The WELL Experiment in Community

I ran across this quote the other day by Alan Bennett. I’m not sure who he is, but I believe he is a writer and humorist. He said, “We started trying to set up a small anarchist community, but the people wouldn’t obey the rules.” It immediately brought to mind the founding of the WELL. One of the aspects I admire about online communities is their egalitarian nature. Everyone knows your name, but no one knows the type or size of house you live in, the kind of car you drive, the cost of the clothes you wear, or where your children go to school…unless, of course, you want them to know.

5 thoughts on “The WELL Experiment in Community

  • August 29, 2006 at 2:42 pm
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    Online communities are egalitarian in the sense that many people who have experienced discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sex, disability, race, cultural heritage, etc. may find that those factors become less significant factors for judgments regarding status in the virtual community – in part perhaps because they are not seen; however, the fact is – there is still status in the online world. It is not as egalitarian as it purports. Where white skin and male status may be the currency in the business world (along with other things), online, the currency often includes the ability to write and communicate effectively for the medium. Rheingold alludes to this in his chapter to some degree (1993).

    In addition, the technology itself creates stratification (perhaps even division) from administrator to observer – some people have more rights and freedoms (as well as accompanying responsibilities perhaps) as others. For example, one could look at Rheingold’s example of the moderator who completed scribbled himself out – and eliminated an entire conference online because he had access to know that some people have power that others don’t (1993). Online may be egalitarian in the sense of the prominent issues we associate with stratification in American culture – but it creates an entirely new social stratosphere – one in which some are not even allowed in (by virtue of not having the technology or or the know-how), others achieve fame through wit and verbal proficiency, and others can set themselves up as the benevolent dictator (aka administrator). There are still power issues – the question we may want to ask is how is power orientated within the online world – and within specific online communities.

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  • August 29, 2006 at 8:02 pm
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    Brenda, you’re so right in so many ways, but I think that there are limits on just how egalitarian ANY community can be. The online community comes very close to treating its members equally. Power will always be sought and wielded. It’s in the human nature no matter what the environment. Even in the community of a Catholic convent some hold more power than others. I also believe that reward and punishment figure into the equation. If you break the rules, you get punished. If you do really well, you become a moderator or a mother superior. In the local Conservative synagogue (I am a Jew, but not a member of the shul.), the Friday-night services are egalitarian, meaning that both women and men can lead and participate in religious services together. Of course, if you attend, but you can’t read and speak Hebrew, you won’t be able to lead, so it isn’t 100% egalitarian. On Saturday mornings, the men and women pray separately, and the women do not count in the minyan (the 10 men who must be present in order for the prayers to take place). Power issues can’t even be stricken from a commune…perhaps de-emphasized, but not omitted entirely. Now as far as some people in the WELL community distinguishing themselves on the basis of writing talent or wit, differences in skill will always become apparent.

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  • August 31, 2006 at 12:22 pm
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    Right on, I love this conversation. The egalitarianism Rheingold is talking about is projective and ideological. It is premised on technological and cultural expectations. It relies on the promise of “cleansing the self” electronically before joining the others, so that we could be more receptive of their differences. The reality is that we still carry a lot of hang ups, as the hippies would say, when we move to “the other side” of the world… More about this next week…

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  • September 4, 2006 at 4:26 pm
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    Susie I agree with your statement (August 29, 2006) that there are limits to human potential for egalitarianism; however, I’m not sure that an online community comes any closer to treating those involved equally. There is the promise of a ritual “electronic cleansing” as it were, that Soren mentions above (August 31, 2006) but there are definitely those on the “in” and those on the “out” in part based on their credibility. The discrimination issues of the most recent “real world” (gender, race, class, etc…) may have less of a bearing, which is great if it is true- but one’s ability to be credible – on the basis of the group-mind’s perception determines value as described by Seabrook (1997) as does one’s ability to follow the rules (Huelsing, August 29, 2006). Not everyone gets to be a moderator. Who decides? There is still a power differential in the online community. The question is whether a different “who” has the power and what will they do with it in a given community.

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  • September 5, 2006 at 9:02 am
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    Brenda, I agree wholeheartedly. It’s survival of the fittest. If one doesn’t like the community or can’t hack the criticism, at the very least, this environment can be left behind in favor of some other environment. Yes, it is totally human for one or two to step forward to be the leaders, the decision-makers. You know the old comment, “Who died and left you to be the king?” People in a group will jockey for position, and some will be left at the starting gate. It really isn’t very democratic at all online. The one aspect I appreciate is that, at least in concept, everyone knows your name, but no one knows the color of your skin, your country of origin, your economic status, etc. It begins on a level playing field, but then writing ability, vocabulary, and the ability to bring new levels of understanding and knowledge to the table
    begin to create what I would like to coin as a “statusphere”…a caste system of a very different kind. Remind me to tell you a little story about a commune that I had the “privilege” to visit in the early ’70s. Democratic, no!

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