Week 2: Virtuality and Community on the Well

// Posted by on 05/21/2015 (6:39 PM)

This week’s reading is a lesson on the early start of the chat room experience. With The Whole Earth Catalog as a model for “one of the most influential computer networks to date – the Whole Earth Lectronic Link (or Well)” as we read, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant began what would intrinsically link people from different cultures and backgrounds from around the world via communication on a central computer. Initially the WELL was a teleconferencing system where the subscribers dialed in to connect. They were able to type messages to others in what was a ‘real time’ environment. How amazing this must have been! Chatting with another person in real time. Exchanging ideas and thoughts bringing people together in a new and exciting way. We read that many different groups came together and it became a sort of communal environment with wide reaching geographic possibilities.

I envision the WELL as a social medium for the exchange of ideas both on the business level and non-business level. To be able to log in and talk in real time with others was a great technological advance. It was a way of bringing people together from all political and social settings. It was a way to converse with others with different political views or social views and build a sense of community even if there was disagreement. I see this as kin to today’s social media avenues like LinkedIn where you can email and send instant messages to others, Facebook which allows for immediate conversation back and forth and Twitter which is a constant live feed of information (sometimes too much!) The internet provided a method for instant gratification much like it does today. We ask a question and we immediately are provided an answer. I see friends asking questions on Facebook about recommendations for a restaurant and immediately people are responding with suggestions. The WELL was the beginning of much bigger things to come.

In the old style chat rooms (which I remember well), you could be anonymous or you could be yourself. Some chat rooms were private and required an invitation to join while others were open to the public. The chat room was preparing us for even faster and more technologically advanced social media systems like the ones we use today. The internet has always connected people with information but now people were connecting with other people. The WELL much like the chat room had categories of interest for the user to select from. It was almost like shopping online is today. We search for our individual interests. The connection of man with computer was further developed via the WELL and via chat rooms. The two forever linked in mutual benefit. The network has to be functional for the interpersonal communication to evolve and attract users. I can  personally recall being in a chat room with friends or family and the system going down. How frustrating! The link between the people and the machine was then broken. But, in the development of what was to eventually come, this was a first step of minor inconvenience to the user.

I think Turner’s take on the WELL is dynamic in that he examines every possible aspect of the communication cycle and who is communicating and what social norm could be affected. He talks about the public vs. private aspect of the WELL and how the lines could be blurred. As he said in the chapter, making the information available in the network the value of the information increased. I like the example he uses of the Librarian who used the WELL to get to know people better by just hanging out and conversing. I think that’s the overall goal of any chat room or social media site. We enjoy getting to know others and learning what they think about every day issues that we all face.

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Rosatelli said...

Hi Lois,

It was really excited for the WELL users to be able to chat with each other in a new and exciting environment. And, just think, they were willing to pay for it! This was before web advertising and “free” services like Facebook hit the web, and people knew that this was something important enough to open their wallets. You may be interested in a book that I once taught called “The Victorian Internet” by Tom Standage. It’s a wonderful read that explores the birth of the telegraph, and Standage makes the argument that the way telegraph operators “chatted” in the early years was very similar to the early web chats. When telegraph operators had down time, they would talk to each other over the lines. Eventually, they grew to know each other’s style of code and inflection. Real relationships were built, so much so that people even got married over the lines! It’s awesome to think about, because as we talk about the Internet and technology more generally, it becomes clear that people really do want to connect, what we have to ask is whether or not we are giving them the best tools to do so.

// 05/21/2015 at 8:05 pm