book The Well

reviewed by Tom Janulewicz

Published in Issue No. 50 ~ July, 2001

In the beginning was The Well…

While Katie Hafner doesn’t begin the story of “the seminal online
community” this biblically, her tale of The Well is nothing less than
a creation myth. Woven into her account of visionary — and not
so visionary — businessmen and women, commune refugees, and
assorted pioneers of the electronic frontier is the story of a world
being built, of archetypal figures and the conflicts they waged on a
virtual battlefield, and of the triumphs and tragedies attending the
incorporation of any new community.

The Well — The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic
ink — was born in 1985 out of the belief “that computer
conferencing was an idea whose time was long overdue.” Physician and
entrepreneur Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand — who among other
credits founded the Whole Earth Catalog — put down stakes
in the cybernetic interstices between the counterculture and computer
culture. Distinct from the Arpanet, the precursor to the modern
Internet, and from established Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), the
founders of The Well hoped to create a space for “intelligent people
with diverse interests who were sufficiently outgoing and extroverted
that they would be naturals in the medium.”

As with the genesis of any new world, the creation of The Well
required the development of fundamental rules. In the case of this new
online community, the first commandment or prime directive was the
simply stated credo, “You own your own words.” This rule functioned as
a liability shield as much as it did a statement of personal
accountability. For the pioneering members, “[t]he Well offered new
and intriguing ways to express themselves,” and this commandment was
intended to place the onus for any potentially libelous or slanderous
online behavior squarely on the users’ shoulders.

In keeping with its role as a primal story, Hafner’s tale of The Well
features a requisite primal adversary. In the case of this electronic
heaven, a member of The Well named Mark Ethan Smith played the part of
the angel who dared to challenge the status quo. Smith, the nom de
post of a woman in Berkley, California, had a knack for disrupting The
Well’s admittedly easygoing social contract, both in the tenor of her
online conversations and confrontations and in her offline hounding of
fellow Well members. According to Hafner, Smith’s behavior eventually
became so disruptive that the Well’s Director suspended her access,
effectively casting her out of the community.

If Hafner deals with Smith’s rebellion and banishment in fairly short
order, she spends much more time on the story of Tom Mandel. Among the
earliest members of the Well, he was its coyote, its trickster spirit,
capable of provoking intense reactions — many of them negative
— among his fellow denizens with the content and tenor of his
contributions to The Well. Of course, like any good trickster,
Mandel’s meddling occasionally went too far. When his relationship
with his offline sometimes lover and fellow Well member Maria “Nana”
Syndicus hit a rough patch, Mandel worked through his anger online,
ultimately deleting a large swath of The Well’s content. This led to
his temporary banishment, but ultimately, he returned from exile and
resumed his customary, contrarian seat at the table.

What is most notable about Hafner’s account of Mandel’s Well persona
is not his disruptive attitude but rather what it implies about the
online world. Like Smith before him, Mandel created a rich,
contentious life for himself on a new plane of human existence and
interaction. Most of his friends in the real world knew nothing of the
decade Mandel devoted to the Well until he chose to show them that
part of himself. What stands out about Mandel and Smith’s stories is
the realization that identity in the online world — a world
where identity is constructed and propagated via text — is both
a variable and an intentional proposition. Both Smith and Mandel
carved out personae for themselves, and occupied roles and functions
consistent with their personas. Even if the online Tom Mandel and Mark
Ethan Smith were not fundamentally different from their real world
archetypes, the way Mandel and Smith conducted themselves on The Well
fulfilled a need, either personal or communal; each became what they
and The Well needed them to be.

Even more to the point, both these examples indicate that in
pioneering societies the community becomes a self-regulating entity.
Ultimately, there was something about Smith that was so disruptive
that she was perceived as too other to ever fit into the community.
Meanwhile, Mandel’s behavior, even when it became more disruptive, was
tolerated, even forgiven. Granted, “the community” is a collective
abstraction. While the Well’s membership weighed in on and doubtless
influenced enforcement of The Well’s social contract, the keys to the
kingdom were vested in the human hands of The Well’s various

Unlike most creation stories, The Well does not serve any
particular doctrine or agenda. If anything, the mythological tradition
that Hafner’s story reflects is uniquely American, or at the very
least uniquely capitalist. Anyone who ever worked at a startup
company, or listened to a friend cry in their coffee over life in a
startup — especially one that hits the big time through good
fortune or buyout — will recognize the legend of The Well.

Like any startup, The Well began with as much chaos as structure. Its
early existence was eked out on an economic and technological
shoestring. As The Well grew and evolved, new owners came on the scene
and tried to impose a more corporate (i.e., profit focused) mentality
on the community. With a new owner who saw the acquisition as an asset
first and a community second, the old guard began drifting away, and
those who remained miss the pioneering spirit of the earliest days.
The result, in Hafner’s assessment, was “the tired, predictable feel
of the place.” She quotes founding member Howard Rheingold’s
recollection of his disillusionment with the community he helped
create as follows: “After more than a decade on The Well, I found that
I could predict who would react and how. And so I started asking
myself: Why bother? Eventually I turned into little more than a

This of course, is the nature of any revolution. What was fresh,
exciting, and evolutionary becomes mundane and commonplace. As time
moves on and new people who weren’t there at the beginning of the
revolution begin to move in, they naturally change and co-opt —
even if benignly — the spirit of the revolution. The accretion
of new contexts and perspectives adapt and transform the original
mythology into something suitable to the new status quo.

The Well began as an article for Wired magazine, and the book
bears the stamp of its journalistic origins. Hafner brings her readers
through the story of the Well clearly, concisely and engagingly.
What’s more, Hafner knows when the to let the people who where there
speak for themselves. The book includes copious original posts —
reprinted with typos and all — from Well members that enrich the
story more effectively than a synopsis of those conversations could
ever have achieved.

If anything is missing from Hafner’s narrative it is conclusions. She
presents the who, what, where, when, and why of The Well so
non-judgmentally that while the facts are sufficient to speak for
themselves, the reader is occasionally left wondering, “Yes, but what
does it all mean?” Hafner presents the story of the Well with
few distractions and digressions. While this makes the book a sterling
example of narrative cohesion, it also fosters an impression that The
Well evolved in a vacuum rather than being in the vanguard of the
online revolution. This may be a function of Hafner’s already having
told the story of the Internet in her earlier book Staying Up
. While Hafner points out that The Well had a cachet and an
influence far greater than its relatively moderate size, she is
ultimately more concerned with the interior world of The Well rather
than the impact it had — and continues to have — on the
exterior world.

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Tom Janulewicz lives with his wife and daughter in Shirley, Massachusetts. He is serious. And don't call him Shirley.