When Salon Media Group broke the news in late June that employees of ur-online community the WELL had been terminated and that assets were up for sale, a cadre of early Net adopters bristled, then rallied.
Founded in 1985 by Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand, the WELL is among the first and richest online communities. Trailblazing members of this digital society of writers and artists include sci-fi authors Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, John Schwartz of The New York Times, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, Mike Godwin of "Godwin's Law" fame and inventor Howard Rheingold. All members received an email from Salon CEO Cindy Jeffers on June 29 announcing the sale.
I got it, too. I joined the WELL in 1994, logging into a UNIX system to do so - browsers then were gimpy, having just been invented. It was brilliant, and still is. But it's a bit of a Bay Area-centric hangout, so when I moved to Madison I looked for a local equivalent.
There was a lot going on. In 2004 it was TheDailyPage.com Forum, urbane but ruthless enough to collectively beat down provocateurs. Madison.com forums were less satisfying, with volume too high and level of discourse unduly unfettered. Later I discovered a community of musicians/DJs called Mad Fam, where honesty and irreverence thrived inside protective walls.
Madfam.com has since migrated to a Facebook group, sort of - those guys now have many ways to keep in touch. "Facebook made promoting events much easier," says Timothy Hughes, a member of the group. "Madfam.com had a great run, but EDM [electronic dance music] fans are always kind of looking for something new."
The Daily Page Forum has also faced the usual challenges.
Madison.com recently began limiting page views to the site without registration, which may purify the forums by winnowing participants, or may stifle conversation. Profit and deep engagement are often at odds.
I asked web community guru Jon Lebkowsky how it's possible to make it all work. "The structure is like a fried egg, concentric circles," he said. "The yolk is top management, then volunteer hosts, then the larger number of active participants, then lurkers - people who are just listening."
Members of the WELL feel they know how to cook the egg and have already raised $100,000 to buy the WELL.
What's next? Data-mining super-corporation Facebook could be the model for our future online community experiences. Or we could band together to make something better.