When an Internet icon crumbles, can we learn anything from its passing? Case in point: The WELL may go out of existence soon, and from a certain perspective, that's a surprise.
Once called "the world's most influential online community" on the cover of Wired magazine, at its peak the WELL counted users like the sci-fi authors Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow; visionaries like the musician Brian Eno and the virtual community expert Howard Rheingold; EFF founders John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor; and even rock stars like Billy Idol and David Crosby. The quality of its users' posts -- smart, funny, creative, and provocative on every imaginable subject -- inspired countless Internet entrepreneurs and thinkers.
But after years of slow but seemingly stable activity, the WELL's corporate owner, Salon Media Group, suddenly announced it was up for sale. Some of the WELL's last remaining members hope to buy it from Salon, but their efforts may not be enough.
In any case, as a longtime WELL member, I'm not shocked by this apparent nadir. However, if this is the end, I hope other online communities, which often exhibit similar ailments, can learn from what went wrong. Here are three key factors in the WELL's demise.
- Failure to adjust its revenue model and platform to fit the times: "In the biggest picture, the fate of the WELL was sealed once the Web began serving as a near-universal, free commons and the idea of a for-pay general-interest online community became a dead end," Scott Rosenberg, a WELL member who went on to co-found Salon, told me. The WELL was initially accessed through BBS dialup (yes, it was that hardcore), and it was difficult to scale it into the Web era and, worse, find another revenue model besides monthly subscriptions. Which leads us to another problem…
- An insular userbase resistant to change: WELL users generally resisted the idea of changing the system to allow some free access (as was quickly becoming standard). And as I recall it, these users weren't overly welcoming to newcomers. Howard Rheingold agrees on that last point. "The culture of casual [expletive]-flinging tends to scare off all but those with thicker skins," he told me via email. "The culture could have been friendlier to newcomers and to each other, but it isn't easy to say what could have been done about that."
- Real name requirements: Other WELL users may disagree with me on this point, but I strongly suspect the service's demand that people link their WELL account to their real names was a major impediment to growth. It was one thing to sign one's name to bracing opinions on sex, politics, and religion read by a few thousand other members. But as the number of members rose, so did the discomfort level. Few messaging systems have succeeded with a real name requirement, but even as pseudonym-friendly sites like Slashdot launched and grew, the WELL steadfastly kept to this guideline.
In the end, the fact that the WELL maintained enough subscribers to support itself for years gave the userbase a false sense of security. "If the community had truly faced death, as in pulling the plug on the [virtual] server, much earlier, it could have put something together," Rheingold said. "Maybe it still can. I'm pretty sure it won't completely die."
The WELL isn’t dead -- neither as a platform (hobbling along though it may be), nor certainly as a forever-diminished idea. "The spirit of Well-style community I think can still be found in other long-lived midsized online communities like Metafilter, Reddit, and so on," Rosenberg said.
For myself, I see eerie (if inexact) parallels to another virtual community I came to be involved with after the WELL: Second Life, which also once attracted hype and celebrity attention but now struggles to find a new revenue model. Its dedicated but largely insular user community shows little interest in substantial change.
There are also probably parallels in the fate of Digg, another once-popular and ballyhooed online community recently sold at firesale prices.
For that matter, in its struggle to find revenue, transition to the mobile era, and maintain user engagement despite a rule requiring real names, the WELL's fate may ultimately be shared by that somewhat larger online community known as Facebook.
— Wagner James Au is a writer and consultant in social media and gaming. He blogs about virtual worlds at New World Notes. Follow him on Twitter: @SLHamlet.