The year is 2010 and social networking site The Well celebrates its 25th anniversary, providing us with the perfect opportunity to look back in retrospective, and look forward with bleak hope. Currently there are over 500 million users on Facebook, and if Facebook were a country it would be the 3rd largest country on the planet. The news is plastered with daily reports of people using Facebook pedophile rings, twisted acts of cyber bullying, and other signs of a decaying society. Thankfully there is little talk about the millions of hours logged daily by Facebook users on the Farmville app. This was perhaps not the intention of the fathers of social networking Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant.
Rewind to 1985
In 1985 a group of free thinking hippies in California created the first social community which they dubbed the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. WELL founders, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant envisioned a public space, online, where political misfits and other rag-tag stragglers could share their thoughts and ideas. The site gained a cult-like following with dead-heads after one of the lead members of the popular band the Grateful Dead became a staunch WELL supporter.
The hippy ideologies espoused by WELL members were everything from radical to thought provoking, and the site encouraged genuinely important dialogues. Through these idea dialogues WELL members helped spawn many of the important sites we know today, including Salon.com and Craigslist. “The WELL is where I learned about online community almost twenty years ago, and its spirit inspired my current work,” said Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. “It’s the real deal, still connecting people, getting the job done.”
This online renaissance was created at a time when the Internet barely existed, and was considered a dead-end cyber black hole for socially inept geeks. Nonetheless the WELL had mild yet significant successes, and was an obvious precursor to more popular social networking sites including MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. According to The WELL, it “has been described as the world’s most influential online community by Internet historian Katie Hafner.”
The WELL still exists today, and after 25 years of providing a space for intelligent conversation via the Internet, it still toils away in anonymity, offering us a chilling critique of our current societal state.
This critique was most strongly displayed in a poignant quote by founder Stewart Brand, “once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”