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Linton Weeks The Navigator - Live

Hosted by Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, March 18, 1999

Thank you for visiting "The Navigator - Live." Today's chat ended at 3 p.m. EST.

Gail Williams        
Today my guest was Gail Williams, executive director of The Well, one of the oldest, coolest and most influential communities on the Internet.

"The Navigator - Live" appears each Thursday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time. It's a live, moderated discussion offering users the chance to talk directly to intriguing and sometimes unusual guests who are shaping the digital world. "The Navigator" appears in The Washington Post print edition every Thursday. You can read past columns by following this link.


Linton Weeks: Greetings and welcome to another episode of Navigator--Live. I hope it's as beautiful in your neck of the woods as it is in Washington today. Let's get right to the questions for our guest, Gail Williams of The Well. Then maybe we can sneak outdoors for a moment and get a hit of that fresh pre-spring air.

Linton Weeks: Gail, welcome to the show. What exactly is The Well?

Gail Williams: The WELL is a virtual conversation place which has had a transformative effect on many of its members, and a prominant place in the history of Net culture. Folks like John Perry Barlow got their first taste of the potential of the online world there, for example. And it continues to be one of the richest sources of ideas and most exciting collections of people online. Maybe off. Can you tell I was a subscriber long before working for the WELL?

Linton Weeks: When and how did it get started?

Gail Williams: Linton, it's ancient. Fourteen years old. Way back in 1985, a couple of very interesting fellows had one of those plan-on-a-napkin ideas. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog of the late sixties, a legendary prankster and all around cultural gadfly, met with technologist and idealist Larry Brilliant, and they figured that if a conference like the ones going on on a private board called The Source at that time were to be peopled with the kinds of alternative and iconoclastic thinkers involved with the Whole Earth crowd, something wonderful might result. Fourteen years later, it evolves happily onward.

Linton Weeks: How much does it cost to join and what is the URL?

Gail Williams: Back in the pioneer days the WELL charged by the hour, and empassioned debates could lead to huge bills. There *are* tales of members who had to become indentured servents to work off their debts! Well, ok, actually, more like washing the dishes to pay for a lavish meal at a restaurant. But since the WELL stopped being an ISP and specializedon being a destination, we've gone to flat-rate, at $10 or $15 per month, depending on theservices. All the details are off of our main page at

Linton Weeks: How is The Well organized?

Gail Williams: I have to confess that the choice of the word "organized" makes me smile. Being online in this quirky ongoing discussion seems to create a major tension between the anarchic joy of just being ourselves --- you know, essentially unibridled chaos --- and the desire to create the database of the cosmos --- definitive expert or witty responses preserved in perfectly retrievable form. The WELL ends up falling in between, of course. But it is all about conversations.

The basic element is a post, usually a single short paragraph or less, and those are strung together in a linear, naturalistic way, in discussions known as "topics," which are grouped in forum areas called "conferences." Many subscribers read all the new commentary in their favorite conferences daily, and know the other participants *very*well. You can see lists of the conferences off of our home page, arbitrarily grouped intocategories which are sometimes disputed by the participants.

Linton Weeks: Who were some of the original members? Are any of the pioneers still involved?

Gail Williams: Some of the people who have made the WELL a legend are conference hosts here now... Bruce Sterling is one you may know, for example. Others are perhaps better known within the WELL communities, such as David Gans. Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold, Kevin Kelly and other early innovators still visit from time to time or maintain a web site at the WELL. When something happens, folks come out of the woodwork, even if they are heavily involved in other projects.

Santa Rosa, California: Do people on the Well ever see each other in person or is all the interaction on-line?

Gail Williams: There's actually quite a tradition of F2F (face to face) events. Some are totally private, others, like the WELL Office Party, are open-house traditions. Well folks started that monthly tradition in 1986, wanting to go by and meet one another and the staff. It's long since outgrown the offices, and continues to this day. Tomorrow night, for example!

Arlington VA: Gail, I'm curious about your vision of the future of online communities -- particularly how far they can be scaled. Is there an upper limit in community membership? When do the numbers of participants become so large that the sense of community is lost?

Frank Burns, The Meta Network

Gail Williams: Hi, Frank!

Wow, scaling. There's the $64,000 (adjusted for inflation) question!

There are scaling issues with the technology and navigation, probably surmountable. The other issue is with the basic relationship slots in the human brain. Or heart.

How many people can you know well? If you go to a big college, you are likely to make community in a department, or a dorm or team or club or fraternity, knowing you need a cluster of people to have context.

I think communites in the truest sense scale only so far before they need to be aggregates of smaller communities, like neighborhoods in a town.

Linton Weeks: How has The Well changed over the years?

Gail Williams: I arrived online in 1990, and at that time folks were bemoaning the death of intimacy, and noting that no one person could keep up with the entire WELL any more. Since then the WELL has grown and become more of a town with neighborhoods than a small village with a couple of pubs. People are still talking about the good old days. Some mean last month, others are pining for 1987. Seems to be human nature.

San Fransisco, CA: Is an online community a good place to meet people and to business "network"?

Gail Williams: Well, it depends on the business you're in. Communities differ, but the WELL was founded by folks in the media and technology businesses, and even fourteen years later, it is a wonderful place for freelance journalists, web masters, and all sorts of related jobs. Mostly in a social way. People make the best connections by becoming friends or even sparring partners around some issue. Later they sometimes hire each other.

Phoenix, Arizona: Can people change their identities in your chat rooms?

Gail Williams: Great question, Arizona! The WELL was founded on a different model, one of being on-the-record, not anonymous. The old WELL saying, "You own your own words," plays on this standing up and being counted.

Yet people are remarkably forthcoming and uninhibbited at times. it is a distinct culture, different than many other places with masked chat parties.

Fredericksburg, VA : How much of The Well can one access and read without paying the monthly fee?

Gail Williams: The WELL is home to some astonishing subscriber pages, so one could spend months visiting that content on the outside. But the heart of the WELL is the conferences. Right now only one of several hundred is readable without a password. It's an authors conference, the Inkwell... you can see it at

Bogota, Colombia: How has the Well community changed in the past three-four years as the internet has become more you find more of the same type of people in the community? Is there a particular geographic area which is more highly represented than another?

Gail Williams: Buenas tardes. let's see... when the WELl was connected up to the rest of the internet there was a sort of fear that it would be ruined by clueless people. Instead, the net has brought us beloved and interesting contributors from all over the planet. There is still a concentration of folks from near San Francisco, but over half come in from outside of California... sometimes way outside.

There's always this tension about living in a tourist town, you know? Will the newcomers get it? And the good news is they usually do, and they change it, too!

Bethesda: Who do you consider to be your most aggressive competitor? If there is any.

Gail Williams: So far this question doesn't quite compute. There's nothign quite like The WELL. However, community is a huge and beloved business buzzword these days, so lots of people are looking to the WELL for ideas.

It's like, is Paris competition for Tahiti or Hong Kong?

Linton Weeks: Many discussions on The Well seem more substantive than discussions on other sites. Why is that? How do you keep participants from ranting and raving and dragging discourse into the gutter?

Gail Williams: Two things, Linton. A tradition of light but brilliant hosting of conversations by great volunteers in the community, and the durable, non-realtime forum style.

You have more time to think, and it favor slow typers, like me!

Linton Weeks: Well, well, well. We're a little more than halfway through the hour and your great questions continue to roll in. I'm going to sip a little coffee and keep on reading Gail's great answers.

Linton Weeks: In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I've been a member and a fan of The Well for a while. Fuller disclosure will reveal that I find it clunky. Do you get many complaints about the way the community is arranged? Or deranged?

Gail Williams: Yeah, the command line addicts find the point-and-click interface clunky, and vice-versa, and both have their arcane attributes. At some point you get used to the way the software works, and you see ideas and people. Til then, clunky.

Washington, DC: What do you see as the future of on-line communities? What shape will they take? Will they move more towards real-time discussion (e.g, IRC),as opposed to message posting? How do alternative (for want of a better word)isps such as AOL and WebTV figure into this?

Gail Williams: I think different forms work for different groups and needs. Real-time versus asynchronous is almost a religious rift. For us agnostic sorts, different media have different strengths. Just as we would traditinally choose face-to-face, phone, fax, a card or letter... a mix will suit most people.

arlington virginia: what's your take on Y2K, here and abroad? And is the Well Y2K-ready?

scott johnson editor,

Gail Williams: Load up on the Y2K Jelly it's gonna be a long winter's night....

sorry. Where was I? I am predicting moderate social impacts, but we are workign on all elements of The WELL. For example, we just upgraded a mail program yesterday. You keep testing and reading the alerts. That's the plan.

Reston, VA: Hello, Gail.

How is the Well community governed (if there is a formal governance)? What kinds of decisions do members make vs what kinds you or other managers make?


Gail Williams: Hiya, Reston, VA!

The most interesting term for the WELL social structure is a "postocracy." You have social status by being visible and reliable over time. Reliably irreverent, reliably informed, whatever.

The important content and cultural matters are mostly decided that way. But it's a private business, not a co-op, so BUSINESS choices are made by staff, often with advice and criticism before and after.

Linton Weeks: Tell us a couple of legendary Well stories.

Gail Williams: Some of the most famous stories have made it into other publications, or even become folklore of the net.

Time magazine covered an interesting incident back in 1993 where a young unpublished novelist who was pleasant company in the WELL Writers conference and other hangouts started to put his writing talents to other uses. He became romantically involved with at least seven women on the WELL. At some point he started to discard some of his secret loves, and he made the mistake of unceremoniously dumping two girlfriends at the same time. They happened to lament their broken hearts in the women-only conference on the WELL, and kindly decide to call and confort one another. Well, they soon figured out it was the same guy. The outrage and the issues about secrecy and honesty were not new. They could have happened in a small town. But in cyberspace the community meeting which transpired was news. The "cad" was outed, but not by name. And he opted to leave the community. I went back and read a few of his posts in Writers... his problem was in writing a good ending. And I think that's what got him!

That's just one tale in the naked online city...

Linton Weeks: As executive director, Gail, what are your responsibilities?

Gail Williams: Well, I served for years as the community manager when The WELL included a community, an ISP and a software company. After they were divided and spun off, so that the WELl *is* the community site, I took on the increased resonsibility of workign with marketing, support, tech, $ stuff... and it's an interesting adventure. So far so good.

Philadelphia: What are some of the most popular - visited - dialogues that you have seen during the 10+ years since you have been online with the Well. What is the endurant topic? What would you say was the most important dialogue that the Well has hosted?

Gail Williams: The favorites seem to be books, the media, current events. In general, that is. Specifically, some of the notable discussions have included the investigation and debunking of a phoney cyber-porn report which was picked up and promoted by Time magazine, for one example, and the long time care and support for the family of a child who battled cancer, for a very different example. Some conversations do endure, and are indeed re-read.

Dallas, Texas: how does the well keep people from using profanity online?

Gail Williams: Hey, Texas!

We don't. We do tell people to notice where they are, and to modulate their vocabulary according to the scene... if it seems like a bar, %$*@ yes, if it is quiet and supportive conversation, don't be a jerk.

But we let people decide. Their names are on their posts, after all, so they take responsibility.

Bogota, Colombia : Stewart Brand made an important political statement with the Whole Earth Catalog. Does the Well have political objectives? Has the community been influential in generating the political atmosphere regarding the internet?

Gail Williams: Well, my own political objective with the WELL is "let the dialog continue." Before I worked here, years ago, John Coate used to intone "let the games begin," but hey, serious or playful, the chance to hear other views for real people and to empower ourselves with that knowlege is the essence of the mission.

New York: Has The Well ever been legally held accountable for libelous remarks posted by a user on their site? What happened? Has this happened frequently?

Gail Williams: No, we have several things going for us. For one thing, the system itself is a terrific tool for redress. If someone says "are too" it is easy to say "am not" and sometimes to persuade the other party to apologize.

And the law has supported the idea that the members are publishers, not the WELL.

But mainly I think having real names on the record helps cooler heads prevail.

Linton Weeks: And so we must bid adieu to Gail Williams and The Well. Thanks so much for playing along. Thanks also to the staff of and to all of you who sent in questions. Join us for another Navigator--Live next week. Until then...

San Francisco, CA: What seems to be the more popular topics on the Well?

Gail Williams: The best thing is the diversity. It keeps changing, and I'm always surprised.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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