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Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link
Type of site
Virtual community
Available inEnglish
OwnerThe WELL Group Inc.
LaunchedFebruary 1985; 36 years ago (1985-02)[1]

The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, normally shortened to The WELL, is one of the oldest virtual communities in continuous operation. As of June 2012, it had 2,693 members.[needs update][2] It is best known for its Internet forums, but also provides email, shell accounts, and web pages. The discussion and topics on The WELL range from deeply serious to trivial, depending on the nature and interests of the participants.[3]


The WELL was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, and the name (an acronym for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link)[4] is partially a reference to some of Brand's earlier projects, including the Whole Earth Catalog. Initially The WELL was owned 50% by The Point Foundation (publishers of the Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review) and 50% by NETI Technologies Inc. a Vancouver-based company of which Larry Brilliant was at that time the chairman. The WELL began as a dial-up bulletin board system (BBS) influenced by EIES,[5] became one of the original dial-up ISPs in the early 1990s when commercial traffic was first allowed, and changed into its current form as the Internet and web technology evolved. Its original management team—Matthew McClure, soon joined by Cliff Figallo and John Coate—collaborated with its early users to foster a sense of virtual community.[citation needed]

Gail Ann Williams was hired by Figallo in 1991, as community manager, and has continued in management roles into the current era.

From 1994 to 1999 The WELL was owned by Bruce R. Katz, founder of Rockport, a manufacturer of walking shoes.[6]

In April 1999 it was acquired by Salon, several of whose founders such as Scott Rosenberg had previously been regular participants there.

In August 2005 Salon announced that it was looking for a buyer for The WELL, in order to concentrate on other business lines. In November 2006, a press release of The WELL said, "As Salon has not found a suitable purchaser, it has determined that it is currently in the best interest of the company to retain this business and has therefore suspended all efforts to sell The WELL."[7]

In June 2012 Salon once again announced that it was looking for a buyer for The WELL as its subscriber base "did not bear financial promise". Additionally, it announced that it had entered into discussions with various parties interested in buying the domain name, and that the remaining WELL staff had been laid off at the end of May.[8] The community pledged money to take over The WELL itself and rehire important staff.[9]

In September 2012, Salon sold The WELL to a new corporation, The WELL Group Inc., owned by a group of eleven investors, who are all long-time members. The CEO was Earl Crabb, who died on February 20, 2015. The sale price was reported to be $400,000. Members have no official role in the management, but "can ... go back to what they do best: conversation. And complaining about the management."[10][11]

Notable items in WELL history include being the forum through which John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor, the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, first met. Howard Rheingold, an early and very active member, was inspired to write his book The Virtual Community by his experience on The WELL. According to Rheingold's book, The WELL's Usenet feed was for years provided by Apple Computer over UUCP. The WELL was a major online meeting place for fans of the Grateful Dead, especially those who followed the band from concert to concert, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The WELL also played a role in the book Takedown about the pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick. Founded in Sausalito, California, the service is now based in Emeryville.

Topics of discussion[edit]

The WELL is organized into subject areas known as "conferences". These conferences reflect member interests, and include arts, health, business, regions, hobbies, spirituality, music, politics, games, software and many more.

Within conferences, members open separate conversational threads called "topics" for specific items of interest. For example, the Media conference has (or had) topics devoted to The New York Times, media ethics, and the Luann comic strip. An example of a local conference is the one on San Francisco, which has topics on restaurants, the city government, and neighborhood news.

"Public" conferences are open to all members, while "private" conferences are restricted to a list of users controlled by the conference hosts, called the "ulist". Some "featured private" or "private independent" conferences (such as "Women on the WELL" and "Recovery") are listed in the WELL's directory, but are access-restricted for privacy or membership-restriction reasons. Members may request admission to such conferences. There are also a large number of unlisted "secret private" conferences. The names of these conferences are public, but the contents, hosts, and members are restricted to members of a particular conference. Membership in private conferences is by invitation. WELL members may open their own new public or private independent conferences.

Policy and governance[edit]

The directors of The WELL have included Matthew McClure and Cliff Figallo, both veterans of the 1970s commune called The Farm, and Gail Williams, previously known as one of the principals in the political satire group the Plutonium Players. In 2016, The WELL hired Christian Ruzich and Daryl Lynn Johnson, who have over 30 years of combined experience on The WELL, to be the General Managers. The couple, who met on The WELL, will draw on their years of marketing and online community experience to help The WELL become the prime destination for premium online conversation and discussion.

The community forums, known as "conferences", are supervised by "conference hosts" who guide conversations and may enforce conference rules on civility and/or appropriateness. Initially all hosts were selected by staff members. In 1995, Gail Williams changed the policies to enable user-created forums. Participants can create their own "independent" personal conferences—either viewable by any WELL member or privately viewable by those members on a restricted membership list—on any subject they please with any rules they like.

Overall support and supervision of the conferencing services is handled by several staff members, often referred to collectively as "confteam", the name of the UNIX user account used by staff for conference maintenance. They have more system operational powers than conference hosts, along with the additional social authority of selecting "featured conference" hosts and closing accounts for abuse.

WELL members use a consistent login name when posting messages, and a non-fixed pseudonym field alongside it. The "pseud" (in WELL parlance) defaults to the user's real name, but can be changed at will and so often reflects a quotation from another user, or is an in-joke, or may be left blank. The user's real name can be easily looked up using their login name. WELL members are not anonymous.

There is a time-honored double meaning to the WELL slogan coined by Stewart Brand, "You Own Your Own Words" or ("YOYOW"): members have both the rights to their posted words and responsibility for those words, too. (Members can also delete their posts at any time, but a placeholder indicates the former location and author of a deleted or "scribbled" post, as well as who deleted it.)


The WELL was frequently mentioned in the media in the 1980s and 1990s, probably disproportionately to the number of users it had relative to other online systems. This has diminished but not disappeared in recent years, with other online communities becoming commonplace. This early visibility was largely the result of the early policy of providing free accounts for interested journalists and other select members of the media. As a result, for many journalists it was their first experience of online systems and, later, the Internet, even though other systems existed. Although accounts are now seldom provided for free to journalists, there are still a sizable number on The WELL; for example columnist Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, Wendy M. Grossman of The Inquirer, and critic Andy Klein of Los Angeles CityBeat.

The WELL also received numerous awards in the 1980s and 1990s, including a Webby Award for online community in 1998, and an EFF Pioneer Award in 1994.

In the news[edit]

In March 2007, The WELL was noted for refusing membership to Kevin Mitnick, and refunding his membership fee.[12]

Virtual community and social network difference[edit]

There is often confusion between a virtual community and social network. They are similar in some aspects because they both can be used for personal and professional interests. A social network offers an opportunity to connect with people one already knows or is acquainted with. Facebook and Twitter are social networks. Platforms such as LinkedIn and Yammer open up communication channels among coworkers and peers with similar professions in a more relaxed setting. Often social media guidelines are in place for professional usage so that everyone understands what is suitable online behavior.[13][14] Using a social network is an extension of an offline social community. It is helpful in keeping connections among friends and associates as locations change. move. Each user has their own spider web structure which is their social network.[15][16]

Virtual communities differ in that users aren't connected through a mutual friend or similar backgrounds. These groups are formed by people who may be complete strangers but have a common interest or ideology.[17][16] Virtual communities connect people who normally wouldn't consider themselves to be in the same group.[18] These groups continue to stay relevant and maintained in the online world because users feel a need to contribute to the community and in return feel empowered when receiving new information from other members. Virtual communities have an elaborate nest structure because they overlap. Yelp, YouTube, and Wikipedia are all examples of a virtual community. Companies like Kaiser Permanente launched virtual communities for members. The community gave members the ability to control their health care decisions and improve their overall experience.[18] Members of a virtual community are able to offer opinions and contribute helpful advice. Again, the difference between virtual communities and social network is the emergence of the relationship.

The WELL distinguished itself from the technology of the time by creating a networked community for everyone. Users were responsible and owned the content posted, a rule created to protect the information from being copyrighted and commoditized.[19] Women particularly were able to find community and voice on the WELL. While largely bound to household work at the time, women of the WELL could be participants and contributors on message boards by sharing experiences and information.[19]

Publications about The WELL[edit]

(1994) Perennial ISBN 0-06-097643-8 (Hardcover) – ISBN 0-262-68121-8 (2000 revised paperback edition)
(1997) Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-684-80175-2 (Hardcover) – ISBN 0-684-83873-7 (Paperback)
  • Katie Hafner, The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community
(2001) Carroll & Graf Publishers ISBN 0-7867-0846-8
Katie Hafner's book, expanded from a Wired Magazine article, chronicles the odd birth, growing pains, and interpersonal dynamics that make The WELL the unusual, perhaps unique online community that it is.
  • Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
(2006) University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-81741-5
"Where the Counterculture met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community", Technology and Culture, Vol.46, No.3 (July, 2005), pp. 485–512.
  • Tierney, John. "Stewart Brand - John Tierney - An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New 'Heresies'". The New York Times, February 27, 2007, sec. Environment.
  • Kirk, Andrew.
"Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics". In Environmental History, 374–94, 2001.
Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 2007.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pernick, Ron (1995). "A Timeline of the First Ten Years of The WELL". Retrieved 2008-06-28.
  2. ^ "The Well, a Pioneering Online Community, Is for Sale Again". The New York Times, June 29, 2012
  3. ^ "WELL, The.". Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2015. ISBN 9783803266316.
  4. ^ Learn About The WELL
  5. ^ "IRC History -- Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES)".
  6. ^ Markoff, John (January 4, 1994). "COMPANY NEWS; Influential Computer Service Sold". New York Times. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  7. ^ "The Well to Stay With Salon" (Press release). The WELL. November 14, 2006. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  8. ^ "Salon 10K filing, June 2012". 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-02.
  9. ^ "Will The WELL Survive? Members Pledge $100K+ to Buy Influential Virtual Community from Corporate Owners". 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-02.
  10. ^ Salon Media Group Sells The WELL to The Well Group Archived 2012-11-15 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Grossman, Wendy. "Salon sells The WELL to its members". Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  12. ^ Kevin Mitnick is Unforgiven Wired, March 21, 2007
  13. ^ Mahlberg, T. (2017). Alter-Identity Work via Social Media in Professional Service Contexts. In Proceedings of the 28th Australasian Conference on Information Systems (ACIS 2017). Chicago
  14. ^ "What is social network? - Definition from". SearchCIO. Retrieved 2018-09-29.
  15. ^ Clauset, A. (2005). Finding local community structure in networks. Physical review E, 72(2), 026132.
  16. ^ a b "Social Network vs. Online Community: What Is the Difference?". Social Media Today. Retrieved 2018-09-29.
  17. ^ Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1999). Virtual communities as communities. Communities in cyberspace, 167-194.
  18. ^ a b "EXAMPLES OF VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES". Retrieved 2018-09-29.
  19. ^ a b From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Turner, Fred. University of Chicago Press. 2010. ISBN 978-1282894839. OCLC 824162179.CS1 maint: others (link)

External links[edit]