Why computer users go to bulletin board system The WELL

Members of the keyboard

The Weird conference is the banana peel on which WELL minds slip: "Pee Wee Herman Is My Spiritual Teacher," "Bulbhead Redux," "Effective Methods of Self-Mutilation," "Humans Lack a Breeding Season," "Weird Hobbies for Overcoming Ennui," Commies Choose Cocaine."
  • The Weird conference is the banana peel on which WELL minds slip: "Pee Wee Herman Is My Spiritual Teacher," "Bulbhead Redux," "Effective Methods of Self-Mutilation," "Humans Lack a Breeding Season," "Weird Hobbies for Overcoming Ennui," Commies Choose Cocaine."
  • Image by Jeremy Eaton

The WELL evolved from the back-to-the-land utopianism that produced Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog,

The WELL evolved from the back-to-the-land utopianism that produced Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog,

Last night I was on The WELL. I typed out my troubles (a rent-gouging landlady) on my computer keyboard and — via modern and telephone and e-mail (electronic mail) — cried on the shoulder of a fellow named nash. I've got friends on whose fleshly shoulders I can cry. I've wept those shoulders sodden. This was my keyboard sobbing: my sorrows with the gouger formed up in bright-green pixels on a black screen and again, in more green pixels, came nash's email pat-pats. Electronic comfort. I like it.

I've never seen nash (don't know how old he is, where he lives, what he does for a living, if he's married, has children, is gay or straight, white or black). I do know that over the summer nash read Steve Erickson's Rubicon Beach, Mazz Mazzrow's Really the Blues, Ramon Sender Barayon's Death in Zamora, Satchel Paige's autobiography. He's concerned about an attempt in Laytonville in Mendocino County to move Dr. Seuss's The Lorax from the required to the optional reading list for second graders. This summer he spent a week on Kauai. I know this because almost every day since last December I've logged on to The WELL and read nash's entries there.

Nash and I and some 3000 other people subscribe ($8 per month, $3 per hour) to The WELL, a four-year-old computer conferencing system. Such a system permits an individual to sit at a computer to which a modem is affixed, and with computer, modem, and telephone, dial a number and enter into typed conversation with other subscribers to that system. By some individuals and businesses. The WELL is used variously as information storage warehouse and electronic conference room.

When you join The WELL, you choose a name — your loginid — by which you will be known to other users. Some loginids, like nash's, are simply a WELL member's last name. The day I joined, a stuffed panda lay nearby on the floor next to my bare foot. So I called myself panda and now regret that choice because panda implies a cutesy softness I will never live up or into. nash is nash and I am panda with lowercase initial letters because the system on which The WELL operates demands that loginids be typed that way.

The WELL evolved from the back-to-the-land utopianism that produced Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, and Brand, who writes on The WELL as SBB, was one of the system's founders and developers. The acronym — WELL — was devised by lifting the E from Electronic in "Whole Earth Electronic Link."

The WELL office in Sausalito is next door to the offices of the Whole Earth Review. There all the written material that records The WELL's history and permits its ongoing life is stored on five hard disks wired to a minicomputer. The WELL's system operator, dhawk, describes the computer as not much bigger than a washing machine and the five hard disks as taking up as much space as would a dryer and a refrigerator. Should the disks crash, The WELL is not lost; everything on disk is also on tape.

Endless discussion of what The WELL is goes on on The WELL. That is a "virtual" community, a place that's no place, seems one definition with which most users agree (the American Heritage dictionary defines virtual [adj.] as "existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact").

In a topic entitled "The Feeling of 'Place' on The WELL," loca posted this observation: "One of the most striking features of The WELL is that it actually creates a feeling of 'place.' I'm staring at a computer screen. But the feeling really is that I'm 'in' something. I'm 'somewhere.'"

More specifically, mmc likens The WELL "to an electronic equivalent of the French salons during the Enlightenment period." tex describes it as "the wild west of telecom ... sort of like a Dodge City saloon." flash writes, "The WELL is just like any other community, but it's easier to park." jrc suggests that those of us on The WELL are "practicing a kind of nonhierarchical, self-correcting journalism." On The WELL, jrc adds, "the readers are the newspaper."

Of the 3000 subscribers, some 600 dial The WELL at least once per week. Some like me log in almost every day and hang around for an hour or two. Th emajority live in California, but there are members checking in from across the United States. During one of my first evenings on The WELL, rag new postings. In a True Confessions conference topic, "Early Impressions of The WELL," jwa wrote:

My two-year-old daughter is caught up in a difficult health problem. I joined The WELL to talk about radio, but I found myself in the Parenting conference late at night talking about Lillie. And little flashes of light came back — other parents, other people, responding. In my housebound state, this felt like a lifeline. I am still struck by it, moved, changed.

Any WELL member can join any or all of some 100 ongoing conferences. Each conference has a host, and each conference lists numerous topics. The average conference accumulates 50 to 200 topics with new topics constantly appearing. Each topic can have any number of responses, and in a particularly lively topic, fresh responses arrive minutes apart.

Because the readers are the newspaper, conferences reflect subscriber interests — computers and word processing, of course, and not surprisingly, entrepreneurship. More writers and editors, fine and graphic artists, radio professionals, cottage industrialists, and Grateful Dead followers are found in The WELL population than in the population at large. So there are conferences set aside for poetry, words, writers, books (of which nash is host), radio, media, and six conferences are devoted to the Grateful Dead. (Grateful Dead conferences attract the largest number of WELL members, with Deadheads logging in from all across the United States and Canada.) There are also conferences of more general interest, archives, cooking, comics, dreams, drugs, gardening, health, jokes, mind, movies, music, news, parenting, pets, philosophy, peace, sexuality, space technology, spirituality, true confessions, weird, whole earth.

Each conference generates its own atmosphere. Entering the news conference — And now ... The NEWS — I'm reminded of high school Friday assembles with announcements from administration and student council. "WELLbeings Outside the News." "Action Around the Conferences." WELL Members in the News." "Pointers to Experts on The WELL."

Neither massage parlor nor electronic lonely hearts club accurately describes the Sexuality conference. No smut hero, no filthy postcards, no invitations to join someone up in the hayloft. When I type "g sex" and read entries, I am most impressed by their whole-wheat earnestness. I am impressed, too, by the efforts of males to remain correct in their sexual politics. Among topics, "Sexual Asynchronicity ... 'Sorry, dear, I have a headache.'" "lies. Dam Lies and Relationships." "Keeping the Washcloth Warm," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Music and Sex," "More on Polygamy," "What About the Women of Afghanistan?" "The Other Kind of Oral Sex."

Every few months my friend John and I go out for dinner. After dinner we head for a bar we can sit at and tell stories that always seem to start "Back when ..." So for me, Archives is like one of those bars. ("Welcome to the Archives Conference! Here is a place for us all to record our memories of specific events, to ask each other what we were up to at point in time long past.") And almost any Archives topic is similar to stories John and I've told one another: "What It Was Like Growing Up," "Bad Haircuts," "Cruising on Saturday Night & Parking (watching the submarine races)," "Dancing School," "The Not-So-Fun Side of the Sixties," "Tales of Class Reunions," "Those Mom & Pop Cafes And Truck Stops," "Before Modern Copiers," "The Day Nixon Resigned."

The Weird conference is the banana peel on which WELL minds slip: "Pee Wee Herman Is My Spiritual Teacher," "Bulbhead Redux," "Effective Methods of Self-Mutilation," "Humans Lack a Breeding Season," "Weird Hobbies for Overcoming Ennui," Commies Choose Cocaine," "A Modest Proposal for the Reform of the American Penis," "Rev. Jim Bakker's Panic Attack," "The Weird Spirituality/End-of-the-World Cult," "Aloha from Hell," "Weird Haiku."

The WELL office hosts a monthly party and subscribers organize Sunday "nerds" brunches. Real-life assignations ("f2f's" — "face-to-face meetings) are arranged, and in-the-flesh friendships develop. For some, this is one of The WELL's charms. That telecommunication permits contact between and among minds — and minds only — is for me one of the medium's prime attractions. I like this odd intimacy that is not physical and need not become freighted with the quotidian, I like being able to type "g books" and read wiseman's summary of novels by Andrew Vachss ("Burke falls in love with a woman who is suffering from the trauma of early childhood sexual abuse. He embarks on a series of battles against the underworld of child sexual abusers, culminating in triumph over major evildoers") without having to ask wiseman, "So how was your day?"

How do I use The WELL? I ask questions — What's the best buy among laptops? (ddrasin, one of the resident laptop experts, recommends Toshiba 1000). What novels and short stories have great snow scenes? (nash: "...the final story in James Joyce's Dubliners." stacy: Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin.) I read people expressing a wider variety of opinions that those held by my circle of friends. I read and follow arguments on censorship, abortion, gender differences. Book recommendations in the Books conference lead me to authors and titles I would not have read. Like many people on The WELL, I write for a living, so I also use the system rather the way musicians use after-hours clubs, as a place to jam.

Leaving a party at which talk was good, I always wish I could recall who said what to whom. Because everything written in conferences remains stored on disks, exchanges like this from the Books conference topic 163: "Books You Haven't Read. But One of These Days ..." need never be lost.

kim Sept 12: I realize I am setting the topic adrift by asking this, but can anyone capsulize why Proust is so good? I'd be much obliged.

csz Sept 12: For describing states of mind and shades of feeling that were new ground for literature. This is from reading a translation, you understand, and it would take someone fluent in French to give a proper answer.

marye Sept 12: Right. Talk about mastery of nuance. Proust writes like Jerry Garcia solos — getting everything there is to get out of something in the most engaging and nonobsessive way.

It is very atmospheric stuff, and the characters, seen through a bit of a mist, are real and compelling. I read the first (Swann's Way, since it was in English) for PhD exams, and couldn't sleep when I got finished, wondering what happened next. I mean, I'm sorry the guy had to spend his life in a cork-lined room to write the stuff, but I'm glad he wrote it. For a recluse, he sure has people wired.

In my first months on The WELL, I only read ("Lurker" is what WELL members call a person who reads and rarely or never posts.) Then, I began occasionally to respond or to ask a question or to add my two cents' worth to an argument. WELL subscribers are elaborately polite. When I first typed in a response, e-mail arrived, praising my posting. ("You have mail" pops onto the screen.) Now, here and there, I have begun to respond. In Books, panda: "Regarding Terry Southern's smutty novel, Candy — who can forget, "Give me your hump'?"

Reading and writing on The WELL is not like real-world table talk or telephone conversation. The sound of the voice is absent, as are eyes and eyebrows, mouth, hands. Nor is being on The WELL like reading and writing letters. A letter begins Dear Judith and ends with Love, Bob or Yours Always, Marilyn.

On The WELL I often feel immersed in that same atmosphere of intimacy that a letter creates and sense that presence of the human hand that a letter carries. But on The WELL, the letter arrives naked, without its envelope. It is addressed to anyone who finds it. (A book, of course, is similarly addressed, but you can't as a rule write back to the book's author, and in most instances the author hopes that you won't.)

Despite all the words written on The WELL about The WELL as community, it is nevertheless the fact that a WELL posting discloses itself into an ether as indifferent as an afternoon sky. Patched work shirts and blue jeans worn in the knee, a torn petticoat hanging on a stranger's clothesline are as vulnerable to all eyes as these postings. That personal comments can appear in such an impersonal setting, that anyone who subscribes can read a man's description of emotional breakdown or a woman's bald statement — "I'm back from the doctor and he tells me he has cancer" — does not depreciate that message's power. The very indifference, implacability of a medium as public as The WELL only amplifies the human cry that appears on the screen in words and phrases. I feel sometimes as if I'm walking the streets of a big city, reading graffiti scratched out in blood that's still wet. Now that I've begun to enter the onscreen action, the blood sometimes is mine.

WELL members have begun through what they write, and in which conferences they write it, to accrue, for me, a physical aspect. In the crude unfocused movies I run in my mind, it is accorded two sets of garments, modish Elvis Costello grey and black, or jeans and tie-dyed T-shirt. He talks with his hands and walks fast, and his face is one that might lead strangers to ask him if he's David Byrne's brother. At New York 10014, dodging delivery vans and yellow taxis, stacy hurries toward the southeast corner of Broadway and Houston, where she'll order another of what she assures danlevy is the best egg cream she's ever tasted. And nash is all warm broad shoulder under plaid flannel.

I've always envied people who have a television soap opera they want to watch every day. I've looked at General Hospital and As the World Turns. Characters on these daytime dramas aren't men and women with whom I can identify. They don't reminisce about "The Not-So-Fun Side of the Sixties" or urge a second reading of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers or an annual reading of Wallace Stevens. They don't argue about whether or not Huey Newton was a thug or write about what it was like when they made love on acid. So in addition to its other pleasures. The WELL has become my soap opera, a day-to-day drama in which I am also an actor, an ongoing saga about which I wonder, "What's going to happen next?"

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