The non-toxic origins — and future? — of social media
The writer Gal Beckerman on the hippies who invented social media and who understood what has since been forgotten: that conversation needs guardrails
By Gal Beckerman
Social media as we know it was born in a wooden shack in a shipyard in Sausalito. More precisely, it was born in the closet of that shack. Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, not far from the rickety houseboats floating on the edge of the bay, sat a humming and vibrating VAX computer, the size of a small refrigerator, connected to a dozen modems.
And in 1985, an eclectic group of Bay Area professors, engineers, freelance writers, and self-proclaimed futurists began dialing into those modems and talking by typing, at all hours of the day and night, about all manner of things: the worsening AIDS epidemic, their favorite Grateful Dead songs, the ethics of circumcision, the most useful UNIX commands. No one had done this before, engaged in this sort of disembodied, nearly instantaneous communication through writing. They soon began calling themselves a “virtual community.”
What was created in that closet has come to define so much about our world, and mostly because it supplanted a long underground stream of communication, one that had existed at least since the invention of moveable type. From letters and local newspapers to samizdat and zines, these analog, albeit interactive, media provided activists and dissidents the tools they needed to grow their radical ideas. They lent the intimacy and intensity and space to argue and imagine together that brought us everything from the scientific revolution to third wave feminism. Could this new digital medium, soon to swallow all others, provide those same conditions? Could it be an even more productive hothouse? And if not, what would we be losing?
The few hundred people who dialed into that VAX computer really just wanted to chat. But they also saw themselves as the first to test out these new tools, and they were soon convinced that the tools themselves had revolutionary potential. Their ability to converse in this way mesmerized them as they watched the flickering green letters on a black screen accumulate, expressing personality, wit, genuine friendship, affinity for the same eccentric hobbies. It led to some big questions about what this space that was no real physical space at all—cyberspace—could be for.
Inside that shack, a few feet from the VAX, sat John Coate, the hippie put in charge of managing this new community. He asked himself this question all the time, especially as his hours logged online grew: Was he witnessing the birth of a new source of power for anybody who wanted to upend the world? And his answer—one that should resonate with us today—was always yes, but also no.
All you’d have to do is spend a minute with Coate to appreciate the idealism that was there from the beginning. In 1986, when he started at the WELL—which is what this conversation exchange was called—he was in his early thirties, tall and thin with feathered blond hair and a style of speaking that was so slow and sticky that he had earned the nickname Tex (which we’ll call him as well). He also really liked cowboy shirts. Tex had never used a computer before in his life when he showed up for his first day of work. His most obvious skill was knowing how to fix cars. But he had spent the past decade living on a commune in Tennessee called the Farm. This seemed to be the common denominator among the first employees of the WELL: they were former communards. They had all experienced the 1970s off the grid, forming new families and connections based on what they felt was more honest stuff.
People had been using networked computers to communicate for a little more than a decade by that point, but the existing forums were limited and lacked much imagination. ARPANET, the proto-internet, was open only to a small group of academics and researchers. For anyone else with the technical know-how, a small nerd archipelago of what were known as bulletin board servers existed, spots for local teenagers to discuss Star Trek. The WELL, as conceived, was to be capacious, embracing anyone who cared to enter and hang out and stay awhile. It would be as independent and quirky as a commune, its clearest antecedent, though one held together by telephone wires.
Its co-creator was Stewart Brand, well known in the Bay Area as a sort of new age impresario, who, in the words of the cultural historian Fred Turner, had become the hub of an idiosyncratic but auspicious network that “spanned the worlds of scientific research, hippie homesteading, ecology, and mainstream consumer culture.” Where others saw in computers a bureaucratized future of punch cards and soullessness, Brand saw liberation, a tool for creativity and personal growth that could allow the individual to push beyond society’s constraints. He was best known for creating the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, a Sears, Roebuck for back-to-the-landers, which sold composting toilets, plans for geodesic domes, solar ovens, and a way of life that put great hope in technology. Brand was also, in his bones, an entrepreneur. If he had already seen himself as outfitting pioneers for the frontier, he was now looking to expand those boundaries beyond the physical, and maybe make some money doing so.
In 1984, Brand met a businessman named Larry Brilliant, who owned a company that sold a computer conferencing system called PicoSpan. Brilliant wanted to test out this new system, and he knew he could get a jump start if he handed the tools over to an established network. That’s what Brand had to offer. By the mid-1980s the Whole Earth Catalog had become the Whole Earth Review, a magazine produced on that dock in Sausalito. Together they decided to create the WELL; Brand, who had a knack for branding, got to the name after doodling for a few minutes. It was an acronym for Whole Earth ’LectronicLink (a name Tom Wolfe could love). Brilliant would supply the $100,000 VAX computer and the software, and Brand, for bringing his Whole Earth cachet and his people, would be half owner and responsible for creating an electronic petri dish, an experiment to see if authenticity could grow through computers.
And this is how Tex got to be there: he knew how communes worked, and he knew how they could fail. On the Farm, a 1,014-acre plot of land south of Nashville, where Stephen Gaskin, a spiritual guru with a cultish hold on his flock, had led his followers in the early 1970s, they governed themselves based on a rule of total openness. When a problem arose, they would have a session of “sorting it out.” These would be group confrontations, in which people were completely blunt about one another’s most minor faults. “We spent night after night talking to each other,” Tex told me. “We were going to tell the truth. We were going to be emotionally honest. Be open and see where that led.” As the Farm grew—by the mid-1970s it had passed five hundred members, with many dirty children toddling around everywhere—this became harder to do at scale. Gaskin allowed anyone to stop by and visit, and soon there seemed to be an endless stream of vagrant hippies, draft dodgers, and even mentally ill people showing up. One year there were twenty thousand visitors. This was an exercise in extreme tolerance, and Tex learned it well. All voices were welcome, even if it took patience to listen and stick it out and cut everyone slack.
What Tex brought to the WELL was a faith that communication itself could be redemptive. He believed that this was the key to self-government, to making this new virtual community work. But he’d also learned what almost anyone learns when they dabble in such a human experiment: that success rests on the fragile balance between the needs of the individual and those of the collective, a balance that had to be monitored, calibrated, and recalibrated daily. It could be exhausting. But without that vigilance, without those rules, without a structure that pointed people toward productive deliberation, things could quickly go off the rails. He’d seen it. And when he left the Farm in 1982, it was largely because Gaskin, their leader, had turned into an authoritarian, demanding too much for the collective at the expense of the individual.
At the WELL, Tex found an environment seemingly built to withstand this tension. Some of it was intentional and some a happy accident. PicoSpan, the conferencing software, gave the WELL its basic form. It was divided into a series of “conferences,” each watched over by a “host,” and then further carved up into specific “topics.” The conversations were categorized, segmented, and supervised, but there was also room to continually shift the direction as every comment nudged the group along: the structure helped delineate and allow for focus, but within was freedom and individual initiative.
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