April 1, 2005 4:00 AM PST

The Well celebrates 20th birthday

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One of the oldest and most celebrated online communities is celebrating its 20th birthday on Friday.

Founded in 1985 as a humble computer conferencing system with six dial-up modems, The Well soon blossomed into a "literate watering hole," luring tens of thousands of artists, technologists and writers.

"It's really something that you're not going to see anywhere else," said Gail Williams, director of communities. "It seems to have a tremendous momentum, no matter what happens."

The Well was the creation of Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, who squirreled away the original VAX server in a corner of Whole Earth's decrepit offices in Sausalito, Calif. Before long, The Well's conferences became known for intelligent conversation and were attracting luminaries like Kevin Kelly (a Wired Magazine editor) and Mitchell Kapor (the founder of Lotus Development Corporation).

Some of The Well's discussions marked turning points in the history of the Internet. A post from John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist, prompted Kapor to jet to Wyoming where the two created the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In another, Barlow famously invoked science fiction writer William Gibson's term "cyberspace" to apply to the Internet of the present.

Sometimes participants seemed to regret disclosures made in the chatty confines of the conferences. When James Rutt, a prominent Well member in the 1990s, became chief executive of Network Solutions, he raised eyebrows by deleting hundreds of his posts to avoid possible embarrassment.

Wired Magazine devoted a cover story to The Well in 1997, describing how the life and death of Tom Mandel (who created Time magazine's online presence) played out in the free-wheeling discussions.

Back in the text-based days of the 1980s, "Wellperns" were forced to use a clunky interface called Picospan. It was an unloved creation: Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs once called it the ugliest interface he had ever seen. Picospan is still used for one-quarter of the posts made today.

As the commercial Internet expanded and Web sites and mailing lists became more visible, The Well began to lose members and is now hovering around a count of 4,000. Its purchase in 1999 by Salon.com breathed some life back into the service by adding new hardware and fostering development of a Web-based method to participate in the members-only conferences.

"When we did our 10th anniversary, I was very tense about the future of The Well," Williams said. "But now I'd be very surprised not to see a 40th."

 

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