cover image The Well: The Epic History of the First Online Community

The Well: The Epic History of the First Online Community

Katie Hafner. Carroll & Graf Publishers, $21 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-0846-8

If this slim volume about a model online community is any indication, there's no end in sight to accounts of the trailblazers of the Internet revolution, despite the recent fits in the market. Standing for Whole Earth `Lectronic Link, the Well was founded in 1984 by two visionary men: Stewart Brand and the aptly named Larry Brilliant. Brand was the legendary founder of the holistic do-it-yourself guide The Whole Earth Catalog, who contributed space in Sausalito, Calif., to the project, while Brilliant was a millionaire philanthropist who put up the software and hardware. They went online in 1985 with the idea of creating a virtual, latter-day salon rather than just another electronic bulletin board. Word of mouth spread quickly and soon the Well developed a distinctly Bay Area, post-hippie ambience that proved intensely magnetic to its members. Although membership peaked at only around 10,000, the Well's influence extended well beyond its members (another book could be written on the failed craze to build Well-like online communities throughout the Web). Hafner spices up the not-always dramatic story of the Well's business troubles with lengthy examples of the sort of literate, leftist, free-range discussions that were its bread and butter. Avoiding hyperbole, her style reflects her ease with a topic she's covered for the New York Times and in such respected books as Cyberpunk and Where Wizards Stay Up Late, though some readers may feel she skims too quickly over some dramatic stories about the love, rage and tears that the Well Beings (as they called themselves) poured into their keyboards over the years. (May)