Book Cover the electronic version of
The Virtual Community

by Howard Rheingold

"When you think of a title for a book, you are forced to think of something short and evocative, like, well, 'The Virtual Community,' even though a more accurate title might be: 'People who use computers to communicate, form friendships that sometimes form the basis of communities, but you have to be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same thing as real community.'" - HLR
Chapter One: The Heart of the WELL
Chapter Two: Daily Life in Cyberspace: How the Computerized Counterculture Built a New Kind of Place
Chapter Three: Visionaries and Convergences: The Accidental History of the Net
Chapter Four: Grassroots Groupminds
Chapter Five: Multi-user Dungeons and Alternate Identities
Chapter Six: Real-time Tribes
Chapter Seven: Japan and the Net
Chapter Eight: Telematique and Messageries Rose: A Tale of Two Virtual Communities
Chapter Nine: Electronic Frontiers and Online Activists
Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy

Chapter One: The Heart of The Well

In the summer of 1986, my then-two-year-old daughter picked up a tick. There was this blood-bloated thing sucking on our baby's scalp, and we weren't quite sure how to go about getting it off. My wife, Judy, called the pediatrician. It was eleven o'clock in the evening. I logged onto the WELL. I got my answer online within minutes from a fellow with the improbable but genuine name of Flash Gordon, M.D. I had removed the tick by the time Judy got the callback from the pediatrician's office.

What amazed me wasn't just the speed with which we obtained precisely the information we needed to know, right when we needed to know it. It was also the immense inner sense of security that comes with discovering that real people--most of them parents, some of them nurses, doctors, and midwives--are available, around the clock, if you need them. There is a magic protective circle around the atmosphere of this particular conference. We're talking about our sons and daughters in this forum, not about our computers or our opinions about philosophy, and many of us feel that this tacit understanding sanctifies the virtual space.

The atmosphere of the Parenting conference--the attitudes people exhibit to each other in the tone of what they say in public--is part of what continues to attract me. People who never have much to contribute in political debate, technical argument, or intellectual gamesmanship turn out to have a lot to say about raising children. People you knew as fierce, even nasty, intellectual opponents in other contexts give you emotional support on a deeper level, parent to parent, within the boundaries of Parenting, a small but warmly human corner of cyberspace.

Here is a short list of examples from the hundreds of separate topics available for discussion in the Parenting conference. Each of these entries is the name of a conversation that includes scores or hundreds of individual contributions spread over a period of days or years, like a long, topical cocktail party you can rewind back to the beginning to find out who said what before you got there.

Great Expectations: You're Pregnant: Now What? Part III
What's Bad About Children's TV?
Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Initiations and Rites of Passage
Brand New Well Baby!!
How Does Being a Parent Change Your Life?
Tall Teenage Tales (cont.)
Vasectomy--Did It Hurt?
Introductions! Who Are We?
Fathers (Continued)
Books for Kids, Section Two
Gay and Lesbian Teenagers
Children and Spirituality
Great Parks for Kids
Quality Toys
Parenting in an Often-Violent World
Children's Radio Programming
New WELL Baby
Home Schooling
Newly Separated/Divorced Fathers
Another Well Baby--Carson Arrives in Seattle!
Single Parenting
Uncle Philcat's Back Fence: Gossip Here!
Embarrassing Moments
Kids and Death
All the Poop on Diapers
Pediatric Problems--Little Sicknesses and Sick
Little Ones
Talking with Kids About the Prospect of War
Dealing with Incest and Abuse
Other People's Children
When They're Crying
Pets for Kids

People who talk about a shared interest, albeit a deep one such as being a parent, don't often disclose enough about themselves as whole individuals online to inspire real trust in others. In the case of the subcommunity of the Parenting conference, a few dozen of us, scattered across the country, few of whom rarely if ever saw the others face-to-face, had a few years of minor crises to knit us together and prepare us for serious business when it came our way. Another several dozen read the conference regularly but contribute only when they have something important to add. Hundreds more every week read the conference without comment, except when something extraordinary happens.

Jay Allison and his family live in Massachusetts. He and his wife are public-radio producers. I've never met any of them face-to-face, although I feel I know something powerful and intimate about the Allisons and have strong emotional ties to them. What follows are some of Jay's postings on the WELL:

Woods Hole. Midnight. I am sitting in the dark of my daughter's room. Her monitor lights blink at me. The lights used to blink too brightly so I covered them with bits of bandage adhesive and now they flash faintly underneath, a persistent red and green, Lillie's heart and lungs.

Above the monitor is her portable suction unit. In the glow of the flashlight I'm writing by, it looks like the plastic guts of a science-class human model, the tubes coiled around the power supply, the reservoir, the pump.

Tina is upstairs trying to get some sleep. A baby monitor links our bedroom to Lillie's. It links our sleep to Lillie's too, and because our souls are linked to hers, we do not sleep well.

I am naked. My stomach is full of beer. The flashlight rests on it, and the beam rises and falls with my breath. My daughter breathes through a white plastic tube inserted into a hole in her throat. She's fourteen months old.

Sitting in front of our computers with our hearts racing and tears in our eyes, in Tokyo and Sacramento and Austin, we read about Lillie's croup, her tracheostomy, the days and nights at Massachusetts General Hospital, and now the vigil over Lillie's breathing and the watchful attention to the mechanical apparatus that kept her alive. It went on for days. Weeks. Lillie recovered, and relieved our anxieties about her vocal capabilities after all that time with a hole in her throat by saying the most extraordinary things, duly reported online by Jay.

Later, writing in Whole Earth Review, Jay described the experience:

Before this time, my computer screen had never been a place to go for solace. Far from it. But there it was. Those nights sitting up late with my daughter, I'd go to my computer, dial up the WELL, and ramble. I wrote about what was happening that night or that year. I didn't know anyone I was "talking" to. I had never laid eyes on them. At 3:00 a.m. my "real" friends were asleep, so I turned to this foreign, invisible community for support. The WELL was always awake.

Any difficulty is harder to bear in isolation. There is nothing to measure against, to lean against. Typing out my journal entries into the computer and over the phone lines, I found fellowship and comfort in this unlikely medium.

Over the years, despite the distances, those of us who made heart-to-heart contact via the Parenting conference began to meet face-to-face. The WELL's annual summer picnic in the San Francisco Bay area grew out of a face-to-face gathering that was originally organized in the Parenting conference. We had been involved in intense online conversations in this conference all year. When summer rolled around we started talking about doing something relaxing together, like bringing our kids somewhere for a barbecue. In typical WELL fashion, it quickly amplified to a WELLwide party hosted by the Parenting conference. Phil Catalfo reserved a picnic site and the use of a softball field in a public park.

Parents talk about their kids online--what else?--and therefore we all already knew about my daughter Mamie and Philcat's son Gabe and Busy's son, the banjo player, but we had not seen many of them before. I remember that when I arrived at the park, Mamie and I recognized one particular group, out of the first half-dozen large parties of picnickers we saw in the distance. There was just something about the way they were all standing, talking with each other in knots of two or three, while the kids ran around the eucalyptus grove and found their way to the softball diamond. I remember playing on the same team with a fellow who never ceases to annoy me when he wrenches every conversation online around to a debate about libertarianism; I remember thinking, after we had darn near accomplished a double play together, that he wasn't such a bad guy.

It was a normal American community picnic --people who value each other's company, getting together with their kids for softball and barbecue on a summer Sunday. It could have been any church group or PTA. In this case, it was the indisputably real-life part of a virtual community. The first Parenting conference picnic was such a success that it became an annual event, taking place around the summer solstice. And kids became a fixture at all the other WELL parties.

Another ritual for parents and kids and friends of parents and kids started in the winter, not long after the picnic tradition began. For the past four or five years, in December, most of the conference participants within a hundred miles, and their little ones, show up in San Francisco for the annual Pickle Family Circus benefit and potluck. One of the directors of this small circus is a beloved and funny member of the WELL community; he arranges a special block of seats each year. After the circus is over and the rest of the audience has left, we treat the performers, the stagehands, and ourselves to a potluck feast.

Albert Mitchell is an uncommonly fierce and stubborn fellow--many would say pugnacious--who argues his deeply felt principles in no uncertain terms. He can be abrasive, even frightening, in his intensity. He gets particularly riled up by certain topics--organized religion, taxation, and circumcision--but there are other ways to cross him and earn some public or private vituperation. I discovered that I could never again really be too frightened by Albert's fierce online persona--the widely known and sometimes feared "sofia"--after seeing him and his sweet daughter, Sofia, in her clown suit, at a Pickle potluck. He gave me a jar of honey from his own hive at that event, even though we had been shouting at each other online in ways that probably would have degenerated into fisticuffs face-to-face. At the Pickle Family Circus or the summer picnic, we were meeting in the sacred space of Parenting, not the bloody arenas of WELL policy or politics.

The Parenting conference had been crisis-tested along with the Allisons, and had undergone months of the little ups and downs with the kids that make up the normal daily history of any parent, when one of our most regular, most dear, most loquacious participants, Phil Catalfo, dropped a bombshell on us.

Topic 349: Leukemia

By: Phil Catalfo (philcat) on Wed, Jan 16, '91

404 responses so far

<linked topic>

I'd like to use this topic for discussing leukemia, the disease, both as it affects my family and what is known about it generally.

We learned early last week that our son Gabriel, 7 (our middle child), has acute lymphocytic leukemia, aka ALL. I will be opening one or more additional topics to discuss the chronology of events, emotions and experiences stirred up by this newly central fact of our lives, and so on. (I'm also thinking of opening a topic expressly for everyone to send him get-well wishes.) I intend for this topic to focus on the disease itself--his diagnosis and progress, but also other cases we know about, resources (of all types) available, etc. etc.

If Tina has no objection, I'd like to ask the hosts of the Health conf. to link any/all of these topics to their conf. I can't think offhand of where else might be appropriate, but I'm sure you'll all suggest away.

The first thing I want to say, regardless of how it does or doesn't pertain to this particular topic, is that the support and love my family and I, and especially Gabe, have been receiving from the WELL, have been invaluable. This turns out to have a medical impact, which we'll discuss in good time, but I want to say out loud how much it's appreciated: infinitely.

With that, I'll enter this, and return as soon as I can to say more about Gabe's case and what I've learned in the past week about this disease and what to do about it.

404 responses total.

# 1: Nancy A. Pietrafesa (lapeche) Wed, Jan 16, '91 (17:21)

Philcat, we're here and we're listening. We share your hope and a small part of your pain. Hang on.

# 2: Tina Loney (onezie) Wed, Jan 16, '91 (19:09)

Phil, I took the liberty of writing to flash (host of the Health conf) and telling him to link whichever of the three topics he feels appropriate. I very much look forward to you telling us all that you can/are able about Gabe. In the meanwhile, I'm thinking about Gabriel and your entire family. Seems I remember Gabe has quite a good Catalfic sense of humor, and I hope you're able to aid him in keeping that in top form. . . . Virtual hugs are *streaming* in his direction. . . .

The Parenting regulars, who had spent hours in this conference trading quips and commiserating over the little ups and downs of life with children, chimed in with messages of support. One of them was a nurse. Individuals who had never contributed to the Parenting conference before entered the conversation, including a couple of doctors who helped Phil and the rest of us understand the daily reports about blood counts and other diagnostics and two other people who had firsthand knowledge, as patients suffering from blood disorders themselves.

Over the weeks, we all became experts on blood disorders. We also understood how the blood donation system works, what Danny Thomas and his St. Jude Hospital had to do with Phil and Gabe, and how parents learn to be advocates for their children in the medical system without alienating the caregivers. Best of all, we learned that Gabe's illness went into remission after about a week of chemotherapy.

With Gabe's remission, the community that had gathered around the leukemia topic redirected its attention to another part of the groupmind. Lhary, one of the people from outside the Parenting conference who had joined the discussion of leukemia because of the special knowledge he had to contribute, moved from the San Francisco area to Houston in order to have a months-long bone-marrow transplant procedure in an attempt to abate his own leukemia. He continued to log onto the WELL from his hospital room. The Catalfos and others got together and personally tie-dyed regulation lab coats and hospital gowns for Lhary to wear around the hospital corridors.

Many people are alarmed by the very idea of a virtual community, fearing that it is another step in the wrong direction, substituting more technological ersatz for yet another natural resource or human freedom. These critics often voice their sadness at what people have been reduced to doing in a civilization that worships technology, decrying the circumstances that lead some people into such pathetically disconnected lives that they prefer to find their companions on the other side of a computer screen. There is a seed of truth in this fear, for virtual communities require more than words on a screen at some point if they intend to be other than ersatz.

Some people--many people--don't do well in spontaneous spoken interaction, but turn out to have valuable contributions to make in a conversation in which they have time to think about what to say. These people, who might constitute a significant proportion of the population, can find written communication more authentic than the face-to-face kind. Who is to say that this preference for one mode of communication--informal written text--is somehow less authentically human than audible speech? Those who critique CMC because some people use it obsessively hit an important target, but miss a great deal more when they don't take into consideration people who use the medium for genuine human interaction. Those who find virtual communities cold places point at the limits of the technology, its most dangerous pitfalls, and we need to pay attention to those boundaries. But these critiques don't tell us how Philcat and Lhary and the Allisons and my own family could have found the community of support and information we found in the WELL when we needed it. And those of us who do find communion in cyberspace might do well to pay attention to the way the medium we love can be abused.

Although dramatic incidents are what bring people together and stick in their memories, most of what goes on in the Parenting conference and most virtual communities is informal conversation and downright chitchat. The model of the WELL and other social clusters in cyberspace as "places" is one that naturally emerges whenever people who use this medium discuss the nature of the medium. In 1987, Stewart Brand quoted me in his book The Media Lab about what tempted me to log onto the WELL as often as I did: "There's always another mind there. It's like having the corner bar, complete with old buddies and delightful newcomers and new tools waiting to take home and fresh graffiti and letters, except instead of putting on my coat, shutting down the computer, and walking down to the corner, I just invoke my telecom program and there they are. It's a place."

The existence of computer-linked communities was predicted twenty-five years ago by J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, research directors for the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), who set in motion the research that resulted in the creation of the first such community, the ARPANET: "What will on-line interactive communities be like?" Licklider and Taylor wrote in 1968: "In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. . . ."

My friends and I sometimes believe we are part of the future that Licklider dreamed about, and we often can attest to the truth of his prediction that "life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity." I still believe that, but I also know that life online has been unhappy at times, intensely so in some circumstances, because of words I've read on a screen. Participating in a virtual community has not solved all of life's problems for me, but it has served as an aid, a comfort, and an inspiration at times; at other times, it has been like an endless, ugly, long-simmering family brawl.

I've changed my mind about a lot of aspects of the WELL over the years, but the sense of place is still as strong as ever. As Ray Oldenburg proposed in The Great Good Place, there are three essential places in people's lives : the place we live, the place we work, and the place we gather for conviviality. Although the casual conversation that takes place in cafes, beauty shops, pubs, and town squares is universally considered to be trivial, idle talk, Oldenburg makes the case that such places are where communities can come into being and continue to hold together. These are the unacknowledged agorae of modern life. When the automobilecentric, suburban, fast-food, shopping-mall way of life eliminated many of these "third places" from traditional towns and cities around the world, the social fabric of existing communities started shredding.

Oldenburg explicitly put a name and conceptual framework on that phenomenon that every virtual communitarian knows instinctively, the power of informal public life:

Third places exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality. Within these places, conversation is the primary activity and the major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality. Third places are taken for granted and most have a low profile. Since the formal institutions of society make stronger claims on the individual, third places are normally open in the off hours, as well as at other times. The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.

Such are the characteristics of third places that appear to be universal and essential to a vital informal public life. . . .

The problem of place in America manifests itself in a sorely deficient informal public life. The structure of shared experience beyond that offered by family, job, and passive consumerism is small and dwindling. The essential group experience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals. American life-styles, for all the material acquisition and the seeking after comforts and pleasures, are plagued by boredom, loneliness, alienation, and a high price tag. . . .

Unlike many frontiers, that of the informal public life does not remain benign as it awaits development. It does not become easier to tame as technology evolves, as governmental bureaus and agencies multiply, or as population grows. It does not yield to the mere passage of time and a policy of letting the chips fall where they may as development proceeds in

other areas of urban life. To the contrary, neglect of the informal public life can make a jungle of what had been a garden while, at the same time, diminishing the ability of people to cultivate it.

It might not be the same kind of place that Oldenburg had in mind, but so many of his descriptions of third places could also describe the WELL. Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall. Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and true commitment to one another. In either case, we need to find out soon.


The feeling of logging into the WELL for just a minute or two, dozens of times a day, is very similar to the feeling of peeking into the caf‚, the pub, the common room, to see who's there, and whether you want to stay around for a chat. As social psychologist Sara Kiesler put it in an article about networks for Harvard Business Review: "One of the surprising properties of computing is that it is a social activity. Where I work, the most frequently run computer network program is the one called `Where' or `Finger' that finds other people who are logged onto the computer network."

Because we cannot see one another in cyberspace, gender, age, national origin, and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics public. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated--as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not talking).

One of the few things that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, England, France, and the United States all agree on is that expanding their circle of friends is one of the most important advantages of computer conferencing. CMC is a way to meet people, whether or not you feel the need to affiliate with them on a community level. It's a way of both making contact with and maintaining a distance from others. The way you meet people in cyberspace puts a different spin on affiliation: in traditional kinds of communities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; in virtual communities, you can get to know people and then choose to meet them. Affiliation also can be far more ephemeral in cyberspace because you can get to know people you might never meet on the physical plane.

How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we search through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values and interests. We then exchange information about one another, disclose and discuss our mutual interests, and sometimes we become friends. In a virtual community we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions or who use words in a way we find attractive. In this sense, the topic is the address: you can't simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to talk about Islamic art or California wine, or someone with a three-year-old daughter or a forty-year-old Hudson; you can, however, join a computer conference on any of those topics, then open a public or private correspondence with the previously unknown people you find there. Your chances of making friends are magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer group.

You can be fooled about people in cyberspace, behind the cloak of words. But that can be said about telephones or face-to-face communication as well; computer-mediated communications provide new ways to fool people, and the most obvious identity swindles will die out only when enough people learn to use the medium critically. In some ways, the medium will, by its nature, be forever biased toward certain kinds of obfuscation. It will also be a place that people often end up revealing themselves far more intimately than they would be inclined to do without the intermediation of screens and pseudonyms.

The sense of communion I've experienced on the WELL is exemplified by the Parenting conference but far from limited to it. We began to realize in other conferences, facing other human issues, that we had the power not only to use words to share feelings and exchange helpful information, but to accomplish things in the real world.

Barn Raiser
The power of the WELL's community of users to accomplish things in the real world manifested itself dramatically when we outgrew our first computer. The computing engine that put-putted us around as a group of seven hundred users in 1985 was becoming inadequate for the three thousand users we had in 1988. Things started slowing down. You would type a letter on your keyboard and wait seconds for the letter to be displayed on your screen. It quickly became frustrating.

Because we had such a large proportion of computer experts among the population, we knew that the only solution to the interminable system lag that made it agonizing to read and even more agonizing to write on the WELL's database was to move to more up-to-date hardware, better suited to keeping up with the communication tasks of a hive numbering in the thousands. But the WELL's managing director, Clifford Figallo, himself an active member of the WELL community, reported that the WELL as a business entity was unable to find the kind of financing we'd need to upgrade our system.

That's when some of the armchair experts online started talking about their back-of-the-envelope calculations. If the hard-core users who had grown so irritated about the system's performance (but had realized that there was no place remotely like the WELL to turn to as an alternative) were willing to pay their next few months bills in advance, how much money would it take to buy the big iron? Half-seriously, Clifford Figallo named a figure. Within a few days, enough people had pledged hundreds of dollars each, thousands of dollars cumulatively, to get the show on the road. The checks arrived, the computer was purchased, the hardware was installed, and the database--the living heart of the community--was transferred to its new silicon body.

After suffering through the last months of the Vax, the first months of our new computer, the Sequent, was like switching from a Schwinn to a Rolls. And we had flexed our first barn-raising muscles in a characteristically unorthodox way: here were the customers, and the producers of the value that the customers buy, raising money among themselves to loan the owners of the business so they could sell themselves more of each other.

Casey's operation was another barn raising. This one was her idea. Casey was another WELL old-timer who had a job--freelance transcription and word processing services--that enabled her to work at home. Nobody ever doubts her intelligence, although her manner is often indelicate. The way she would say it, I'm sure, is that she has a "relatively low need for affiliation." The way others might say it is that Casey is a tough cookie.

Casey, whose real name is Kathleen, needed an operation that she could almost, but not quite, afford; her ability to walk was at stake. So she put up $500 to have a poster of her own design printed. The poster showed the silhouette of a head, with the title "This Is Your Mind on the WELL," and the head was filled with words and phrases that WELL users would recognize. She offered copies for sale as a benefit for her operation at $30 each. She raised the money she needed.

The most dramatic barn raising, however, was the saga of Elly, a shy and gentle and much-loved WELLite who left the virtual community, possibly forever, to travel to the farthest reaches of the Himalayas. Her saga, her crisis, and the WELL's response unfolded over period of months, and climaxed over a few intensely active days:

Topic 198: News from Elly

By: Averi Dunn (vaxen) on Wed, Aug 28, '91

263 responses so far

<linked topic>

This is the place to post any news which may come your way about Northbay's vacationing host, Elly van der Pas.

# 1: Elly van der Pas (elly) Wed, Aug 28, '91 (18:03)

Right now, I'm almost finished moving out of my house. Later tonight, I'm going to look at my stuff, and see if I have what I need for my trip, and maybe do last minute shopping tomorrow. Cleaning Friday. Gone Saturday to parts unknown. The plane leaves Monday morning. Phew!

# 6: Averi Dunn (vaxen) Mon, Sep 23, '91 (18:44)

I got another postcard from Elly on Saturday:

13 Sept


So far, so good. The weather's been beautiful, and I've been riding all over by bike. Tomorrow I'm going to London for a few days, and then to Italy by train. Should be an adventure. I went to a piano concert last night with friends of a friend, and may be sailing today. Greetings to everyone. Elly

# 22: Averi Dunn (vaxen) Thu, Nov 7, '91 (23:25)

Well, Kim, you can post the parts that don't repeat. It's good to hear any news from Elly. And with that in mind I post the following from her-own-self:

27 Oct 1991

I got your letter from Sept 14 yesterday, forwarded from Italy. Apparently they were having a post office strike of something, because one of the workers drowned in the elevator. Anyway, they didn't process mail for at least a week, so I didn't get any letters.

Anyway, you have no idea how weird it is to be sitting on a mountain in Kathmandu reading about AP2 and the WELL. Oh, I took a picture of the WELL coffee shop in London and sent it to the office. I hope they get it. I thought it was quite appropriate. Janey Fritsche showed up about a week ago, and then took off trekking. It was good to see her. My friend Peter will be here, too, in a few days, and I guess I'll come down off the mountain to spend some time renewing visas and stocking up for the month-long course. We have to stay put for that, and no mail, either, so this might be it for awhile. Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year. They've just finished their big holiday here--everyone was off work for a week, and dressed in new clothes. The kids made huge bamboo swings and went out kite flying.

I've been studying Dzogchen, which is like Tibetan Zen--meditating on the empty mind. Different from what I've done before. We stayed for awhile at a monastery way up in the hills, where there's an old abbot who specializes in pointing out the nature of the mind. It was rather an unusual opportunity.

You guys are all asleep now, except maybe for you. It's 2 pm--too late for lunch and too early for tea. Just about bath time, though, because we have a solar heater on the roof. I'm taking all my baths now, because in a week, 300 people will come here for the course, and bathing will be a fond dream. Or showering, that is.

Tell Brian and June and Josephine I said hi, and that I'm OK. I hope they got my card. I'll try to write, but don't know when I'll get time.

Take care of yourself and be happy,


# 26: Averi Dunn (vaxen) Sat, Dec 28, '91 (01:26)

The following are excerpts from a letter I received from Elly on Dec 21.


7 Nov

The course starts today so I'm incommunicado for a month.

13 Dec

Hmmm. I guess I never finished this. Lots of things have happened since then. Mainly, I've become a nun. I sent details to Hank so he could post, because I have to write about 10 letters for Peter to take back when he goes.

It's a little strange, but I feel really good about it, and I really feel it's the right move for me. Even Peter agrees.

I never wanted to be a nun (at least not before now). I always felt a little sorry for the Catholic nuns. This is a little different, though--much more freedom. It's interesting to have short hair, though. I think I'll grow it out to about 3/4$S0.:-)

PPS. My ordination name is Jigme Palmo: Glorious fearless woman (!!!?)


She also sent an address she can be reached at for the next six months. Drop me Email if you want it.

So Elly had decided to become a Buddhist nun in Asia, and therefore threatened to pass into the annals of WELL legend. The topic stayed dormant for six months. In June, former neighbor Averi Dunn, who had been typing Elly's correspondence into the WELL, reported hearing that Elly had some kind of amoeba in her liver. At the end of July 1992, Flash Gordon reported that Elly was in a hospital in New Delhi. In a coma. She had severe hepatitis and reportedly suffered liver failure. If that report turned out to be true, Flash and the other doctors online agreed that the prognosis was not good.

Within hours, people started doing things in half a dozen directions on their own initiative. The raw scope and diversity of the resources available to us by pooling our individual networks was astonishing. People who had medical connections in New Delhi were brought in; airline schedules and rates for medical evacuation were researched; a fund was started and contributions started arriving. Casey used the net to find a possible telecommunications site in New Delhi where they could relay information for Frank, Elly's ex-husband, who had flown to Asia to help with what was looking like a grave situation.

After a tense few days, the news made its way through the network that she did have some liver function left and might need access to special blood-filtering equipment before she could be moved. Within hours, we knew how to get such medical equipment in New Delhi and whose name to mention. We knew whom to call, how to ask, what it cost, and how to transfer funds to get Elly delivered to a hospital in the San Francisco region. "It gives me goosebumps," reported Onezie, as the topic unfolded on the WELL. "This is love in action."

Elly recovered enough strength to travel without medical evacuation. Her next message was direct, via the WELL:

#270: Elly van der Pas (elly) Fri, Sep 11, '92 (16:03)

Thanks to everyone for your generous WELLbeams, good wishes, prayers, advice, and contributions of green energy. The doctor thought the fast recovery was due to Actigall, but in fact it was due to beams, prayers, and pujas. He even said I might be able to go back to India in February or so.$SW-)

If paying attention to other people's interests is a kind of attracting force in cyberspace, Blair Newman was a superconducting megamagnet. He acted the same way in person that he acted in his online persona of Metaview. Metaview had a jillion wonderful schemes for what you could do with new technology. Friends of his had become billionaires. How could you make a million on the blanking interval in television signals? How about a service that records only the television programs you want to watch? How many other intelligent crazies would pay good money for Compconf Psychserv?

He had a story to tell you. His eyes would get wide, and his overgrown mustache would twitch with excitement. His hair, a magnificent and irrevocably unruly dirty-blond mop, seemed to reflect his mental state; the curlier and more out of control his hair looked, the faster it seemed his mind had been moving. At WELL parties, his mental state was manic. He'd grab you, laugh in your face, drag you halfway through the crowd to introduce you to somebody. He would start laughing at somebody's joke, and the laughter would turn into a spasm of coughing that went on for frightening lengths of time.

To me, Blair Newman's defining characteristic was his habit of calling me--and any of several dozen people he liked and admired--via telephone if I wasn't online, to tell me to turn my television or radio to one channel or the other, immediately, because there was something on that I simply must pay attention to. He was often right, and it was well meant, but there was always something eerie about it. Here is an acquaintance of many years, but not a bosom buddy, who was thinking about what television program he knew I would really like to watch at 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight. That's the way he acted on the WELL, too.

My most important bond with Blair was the kind of bond that regulars in any informal public space share. In the late 1980s, Blair and I were among a floating group of ten to thirty WELLites you could count on at any time of day to be online. We often joke about the addictive qualities of the WELL. And there always seem to be several nonjoking discussions about WELL addiction going on in different parts of the WELL. At two bucks an hour, obsessive computer conferencing is cheaper than every other addiction except tobacco.

According to my recollection of Blair's own account, he had been a newly minted Harvard M.B.A. with a high daily cocaine intake, working with Howard Hughes's notoriously abstemious legal staff, deep in their Vegas bunkers. A chain-smoker and died-in-the-wool pothead (and also, according to his own account, one of the founders of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), Blair had been, in his past, a paradigm of the classic addictive personality. He was clean in regard to his cocaine problem when he came to the WELL, however. In a series of postings, Blair related to us how he'd realized that the WELL was for him more insidiously addictive than cocaine had been.

Years after he had kicked his cocaine habit, he claimed, somebody put a line of the substance next to Blair's computer while he was logged on. It dawned on him, several hours later, that the white crystals were still there, and he had known about them, but had not mustered the energy necessary to sniff them. It wasn't a moral decision but a battle of obsessions, Blair explained--he couldn't tear his hands from the keyboard and his eyes from the screen of his current, deeper addiction long enough to ingest the cocaine. Blair shared his insight with us, as he shared every single thing that crossed his unpredictable and unrelenting mind for hours a day, every day, for years.

You have to be careful with the addiction model as applied to the range of human behavior. Is a prodigy who practices day and night a violin addict? Perhaps. Is a great actor addicted to the attention of audiences? Probably. Is addiction the proper lens for evaluating the violinist's or actor's behavior? Probably not. But nobody who has let her meal grow cold and her family grow concerned while she keeps typing furiously on a keyboard in full hot-blooded debate with a group of invisible people in faraway places can dismiss the dark side of online enthusiasm. If a person has a compelling--even unhealthily compelling--need for a certain kind of attention from intelligent peers, the WELL is a great place to find it. Blair called it Compconf Psychserv. It was cheaper than drugs, cheaper than shrinks, and it kept him off the street. He was smart enough to know what had happened to him, even as it tightened its grip.

Going after the juice of people's attention, especially large groups of intelligent people, was always part of Blair's story. He wanted to help. He wanted to impress.

Blair also got on people's nerves. His good-natured and totally unbelievably bald-faced self-promotion was part of it. He had a mythology about himself. One of his roommates had started one of the most successful software companies, according to Blair. He had worked for the upper echelons of the Howard Hughes organization, according to Blair. He had been a principal organizer of the marijuana legalization movement, according to Blair. He introduced famous computer entrepreneurs to one another in dramatic circumstances, according to Blair. It wasn't difficult to do a parody of a Blair Newman rap.

Then, after years online, and dozens of parties and excursions with other WELL members, and all the late-night phone calls with television recommendations to fellow WELLites, Blair Newman removed everything he had ever written on the WELL. For a day and a night and a day, most of the conversation on the WELL was about the trauma of mass-scribbling--the term that had emerged for the act of removing years' worth of postings. It seemed an act of intellectual suicide. A couple of weeks later, in real life, Blair Newman killed himself. A kind of myth seems to have grown up around this event, on the Net and in the mass media. The story has been distorted into a more dramatic form. In the urban folklore version that has been printed in some magazine articles, people from the WELL allegedly desperately tried to find Blair as his postings disappeared, and when his last comment was scribbled, the legend has it that he killed himself.

Most of the people at the funeral were from the WELL. But there was a surprising number of odd characters. We who were there remember the thoroughly slick fellow in the thousand-dollar suit and the three-hundred-dollar sunglasses who flew the corporate jet in from L.A. to the funeral, to tell the kind of story about Blair that Blair so frequently had told about himself. White Rastafarians showed up--marijuana legalization activists. Founders of successful software companies arrived. It was a great last laugh. As that amazing parade of people stood up in the funeral home and said their piece about Blair, it dawned on all of us that he had been telling the outrageous truth.

But when he was alive and in our faces, metaphorically speaking, in every conference on the WELL, many of us struck back with words: "Calm down, Blair," was something I said to him publicly. Bandy, who later gave Blair the software tool that enabled him to mass-scribble, started a topic in the Weird Conference (the WELL's subconscious free-fire zone) on "Day Sixteen of Your Lithium Holiday." Other remarks were even less kind, on my own part and the part of others. When you grab people's attention often, and monopolize the public soapbox, the response can be cruel. Like the legendary audience at the Apollo theater in Harlem, the WELL's audience can create a star or boo a bad performer off the stage. Blair experienced both reactions at the same time.

Sometimes, when the online banter got a little cruel, I would call Blair on the telephone and try to see what might really be the matter. We'd talk. He'd ramble until his beeper wrenched him off to another tangent. Blair was always one step ahead of the state of the art in message-forwarding technology.

It was after some weeks of fairly stormy psychic weather on the WELL that Blair obtained the virtual suicide weapon, the scribble tool. Weeks before that, Bandy, one of the WELL's technical staff, quit his job in a dispute over a personal relationship with another online character. When he quit, he used his programming expertise to create a tool that searched out everything he had ever posted to any public conference on the WELL, and deleted it, all of it. Quite a fancy trick, that, an act of programming virtuosity calculated to test the structural integrity of the social system. Bandy posted the source code for the scribble tool to the Net, which means that forevermore, anybody who wants to obtain the scribble weapon can post a request on the Net and sooner or later somebody will point to an archive where the program is stored.

The WELL's early history had established a strong relationship between the WELL and the anarchic subcommunity of volunteer programmers. For years, people had created tools, for free, and for the prestige, and because we needed them. Bandy was the first to create a weapon.

Every person who posts words in the WELL has the right to remove--scribble--those words later. Hosts have the power to scribble other people's words, but that power is severely constrained by the knowledge that the act is likely to be followed by weeks of acrimonious and repetitive debate. Hosts traditionally have scribbled comments written by other WELL users no more than once a year. Scribbling one's own comment is not as rare, but it is still far from the norm. Better to think twice before saying something, instead of saying too many things that you regret enough to scribble them, seems to be the unwritten law. Perhaps one in a thousand comments is scribbled.

You used to have to track down each comment, then follow a series of steps to scribble it. Of course, everybody should have the right to automatically remove every comment they've ever posted, now that the tool/weapon to do that exists, we decided in the endless arguments that followed its first use by Bandy, then Blair. But to actually do it is, in the eyes of many, despicably antisocial.

When Metaview used Bandy's scribble tool, the shock of ripping out several years' worth of postings from a very prolific writer made the fabric of recorded conversations, the entire history of the WELL's discourse to that point, look . . . moth-eaten. Often, as in particularly Metaview-intense topics, so much is missing that the entire thread is rendered indecipherable. It's annoying. Why be an enthusiastic member of a multiperson, multiyear word-weaving project if you plan to rip out your contributions to the conversational fabric when you leave?

The novelty of the act tempered our reactions, I think, when Bandy first mass-scribbled. The design problem of rebuilding our mental models of the WELL was perversely intriguing. The idea that the WELL seems to have a critical mass of thought-force in it that is greater than the destructive power of any one person is reinforced by the way it can withstand assaults on the commons. A lot of people cursed Blair for vandalizing the WELL that had nourished him for so long. I picked up the telephone and called him.

"Why did you do it, Blair?" I asked.

"It seemed like the thing to do at the time" is precisely what he told me. There was a flatness of affect to the way he said it. Nothing unusual there for Blair, who jumped from mood to mood during the course of a conversation. I think he really meant it. It was an impulse. The tool/weapon made it possible to follow the impulse. And that's what I reported back to the WELL community.

Nobody mistakes virtual life for real life, even though it has an emotional reality to many of us. Some kinds of impulses are simply more serious than others. Impulsive acts in real life can have more permanent consequences than even the most drastic acts in cyberspace. I asked Blair if he was feeling suicidal. He talked about it. I told him the old clich‚ about suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem. After that conversation with Blair, I talked with his friend and psychiatrist. His toying with suicide was not new. One of these times, Blair was bound to succeed. This time he did.

From the moment we heard the news, the population of the WELL went through a period of transformation. Joking around with words on a computer keyboard is one thing. Going to Blair's funeral and talking to his family face-to-face was another.

Several topics on the WELL were devoted to Blair. One of the topics, at his family's request, was for people to post eulogies. Many of the other topics, those that were not donated to his parents, were hideously violent flamewars over the way people behaved and did not behave. In the heat of argument over one topic, people who had simmering resentments dating back to previous arguments took the opportunity to haul out the big guns. Suicide brings up unusual feelings in any family or social group. Fortunately, there were one or two among us who knew exactly how to understand what was happening to us; a fellow who had struggled with years of feelings over his brother's suicide was able to offer wise and caring and credible counsel to many of us.

There was the real-life funeral, where we brought our physical bodies and embraced each other and Blair's family. We were learning how fond we had grown of Blair, and how his death put a milestone in cyberspace. Marriages had happened and others had unraveled. Businesses had started and failed. We had parties and picnics. But death seems somehow more real, even if your only participation is in the virtual funeral. How could any of us who looked each other in the eye that afternoon in the funeral home deny that the bonds between us were growing into something real?

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 were those who passionately and persistently accused the eulogizers of exhibiting a hypocrisy that stank unto the heavens, because of our not altogether charitable treatment of Blair online when he was alive. Those of us who had made the calls to Blair and his shrinks, who went out and met his brother and his mother and tried to provide them some comfort, had a different attitude toward those who couldn't bring themselves to attend the painful event in person but didn't hesitate to heckle others online. People who had to live with each other, because they were all veteran addicts of the same social space, found themselves disliking one another.

For me, it was one particularly important lesson that has been reinforced many times since then. Words on a screen can hurt people. Although online conversation might have the ephemeral and informal feeling of a telephone conversation, it has the reach and permanence of a publication.

Years have passed. Megabytes of conversation have been added to the WELL. It isn't easy to find one of the parts of the old fabric where Blair's holes are still visible. But feelings that people online have toward one another are still profoundly influenced. As one WELLite, John P. Barlow, said at the time, you aren't a real community until you have a funeral.

read on to
Chapter Two:
Daily Life in Cyberspace:

How the Computerized Counterculture Built a New Kind of Place
Return to rheingold's brainstorms