The Well

Hafner, Katie. The Well (2001)

Carroll & Graf, 196 pages, $21.00 hardcover

ISBN 0-7867-0846-8

The Well, begun in Sausalito, California, in 1984, was the first online community. "From the start, The Well was one of those cultural phenomena that spring up now and again, a salon of creative, thoughtful, articulate people who are interested in one another's stories in a self-absorbed, cabalistic way" (p. 3). The book’s subtitle explains the importance of its subject: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community. In her book New York Times reporter Katie Hafner traces the development of The Well, which has become the standard by which all subsequent attempts to create online communities are measured.

From the beginning Stewart Brand, founder of The Well, insisted on one rule: there would be no anonymity; participants would provide their real names and would take responsibility for what they said. But, despite the requirement for real names:

Part of what attracted people to The Well was that it offered the freedom of projecting whatever personality you wished, along with the intriguing possibility of highlighting subtle variations of your character. Users adhered to Brand's true-names rule, but at the same time most people created an electronic persona that was (to use MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle's term) "coextensive" with their physically embodied one. (pp. 24-25)

At the beginning The Well provided a combination of online and face-to-face interaction. Many of the volunteers who helped establish The Well in its early years organized periodic get-togethers at which participants met and socialized with each other. Such interaction was possible because The Well started out as a kind of local bulletin board, with most members living in the San Francisco area.

This combination of online and face-to-face interaction helped The Well thrive. And, Hafner says, the inability to reproduce such interaction is the reason why no later online community has been able to re-create the Well experience:

Most Internet entrepreneurs seeking to create a similar community gave little thought to the deep issues of identity that made The Well what it was. In addition, many mistook it for an entirely online entity, forgetting the vital role that real encounters played early on in the cohesion of the Well community. (p. 161) 

Yet Hafner does not probe very deeply into such sociological or philosophical issues. (For that approach, consult the work of MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle.) Hafner is more interested in the business side of creating an online community similar to The Well. Early on, she asks, "Can you build a community and a business as one and the same?" (p. 4).

This book illustrates what I find to be an annoying trend: production of a hardcover book that’s little bigger than (in some cases, not even as big as) a trade paperback book but carries a hardcover price. With the publishing industry lamenting its diminishing profits as the number of books sold declines, it’s hard to imagine why we keep seeing these little but expensive books. The Well in hardcover is particularly annoying because it’s so small; it looks like a magazine article that the author and/or publisher is trying to stretch into a book. (In fact, the book began life as a piece for Wired magazine.) Although it’s an interesting book, its content does not warrant the $21.00 price tag.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

All material on these pages is © as indicated by Mary Daniels Brown