Remembering the Beginnings of Online Community, Now that the Site is up for Sale
In the late 1980s, decades before the term "social media" existed, in a now legendary and miraculously still living virtual community called "The WELL," a fellow who used the handle "Philcat" logged in one night in a panic: his son Gabe had been diagnosed with leukemia, and in the middle of the night he had nowhere else to turn but the friends he knew primarily by the text we typed to each other via primitive personal computers and slow modems.
By the next morning, an online support group had coalesced, including an MD, an RN, a leukemia survivor, and several dozen concerned parents and friends. Over the next couple years, we contributed over $15,000 to Philcat and his family. We'd hardly seen each other in person until we met in the last two pews of Gabe's memorial service.
The WELL has never been an entirely mellow place. It's possible to get thrown out for being obnoxious, but only after weeks of "thrash," as WELLbeings call long, drawn-out, repetitive, and often nasty meta-conversations about how to go about deciding how to make decisions. As a consequence of a lack of marketing budget , of the proliferation of so many other places to socialize online, and (in my opinion) as a consequence of this tolerance for free speech at the price of civility (which I would never want the WELL to excise; it's part of what makes the WELL the WELL), the growth of the WELL population topped out at around 5000 at its height in the mid-1990s. It's been declining ever since. If modest growth of new people becomes economically necessary, perhaps the atmosphere will change. In any case, I have little doubt that the WELL community will survive in some form. Once they achieve a critical mass, and once they survive for twenty-five odd years, virtual communities can be harder to kill than you'd think.
Recent years have seen critical books and media commentary on our alienating fascinatiion with texting, social media, and mediated socializing in general. University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman calls this "the community question," and conducted empirical research that demonstrated how people indeed can find "sociability, social support, and social capital" in online social networks as well as geographic neighborhoods. With so much armchair psychologizing tut-tutting our social media habits these days, empirical evidence is a welcome addition to this important dialogue about sociality and technology. But neither Philcat nor I need experimental evidence to prove that the beating heart of community can thrive among people connected by keyboards and screens as well as those conducted over back fences and neighborhood encounters.