climbed slowly but steadily. As word spread through frequent unsolicited articles in the press, the WELL became known as a locus for cutting edge discussion of technical, literary and community issues, and it became even more attractive to long distance telecommunicators.

On January 2, 1992, the WELL opened its connection to the Internet through the regional provider, BARRNet. After much debugging and adjustment and a complete CPU upgrade, full Internet service access was offered to WELL customers in June of 1992. Staff and users opened an Internet conference on the WELL where discussions and Q&A take place and where new features, discoveries and tools are shared. The Internet conference serves as a "living manual" to the resources, use and news of the Net.


In a medium where text is the only means of communication, trust becomes one of the most difficult but essential things to build and maintain. With no audible or visual clues to go by, the bandwidth for interpersonal communication is quite thin. There are, though, ways in which trust can be built even through the small aperture of telecommunicated text.

By being deliberately non-threatening, owners and managers can eliminate one of the major barriers to trust on the system. One of the most menacing conditions experienced by new users of public conferencing systems is that of hierarchical uncertainty. Who holds the Power? What is their agenda? What are The Rules? Who is watching me and what I do? Do I have any privacy? How might a "Big Brother" abuse me and my rights? The WELL's Whole Earth parentage brought with it a historical reputation of collaboration between publisher and reader. Whole Earth Catalogs and magazines were widely-known for soliciting and including articles and reviews written by their readers. Whole Earth customers knew that the publications had no ulterior motives, were not owned and controlled by multi-national corporations and did not spend their revenues on making anyone rich. Readers supported the publications and the publications featured and came clean with the readers. We strove to continue that kind of relationship with our customers on the WELL although the immediacy of feedback often made openness a tricky proposition.

We realized that we were in a position of ultimate power as operators of the system; able to create and destroy user accounts, data, communications at will. It was incumbent on us, then, to make clear to all users our assumptions and the ground rules of the WELL in order to minimize any concerns they might have about our intentions. Our aim was to be as much out front with users as possible. Indeed, John Coate and I took the initiative, posting long autobiographical stories from our communal past, inviting users to join us in problem-solving discussions about the system and the business around it, confessing to areas of ignorance and lack of experience in the technical end of the business, and actively promoting the users themselves as the most important creators of the WELL's product.

Staff members were encouraged to be visible online and to be active listeners to user concerns in their respective areas of responsibility. Staff took part in discussions not only about technical matters and customer service, but about interpersonal online ethics. When the inevitable online quarrels surfaced, staff participated alongside users in attempts to resolve them. Over time, both staff and users learned valuable lessons and a "core group" of users began to coalesce around the idea that some kind of community was forming and that it could survive these periodic emotional firestorms. The ethical construct that one could say whatever one wanted to on the WELL, but that things worked best if it was said with consideration of others in mind, became ingrained in enough peoples' experience that community understandings developed. These "standards" were not written down as rules, but are noted conspicuously in the WELL's User Manual and are mentioned online as observations of how things really seem to work. Productive communication in this medium can take place if it is done with care.

Beginning in 1986, the WELL began sponsoring monthly face-to-face gatherings open to all, WELL user or not. Initially, these Friday night parties were held in the WELL's small offices, but as attendance grew and the offices became even more cramped, the potluck gatherings, still called WELL Office Parties (or WOPs) moved to other locations, eventually finding a regular home at the Presidio Yacht Club near the foot of the North end of the Golden Gate Bridge. These in-person encounters have been an integral and important part of the WELL's community-building. They are energetic, intense, conversation-saturated events where people who communicate through screen and keyboard day after day get to refresh themselves with the wider bandwidth of physical presence. Often, the face to face encounter has served to resolve situations where the textual communications have broken down between people.

Collaboration Part II

The WELL was a bootstrap operation from its initial investment in 1985. As a business venture, it was undercapitalized and struggled constantly to stay ahead of its growth in terms of its technical infrastructure and staffing. At the same time, it stuck to the ideal of charging its users low fees for service. The undercapitalization of the WELL and the low user charges combined to force management into a constant state of creative frugality. From the first days of operation, the expertise and advice of users was enlisted to help maintain the UNIX operating system, to write documentation for the conferencing software, to make improvements in the interface and to deal with the larger problems such as hardware malfunctions and upgrades.

Over the years, many tools have been invented, programmed and installed at the suggestion of or through the actual labor of WELL users. In an ongoing attempt to custom design the interface so as to offer a comfortable environment for any user, the WELL has become, if not a truly user-friendly environment, a very powerful tool kit for the online communications enthusiast. One of the basic tenets of the WELL is that "tools, not rules" are preferred solutions to most people-based problems. Menu-driven tools were created to give control of file privacy to users, allowing them to make their files publicly-readable or invisible to others. The "Bozo filter", created by a WELL user, allows any user to choose not to see the postings of any other user. Some WELL veterans, after years of teeth-gritting tolerance of an abrasive individual, can now be spared any online exposure to or encounter with that individual.

Other tools have been written to facilitate file transfers, to allow easy setup of USENET group lists, to find the cheapest ways to access the WELL, and to extract portions of online conversations based on a wide range of criteria. These tools have all been written by WELL users, who received only free online time in exchange for their work, or by WELL employees who were once customers.

Free time on the WELL (comptime) has always been awarded liberally by WELL management in exchange for services. At one time, half of the hours logged on the WELL in a month was uncharged, going to comptime volunteers or staff. Hosting conferences, writing software, consulting on technical issues and simply providing interesting and provocative conversation have all earned users free time on the WELL. Much as we would have liked to pay these valuable people for their services, almost to a person they have continued to contribute to the WELL's success as a business and public forum, demonstrating to us that they considered the trade a fair one.


As can be seen, the WELL developed from its unusual roots in some unique ways. The purpose of this piece is not to advocate more WELL clones on the Net, but to demonstrate that if the WELL could make it, other systems of the WELL's size and general description could spawn from equally unique circumstances around the country and offer their own special cultural treasures to the rest of the world through the Internet. What has been learned at the WELL can certainly be of value when planning new systems because the WELL experiment has demonstrated that big funding bucks, elegant interface design, optimum hardware and detailed business planning are not essential to growing a thriving online community and, in the WELL's case, a successful for-profit business. More important is that the owners and managers of the systems openly foster the growth of online community and that there be a strong spirit of open collaboration between owners, managers and users in making the system succeed. These critical elements of viable community systems are attainable by local and regional civic networks, small organizations and entrepreneurs with limited funding and technical skills... and some heart.

Cliff Figallo (fig@eff.org) is a Wide Area Community Agent who also works part time as Online Communications Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before coming to work at EFF, Cliff was Director of the Whole Earth Lectronic Link for six years (Aug '86 through July '92). Cliff now lives in the San Francisco area and works remotely at his job using the Internet, Pathways, the WELL, CompuServe and America Online daily. He can be reached via email at the following addresses: fig@well.sf.ca.us fig@eff.org fig@path.net fig@aol.com 76711,320@compuserve.com