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Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 46, Number 3, July 2005
pp. 485-512 | 10.1353/tech.2005.0154

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Technology and Culture 46.3 (2005) 485-512

The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community

Fred Turner

In 1993, freelance journalist Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier and with it defined a new form of technologically enabled social life: virtual community. For the last eight years, he explained, he had been dialing in to a San Francisco Bay–area bulletin-board system (BBS) known as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, or the WELL. In the WELL's text-only environment, he conversed with friends and colleagues, met new people, and over time built up relationships of startling intimacy. For Rheingold, these relationships formed an emotional bulwark against the loneliness of a highly technologized material world. As he explained, computer networks like the WELL allowed us "to recapture the sense of cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology." In the disembodied precincts of cyberspace, we could connect with one another practically and emotionally and "rediscover the power of cooperation, turning cooperation into a game, a way of life—a merger of knowledge capital, social capital, and communion."

In the years since Rheingold's book appeared, the Internet and the Worldwide Web have swung into public view, and both the WELL and Rheingold's notion of virtual community have become touchstones for studies of the social implications of computer networking. Yet, despite the WELL's prominence, few have rigorously explored its roots in the American counterculture of the 1960s. As its name suggests, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link took shape within a network of individuals and publications that first came together long before the advent of ubiquitous computer networking, with the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog. In the spring of 1968, Stewart Brand, a former Merry Prankster and coproducer of the Trips Festival that helped spark the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic scene, noticed that many of his friends had begun to leave the city for the wilds of New Mexico and Northern California. As sociologists and journalists would soon explain, these migrants marked the leading edge of what would become the largest wave of communalization in American history. Brand had just inherited a hundred thousand dollars in stock and, as he recalled several years later, imagining his friends "starting their own civilization hither and yon in the sticks" got him thinking about the L.L.Bean catalog. This in turn led him to fantasize something he called the "Access Mobile" that would offer "all manner of access materials and advice for sale cheap," including books, camping gear, blueprints for houses and machines, and subscriptions to magazines.

The publication that grew out of that fantasy would quickly become one of the defining documents of the American counterculture. Sized somewhere between a tabloid newspaper and a glossy magazine, the sixty-one-page first Whole Earth Catalog presented reviews of hand tools, books, and magazines arrayed in seven thematic categories: understanding whole systems, shelter and land use, industry and craft, communications, community, nomadics, and learning. Over the next four years, in a series of biannual issues, the Catalog ballooned to more than four hundred pages, sold more than a million-and-a-half copies, won a National Book Award, and spawned dozens of imitators. It also established a relationship between information technology, economic activity, and alternative forms of community that would outlast the counterculture itself and become a key feature of the digital world.

Like other members of the counterculture, those who headed back to the land suffered a deep ambivalence toward technology. On the one hand, like their counterparts on the New Left they saw the large-scale weapons technologies of the cold war and the organizations that produced them as emblems of a malevolent and ubiquitous technological bureaucracy. On the other, as they played their stereos and dropped LSD many came to believe that small-scale technologies could help bring about an alternative to that world. Dancing at the Trips Festival or simply sitting around getting high with friends, many experienced a sense of spiritual interconnection. By the late 1960s, social theorists such as Charles Reich and Theodore Roszak had begun to argue that this interconnection could become the...

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