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.



OCTribe call: On Influencers, tomorrow!

Who are the “stars” in your communities, the ones others watch and trust?

Online Community tribe:  Who in your communities is an influencer of others?  As a facilitator, moderator or community manager, how do you work with the most influential people in your network? As a designer, how would you accommodate the opinion leaders? Got three top tips for rewarding these valued members of a group?

Write something tomorrow,  tag it octribe or tweet it as #octribe, and be linked from the recap page.  Each 2nd Tuesday and 4th Tuesday of the month, the call and the recap will be hosted on the site of another one of the bloggers in the loosely defined OCTribe group. This conversational project is just starting, so please join in. More about this tomorrow, July 14th!

How Global is your Sympathetic Audience?

Noam Cohen wrote a New York Times story, The Global Sympathetic Audience in the Fashion and Style section, about caring for strangers over the net. (By the way, online sociology and psychology is fashion now? Hmmm. Still an orphan subject.) “Audience” not “community,” you’ll note, which was accurate and to the point in that context. I enjoyed the article for some noteworthy Twitter support stories, after it started off with a weird reference that is close to home.

Weird to read, because as a long time member of The WELL it is freaky to see Blair’s – or would that be Mr. Newman’s – suicide cited in the Times so many years later, without any details about the impact on the then emerging community at The WELL, or his peculiar role there.

As a newbie on The WELL at the time, I was shocked by the diverse set of reactions to Blair’s initial destruction of so much conversational content. The anger was the eye-opener. The violent disapproval quite few members expressed at his “vandalism” of hundreds of his own posts – not seen as a “suicide” until later at Blair’s death – confused and startled me at the time. What was only later seen as a “virtual suicide” pissed people off to a degree that presents a stark contrast to the Twitter support dynamics cited in the article.

People will likely tell a stranger not to commit suicide. However, if the “cry for help” is less obvious, people are sometimes judgmental, sometimes supportive. Your own global audience may be sympathetic to a specific action you describe, or they may be inappropriately harsh and critical because the stakes and the context is not clear or not universally agreed upon.

Howard Rheingold’s classic account of Blair’s death gives some of the context from up close (scroll to the bottom of that section). Guilt and blame fueled widespread rage. Newer members like myself were astonished at all the hidden subtexts and alliances that emerged. As Howard said, “the feelings ran just as high during the virtual part of the grieving rituals as they did during the face-to-face part — indeed, with many of the social constraints of proper funeral behavior removed, the online version was the occasion for venting of anger that would have been inappropriate in a face-to-face gathering.”

There are many stories from The WELL where people were sympathetic and deeply kind to strangers. There have been others where the kindness was not timely or well-distributed, and this was one of those. It’s a famous example, here in the times it was boiled down until all the humanity and insight was removed.

I’m thinking about the man’s family too — how odd years later to have a son or brother famous only as a suicide who deleted first. And my posting this may only make that dynamic a little worse, I know. I am sorry for extending any pain.

Our power to be kind is clearly equaled by our power to be cruel, using any technology we invent. It’s odd to see this complex, troubling example used in conjunction with the global kindness of strangers, but with a little context, it reveals the other side of the problem of seeking support from distant friends and kindred strangers.