|WELL Done! Howard Rheingold Talks About Community and Electric Minds
By Curtis Lang
Online pioneer Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community and the first editor of HotWired, is an online pop ikon, who "virtually" embodies the hip, techno-communitarian spirit of the original Internet culture of the early Eighties (and Nineties). Populated by cyber-hippies, UNIX gurus and tweedy professors, this culture built the networking infrastructure and created the social (and software) protocols that we take for granted today. Now Rheingold has become a Netrepreneur. He is the visible force behind Electric Minds (www.minds.com), a global psychedelic chat room and transcontinental social hub, where the digerati can meet and greet their peers --in English, of course. Electric Minds offers continent spanning columnists with cyberspatial 'tude reporting from Tokyo, Paris, New York and the heart chakra of cyberspace, Silicon Valley. Electric Minds members--who register for free--can talk back to columnists about the issues raised in the columns. Their messages are aggregated on threaded message boards displayed next to the hypertext stories on a single WWW page, encouraging readers to hop back and forth between the message board and the story, which is full of hypertext links of its own. Although the conversations can be lively, the messages boards are not easy to search for interesting threads. More intensive and extensive moderation is needed to guide the conversations into new and interesting territory and to lower the noise level on the forums.
But however hip the content, and however smokin' the graphics, this is not cutting edge technology. In the dawning era of the intranet, the extranet, and groupware for the Internet itself, this technology seems as quaint as the psychedelic prints on Rheingold's trademark Hawaiian shirts. Electric Minds is really a lot like the WELL with a face-lift. Its threaded message boards, which are somewhat slow to respond, are built from WELL-engaged software, licensed from--you guessed it--the WELL.
Functionality-wise, the only major difference between Electric Minds and the original WELL, is a two-dimensional cartoon chat room based on software licensed from The Palace. Surprisingly, it worked on my Mac 9500, but do the digerati really want to dress up as pseudonymous pink furry creatures with custom body parts and fluttering eyebrows? Then engage in serious debate about the social and business evolution of cyberspace?
Those who just want a rush out of Web technology in 1997 and 1998 will be turning to an increasing number of "Virtual Webs" where users can point-and-click their way through 3-D chat rooms and gamespaces, so here again, Electric Minds offers retro-Web technology to its sophisticated target audience. Companies like Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and SoftBank are betting lots of investment and advertising dollars on Electric Minds. Enquiring minds want to know -- why? And how?
Advertisers and investors seem to be betting on Rheingold to become a trend-maker, to tap into micro-markets of digerati decision makers, grok their psyches, become one with their pocketbooks and get them to buy Sun computers and Netscape servers. (Weren't they doing that anyway?)
When interviewing Rheingold, I began with some general questions, addressed to all the writers involved in this community issue of TalkBack!, then moved onto the subject of Electric Minds.
Curtis Lang: Is community too warm, fuzzy, and meaningless a concept? Is it a-political? Does it imply a group of consumers or is it more? Is it a union of citizens?
Howard Rheingold: Or gemeinshaft versus gesellschaft? Social scientists have been arguing about this for more than a century. I believe that we tend to romanticize the kind of communities that used to be characterized by village and small town life. America is filled with people whose ancestors left those communities because of ostracization or the threat of death. The place I live, San Francisco, is full of tolerant people who found their warm, fuzzy small town communities intolerant of differences in values, lifestyles, race, religion or sexual preferences. Communities with very strong norms can be very uncomfortable for those who don't fit in.
CL: What's the relationship between a community and a network?
HR: People in communities have a stake in each other's destiny, and care about one another.
CL: Does the ubiquity of the concept of cybercommunity reflect a crisis in community in real life (RL)?
HR: Of course it does. We use automobiles and air conditioners and elevators and airplanes because they give us freedom and power. We are now learning that suburbs and walled-in porches and skyscrapers and a rootless mobile population can lead to and exacerbate alienation. To say nothing of television and advertising. This is the condition that computer mediated communication found us in, not a condition that was created solely by e-mail! If we use this new tool to further that alienation, to substitute for human contact, we'll be in even greater trouble. If we use it to make contact with other human beings, then get out from behind the screen and get to know those people, are we better or worse off than in a world in which the only screen is the television?
CL: If values are what's shared in a community, does that also imply that they need to be communicated or proselytized?
HR: The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic traditions have caused tens of millions of deaths in their zeal to make sure that their values are shared. How values are transmitted, and how to deal with differences between value systems is an area where simple answers can lead to widescale suffering.
CL: How do we gauge the success or effectiveness of a virtual or real community?
HR: Are people free? That is the first question. If the answer to that question is not yes, the other questions hardly matter. Are people happy? Prosperity doesn't bring happiness. Freedom without a notion of what life is for is not a guarantee of happiness. But the crisis of meaning encompasses more than technology. Is democracy even possible in a world with this many people who have so many differences from one another? Is the market the only way to decide how people should live? Is intolerant religious fundamentalism the only answer to soulless corporate consumerism? Are there ANY answers other than the brand of Marxism that led to even more misery than Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religion?
CL: Our readers would like to understand your history from your own point of view. As I understand it, your experience on the WELL led you to write the book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, published in 1993. In that book, you strike a most exquisite balance between utopian and dystopian visions of our digital, networked future. On the one hand, you provide histories of the people who helped build the WELL into the prototypical online community -- people helping people in support groups online, people educating people about how to communicate and work together toward group goals online, people caring for people who have handicaps, tragedies or just spiritual growing pains. And of course you provide tales of the academics, the hackers, the sysops, the heavy posters, the scientists and engineers and the others who built the Net for the common good, and added software and content over time, providing the infrastructure for the Internet as we know it. Community spirit built the Net, and community is the Net's heritage and its great strength.
In Chapter Four, you say, "'This is like a groupmind!' I remember blurting out something like that when I first visited the physical headquarters of the WELL and met Matthew McClure, the first WELL director, face to face. I might have startled him with my fervor, but he didn't disagree. The sensation of personally participating in an ongoing process of group problem-solving -- whether the problem is a tick on my daughter's head or the opportunity to help policy makers build a public network -- electrified me." On the other hand, your book is full of warnings. You warn about the potential for large corporations to take over the electronic frontier, leaching the community spirit from the Net and replacing Netculture with a multimedia amusement park run for the benefit of advertising agencies, telcos, media conglomerates and software barons, where average people are once again consigned to the role of passive, paying consumer. You warn about the potential for both big government and big business to monitor our every mouse click online, building giant cross-indexed databases containing our personal histories along with our online habits, purchases and perambulations. The virtual amusement park functions as virtual panopticon in the worst of all possible digital futures.
The Net will be what we make of it. The faults of the Net can be found in the hearts of men, not in their stars or operating systems.
To return to your personal history as it relates to the evolution of virtual communities on the Internet, I believe that you joined HotWired when it first began, but left soon after. Why was that? Did you feel that the HotWired model was unable to embrace the type of virtual community that you wanted to build? Can you tell us what your vision for HotWired was exactly? In the beginning? And in what ways did that vision conflict with what HotWired intended?
HR: I was interested in building a community that reflected the collective intelligence of the online population, but the powers that be at Wired were interested in extending the magazine model in which they were the keepers of the Wired zeitgeist and the audience were the consumers. Fair enough. That's the business they are in. That's the traditional magazine business. I wanted to explore the many-to-many capabilities of the Web. I wanted to have a half a dozen people working on the community part from the beginning, and a budget to pay people from out there in cyberspace who came in over the transom to create something new, but I was not given the resources to hire any people and no budget for freelancers.
CL: Not too long after you left HotWired you started The River (www.river.org). (Meanwhile, the WELL was passing into new ownership and preparing for a major facelift.) The River, a nonprofit organization running a virtual community on the Web, was dedicated to the proposition of electronic democracy and the idea was, if I understood it correctly, that the members would make the rules, share the costs, and enjoy the freedom of a service designed with only their best interests at heart, rather than the needs of a profit making corporation like those producing the WELL or HotWired.
What are the major problems you feel that profit making corporations such as those producing the WELL or HotWired have in creating sustainable, enjoyable virtual communities? Can you be specific, relating specific stories that illustrate this?
And how did you intend to overcome these shortcomings at The River? How many people signed up for The River, were they mainly WELL members or who were they, and how has the service evolved so far? Will The River continue as an experiment and if so, will you continue to be very involved?
HR: It was not so much the shortcomings of profit-making corporations that spurred us to create the River -- and I was just one of several hundred people involved in that effort -- as it was the realization that those who created the value of the system did not control the fate of the system. So we decided to create a cooperative corporation in which the people who ran the computers, hosted the conferences, did the customer support, made the conversations, were also the people who owned and governed the community. We hoped to proved that a group of a couple hundred people could pool their expertise and a couple hundred bucks apiece and create a sustainable, self-governing community. The original Riverites were WELL members, but it has slowly begun to create its own culture. With no money for marketing, and the usual endless stockholders meeting atmosphere that goes along with a coop, it has grown slowly. But it still exists, and I hope it will find its own special voice eventually. I am no longer involved, simply because creating Electric Minds has eaten all my time for the past year. But I wish them well and maintain my membership.
CL: Not too long after you started The River, you partnered with Randy Haykin, formerly of Yahoo! and the AOL Greenhouse, to launch Electric Minds (www.minds.com). The main idea seems to be to create elaborate threaded message boards for online discussion groups to be led by members of the digerati such as VRML guru Mark Pesce and the high priestess of HTML, Laura Lemay. Electric Minds is working very closely with sponsors, such as US West, who will perhaps sponsor various discussion groups and other types of innovative marketing vehicles, rather than the same old tired banner ads.
Can you give us the old 50 words or less description of Electric Minds, and why all self-respecting digerati will want to hang out there? How will Electric Minds differ from the WELL? What policies and rules of netiquette have you changed at Electric Minds, or are they pretty much the same? Will the same people hang out at Electric Minds, who hang out at the WELL? Who are your target users, what are the demographics? How many people have you got as members to date, and how many come to your site every week? What are the most popular parts of the site?
HR: We created something new: a hybrid of editorial content and user-generated conversation, a lively online community centered around the way technology affects the way we live, work, learn, and play. We use the same software, but we are centered on technology, and unlike the WELL, we blend paid editorial content with our unpaid user-generated content. Our target users are intelligent people who want to make good conversation and who have an interest in technology. We have around 30,000 registered users, get around 45,000 page impressions (not "hits") per day. We have a very lively free-for-all discussion in "The Commons," a place where discussion is NOT confined to technology, probably the most sophisticated group discussion of technology criticism you are likely to find online anywhere in Technos, and people from China, South Africa, Memphis, Alaska -- you name it! -- mixing it up in ThreeSixty. Techies assemble in WebTech and VRML University and people interested in futurism with a humanist twist show up in Tomorrow and FutureSurf. People who want the first word on what is likely to happen in technology in the future check out TechScan. We have regular reports from Paris, Tokyo, New York, Sydney, San Francisco, and Austin in WorldWide Jam.
CL: Can you explain your business model to me? It sounds to me like the experience is free to registered users and it costs nothing to register, so the only money you make is from advertising sponsors. Most venture capitalists have simply stopped looking at business plans that depend upon advertising revenue for income, according to a furry pink animal with long fluttering eyelashes I saw at the Electric Minds Palace chat room during happy hour this evening.
HR: We depend on technology companies who recognize the quality of our subject matter and the quality of our audience and want to associate their brand name with quality programming -- more akin to PBS sponsorship than broadcast advertising.
CL: So what makes your plan a winner? What exactly will sponsors get for their dollars? Will there be more content over time? Will there be charges for membership or some areas on the site? What's your next step with the site?
HR: We have no immediate plans for charges, but don't rule it out. Our investors are patient. They know that nobody really knows what the model for making money on the Internet will be three years from now, and recognize that we are building a very strong relationship with a highly loyal, highly qualified, technology-savvy audience, and that relationship will be very valuable.
CL: What do you consider the most exciting thing going on at the Electric Minds site right now that our readers will want to check out?
HR: If you go to the Fundamentals conference in the Virtual Community Center conversations, you will find a topic on "Knowledge Sharing" that is probably the best single discussion on that topic that you are likely to find anywhere. That's one of our goals: to have the smartest and most articulate and most knowledgeable people having the best discussions on the most important new topics. You can go to the China topic in the ThreeSixty conference of the WorldWide Jam conversations and get the most detailed, well-written, insightful word pictures of life in China today, direct from Beijing and elsewhere in the country, complete with photos. Or you can find real heart-to-heart community building in The Commons or Electric People in The Meeting of the Minds conversations. We want great technology discussions and real warm genuine community building, together in the same network of discussions.
CL: What cool new stuff will 1997 bring at Electric Minds?
HR: New content areas, new conferences and hosts that grow organically from the community, new media (sound, video).
CL: Do you cruise the message boards and the chatrooms at Electric Minds personally every day? How much of your time is taken up in meetings in the real world, and how much online collaboration is involved every week?
HR: Yes, I probably spend 3-5 hours a day in our conferences! I spend less time in the Palace (our multimedia chat environment). Unfortunately, most of my days are taken up with meetings. So I do my online stuff early in the morning, late at night, and between meetings. My hope for the future is to have fewer meetings and spend more time online!
CL: How many sysops and other online staffers are required to maintain Electric Minds? What kind of computer or computers host the site? What kind of servers do you use?
HR: We have 14 employees and are expanding to 20. I hope we don't grow to more than 25 or 20 in-house. We use Sun Microsystems' Enterprise 3000s.
CL: What is your favorite activity related to doing the Electric Minds project right now? Writing? Corresponding with others in various chats or message boards? Administering the business? Building the site? Chatting with journalists? Or what?
HR: Hanging out online. We call them conferences, not message boards. I'm not interested in administering the business, and although I enjoy chatting with journalists, it eats up creative time. We have a new President, who will be coming aboard soon, to take over day to day management. I will concentrate on community and editorial.
CL: You have correspondents in Europe and Japan. Do you expect to get many members from foreign countries at Electric Minds? Do you have many now? Do you find that language barriers, unreliable or slow connections or other barriers prevent most trans-national community building online? Was that true at the WELL, or not?
HR: We have a few, and it is steadily growing. We have people from South Africa, Japan, Costa Rica, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Singapore, India, Canada, even China! We expect that population to grow steadily as connectivity and bandwidth improve.
Curtis Lang is a journalist, new media consultant and the managing partner of WebCity Development LLC. His work has appeared in WORTH, NetGuide, New Media, The Village Voice, The Nation, Mother Jones and Advertising Age.