Hybrid Assignment 11

Fred Turner devotes chapter 5 to the history, philosophy and community of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, known as the WELL. The WELL began as an expansion of the Whole Earth Catalog and as with the catalog, Stewart Brand “hoped to allow the system’s users to converse with one another and to market that conversation back to its participants.” (142) But the catalog was published only a few times a year so while its subscribers contributed by writing letters or reviewing products, they were not actually communicating in real time. The WELL gave users a chance to collaborate and “meet” one another instantaneously. The team that designed the WELL in 1985 had seven design goals, one of which was that it would be self-governing. The plan was a text-based forum that would combine a business and a community and would do away with the hierarchical model of business but still make a profit. The conditions would be such that the users, who were both the contributors and readers, (producers and consumers) would subscribe to the WELL by paying to participate. The subscription model was one that Brand thought worked best but he set the subscription rates much lower than the rates of commercial competitors as a way “to shape interpersonal relations on the WELL.” (145)

In his design of the WELL as a self-governing system, Brand was bringing the New Communalist’s vision of community to an electronic forum. The WELL’s first managers were veterans of the FARM, a commune in Tennessee that was founded by San Francisco hippies. They brought their experience building and supporting relationships with members of the commune to the participants of the WELL. Turner compares the proposed structure to a homeostat, where the manager would set the original conditions and then stand back and observe. “Once set in motion by its creators, it was to learn as it went, to find its ideal temperature, so to speak, through the actions of its constituent parts.’” (146) The users would supply and monitor the text that would determine the direction of future conversations.

A self-governing system, such as the WELL, operates on the belief that the users will take more responsibility for their contributions in a system where there is less direct involvement with a manager. Since they have more control in deciding the direction the work will take, they have more at stake in the outcome. They are thus likely to create the environment they want to be a part of, and in doing so will continue to be an active part of it. So managers, by ceding control to the users, increase the likelihood of the continued participation of the users. Businesses that have changed from the traditional organizational structure to a “Holacracy”, or self-governing structure, claim that their employees are more likely to contribute more, be happier and to stay at their jobs longer.

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