The WELL, going forward

WRITTEN — but not posted — IN THE SUMMER OF 2012, before the deal went down, saving The WELL Community.   I didn’t want to so anything that could be a distraction, so I decided not to post at the time, though I really needed to get busy finding work at that time.  Now, after about ten months, it’s a tidbit of history.  I am even doing some community operations and management consulting for the new owners of the grand old third place itself.  The beat goes on.

Yes, it’s true. I  am actively looking for new adventures… at least part of the time. I’ll rely on my friends to help me learn the exact right thing to do next.

Here’s the backstory.

I starting working at a subscription-supported dial-up forum site called The WELL in 1991, after almost two years of intense involvement in that place as a customer.  And did it ever feel like a place.  Sometimes it felt like a town with neighborhoods, and sometimes it felt like a grand old hotel with grand halls and many rooms.  This was a world entirely made of text, yet the feeling of being in a place was palpable. You were inside the book you were reading.

In general, people drifted from place to place freely, and might show up in more than one part of the hotel on a given session when I wandered through, talking about politics in one conference room, casually helping somebody figure out to add memory to a computer in another, trading side-splitting puns at the hotel bar, and making rash predictions about the future of human social networks around a grand old fireplace late in the evening. There were more parties going on in private rooms. Sometimes I’d hear from newcomers I didn’t know or participants I didn’t like, but they all used real names and acted like real people. My family and co-workers were not there, but could be if I helped them learn the complex command-line software that we all used to participate.

That’s already incredibly different than modern social sites.

But think of that interactive book as being written by people who could really paint a picture with words. Freelance writers and novelists and just good old story tellers.  Mixed in with plenty of articulate music fans and scientists and every flavor of impassioned geek and expert.  Think of a great place you could go and enjoy wonderful people, sometimes wretchedly argumentative and flawed in various grand ways to match their seeming brilliance, but on the whole engaged in a coversation just as good as the best late night group conversations you had in college, or wanted to have. With some great participants. Imagine talking about your taking your very sick pet to the vet, and getting sympathy from your favorite science fiction writer. All parts of you, personal, professional, intellectual… it seemed that all could thrive.

Now, the best thing is that the past tense is not appropriate.  You can go there now, and find the old hotel is still open.  This probably sounds odd to all those who learned about the layoffs in the news a few weeks ago. We were confident that the business was going swiftly to a new buyer, and the three of us who’d been laid off from the Communities department resolved that there would be no ripple of disruption in service until there was a new owner. My friends and colleagues Kathy Branstetter and Pete Hanson have shown extraordinary dedication on behalf of the community we love, and we are in the public record as mere numbers in a footnote to a filing, which seems sad after working as a team for so many years. Such is the world of filing SEC documents, it seems. Not like credits for the grand opera, expansive festival or convoluted movie that has been our time at The WELL. Kathy Branstetter and Pete Hanson: credit for understanding it was more than a job and making sure the place stayed alive, through personal sacrifice and deep caring over many years.

For various reasons I can’t say more than that. While things did not unfold as expected, there’s still hope. Here are some news stories that paint a reassuring picture.

NY Times reports on sale in progress based on SEC filing

USA Today with personal regret from reporter

The Atlantic on the historical role of The WELL.

A personal maybe-farewell from Jon Carroll of the SF Chronicle

The Guardian UK on the sale announcemtn

So what’s going on?

Everybody’s waiting to find out, but clearly there is resolve in the community to keep the place alive, even if the hotel had to be moved across town, or in the worst case, if the community had to gather in another building. Salon indicated in a filing that they were negotiating a sale. All the signs are aligned for a happy outcome. We all await word.

Over the last year I enjoyed overseeing four different Salon programs as Director of Communities, and was not devoting full time attention to The WELL any more. So it’s likely that the community group will decide to hire a community manager with less experience, or perhaps find a part time manager. For now I stand ready to help out as a consultant.  So many things need to be done.

I’ve got many other things I’d like to do, after twenty years of WELL management roles, so chances are that I will only consult as part of the transition. This means that I am going through the great letting go phase now.

But only so much grief and distancing makes sense. There’s no reason to doubt that the community will continue in some form, though we are all waiting for the details. I hope that I’ll be dropping in for good conversations as a guest this time, back in that grand and well-loved old hotel, going forward into the future.


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