Imagine an enormous cocktail party.
It starts with a few hundred people, but eventually grows to thousands upon thousands.
The attendees are all gabbing furiously about everything. Their conversations cover the gamut of human emotions and activities: love, hate, birth, death, hope, kindness, anger, jealousy, fear and loathing.
Now imagine that this cocktail party continues around-the-clock for 16 straight years. Could anyone possibly tell the story of what happened?
That's roughly the challenge tackled by Katie Hafner in her new book, "The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community" (Carroll & Graf, $21).
As the title suggests, The Well is a San Francisco online community that allows people to exchange messages on practically any subject imaginable.
The Well started in 1985, long before the Internet became a household word. And although it never grew to more than about 10,000 members, its fame and success helped it become the very definition of "online community."
Hafner, a reporter for the New York Times, first took up the task of describing The Well's unique history and culture to an outside audience back in May 1997, when she wrote a cover story for Wired magazine. The book follows the same approach as the Wired article, but expands on it considerably.
To bring some form to the free-flowing virtual party, Hafner builds a narrative around Tom Mandel, who embodied the intelligence, passion, fury and, on occasion, borderline madness of The Well community. His loves, his battles and his eventual demise give the story both a structure and a leading character.
But in the course of telling Mandel's tale, Hafner touches on most of the key players in The Well's history, including such digerati as Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold, Bruce Katz, Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow and some of the lesser-known folks who kept The Well up and running.
She also sheds considerable light on the combination of factors that set The Well apart from the myriad other attempts to build online communities -- attempts that are continuing, and largely failing, to this day.
Hafner acknowledges that her book tells but one of the many, many stories that could be written about The Well, a place where literally billions of words have been spilled. Obviously, a lot had to be left out.
Getting relatively short shrift in this telling is the more recent history of The Well, especially the four years since Hafner's original Wired magazine piece appeared.
Moreover, one of the most intriguing chapters in The Well's history may be about to occur -- namely, what will happen to it, given the financial difficulties of its new corporate parent, Salon.com.
Nevertheless, as one who spent a few months on The Well back when the Internet explosion was first erupting, I can vouch for Hafner's skill in evoking the spirit of the place.
If you'd like to take a dip in The Well for yourself, try visiting www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue. A good place to start might be a visit to topic No. 113, where Well members are discussing Hafner's book.
For those who have gotten a taste of online community, and those who have wondered what the fuss is about, the book is a readable introduction to the virtual place that started it all.
Who knows? You might even be intrigued enough to join. Membership is $15 a month -- steep compared with practically any site on the Net, but well worth it to many.
As Hafner puts it: "The Well is, after all, a boiled-down, concentrated essence of what people love and hate about the Net: community and intelligent discourse on the one hand, wackos, poseurs and flamers on the other."
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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