There’s a certain irony in Brand’s journey toward advocating for a self-governing system in light of his repudiation of self-sufficiency in 1975 as he broke from his earlier New Communalist orientation. He decried it as a “woodsy extension of the fatal American mania for privacy” (2006:132). In this way, he foreswore notions of self-governance, after a fashion, though he would go on to create a system of self-governance on WELL that emanated from the same ideological stripe as the Communalist mentality. The idea that a system could be intrinsically self-governing means that there have to be certain expectations about the personalities and capabilities of users. It wasn’t solely the structure of WELL that made it governable principally by its users, but there was an implicit social contract they consented to when they entered that online space. To whit, it was that everyone will abide by certain cultural norms to keep the community sustainable. What helped bring about these norms was not necessarily structural magic or even an intentional community making process so much as a certain pre-existing cultural and ideological uniformity. Brand and the early WELL users were able to believe in an organic self governed system due to certain expectations about a predispostion toward self sufficiency in the user base. The idea that Turner seems to be hinting toward is the Brand and co. outsourced their beliefs about governance to the way WELL was designed, including its charter and its premium experiments.
This was another section that very much hit home for me as a longtime participant in online communities and having only recently founded a new one and become a community moderator. The community was originally founded under self governance ideals, but they quickly fell apart necessitating the drafting of a formal list of community standards and a move toward participatory governance. The idea of self governance is pervasive in online communities, largely because of a common libertarian strain that may hail from early communities like WELL, but is likely also connected to the semi-anonymity of the web. From my own anecdotal observations, it usually leads to site administrators giving themselves sweeping powers via hastily drafted terms of service and then executing them through authoritarian means.
It was interesting to see the influence of people like Don Norman and Kevin Kelly on the construction of this community since they’re regarded almost as folk heroes in tech circles these days. The picture of how this group of people informed the creation of modern web culture is almost crystal clear at this point. Turner has mentioned DARPA and PARC a few times so I’m waiting for Marc Weiser and Tim Berners Lee to eventually show up.