The WELL was founded by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985 as a way to put the Whole Earth Catalog online. The WELL brought together countercultualrists and New Communalists from the Whole Earth Catalog model and offered them a space where they can interact with like-minded people. The groups that were on the WELL had cybernetic ideals and believed that shared information was very important. This shared information was a product that was supplied by the consumers who were part of the WELL. This information was what the WELL founders were selling to its consumers and the price of the subscription coupled with the writers of the content made this appealing to those who wanted to be a part of the community New Communalists had dreamt of.
In my opinion, from reading this chapter, the WELL operates a self-governing system by engaging its members. Everyone can express themselves how they want in this community but it is up to the individual as to what they want to see. Everyone is their own moderator. If there was a comment from a person that you did not like all you had to was use the technology that WELL provided (Bozo filter) to erase the comment from their own screens, but not erasing it from the entire community.
This form of self-governing is exactly how the New Communalists had their community with a nonheirarchical structure while using technology. They did not have people overseeing each community within WELL that would decide what was right or wrong. Instead, they let each individual make that decision on their own. As with any new technology WELL would evolve by seeing how its members dealt with certain situations and using that as a better understanding of the social and technological interactions that its members dealt with allowing them to better use WELL.
I think that a self-government system operates on the notion that they (community on the WELL) rule their own virtuality affairs and are free from control outside of the community. The people who are connected to the Whole Earth Lectronic Link are free to discuss various topics without the threat of being governed by political forces that will tell them that things are supposed to be done a certain way.
I get the sense that people go to the community to be informed, and check for updates and new information just by dialing into to this system to share, comment and distribute the information. I believe that Turner gives you an idea about how Brand created a forum for which a governing system was not allowed because of the restriction of new ideas, innovative ideologies and the austere forms of governing procedures. Therefore, a self-governing system operates in the way of being free to distribute guidelines, course of action, and the information needed by the community.
When I think of self-governing, I think of how we govern ourselves as a community according to our own data, as well as responsibilities. Self-governing is not relying or depending on government to fix our problems, but instead, is a sense of freedom and responsibility to solve one’s own problem. The WELL presents a new version of the modern ideal citizen who looks to self-govern in a virtuality world. For so long, we’ve been taught to listen to government and that we cannot govern ourselves, so this system acts as a mechanism to have the community do it themselves.
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.
In chapter 5 “Virtuality and Community on the WELL” Turner argues that Stewart Brand “lay down boundary conditions for a self-governing system”.
In this chapter, Turner talks about WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link). It was one of the most influential computer network, founded by Stewart Brand in 1985. The WELL was a “teleconferencing system within which subscribers could dial up a central computer and type messages to one another in either asynchronous or real-time conversation”. So basically it is similar what we use now in our every day routine on the Internet. Stewart Brand was serving to place boundary conditions for a self-governing system, “he was working to establish a forum in which individuals could express themselves and form an alternative community of kindred souls”. He assumed a self-governing system, which worked by been comprehensive. He thought that it would be great if people could share and discuss any type of information with one another and communicate a soon as they wanted too. At the end users had control of almost everything.
The Whole Earth Catalog became a model for WELL. WELL was more comfortable than Whole Earth Catalog which was published only a few times a year. And access to the information was much more easier that from Whole Earth Catalog. Participants or members of WELL were journalist and hacking community. “WELL became the place to exchange the information and build the social network on which their employment depended”.
Later on users had to pay money to be able to participate. Stewart Brand was worried that if WELL cost nothing than the rap dominators would be able to take over, so he invested a subscription fee. “As a result, he decided to charge users eight dollar subscription fee and two dollars per hour to log in – far less than the twenty five dollars per hour of use that other systems were charging at the time. Subscription was a model of pay for free seeing information that really worked. At that rate people could forget they were WELL members and not be stricken when they noticed their bill six months later. Often it would revive their interest in getting their money’s worth”.
The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, also known as the WELL, was created by Larry Brillant and Stewart Brand as a way of continuing and expanding on the ideas of the Whole Earth Catalog. The WELL was to be “a teleconferencing system within which subscribers could dial up a central computer and type messages to one another in either asynchronous or real-time conversations” (141). This system was seen as way to bring the countercultural idea of shared consciousness online.
When it was created Brand did not want to post all the sections of his Whole Earth Catalog because he wanted subscribers to be able to make their own topics of conversation; they were free to write what they wanted. Members are able to create their own topics and create their own conversations as they pleased. The subscription rate was a lot lower than most of their competitors only because Brand wanted others to be able to share a relationship on the WELL. He wanted members to gain a true experience of communicating with others and sharing ideas rather than it being a quick rapid post.
The WELL team had comprised seven design goals of the system, the most important one being that it was self-governing. An example of them putting this goal into action was the features of erasing posts of another member from the screen that a user doesn’t like or being able to go back and delete a post of their own that they didn’t want available to the eyes of other members. They are able to create and manage the online community to what they want to see.
Based on the WELL, I think a self-governing system can be seen as one that gives its users the freedom to do what they want. Users are responsible for their words and their actions. If anything they said was used they can fight for their right to take it back. A person’s creative work is not owned by the platform they are providing for. In a self-governing system, people are able to create the environment they want to be a part of, without having that sense of hierarchy.
According to Fred Turner, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant founded one of the most powerful computer networks up to the present time, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link or WELL. Members of WELL consisted of groups of computer technologists, counterculturalists, hackers, and journalists who worked together and built a community where they could exchange information and build social networks for future employment. According to Kevin Kelly, one of the seven design goals of the WELL team was that it would be self-governing. Additionally, Turner said that, “As he set subscription rates, Brand was helping to lay down boundary conditions for a self-governing system. Like a communard of the late 1960s, he was working to establish a forum in which individuals could express themselves and form an alternative community of kindred souls” (Turner, p. 146).
One of the ways that Turner described WELL as a self-governing system was through its early managers’ way of governing it: against hierarchy and for the “power of tools.” This was evident in the way power was given to WELL members to participate in different conference topics available, join or leave conferences as they pleased, and even to create their own conferences if they would like to. Conference hosts and systems owners were also authorized to remove members from WELL (which only happened three times in the first six years, and the removed members were allowed to return). In this way, WELL’s early managers did not exercise their authority to control the system and interaction directly. Members were given the “power of self-rule through information technology.” They could use this power by deleting postings of other members that they did not like from their own screens and also removing their own postings that they wanted to erase.
Another way that the WELL operated as a self-governing system was explained through the managers’ roles in setting the conditions for the environment or the system and then taking a step back and observing how WELL’s users interact, exchange information, make connections, and build new communities, and contribute to how the system evolves. According to Turner, “The WELL as described by Kelly, McClure, Figallo, and Coate was a little, self-contained world, and its managers, like scientists, were ‘as gods’ – designing that world, channeling its embodied ‘energies’ through talk, creating settings in which individuals could simultaneously build their new community and transform themselves by using a new set of digital ‘tools’ to which the WELL had given them access” (Turner, p. 148).
After reading Chapter 5, “ VIrtuality and Community on WELL” , the idea of a self- governing system is that this one operates with little to no control. Here users had the responsibility of the content and what they posted on the website forum. It is seen that the WELL and the Whole Earth Catalog had the same views; however with the WELL forum users had the chance to interact whenever they wanted, they could exchange any type information and also they had the control to edit or to whom they wanted to deliver the information. They were owners of their words they put out, users had control of almost everything. All source of information could be found in this forum. WELL was a web-system in which users exchanged valuable information among each other, a self-governing system there were mangers who were people who a higher level but they would only interfere occasionally.
Digital Media and Society
December 1, 2015
The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) was, as Turner explains it, a teleconferencing system that was modeled after Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Originally, the arrangement between Brand and Brilliant was for Brand to post Whole Earth Catalog items onto the WELL, and users then would be allowed to comment and discuss on these topics in a sort of bulletin board system or forum. However, Brand keeping true to his anti-hierarchical and New Communalist dogma, proposed that instead users should be allowed to create their own topics of discussion. It was “a way to create the countercultural ideal of a shared consciousness in a new ‘virtual community’” (p.142). With the participation of users in an array of fields from engineers and computer technologists, to journalists and musicians, the WELL came to be both a community and a business because of its networking potential and the access to information that could be used offline for a profit.
In this way it served the “shared consciousness” aspect of the New Communalist approach, but it also had to remain non hierarchical which Brand aimed for through management strategies that prompted self-governance within the virtual community. One example of this was the way in which system owners “refrained from intervening in fractious debates whenever possible” (p. 145) and instead gave users the power and authority to erase other users’ posts that they might have found upsetting. However, they were only able to erase them form their own screens, not from the system. Much like we adjust our Facebook settings today to not see updates from certain users on our newsfeeds. Additionally, WELL users that changed their opinions or regretted writing a post were allowed erase them, and so “rather than assert their authority directly, the WELL managers chose to give users the powers to self-rule” (p. 145).
Another strategy to prompt self-regulation required as McClure puts it, “staying the hell out of the way at the right time” (p. 148). By this he meant allowing the system to evolve in its own way. Instead of designing it to be something in particular, they designed it to evolve. By having a text-based forum in which its users were able to build on existing information, and putting the responsibility of these postings on their users, the WELL created in them a sense of ownership (regardless of these postings creating any sort of profit) and the need to maintain the new network/relationships formed and the cyber-structure that provided them. “The WELL sells its users to each other and it considers its users to be both its consumers and its primary producers” creating a self-regulating environment and remaining non-hierarchical.
When Stewart Brand decided to take his Whole Earth Catalog digital, he created the WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link) and envisioned a self-governing system. In Brand’s view, information could be shared by users more frequently and allowed then to communicate in real time. Unlike the Whole Earth Catalog which was produced a few times a year, the WELL would allow users to communicate as frequently as they wanted or needed too. They would be able to access information more readily than they could from the catalog.
Brand decided that his Lectronic Link would be a self-governing system even though he charged users a subscription fee. The difference between this fee and what the other corporations were offering is that it was not a means for Brand to profit off of consumers. Brand believed that people would be more willing to exchange information through his site if they felt they were a community and a network, instead of workers for a company. I found this to be interesting because eight years ago I found myself being a part of a blogging community called “Shine” which was (and probably still is) a part of Yahoo. I remember being eager to blog as often as I could, to share my thoughts, advice, or great buys with this newfound community. It never felt like a chore to take time out of my day to do this. I believe this is what Brand envisioned when he wanted a self-governing system.
One user stated “The WELL is the online hangout of choice for an incredible array of experts; multimedia artists, musicians, newspaper columnists, neurobiologists, radio producers, futurists, computer junkies. I can contact any of them directly, through email or post a plea for information in a public conference and more often than not be deluged with insights and informed opinions. Most compellingly, the conferences devoted to non-work issues and to fun and nonsense give me a chance to get to know these folks better, and vice versa.” When reading this description, I thought about how Google has become the main search engine for us to get information. The WELL in contrast allowed people to share information with one another, without anyone profiting from it. This is how I think a self-governing system operates.
Turner establishes in this chapter that the innovation of the WeLL was a direct descendant from the ideological and technical framework of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Even though WeLL reflected the anti-authoritarian and technologically ambitious new communalist communities adherence to cybernetic ideals, the WeLL still needed a financial base to function beyond the limitations of its capacity at that time. The subscription support provided by the Dead Head community seemed to underwrite much of WeLL’s continued offerings to the general communities that were it’s original inhabitants – the technologists and journalists and communalist entities from scatter shot communities. I’d like to point out that this dead head influx of money via subscriptions was crucial to supporting the WeLL. This niche fan subculture and community contributed money and intellectual and cultural value to the overall purposes of the conferencing system, and allowed the other, primarily targeted users to continue to participate with free subscriptions. (Fandom as free labor, ahem.) And it seemed to work – all these different communities under one network – with the ability to interact freely and without fear of restrictions or criticism, which seems to be a blend of the countercultural stance against autocratic rule, and the militarily derived systems theory that Brand and other technological adopters took in and fashioned to their own ends.
The inclusion of the seven design goals of WeLL of page 143 was really interesting , a casual blend of profit and free peer led (driven) experimentation that would establish WeLL’s ethical and technical parameters. That the goal of its self-design is set for early users to determine is really striking – and while it seems altruistic and cool, it signifies that whomever had access to this early iteration of “the web” played a huge role in determining who and how it would function in the future. Suffice to say it makes the reader wonder if the communities that had access – via free or paid subscriptions were really that diverse beyond the eclectic countercultural and technologically ambitious.
In the sense that this system was self-governing, it’s probably apt to assume that the control of self-governance was dictated by a heavy sense of individualism and personal investment in belonging to a very elite and enlightened strata – and that this demographic reflected the typical user. In chapter four we saw evidence that the communalists had developed a new age survival religiosity in response to the nixon era inflation and amping up of cold war tensions. My guess is that they wanted to harness the positive attributes of a technological future without investing in cosigning on the legacy of waging war. The additional publications developed in tandem with the Whole Earth Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly as the prime example for instance, speaks to that spiritual reinvigoration that many of the communalists turned to while mitigating the impending mid-life crises they faced. A liberatory consciousness and attendant right living as detailed in chapter four is what these people were after, and the cybernetic ideals of the WeLL provided these people with a new way to manage the information technology that fused their consciousness. Referring back to the seven design goals, in many ways they can be interpreted as a set of tenets like a cybernetic bible for the emerging consciousness of this peer led and peer driven network. That’s attractive sounding though like any system, there are bound to be individual pieces of its control that don’t work for everyone. And ultimately these designs were adhered to by the users not created through consensus by the users.
Personally speaking, my understanding or vision of what a system of self-governance could look like is informed by a consensus or collectivist agreement. In many senses, Brand’s vision of a subscription system of self-governance was akin to this, the main agreement that users were paying into developing and sustaining a shared space for connection and building a counter-consciousness to the dominant paradigm of society at that time. I imagine that at that point, this system was relatively free of surveillance – so the appeal to all these disembodied nomadics (individualists really) was a sense of opting out of mainstream society and the fear driven cold war technocracy, as Turner mentions in chapter four. What could people accomplish together outside of a surveillance based state? Well, the idea that all these separate entities, communes, journalists, niche subcultural fans, could even just locate each other without having to announce themselves in a public space is a pretty big deal, and almost impossible to imagine now, as we live in a culture of round the clock surveillance.