John Coate - Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community

|From aa610 Fri Sep 10 00:25:27 1993
|To: tex@well.sf.ca.us
|Subject: Want permission to put Cyberspace Innkeeping on NCFree-Net
|
|Garth Graham of NCF here showed me your article.  May I have leave to
|put it online here on the Ottawa Free-Net as a permanent item?

|From tex@well.sf.ca.us Fri Sep 10 12:08:02 1993
|From: John Coate 
|To: aa610@freenet.carleton.ca
|Subject: Re:  Want permission to put Cyberspace Innkeeping on NCFree-Net
|
|yes absolutely.  Permission granted!

For the latest version, search for "Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building
Online Community" on the Internet, or try these:

   http://www.cervisa.com/innkeeping
   http://www.cervisa.com/innkeeping.html
   http://gopher.well.sf.ca.us:70/0/Community/innkeeping

The updated 1998 version is shorter than the 1993 version.

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John Coate was for six years the marketing director and conference manager
for the WELL.  During that time he was at the center of the social millieu
that formed over time into what many call the "online community."  The
following essay is a distillation of his experience there and the basic
principles he learned that made it work.
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Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community

Copyright 1992,93,98 by John Coate  tex@well.com

Early January, 1998

In the five years since I wrote the last revision to this essay, a great 
catalyst has propelled the Internet and all things online into the 
forefront of world consciousness: the World Wide Web.  Of course, 
developments such as the manufacturing of inexpensive routers, cheaper 
computers and faster modems have played a crucial role; there would be no 
popular use of the Internet and Web without them.  But it is this 
easy-to-understand platform that integrates multimedia and communication 
using HTML, a code that anyone can easily learn, that has propelled the 
Internet to center stage.  

In the process, the once-obscure notion of online or "virtual" community 
has become commonplace to the point that it is now in vogue to declare 
almost any online gathering of people a "community." Recently I said in 
joking to a friend, "these days an online community seems to be defined 
as any group of people any place, for any length of time, for any reason, 
that communicates."  And, indeed that may be right: I can concede that it 
is plausible to use the word "community" to describe a huge variety of 
social configurations. 

The first two entries of "community" in the American Heritage Dictionary 
call it 1.) a group of people living in the same locality and under the 
same government; and 2.) a group of people having common interests.  If 
you believe the "space" part of "cyberspace," and you consider that a 
Terms of Service for use of an online service could be called a kind of 
government, then #1 works in the online realm. Second, consider that 
"common interests" are the only real reason that people get online to 
communicate, then #2 works well too.  Make a hybrid of these two and it 
gives a pretty good working definition of "online community."

But, assigning the mantle of "community" to one's enterprise before the 
fact as a marketing hook just serves to cheapen the term.  Because it can 
only really be true if the people who are actively involved in it, 
declare for themselves that it is true: we are a community. 

This essay has an orientation towards the "conferencing" environment, 
which is written conversation of the asynchronous or "bulletin board" 
style. Most of my own experiences at both the WELL and my current work at 
The Gate (www.sfgate.com) have been centered around it.  But I have also 
worked for two companies, French Minitel and Ubique.com, where I focused 
almost entirely on real-time chatting.  These principles work equally 
well for chat as well as MUDs and other forms of online communication.

Over the years much has changed but the advice is still valid: do these 
things and your online offering will allow your participants a better 
chance of developing real and meaningful relationships with the people 
that they meet online. Because at its essence the advice is to be kind, 
be interested and pay attention.  Not so different than the rest of life. 
And that's the point.  As virtual as you may want to make it, it is still 
reality governed by the same operating principles as the rest of life.  
Cyberspace doesn't live outside the rest of the universe.  But it is 
still helpful to know a few tricks. 



I. Something Old, Something New

When you log into an online service, you use new tools for an ancient 
activity.  Even with all the screens and wires and chips and lines it 
still comes down to people talking to each other.  The immense potential 
of this partnership of computer technology and human language is in this 
blending of the old and the new.

Language is so ancient a currency of communication that people of the 
Northern Hemisphere, from Europe to India, know of their common tribal 
roots mostly just by the remnant commonalities of the languages.  Through 
all these thousands of years (sign language excepted), language has been 
either spoken or written.  But online conversation is a new hybrid that 
is both talking and writing yet isn't completely either one.  It's 
talking by writing.  It's writing because you type it on a keyboard and 
people read it.  But because of the ephemeral nature of luminescent 
letters on a screen, and because it has such a quick - sometimes instant 
- turnaround, it's more like talking. This act of conversing over 
computers is such a new twist that the lasting term for what it is has 
not yet been coined.

The new with the old.  It is also new because you often feel a real sense 
of place while logged in, though it exists "virtually" in each person's 
imagination while they stare into a CRT screen.  It's old because even if 
the village is virtual, when it's working right it fulfills for people 
their need for a commons, a neutral space away from work or home where 
they can conduct their personal and professional affairs.

My work with online services such as the WELL in Sausalito and The Gate 
in SF, is about building an online version of what Ray Oldenburg calls 
"the Third Place."  In The Great Good Place he calls home the First Place 
and work the Second Place.  "Third places," he says, "exist on neutral 
ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality.  
Within these places, conversation is the primary activity and the major 
vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and 
individuality. Third places are taken for granted and most have a low 
profile. Since the formal institutions of society make stronger claims on 
the individual, third places are normally open in the off hours, as well 
as at other times.  Though a radically different kind of setting from the 
home, the third place is remarkable similar to a good home in the 
psychological comfort and support that it extends."

I'll say right up front that my love for online interaction is because it 
brings people together.  At the personal level it helps people find their 
kindred spirits and at the larger social level it serves as a conduit for 
the horizontal flow of information through the population.

In this piece, I will first describe some of the elements that can 
combine to create a village-like quality in an electronic environment 
along with some of the social dynamics at play in there, and then I'll 
offer a little advice for anyone who is, or wants to be, the innkeeper, 
so to speak, of their own online service.  

II. The Virtual Village

Who does it attract?

Online systems attract independent-minded people.  People who think for 
themselves and many people who work for themselves.  Freelancers, 
contractors, entrepreneurs, and others who, because they are always 
looking ahead to that next job, need to have their shingle hung out. With 
so many people moving from one job to another, online public forums are 
good places to run into others who may lead you to your next work 
opportunity.

Online systems appeal to people who love wordplay, language and writing.  
And it appeals to people with active minds.  The classic couch potato 
just isn't going to be that interested.  Good conversation can be a hard 
commodity to find these days.  If you love stimulating conversation - 
what I like to call an "intellectual massage" - it's a place to debate, 
joke, schmooze, argue and gossip.

Many people have fairly specialized interests and to find people with 
similar interests, you often need the opportunity to interact with a 
larger base of people rather than just the few in your physical 
neighborhood.  And it appeals to people who have numerous interests 
because you don't have to go from club to club all over town to hang out 
and talk with people interested in specific things like boating or books.  
You can get around town without getting up.

And of course they are used by private groups to conduct ongoing 
meetings.  It's an efficient way for a group to stay in touch, 
collaborate on documents, or plan other meetings and events.  One of the 
great strengths of online conferencing is how you can switch from a 
relaxing and playful kind of conversation to something serious or 
businesslike with just a few keystrokes.

And then there are people who just have unfulfilled social needs and want 
to meet some people.

The mind pool

When it works right, an online gathering is a kind of organized mind 
pool.  Everyone picks each other's brains.  The informal nature of online 
conversation encourages people's amazing generosity in sharing the things 
that they know. It's a potluck for the mind.

The sysops don't create the information and sell it to everyone so much 
as the people themselves create the information and share it with each 
other. In a way we who manage online services are like operators of a 
picnic ground.  We provide the tables and the people bring the food.

The information doesn't flow in a top-down manner, but rather 
horizontally among the peer group of the participants. I like to call it 
a People's Think Tank. People join online systems because they are useful 
personal tools. The horizontal information flow is really a by-product of 
this, but it has, I believe, a deep and abiding importance to all of us. 
Because the free flow of information among the people is essential to the 
health of a democratic society.

The sense of place

But something more is going on here.  Dry terms like "think tank", 
"information exchange" and "conferencing network" are too flat, too 
monodimensional.  They don't convey the reality that while you and the 
other people logged in are separated by miles of phone lines looking at 
CRT screens that just display written words, it feels like a real place 
in there. And those terms don't show that it's just about the easiest, 
lowest risk way to meet new people that there is. Nor do they describe 
how, via all this online talk, people form and sustain relationships.  
This is when it crosses over into something else, something fuller, 
something more like a community.  In attempts to accurately describe this 
we conjure up familiar images like village, town, neighborhood, saloon, 
salon, coffee shop, inn.  It's as if it is all of these things, yet isn't 
really any of them because it's a new kind of gathering.  It just helps 
to hang something familiar onto it so we can picture it.


The tangible and the intangible

The tangible part is the hardware and the software - the physical 
network.  Obviously you have to have that, and it has to work reliably.  
The intangible - the people part - is just as important because a system 
is as much defined and shaped by everyone's collective imagination as it 
is by the computers, discs and software tools.

All of this descriptive imaging about community comes from real people 
meeting there.  But it goes much farther than that because traveling 
through the chips and wires, as a kind of sub carrier to the words 
themselves, is real human emotion and feeling.  The spectrum of the 
"vibes" is just about as wide as it is when people meet face to face.  
It's sometimes harder to interpret them because there isn't any facial 
expression or body English, but they are there just the same and people 
feel them and react to them.  Furthermore, the quality of the vibes - the 
atmosphere, the ambience - largely determines whether or not the people 
involved will develop any affection for the system at all.


Forums and hosts

It's important for public forums to have hosts who welcome the newcomers, 
try to keep the conversations reasonably on track and do basic 
housekeeping so there isn't too much clutter and confusion. They are 
responsible for maintaining some civilized degree of order in the 
conference. Old extinct discussions are pruned out like tree branches. 
When people argue too heatedly and start tossing out the ad hominems, the 
host blows the whistle.

Every host has his or her own style and some forums allow a lot more 
tumbling than others.

Online conversation is, by its very nature, a mix of organization and 
chaos. This hybrid of talking by writing presents some interesting new 
challenges. Both talking and writing have their unique strengths. With 
writing, organization and a high concentration of usable information are 
desired. Online it's very useful to have labels for each discussion so 
you can get to the information you seek with efficiency. It's pretty 
difficult at a party to stand at the doorway of a crowded room where 
everyone is talking and determine which conversation is most interesting 
to you. In such cases, the benefits of the written word are strong. When 
talking, the whims of the people take the discussion off on any number of 
tangents.  We have come to call this process of meandering "topic drift" 
and it often leads to the most delightful illuminations. So much so that 
many people find this to be one of the most appealing aspects of the 
whole online scene.  But it can conflict with other peoples' expectations 
that a conversation will consist of material that is truly in keeping 
with the theme of the topic.  This is where good searching tools are 
helpful.

Anonymity or your real name?

This is one of the most important decisions one has to make in the online 
realm, both as a provider and a user of a service.  There is a definite 
tradeoff that will occur with either choice.  One the side of anonymity 
you have: easy entry, greater safety, more freedom to play with one's 
whims and fantasies and higher population. With declaration of your real 
identity you get: commitment, greater likelihood that people will be 
truthful with each other, stronger chance that relationships formed 
online will blend into long-lasting "real life" relationships, increased 
confidence that minors could participate without being tricked, and a 
lower population.

My bias is towards declaring because when people don't have to take 
responsibility for what they say, then some of them will say a lot of 
irresponsible things. In an open group discussion, the signal to noise 
ratio develops a poor balance.  Some situations are fine for open, "who 
cares" anonymity - single topic chats related to events like the Super 
Bowl, reader comments about specific current event topics, entertainment 
and fantasy sites that are focused on that purpose - but community as I 
define the word isn't likely to develop from it. 
 
Because we chose depth, reality and commitment, at the WELL, we required 
that people say who they really are.  (Once in awhile there was an 
exception but that was one in a thousand.  Actually it was possible to 
use an assumed name, but you would have to do it consistently with 
address and billing information and that required some motivation and 
dedication.)  And it worked for us in a five-thousand-member environment 
that was mostly based in a specific geography where most people were 
fairly earnest cyber-pioneers who had some allegiance to the values of 
the Whole Earth Catalog organization that had started it, and thus, a 
sense of safety in being so open.

Here, in 1998, the online environment is far different and people must 
consider very carefully how easily they are willing to trade off their 
safety.  These days, online activities are rarely centered in a single 
geographical region and participants can be very distant from one 
another, and the sheer numbers of online participants means that a higher 
number of unsavory people are out and about looking for sardonic 
amusement, or something worse.

When we first started a conference facility at The Gate in 1995, we 
wanted to make a responsible and valid discussion forum that would be 
appropriate for the large newspapers that owned it.  And we wanted people 
to be able to communicate directly with each other so they could have 
one-on-one communication. So we required that people verify their 
identity with their actual email addresses.  After awhile, one of the 
participants who disagreed strongly with a few of the people wasn't 
content to just contact those people in email.  He found out where they 
lived and worked and started harassing them directly through the US Mail 
and even actual uninvited visits.  This caused some of those people to 
leave the system and never return.  Single women especially were wary of 
making any comments after that.

We knew we'd have to do something so we came up with a compromise that 
works quite well: you don't have to use your real name and you don't have 
to list your email address unless you want to, but you do have to have a 
consistent identity and you have to tell us, the managers of the system, 
who you really are so we can have a legitimate business and legal 
relationship with you. 

A wide variety of topics

It's important to have variety.  And if you don't see a topic covering 
what you want to talk about, you should be able to open up your own line 
of conversation.

What happens then is that you see the same people in different places and 
in different contexts, and fuller pictures of the people emerge as they 
reveal more dimensions of themselves.

The relationship of public and private conversation

Being able to converse privately in email or in a live chat with someone 
alongside a public discussion helps people form all kinds of 
relationships. It often starts with something like, "Hey, I liked what 
you said over in that discussion and I have a similar interest. Maybe we 
could talk more about it on the side."  In the heat of debate, people use 
email to form alliances, and when people are moved by a touching story or 
feel agreement with a particular statement, they use email to lend 
support.

Encouragement of free speech

While system managers or hosts usually have the ability to remove or 
"censor" a given comment, I discourage it as a practice. And I especially 
dislike the approach where there are paid censors who prescreen 
everything to make sure it conforms to their standards.   Better for 
people to speak freely and frankly to each other because when each 
individual knows that he or she may speak freely and that they in fact 
take full responsibility for what they say, then it improves the content 
of the system.  

I encourage all online systems to be places where controversial subjects 
may be discussed in a civilized way.  Of course, how you defines 
"civilized" determines what you will allow.  I frown on ad hominems, 
personal harassment, and threats but otherwise give wide berth to the 
variety of tastes and styles found wherever individuals gather.

However, a problem can arise if you have a registration system that 
allows the person to make public comments before you validate their 
entry.  If someone is a nuisance to the other participants and you can't 
get them to stop and decide you must bar their entry, it can become a 
kind of game for the other person to continually come back in under new 
names and make the same comments.  Then you either let them control the 
conversation or you have to assign someone to spend considerable time 
following them around erasing their remarks.  So, again, a decision has 
to be made between easy entry and ability to control the conversation 
when necessary.  You could just let anyone say anything at all and 
declare that anything goes, but those looking for some subtlety in human 
communication won't stick around.

Web pages and online conversation

When I left the WELL at the end of 1991, part of what I was hoping to 
help develop was an online environment that allowed easy blending of 
written online conversation with the more prepared written material of 
essays, articles, reports and books.  Thanks to the wonders of 
hyperlinking and the World Wide Web, it is now common.  This means that 
any conversation can contain immediate access to support or reference 
material.  It isn't just everyone's opinion anymore.  And with 
multimedia, it is possible to see pictures and listen to sound clips.  
This is a profound advancement of the art of online communicating.  And, 
of course, any article could easily link to an ongoing conversation about 
that subject, which helps make it more vital. 

In putting together a system or choosing one for participation, I would 
make sure that the software makes this linking easy for both reader and 
writer.  Especially when the geographic distances are so great on the 
average, this ability to "show" as well as just "tell" makes a huge 
difference to the quality of the experience.

The face-to-face factor

When such things are possible, members of many online services like to 
see each other socially.  A lot of online services host parties and 
get-togethers.  The WELL has sponsored an open house pot luck party every 
month for over ten years.  At The Gate we have had a few dinners.  
Participants in the online systems everywhere now regularly meet at 
dinners, mixers and parties.

On a smaller scale you can encounter someone online, start something up 
in email, and then take them to lunch, get up a card game, go to a movie, 
or meet them about a business project.

When a number of the participants in a discussion have met offline, the 
overall sense of familiarity in the online atmosphere increases. And this 
increases the sense of place for everyone, including those who either 
can't or don't want to meet anyone outside the online environment.

Professional and personal interactions overlap

This is where things really get interesting.  Ultimately, any network is 
about relationships.  I like to say that, rather than being in the 
computer business, I am in the relationship business.  Some are ad hoc, 
some are long term, some are for business and some are social. Get online 
for business or for pleasure.  While you can just do one or the other, 
many people use it for both.  I know people who got online just for fun 
but made contacts that led to a new job.  I also know people who joined 
for business reasons such as getting help on a computer application or 
doing research and made some new friends through conversing in other 
non-technical forums.  Or maybe you are thinking of hiring someone you 
met online because of their technical expertise and by seeing their 
comments in other conferences you find that you also like their sense of 
humor.  Or perhaps you don't care for their dogmatic attitude and that 
influences your decision the other way.  The variations are endless.

One person who comes to mind is the radio producer who uses the WELL to 
talk shop with others in his field all around the country.  When his two 
year old daughter became deathly ill, he would log in from way out on 
Cape Cod and would report, diary style, in the WELL Parents Conference 
about what they were going through.  He would give the details and 
describe his emotional state and people would lend their support.  It 
comforted him and it touched all of us who read it. Furthermore, this 
experience greatly increased his enthusiasm for what this kind of network 
can do and that spread to his business related activities online.  
Another described, over the course of a few years, his search for his 
biological parents.  When he finally found them many of us rejoiced with 
him after reading his eloquent account.  This guy works the same online 
crowd for his consulting business.  I also know several people who found 
jobs via contacts at the WELL and The Gate that had come to it for 
strictly social reasons. 

For the term "village" (as in "electronic village" or "virtual village") 
be applied to an online scene with any accuracy at all this blending of 
business and pleasure must be present.  Because that's what a village is: 
a place where you go down to the butcher or the blacksmith and transact 
your business, and at night meet those same neighbors down at the local 
tavern or the Friday night dance.

III. Social Dynamics

Commonalities and differences

One of life's great paradoxes is that we are all the same and we are all 
different.  One of the ironies of online interaction both public and 
private, is that, in developing relationships, people seek commonalities 
while displaying and discussing their differences. When people gather, 
much of what takes place as they develop these relationships and bonds, 
is a process of mutual discovery.  This discovery produces a lot of the 
"aha! moments" that give online life its kick.  These moments, in which 
many talk back to the computer screen can range from empathetic tears, to 
"I feel like that too" to "oh, neat!" to "what a bozo" to "if he says 
that again I'm gonna scream!"

The level playing field

The great equalizing factor, of course, is that nobody can see each other 
online so the ideas are what really matter.  You can't discern age, race, 
complexion, hair color, body shape, vocal tone or any of the other 
attributes that we all incorporate into our impressions of people.  This, 
of course, will change as audio and video become common along with the 
written word.  But, even then, a lot of people will play their sounds and 
show their video but won't show themselves.
If the balance tips to anyone's advantage, it's in favor of those who are 
better at articulating their views.  Some people are amazingly skilled at 
debating.  Other people feel shyness around their own forensic or 
expressive skills.  Posting a comment is "stepping out," so to speak, 
putting yourself "out there" to people you might not know.  And many of 
them aren't going to reveal themselves because they are just "lurking" 
(reading without participating).


Posting and Lurking

In the online environment, just like any other social situation, the 
basic currency is human attention.  In the public forums, you communicate 
with groups that may have as many as several hundred people involved - 
even if they don't all make comments.

Some people make so many comments they seem primarily interested in the 
attention, but many people don't say anything at all.  In fact, most 
people who use online services don't post any comments.  They lurk. In 
the world of online services theory the lurker/poster ratio is one of the 
indicators.  Ten or more lurkers for every poster is common. Many people 
who do post comments are aware of this fact and orate at times as if they 
are addressing the Roman Senate, the online Continental Congress, or the 
lunchtime crowd at Hyde Park. I have heard online discussion called, 
"writing as a performing art."  It sometimes reminds me of Amateur Night 
at the Apollo or the Gong Show, because you don't know what reaction 
people may have to the comment you make.  Maybe you won't get any 
reaction.  Maybe you'll get email voicing support or dissent, maybe 
someone will take you on in the discussion, or maybe you will have said 
something good enough to warrant a string of online "amens."  At any 
rate, many are reticent to say anything at all because of this version of 
stage fright, while others take to it like Vaudeville troupers.  An 
online system is a place where you have to give yourself permission to 
step out and participate.  

The personality you project

Each person holds his or her own mental image of what the online society 
is and how it is structured.  The corollary to this is the personality 
each person projects to everyone else.  What you find here is that some 
people, viewing this as just another communication tool or social 
environment, try to make their online personality be as similar as 
possible to their personality everywhere else.

Other people change their personalities once they get online.  This may 
come from the sense of safety and empowerment they feel in the sanctity 
of their room or office talking with people that they know can't deck 
them if they say the wrong thing.  The online world might be where words 
can break your bones but sticks and stones can never hurt you.  Others 
may be self-conscious about their appearance or some other handicap and, 
knowing that it isn't a factor in the interactions, simply feel more 
confident than they do elsewhere.  For some others, the online 
environment is a place to "take time out" as MIT's Sherry Turkle would 
call it, by developing an imagined alternate persona and playing a kind 
of game.

I know some people who are much more bristly online than they are in 
person.  And they enjoy the contentious nature of many of the 
conversations.  They sometimes even agitate it to be more that way, as if 
it was a kind of "sport hassling."  They like the ferment for its own 
sake.

Ferment

By its very nature, online discussion is going to involve disagreement.  
In our reach for analogies we often ask "is it a salon or is it a 
saloon?"  Once again it's a hybrid.  It's a salon, certainly, in the 
classic image of gathering for spirited, bright conversation where people 
of different backgrounds and disciplines come together for that 
intellectual massage that feels so good.  But it's also like this Wild 
West saloon where you never know who's going to come in the swinging 
doors and try out their stuff on everybody. Somewhere on a system at any 
time there is usually some sort of ferment going on.  Ferment is a 
necessary part of the recipe.  Part of the scene will always be in flux.  
At times it will be argumentative and contentious.  At other times it 
will seem like some sort of mutual admiration society. As a host or a 
manager, you accept that, and work with it.

There is concern amongst some participants that a topic or a forum won't 
feel "safe" to them.  This elusive quality of safety depends on a few 
factors.  The size of the group, the nature of the subject matter, the 
personalities of the people who happen to be in there talking, and the 
way that forum is hosted.

A forum environment that has a hostile atmosphere will discourage 
participation by those who have less aggressive tendencies.  The hosting 
is important because in overseeing the discussion, you don't want things 
to sink down too far but setting too high of a standard for "niceness" 
can also kill off a discussion before anything worthwhile gets figured 
out.  That means that some temperatures will rise some of the time.  
There will always be some rough spots whenever a group works to define 
itself.  Without any ferment at all, the "brew" will quickly go flat.

Some of the arguments and debates we've had over the years have been 
pointless personal hassles, but many have led us to a fuller 
understanding of what we were as an entity, or what we thought we ought 
to be.  It is important to note that policy and custom has been shaped at 
times by arguments and hassles that were often quite personal in nature.  
Like everything else in a scene there is a lot of blending of different 
elements.  Disagreement about a point or a matter of principle can get 
complicated when mixed in with dislike for the other person's style or 
personality.

The other side of this coin is the overt effort of people to lend 
affirmation and support to others.  This may be something as simple as 
complimenting them on something they said or wishing them good luck in 
one way or another.  It's like sending an electronic "get well" card.

Newcomers

Many of the regulars and old-timers know each other pretty well.  To a 
newcomer it can seem like being a new kid in a high school.

When the face-to-face factor comes into the picture, things can get 
thicker still.  People who haven't or don't see others "in person" may 
wonder if in-group tendencies get reinforced at social gatherings.  In 
reality, the opposite is true for many people such as Carol Gould.  She 
says, "My own experience at the WELL parties has been very positive.  I 
was somewhat nervous about walking up to the group of people, none of 
whom I knew, but I was able to enter a conversation or two and before 
long I felt fairly at ease.  People were curious as to who I was and, 
surprisingly, claimed they'd 'seen me around' on the WELL.  At any rate, 
my sense was that people were curious and friendly, and it encouraged me 
to come to the next event.  And I would have to say that I have never 
felt excluded or rebuffed by anyone."

Perhaps it's just a clique in which everyone is a member.  As SF 
Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll observed, "I had a great experience at 
Howard's book- signing, which was my first Well event. I met all these 
folks for the first time, and the air was filled with, 'You mean you're 
onezie' and 'I think that's rabar over there' and glad cries and furious 
conversation and the other people in the bookstore were like, 'Who are 
these people?' In other words, I was member of a clique totally composed 
of people I had never met before."

There is, however, always a challenge for the regulars to remember what 
it is like for a newcomer.

It must be remembered by all that newcomers are essential to the survival 
of the group because they refresh the place, strengthen its vitality and 
replace the people who move on.  Without new viewpoints and personalities 
the place becomes stagnant.

Ownership of words and intellectual property

Is it publishing or is it just conversation that happens to be in 
writing?  The WELL User Agreement says "You own your own words." This 
simple phrase gets to the heart of the matter of intellectual property as 
applied in the online world, but, like all of these other issues, is 
fraught with ambiguity and is subject to myriad personal interpretation.  
"You own your own words" was intended to mean that you, and not the 
system operators or management, are responsible for what you say.  You 
take the heat, but you get the credit.  But does getting the credit mean 
that your every utterance is a standalone piece of copyrighted 
intellectual property that requires your express permission for 
reproduction?  Does the fact that anything you say in an online system 
can be downloaded and printed out by anyone who happens to read it create 
a different class of reproduction than quoting without permission for a 
commercial publication?  If a journalist quotes something from an online 
system and they don't obtain permission, did they steal it, or did they 
overhear it in a conversation?  We can't lose sight of the concept of 
fair use here. Like a publishing agent told me once, "if you think it's 
fair use, then it probably is."

While I don't like to see people get too maniacal about what happens to 
things they type into a system because actual control is already just 
about impossible, and getting worse, I do think that good manners and 
consideration of others' wishes are critically important, even into the 
far reaches of cyberspace.

Censorship

If a system is privately owned, what are the rights of the individual 
verses the right of the owner to remove someone's comment?  Does a user 
of an online system waive certain absolute rights when they join a given 
network?  Are the owners of a system responsible to their customers and 
the right of those customers to express themselves freely, or is the 
system responsible for making sure that some kind of community standards 
must apply to the electronic dialogue?  Some of it is easy to answer 
because certain activities such as posting an illegally obtained credit 
card number or offering to sell controlled substances are clearly illegal 
and must be removed.

But what about "community standards?"  Current obscenity law refers to 
"local community standards" having jurisdiction in deciding what 
constitutes obscenity.   But in the online world, where people meet in 
virtual space even though the participants may be located anywhere in the 
world, are there any local standards that even can apply? Does the 
physical location of the system matter?  If the WELL were located in 
Alabama or Georgia instead of Sausalito California, would it have to 
alter its method of managing the online society?  Does the SF Gate need 
only to conform to San Francisco standards? The question can be posed: do 
you bring the service to them (in which case their local community 
standards would apply) or did they come to you to get it (in which case 
your community standards would apply)? To me, the latter of these makes 
more sense.

Opting out

I like to say that if you think you are in a community you probably are, 
and if you don't, you aren't.  Online, this sense of community is far 
less obvious than it would be in a small town or a church community.  In 
fact, it only exists as a commonly-held, ongoing agreement of the 
participants who make it be true *for them.* Ultimately, all communities 
are a set of agreements among the people and in any community (and 
especially these days when many neighbors hardly know each other), one 
can always have strong or weak involvement with the group.  But the 
online environment lends itself well to a person who wants to interact 
online, follow rules, observe protocol and etiquette, and still being 
completely disengaged from any sense of belonging to a community.

There will always be people who will say, "uh-uh, not me.  I'm just here 
for the info.  I'm not part of any community, thank you very much."  And 
I think that's healthy.  Indeed, some of these people speak up at times 
when there seems to be an excess of "groupthink" taking place.

IV. Keeping it Running

Your primary job

As manager of an online service, everything you do boils down to one 
thing:  keep the dialogue going.

In this sense it's like running a railroad or a cruise ship.  In those 
kinds of businesses there is the need to keep the motors running or, in 
our case, the server running.  But the customers must also be pleased 
aesthetically as well as other ways that are not so tangible as making 
schedules and keeping the restrooms clean.  We have to have good quality 
conversations and the atmosphere has to be warm enough that it encourages 
people to open up.  You can't have just one of these things going for 
you; it has to run right and people have to like it.

Being a service business means that success brings increased pressure to 
deliver a high standard to the growing number of people.  A service 
business isn't like doing a painting or making a record. It's more like 
an airline that upgrades its planes as the technology moves forward.  The 
basic product needs to be constantly refined and made more efficient.  
Furthermore, large sizes of people involved in the same conversation 
changes the dynamics of the conversation. Growth means the potential for 
more good minds and hearts meeting and relating and sharing what they 
know.  But size could cause the conversation to deteriorate by becoming 
cumbersome and complicated.

The real fuel that drives the engine of online interaction is enthusiasm.  
And you work to build and preserve that just as much as you work to keep 
the equipment together.

An informal atmosphere

You need to have rules and policies, but leave a lot of room for judgment 
calls.  I like to run it similar to the way they referee NBA basketball 
games.  There actually is a certain amount of body contact that goes on, 
but at some point you decide to blow the whistle and call a foul.

While I believe that it is important to have wide acceptance of various 
personal codes of conduct,  I do like to cultivate a social atmosphere 
where it's basically not OK to be a jerk.  What that means in practical 
terms is rightfully  a hot, ongoing discussion topic that helps a group 
arrive at its social equilibrium.

My feeling is that informality is essential to the healthy growth of an 
online community.  According to Ray Oldenburg in _The Great Good Place_, 
"the activity that goes on in third places is largely unplanned, 
unscheduled, unorganized and unstructured.  Here, however, is the charm.  
It is just these deviations from the middle-class penchant for 
organization that give the third place much of its character and allure 
and that allow it to offer a radical departure from the routines of home 
and work."  Hence, I favor just enough rules to get us by and no more.

Whoever's there: those are your people

You can target and you can recruit and you can bring in your friends, but 
a lot of the population of the scene is self-selected.  And these people 
whom you, too, will be meeting for the first time are going to be your 
customers and, hopefully, your allies.  The trick is to make your 
alliances with the best qualities in a person.  Then, help introduce that 
good part of someone to the good part of someone else.

They aren't going to all agree and you don't want them to all agree. If 
everyone agreed on everything, the place would get dull fast.  And they 
aren't going to all like each other either.  While it would be lovely if 
everyone got along, even if they disagree about a lot of things, it's a 
pretty unrealistic expectation.  So, you have to be diplomatic.  You will 
have to perform all sorts of little mediations between people, even if 
it's just to say, "aw, he's not so bad, really."

The big suggestion box

Suggestions and advice happen at one time or another in just about every 
area of a system.  In that sense the whole thing is like one huge 
suggestion box.  While you don't have to do everything that everyone 
tells you, and ultimately you make the decisions, it is essential that 
people know that you are listening and that you not only listen to advice 
and suggestion, you welcome it.

You need a big fuse

If you want to manage an online system that is devoted to the free 
exchange of ideas and opinions, then you need to have your tolerances set 
very high so that you don't melt down when the disagreement gets too 
thick.

There will always be people who disagree with your views or your approach 
and sometimes they may even be right.  This is your opportunity to show 
what you mean by tolerance, because you have to expect a certain amount 
of criticism and you can't freak out when you get it.

Use a light touch

Computers and and other high-tech gadgets call to mind images of Orwell's 
1984 and other scary visions of people droning away at terminals while 
Big Brother determines their destiny and even their everyday actions.  
Ironically, among those most concerned about such possibilities are 
computer professionals themselves.  As manager of an online environment 
you have a lot of clout, should you choose to wield it, so you need to be 
almost reassuring to people that you aren't interested in such 
heavy-handed control practices.  Try to use a light touch in your actions 
and in the way you communicate to people both publicly and privately.  
Even if you are refusing to take a suggested action.  People like to know 
that their views are respected and considered and that they won't be 
treated in an arbitrary manner as if they were a number instead of a 
person. For a long time I have had the very strong impression that if I 
act too capriciously or with a heavy authoritarian hand, a bunch of 
people would sort of turn and say, "oh, gee I didn't know you were really 
the Brain Police.  I guess I was wrong." Just about anything that smacks 
of heavy-handed administration has a kind of chilling effect on a scene 
that is based on the free flow of ideas.  People won't stick around if it 
isn't any fun or if they feel they are being squelched. "Innkeeping" for 
an online scene is a balance between setting policy rules based on your 
own vision of things, and finding the "sense of the group" so that you 
may incorporate it into whatever decision you make. 

Dealing with the dark side

The upbeat tone of this essay is not intended to deny the reality that 
there is a dark side to online interaction.  This is an arena of real 
life, as valid and dynamic as any other.  This means that there is both 
opportunity and risk.  Especially now in these early days when there is 
so much excitement about this wonderful new meetingplace and the promise 
of a new community, a newcomer can have the illusion that the intentions 
of everyone they encounter in the online population are as good as they 
may appear from their words or tone of their conversation. It isn't 
always so.

As the manager of an online scene, you have a responsibility to inform 
people that there is danger and risk as well as opportunity. Think of 
yourself, perhaps, as the proprietor of a swimming pool or a beach 
resort.  There is abundant opportunity for people to have fun, but if you 
aren't careful and aware, you could drown.  Of course, you can't drown or 
get physically hurt from an online encounter or relationship, but you can 
get emotionally hurt and those wounds are just as real as they are 
anywhere else.

This is tricky stuff for everyone.  How do you develop trust? Do you 
assume good intentions on someone's part unless they show you otherwise?  
Do you watch guardedly and only open up when someone earns it? The 
process of arriving at a sane balance is a journey that the group takes 
towards self- definition.


Censor and boot: the heavy artillery

The hosts of conferences, chats and forums have their own challenge in 
keeping things moving and energetic without it getting out of hand to the 
point that people feel intimidated or hurt.  The atmosphere definitely 
varies from place to place based on how the host handles things.  There 
are different tolerances for topic drift or what one person can say to 
another.  Ad hominem statements are discouraged just about everywhere, 
but one host may, upon reading a comment that attacks the person more 
than the statement, censor the comment outright.  Another may just get 
into the conversation at that point and say something regarding ad 
hominem statements.  Another may just let the fur fly.  The balance is 
tricky when you want to build traffic because some people will want 
things quite polite or they won't say anything at all, and some people 
won't participate if they think there's too much control going on.

My own preference for censoring or removing a comment is that if someone 
says something that is outright illegal such as, "hey everybody, I just 
found this credit card.  Here's the number!" then you remove it.  But if 
it's something controversial or personally offensive, then I prefer to 
let the comment stay there and perhaps make a comment after it, saying 
something like, "here is an example of a truly offensive comment which 
says a lot more about the person making it than the person to whom it is 
directed."

Then there is the more extreme action: booting someone off of the system. 
In the six years I was at the WELL, we did this only three times.  At The 
Gate, in three years, we have done it twice. I feel booting should be 
limited almost soley to deep and repeated harassment by one person to 
another.  However, in each of these cases, the boot wasn't permanent.  
When the person agrees to shape up, they can re-enter. Rather than 
treating it like being exiled from a country, never to return, it is more 
like being told to step outside of the saloon until you cool down.  
Because the point isn't to get rid of people. The point is to try to make 
it so everyone wants to stay and talk.

Harassment, which means "intent to annoy," does happen online.  To keep 
it to a minimum and to let the one who feels harassed make the 
determination, online systems should have user controls in email and in 
real-time interaction (like chatting) that allow you to block incoming 
messages from any given person.  And, if you don't want to read anything 
that a certain person posts, it should be easy to filter it out.

The Management as part of the community

For many years I have been the manager of an interactive online 
environment.  The people, the discussions they have, and the 
relationships that weave into the fabric of community are essential 
products of my business.  But those of us who manage these products can 
also be a part of it.  We too contribute to the discussions, joke and 
argue and tell stories about ourselves and the adventures we've had.  We 
understand that it involves the heart as well as the mind. We don't have 
to hold ourselves separate from the folks.   In that one may be akin to 
the innkeepers of old where the proprietor hangs out around the table and 
fireplace, sharing a cup or a good word with the guests.  



APPENDIX  Principles of Cyberspace Innkeeping

The currency is human attention.  Work with it.  Discourage abuse of it.

You are in the relationship business.

Welcome newcomers.  Help them find their place.

Show by example.

Strive to influence and persuade.

Have a big fuse.  Never let the bottom drop out.

Use a light touch.  Don't be authoritarian.

Affirm people.  Encourage them to open up.

Expect ferment.  Allow some tumbling.

Don't give in to tyranny by individual or group.

Leave room in the rules for judgment calls.

Encourage personal and professional overlap.

Think "tolerance."

Author: John Coate 

******************************************************************************
1993 version (longer, older) follows
******************************************************************************

Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community 

Copyright 1992,93 by John Coate
Revised November, 1993
tex@well.sf.ca.us

I. Something Old, Something New

When you log into an online service, you use new tools for an ancient
activity. Even with all the screens and wires and chips and lines it
still comes down to people talking to each other. The immense
potential of this partnership of computer technology and human
language is in this blending of the old and the new. 

Language is so ancient a currency of communication that people of the
Northern Hemisphere, from Europe to India, know of their common
tribal roots mostly just by the remnant commonalities of the
languages. Through all these thousands of years (sign language
excepted), language has been either spoken or written. But online
conversation is a new hybrid that is both talking and writing yet
isn't completely either one. It's talking by writing. It's writing
because you type it on a keyboard and people read it. But because of
the ephemeral nature of luminescent letters on a screen, and because
it has such a quick - sometimes instant - turnaround, it's more like
talking. And this is where the online scene is such an adventure. The
act of conversing over computers is such a new twist that the lasting
term for what it is has not yet been coined. 

The new with the old. It is also new because you often feel a real
sense of place while logged in, though it exists "virtually" in each
person's imagination while they stare into a CRT screen. It's old
because even if the village is virtual, when it's working right it
fulfills for people their need for a commons, a neutral space away
from work or home where they can conduct their personal and
professional affairs.

My work with online services such as the WELL in Sausalito and 101
Online in SF, is about building an online version of what Ray
Oldenburg calls "the Third Place." In _The Great Good Place_ he calls
home the First Place and work the Second Place. "Third places," he
says, "exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a
condition of social equality. Within these places, conversation is
the primary activity and the major vehicle for the display and
appreciation of human personality and individuality. Third places are
taken for granted and most have a low profile. Since the formal
institutions of society make stronger claims on the individual, third
places are normally open in the off hours, as well as at other times.
Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third
place is remarkable similar to a good home in the psychological
comfort and support that it extends." 

I'll say right up front that my love for online interaction is
because it brings people together. At the personal level it helps
people find their kindred spirits and at the larger social level it
serves as a conduit for the horizontal flow of information through
the population.

In this piece, I will first describe some of the elements that can
combine to create a village-like quality in an electronic environment
along with some of the social dynamics at play in there. I'll go into
some of the basic Constitutional and legal issues that confront us
and then I'll offer a little advice for anyone who is, or wants to
be, the innkeeper, so to speak, of their own online service. And,
finally, I'll reflect a bit on some of my concerns for the future. 

II. The Virtual Village

Who does it attract?

Online systems attract independent-minded people. People who think
for themselves and many people who work for themselves. Logging in is
like a social coffee break for home office workers. Freelancers,
contractors, entrepreneurs, and others who, because they are always
looking ahead to that next job, need to have their shingle hung out.
With so much "downsizing" happening in the corporate world and so
many people moving from one job to another, online public forums are
good places to run into others who may lead you to your next work
opportunity.

Electronic mail is especially useful for maintaining and enlarging a
personal network because, in practical terms, it allows you to
conduct a larger volume of personal correspondence over a given
period of time than any other media, such as writing paper letters
and talking on the telephone.

The text display that still dominates online systems appeals to
people who love wordplay, language and writing. And it appeals to
people with active minds. The classic couch potato just isn't going
to be that interested. Good conversation can be a hard commodity to
find these days. If you love stimulating conversation - what I like
to call an "intellectual massage" - where would you go, say, after
work, to find some people to do it with, especially if they weren't
already your friends? So many people have commented on how they
haven't been able to enjoy such great conversation in so long. Often
not since their days of hanging out at the college coffee shop,
talking till the wee hours about anything that came to mind. A place
to debate, joke, schmooze, argue and gossip. 

Many people have fairly specialized interests and to find people with
similar interests, you often need the opportunity to interact with a
larger base of people rather than just the few in your physical
neighborhood. And it appeals to people who have numerous interests
because you don't have to go from club to club all over town to hang
out and talk with people interested in specific things like boating
or books. You can get around town without getting up. 

And of course they are used by private groups to conduct ongoing
meetings. It's an efficient way for a group to stay in touch,
collaborate on documents, or plan other meetings and events. One of
the great strengths of online conferencing is how you can switch from
a relaxing and playful kind of conversation to something serious or
businesslike with just a few keystrokes. 

And then there are people who just have unfulfilled social needs and
want to meet some people.

Expensive toy, cheap tool

Some people sign up, look around, decide a system isn't for them, and
cancel their account after a few months. But many stay on for years.
What keeps them logging in as a regular part of their routine?
Because there is a benefit to the person that makes a real difference
in their lives. Otherwise it wouldn't be worth the money. If you are
just finding a degree of entertainment in the various conversations,
then it could fascinate you for a long time or it might get old
pretty soon at two or more bucks an hour. But if it helps you find
your next job, or connects you with a new friend, or fulfills that
need to have good conversation with a bunch of bright people, then it
becomes a real bargain. And that is the method behind the madness, so
to speak. Behind all the screens of sentences are real people making
real connections that make a real difference to them.

The mind pool

Ask a question about almost anything and you'll likely get an answer
or a reference to an answer very quickly. It's a bit like fishing.
Throw in your line and see what you catch. Everyone picks each
other's brains. The informal nature of online conversation encourages
people's amazing generosity in sharing the things that they know.
It's a potluck for the mind.

However, you may not have time or inclination for this rather
serendipitous method of gathering information. Cruising around the
various topics looking for this or that nugget of information can be
like panning for gold: you have to move a lot of rock. Sometimes you
just want to go in there, find what you need and get out. Good search
tools are essential to a fully-realized conferencing package. A
challenge in designing online systems is making it easy to use the
system either way. The truly successful design accommodates both
approaches so that they may not only co-exist, but are
interchangeable at any time. Hang out and shoot the breeze over in
this forum, then go over to another area and quickly zero in on the
info you need.

Related to this is the need to have a simple beginner's interface
that allows you to self-graduate to a command-driven "power user
mode" at any time. Beginners aren't dumb, they're busy. Usually they
don't have the time to deal with yet another learning curve. This is
why most people don't learn to program their VCRs. 

Also essential is some kind of "bookmark" function that allows you to
automatically see new comments since the last time you logged in. 

The sysops don't create the information and sell it to everyone so
much as the people themselves create the information and share it
with each other. In a way we who manage online services are like
operators of a picnic ground. We provide the tables and the people
bring the food.

Unlike network TV or mass market magazines or even parts of other
large online services, the information doesn't flow in a top-down
manner, but rather horizontally among the peer group of the
participants. I like to call it a People's Think Tank. People join
online systems because they are useful personal tools. The horizontal
information flow is really a by-product of this, but it has, I
believe, a deep and abiding importance to all of us. Because the free
flow of information among the people is essential to the health of a
democratic society.

The sense of place

But something more is going on here. Dry terms like "think tank",
"information exchange" and "conferencing network" are too flat, too
monodimensional. They don't convey the reality that while you and the
other people logged in are separated by miles of phone lines looking
at CRT screens that just display written words, it feels like a real
place in there. And those terms don't show that it's just about the
easiest, lowest risk way to meet new people that there is. Nor do
they describe how, via all this online talk, people form and sustain
relationships. This is when it crosses over into something else,
something fuller, something more like a community. In attempts to
accurately describe this we conjure up familiar images like village,
town, neighborhood, saloon, salon, coffee shop, inn. It's as if it is
all of these things, yet isn't really any of them because it's a new
kind of gathering. It just helps to hang something familiar onto it
so we can picture it.

The tangible and the intangible

The tangible part is the hardware and the software - the physical
network. Obviously you have to have that, and it has to work
reliably. The intangible - the people part - is just as important
because a system is as much defined and shaped by everyone's
collective imagination as it is by the computers, discs and software
tools.

All of this descriptive imaging about community comes from real
people meeting there. But it goes much farther than that because
travelling through the chips and wires, as a kind of subcarrier to
the words themselves, is real human emotion and feeling. The spectrum
of the "vibes" is just about as wide as it is when people meet face
to face. It's sometimes harder to interpret them because there isn't
any facial expression or body English, but they are there just the
same and people feel them and react to them. Furthermore, the quality
of the vibes - the atmosphere, the ambience - largely determines
whether or not the people involved will develop any affection for the
system at all.

Forums and hosts

It's important for public forums to have hosts who welcome the
newcomers, try to keep the conversations reasonably on track and do
basic housekeeping so there isn't too much clutter and confusion.
They are responsible for maintaining some civilized degree of order
in the conference. Old extinct discussions are pruned out like tree
branches. When people argue too heatedly and start tossing out the ad
hominems, the host blows the whistle.

Every host has his or her own style and some forums allow a lot more
tumbling than others.

Online conversation is, by its very nature, a mix of organization and
chaos.  This hybrid of talking by writing presents some interesting
new challenges. Both talking and writing have their unique strengths.
With writing, organization and a high concentration of usable information
are desired. Online it's very useful to have labels for each discussion
so you can get to the information you seek with efficiency. It's pretty
difficult at a party to stand at the doorway of a crowded room where
everyone is talking and determine which conversation is most interesting
to you. In such cases, the benefits of the written word are strong. When
talking, the whims of the people take the discussion off on any number of
tangents. We have come to call this process of meandering "topic drift"
and it often leads to the most delightful illuminations. So much so that
many people find this to be one of the most appealing aspects of the whole
online scene. But it can conflict with other peoples' expectations that
a conversation will consist of material that is truly in keeping with
the theme of the topic. Once again, this is where good searching tools
are necessary so that finding information isn't like something out of
Where's Waldo?

Seeing who else is logged in

Typing a command that shows you who else is logged in at the same
time lets you get off quick email to someone or engage them in a real
time conversation. But beyond that, it enhances the sense of
"usness." Seeing who is logged in at the same time as you is like
opening the window and looking out to see who's on the street. Some
people check to see who else is around as soon as they log in. 

Anonymity or your real name?

Both are valid and both can coexist. But they don't mix well. 

If people don't have to take responsibility for what they say, then
some of them will say a lot of irresponsible things. My problem with
this is that, in an open group discussion, the signal to noise ratio
develops a poor balance. Fortunately, it doesn't really behoove most
people to use false names anyway, since that would defeat their
networking goals.

But I'm speaking here about the public arenas. I recently worked with
a French-designed system. I designed it so you can't be anonymous in
the open public forums but the live chat lines and electronic mail
can be anonymous or not, depending on how you prefer to do it. It can
be a way of playing games, or it can be a form of personal protection.

A wide variety of topics

It's important to have variety. And if you don't see a topic covering
what you want to talk about, you should be able to open up your own
line of conversation.

What happens then is that you see the same people in different places
and in different contexts, and fuller pictures of the people emerge
as they reveal more dimensions of themselves. 

The relationship of public and private conversation 

Being able to converse privately in email or in a live chat with
someone alongside a public discussion helps people form all kinds of
relationships. It often starts with something like, "Hey, I liked
what you said over in that discussion and I have a similar interest.
Maybe we could talk more about it on the side." In the heat of
debate, people use email to form alliances, and when people are moved
by a touching story or feel agreement with a particular statement,
they use email to lend support.

A variation on this private/public dynamic is the special-interest
private conference. In a private forum or meeting, email messages are
like going out into the hallway for a more personal caucus. 

An online system should be designed so that it is easy to move
between one form of conversation and another, and then back again. It
shouldn't require a lot of keystrokes which is the computers
equivalent of walking to, for example, read a public comment then
quickly send that person a private message or see if they are online
at that moment so they can engage them in a real-time chat. 

Encouragement of free speech

While system managers or hosts usually have the ability to remove or
"censor" a given comment, I generally discourage it as a practice.
And I especially dislike the approach where there are paid censors
who prescreen everything to make sure it conforms to their standards.
Better for people to speak freely and frankly to each other because
when each individual knows that he or she may speak freely and that
they in fact take full responsibility for what they say, then it
improves the content of the system. When it's working right, people
wrestle with tough questions, and that corner of the larger society
evolves that much more.

I encourage all online systems to be places where controversial
subjects may be discussed in a civilized way. Of course, how you
defines "civilized" determines what you will allow. I frown on ad
hominems, personal harassment, and threats but otherwise give wide
berth to the variety of tastes and styles found wherever individuals
gather.

The face-to-face factor

Members of many online services like to see each other socially. A
lot of online services host parties and get-togethers. The WELL has
sponsored an open house pot luck party every month for over six
years. Sometimes there is a special event like a picnic or a beach
party. A few times we had some real big blowout bashes over in a big
loft in San Francisco. We even entertained at a couple of them with a
band formed from WELL members. Once, we organized a group visit to
the local art museum to view a special exhibit of Tibetan painting
and sculpture. We collected $10 in advance from everyone and they
opened up the museum for us an hour early. 

On a smaller scale you can encounter someone online, start something
up in email, and then take them to lunch, get up a card game, go to a
movie, or meet them about a business project. 

When a number of the participants in a discussion have met offline,
the overall sense of familiarity in the online atmosphere increases.
And this increases the sense of place for everyone, including those
who either can't or don't want to meet anyone outside the online
environment.

Professional and personal interactions overlap 

This is where things really get interesting. Ultimately, any network
is about relationships. I like to say that, rather than being in the
computer business, I am in the relationship business. Some are ad
hoc, some are long term, some are for business and some are social.
Get online for business or for pleasure. While you can just do one or
the other, many people use it for both. I know people who got online
just for fun but made contacts that led to a new job. I also know
people who joined for business reasons such as getting help on a
computer application or doing research and made some new friends
through conversing in other non-technical forums. Or maybe you are
thinking of hiring someone you met online because of their technical
expertise and by seeing their comments in other conferences you find
that you also like their sense of humor. Or perhaps you don't care
for their dogmatic attitude and that influences your decision the
other way. The variations are endless.

One person who comes to mind is the radio producer who uses the WELL
to talk shop with others in his field all around the country. When
his two year old daughter became deathly ill, he would log in from
way out on Cape Cod and would report, diary style, in the WELL
Parents Conference about what they were going through. He would give
the details and describe his emotional state and people would lend
their support. It comforted him and it touched all of us who read it.
And I doubt that this guy has ever met any of the other people face
to face. Furthermore, this experience greatly increased his
enthusiasm for what this kind of network can do and that spread to
his business related activities online. Another described, over the
course of a few years, his search for his biological parents. When he
finally found them many of us rejoiced with him after reading his
eloquent account. This guy works the same online crowd for his
consulting business.

For the term "village" (as in "electronic village" or "virtual
village") be applied to an online scene with any accuracy at all this
blending of business and pleasure must be present. Because that's
what a village is: a place where you go down to the butcher or the
blacksmith and transact your business, and at night meet those same
neighbors down at the local tavern or the Friday night dance. 

III. Social Dynamics

Making communities out of individualists 

A lot of why the online realm is characterized with the image of the
frontier, comes from trying to forge a community out of people who
are not, by their nature, team players. Back in the pioneer days, the
rugged individuals went west. These days the uncharted, unsettled
territory is the realm of electronic group communications that is
becoming known as the "virtual world" or "cyberspace." 

Here online we have people with a new sort of pioneer outlook. Let me
give you my thumbnail impression of what they have in common: Many
work for themselves at home or in a private office. They possess
great awareness and concern about their rights as individuals. They
are often outspoken and articulate. And, on top of this, they are now
doing a lot of relating to other people compared to what they were
doing before, and in some cases compared to what they have ever done,
certainly since their college or military days. This is all more
intensified by most people not really knowing each other before they
got involved. So this pioneer image also comes to mind because it
isn't just new technologically, it's new for those involved at the
personal/social level. 

Use of the word "community" here doesn't imply that an online scene
is one monolithic community. Rather, I use the word to suggest a
commons that is made up of a bundle of smaller "communities of
interest" that also have a common interest in the health of the
overall system.

Commonalities and differences

One of life's great paradoxes is that we are all the same and we are
all different. One of the ironies of online interaction both public
and private, is that, in developing relationships, people seek
commonalities while displaying and discussing their differences. When
people gather, much of what takes place as they develop these
relationships and bonds, is a process of mutual discovery. This
discovery produces a lot of the "aha! moments" that give online life
its kick. These moments, in which many talk back to the computer
screen can range from empathetic tears, to "I feel like that too" to
"oh, neat!" to "what a bozo" to "if he says that again I'm gonna
scream!"

The level playing field

The great equalizing factor, of course, is that nobody can see each
other online so the ideas are what really matter. You can't discern
age, race, complexion, hair color, body shape, vocal tone or any of
the other attributes that we all incorporate into our impressions of
people. This, of course, will change as audio and video become common
along with the written word. But, even then, a lot of people will
play their sounds and show their video but won't show themselves.

If the balance tips to anyone's advantage, it's in favor of those who
are better at articulating their views. Some people are amazingly
skilled at debating. Other people feel shyness around their own
forensic or expressive skills. Posting a comment is "stepping out,"
so to speak, putting yourself "out there" to people you might not
know. And many of them aren't going to reveal themselves because they
are just "lurking" (reading without participating). 

Still, the demographic makeup of the online population is one area
that needs improvement, in my view. Every PC-based online net I know
of has 80% or more men. And most of these are white men. PC systems
are not exclusionary. But most of the population don't have the
necessary equipment. Few people buy a PC and modem just to join an
online service. And many who would otherwise enjoy the interaction
can't hack the still engineer-oriented design of most computer
systems.


The meeting place

I said earlier that an online community is one of the easiest ways to
meet new people. Certainly it is very low-risk. I think this is
mainly due to the essential informality of online conversation.
Rather than being required to sustain a single conversation with one
or more people, relationships usually form out of numerous, often
short exchanges. In a way, it reminds me of commuters who take the
bus or ferry. They see each other frequently but each encounter is of
a fairly short duration. In situations like this the pressure is
minimal. If you'd rather read the paper than chat then you just do it
and don't worry about it. But, over time, many people form enduring
relationships this way.

The "hot" medium

In the online environment, just like any other social situation, the
basic currency is human attention. In the public forums, you
communicate with groups that may have as many as several hundred
people involved - even if they don't all make comments. 

Nobody comments on everything (although some people can be quite
verbose!), but many people don't say anything at all. In fact, most
people who use online services don't post any comments. They lurk. In
the world of online services theory the lurker/poster ratio is one of
the indicators. Ten or more lurkers for every poster is common. Many
people who do post comments are aware of this fact and orate at times
as if they are addressing the Roman Senate, the online Continental
Congress, or the lunchtime crowd at Hyde Park. I have heard online
discussion called, "writing as a performing art." It sometimes
reminds me of Amateur Night at the Apollo or the Gong Show, because
you don't know what reaction people may have to the comment you make.
Maybe you won't get any reaction. Maybe you'll get email voicing
support or dissent, maybe someone will take you on in the discussion,
or maybe you will have said something good enough to warrant a string
of online "amens." At any rate, many are reticent to say anything at
all because of this version of stage fright, while others take to it
like Vaudeville troupers. An online system is a place where you have
to give yourself permission to step out and participate. Of course if
you talk too much people may tend to ignore your comments after
awhile.

Most services charge by the hour like a parking meter. Combining this
expense with the cost of the phone call can add up to real money for
extended participation in the scene. There are ways to cut the time
spent online by "downloading" the material and reading it offline
through your word processor. You can compose your responses and then
"upload" them to the appropriate topics. But there are some people
who don't want to do this, even though it saves them money, because
the medium feels "hotter" to them if they are interacting directly
online. It's as if being online in the moment is reading the magazine
and the downloads are like reading photocopies of the articles. It
just isn't as appealing to some people, even if it is cheaper.

The personality you project

Each person holds his or her own mental image of what the online
society is and how it is structured. The corollary to this is the
personality each person projects to everyone else. What you find here
is that some people, viewing this as just another communication tool
or social environment, try to make their online personality be as
similar as possible to their personality everywhere else. 

Other people change their personalities once they get online. This
may come from the sense of safety and empowerment they feel in the
sanctity of their room or office talking with people that they know
can't deck them if they say the wrong thing. The online world might
be where words can break your bones but sticks and stones can never
hurt you. Others may be self-conscious about their appearance or some
other handicap and, knowing that it isn't a factor in the
interactions, simply feel more confident than they do elsewhere. For
some others, the online environment seems to promote in them a
certain kind of functional schizophrenia as if logging in was like
Clark Kent stepping into the phone booth. Having an alternate persona
is part of the game and much of what makes it fun for them. 

I know some people who are much more bristly online than they are in
person. And they enjoy the contentious nature of many of the
conversations. They sometimes even agitate it to be more that way, as
if it was a kind of "sport hassling." They like the ferment for its
own sake.

Ferment

By its very nature, online discussion is going to involve
disagreement. In our reach for analogies we often ask "is it a salon
or is it a saloon?" Once again it's a hybrid. It's a salon,
certainly, in the classic image of gathering for spirited, bright
conversation where people of different backgrounds and disciplines
come together for that intellectual massage that feels so good. But
it's also like this Wild West saloon where you never know who's going
to come in the swinging doors and try out their stuff on everybody.
Somewhere on the system at all times there is some sort of ferment
going on. Ferment is a necessary part of the recipe. Part of the
scene will always be in flux. At times it will be argumentative and
contentious. As a host or a manager, you accept that, and work with
it.

There is concern amongst some participants that a topic or a forum
won't feel "safe" to them. This elusive quality of safety depends on
a few factors. The size of the group, the nature of the subject
matter, the personalities of the people who happen to be in there
talking, and the way that forum is hosted. 

A forum environment that has a hostile atmosphere will discourage
participation by those who have less aggressive tendencies. The
hosting is important because in overseeing the discussion, you don't
want things to sink down too far but setting too high of a standard
for "niceness" can also kill off a discussion before anything
worthwhile gets figured out. That means that some temperatures will
rise some of the time. There will always be some rough spots whenever
a group works to define itself. Without any ferment at all, the
"brew" will quickly go flat.

"Flaming", in Net Talk, means to torch someone with your verbal flame
thrower. One gets the feeling that flaming gets to be even more of a
sport over in the Unix net world than it does on a place like the
WELL. They even have social protocols for it like saying 
before you launch your missles. In my view, it is easy enough to
misunderstand someone online without having to lay it on even thicker.

Some of the arguments and debates we've had over the years have been
pointless personal hassles, but many have led us to a fuller
understanding of what we were as an entity, or what we thought we
ought to be. It is important to note that policy and custom has been
shaped at times by arguments and hassles that were often quite
personal in nature. Like everything else in a scene there is a lot of
blending of different elements. Disagreement about a point or a
matter of principle can get complicated when mixed in with dislike
for the other person's style or personality. 

The other side of this coin is the overt effort of people to lend
affirmation and support to others. This may be something as simple as
complimenting them on something they said or wishing them good luck
in one way or another. It's like sending an electronic "get well"
card.

Newcomers

Many of the regulars and old-timers know each other pretty well. To a
newcomer it can seem, as Alice Kahn once described it, like being a
new kid in a high school.

When the face-to-face factor comes into the picture, things can get
thicker still. People who haven't or don't see others "in person" may
wonder if in-group tendencies get reinforced at social gatherings. In
reality, the opposite is true for many people such as Carol Gould.
She says, "My own experience at the WELL parties has been very
positive. I was somewhat nervous about walking up to the group of
people, none of whom I knew, but I was able to enter a conversation
or two and before long I felt fairly at ease. People were curious as
to who I was and, surprisingly, claimed they'd 'seen me around' on
the WELL. At any rate, my sense was that people were curious and
friendly, and it encouraged me to come to the next event. And I would
have to say that I have never felt excluded or rebuffed by anyone."

Perhaps it's just a clique in which everyone is a member. As SF
Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll observed, "I had a great experience
at Howard's book- signing, which was my first Well event. I met all
these folks for the first time, and the air was filled with, 'You
mean you're onezie' and 'I think that's rabar over there' and glad
cries and furious conversation and the other people in the bookstore
were like, 'Who are these people?' In other words, I was member of a
clique totally composed of people I had never met before." 

There is, however, always a challenge for the regulars to remember
what it is like for a newcomer.

It must be remembered by all that newcomers are essential to the
survival of the group because they refresh the place, strengthen its
vitality and replace the people who move on. Without new viewpoints
and personalities the place becomes stagnant. 

Opting out

I like to say that if you think you are in a community you probably
are, and if you don't, you aren't. Online, this sense of community is
far less obvious than it would be in a small town or a church
community. In fact, it only exists as a commonly-held, ongoing
agreement of the participants who make it be true *for them.*
Ultimately, all communities are a set of agreements among the people
and in any community (and especially these days when many neighbors
hardly know each other), one can always have strong or weak
involvement with the group. But the online environment lends itself
well to a person who wants to interact online, follow rules, observe
protocol and etiquette, and still being completely disengaged from
any sense of belonging to a community.

There will always be people who will say, "uh-uh, not me. I'm just
here for the info. I'm not part of any community, thank you very
much." And I think that's healthy. Indeed, some of these people speak
up at times when there seems to be an excess of "groupthink" taking
place.

IV. Rights, Responsibility, and the Constitution 

These are the early days

The image of the Continental Congress isn't really too far-fetched
because the many discussions regarding rules, policies and customs of
this new online environment are pioneering in nature. Nobody really
knows what the future holds, except that electronic communication
will be a lot more common and ways of interacting in virtual space
will have a lot more variety. But it isn't known what social
conventions, if any, people will observe as they try to get along
with each other and conduct business in the electronic environment.
It's all being debated and figured out as we go along. Things
determined now will surely have long-term influence in the future,
when they are more common to the whole population. 

So that the best minds may be applied to the task of figuring out the
social and legal issues of electronic interaction, we need as open a
forum as we can put together. Without the goal of improved
communication throughout the citizenry, regardless of their opinion
or station in life, writers and sociologists who express the fear
that electronic technology will widen the gap between the rich and
poor - rather than narrow it - may be proved right. Allowing maximum
freedom of expression for each person or institution represented is
the only way that enough collective intelligence can be gathered so
that these matters can be figured out for the common good. 

Hackers and law enforcement

There are those who view their words as strict intellectual property
and those who regard their online writing as so much ephemeral
conversation and give it away as soon as they type it out. Then
there's the phone company and those who would bypass the phone
company. There are software companies and independent programmers.
There are those who believe in uninhibited free speech and those who
seek a degree of control over what can and can't be said and to whom
you can say it, especially regarding minors. And all are really
necessary in this widening national debate, because freedoms in the
electronic meeting space have to be established by the people
actually using the services. Outside lawmakers or groups shouldn't be
the ones to determine what happens in the virtual world. If we don't
establish the rules and customs for ourselves, then larger, more
impersonal institutions with far less sensitivity to the subtler
elements of this endeavor will have their way and we will be
compelled to play by their rules.

As it is now, there isn't much case law regarding these various
issues, lending still more credence to the image of the "electronic
frontier." In a small system like the WELL or a huge one like
Prodigy, issues are worked out by making some rules and then seeing
what happens. Some things work and some don't. 

In a way, it's hard to make many generalizations because the
electronic meeting places are very much a bundle of individuals.
Every case is unique.

Larger patterns will emerge producing more clarity over time. Still,
there are a few general categories into which most of these issues
fall.

Free speech

Is electronic conversation talking or writing? Or is it a hybrid of
these two that is unique and new? And is this activity protected by
the United States Constitution just like freedom of speech? If this
is a kind of meeting place, is it then an assembly of people that is
also protected by the First Amendment? I say that these are rights
that must be protected. But if it isn't in writing anywhere, are the
safeguards actually in place? In 1987 a bill was introduced in the
California State Assembly to amend the California Constitution to
include electronic speech in the guaranteed protections of the First
Amendment. The bill died in committee because it was felt that the
protection was built into the existing wording. I hope that it is
true.

Privacy

Do your electronic files have the same Fourth Amendment protections
from unreasonable search and seizure as your personal effects in your
home? Is your private email on a subscription-based service truly
private? What rights do you have, what are the responsibilities of
the operators of a system and what are the limits placed on the
government if they should want to look through your electronic files
and correspondence?

In 1986, Congress passed the Electronics Communication Privacy Act
which provides for some protection for the individual and defines the
responsibilities of the system administrators. Recent history
(especially in regard to the Jackson Games case where government
agents seized and kept a company's files and records without making
an arrest, or more recently the seized "Amateur Action" BBS in San
Jose that had downloadable risque GIF files that were apparently
available to clever minors who somehow would be more corrupted by
them than a copy of Playboy hidden under their mattress) shows that
the Government is testing its powers. And the placement of limits on
those powers is in dispute right now in the courts. The Electronic
Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been created by concerned individuals
to help shape these policies and to help protect and defend people
that they feel were treated unjustly by the Government. 

The ECPA made it a crime for someone to gain unauthorized entrance
into an online system. It also requires system operators to inform
their customers about how much privacy they should expect and then
insure that that privacy is not invaded. Most system operators have
unlimited "root" privileges that include the ability to examine
anyone's mail. On the WELL, and on 101 Online, we let people know
that our system administrator has that power, but they do not read
anyone's mail without their permission. If an operator
surreptitiously examined someone's mail outside the regular stated
duties of system maintenance, then it would be a violation of the
ECPA and hence, a Federal crime. But what if the FBI came to our
office and ordered us to give them a copy of everyone's email? Would
we have to do it? What if they wanted to confiscate our equipment so
they could comb through the files? Could they do it? According to the
ECPA the answer is yes if they have a search warrant, but only if the
material is more recent than six months. If it's been on a system
longer than six months, then only a subpoena is required. 

What this means in terms of Government power is that while they are
limited by certain procedures, if they really want to, they can shut
down your operation, possibly throw you in jail and otherwise wreak
havoc in your life.

This balance between the user, the system operator and the Government
is one that is being defined a little more every day. My feeling is
that unchecked and unopposed power will seek to extend that power
into new areas whenever they appear.

Ownership of words and intellectual property 

Is it publishing or is it just conversation that happens to be in
writing? The WELL User Agreement says "You own your own words." This
simple phrase gets to the heart of the matter of intellectual
property as applied in the online world, but, like all of these other
issues, is fraught with ambiguity and is subject to myriad personal
interpretation. "You own your own words" was intended to mean that
you, and not the system operators or management, are responsible for
what you say. You take the heat, but you get the credit. But does
getting the credit mean that your every utterance is a standalone
piece of copyrighted intellectual property that requires your express
permission for reproduction? Does the fact that anything you say in
an online system can be downloaded and printed out by anyone who
happens to read it create a different class of reproduction than
quoting without permission for a commercial publication? If a
journalist quotes something from an online system and they don't
obtain permission, did they steal it, or did they overhear it in a
conversation? We can't lose sight of the concept of fair use here.
Like a publishing agent told me once, "if you think it's fair use,
then it probably is."

While I don't like to see people get too maniacal about what happens
to things they type into a system because actual control is already
just about impossible, and getting worse, I do think that good
manners and consideration of others' wishes are critically important,
even into the far reaches of cyberspace. 

Censorship

If a system is privately owned, what are the rights of the individual
verses the right of the owner to remove someone's comment? Does a
user of an online system waive certain absolute rights when they join
a given network? Are the owners of a system responsible to their
customers and the right of those customers to express themselves
freely, or is the system responsible for making sure that some kind
of community standards must apply to the electronic dialogue? Some of
it is easy to answer because certain activities such as posting an
illegally obtained credit card number or offering to sell controlled
substances are clearly illegal and must be removed. 

But what about "community standards?" Current obscenity law refers to
"local community standards" having jurisdiction in deciding what
constitutes obscenity. But in the online world, where people meet in
virtual space even though the participants may be located anywhere in
the world, are there any local standards that even can apply? Does
the physical location of the system matter? If the WELL were located
in Dothan Alabama instead of Sausalito California, would it have to
alter its method of managing the online society? The question can be
posed: do you bring the service to them (in which case their local
community standards would apply) or did they come to you to get it
(in which case your community standards would apply)? To me, the
latter of these makes more sense. 

101 Online bills its customers through the Pacific Bell phone bill.
This gives them more say regarding content than I think they ought to
have, but recent California law won't allow them to bill if public
access areas qualify as "obscene." Obscenity is defined as appealing
to prurient interests with no redeeming social, political,
scientific, or artistic merit. Before we launched 101, I got Pac Bell
to agree to a standard similar to an "R" rated movie. I can live with
that because you can get away with quite a lot at the R rating these
days. Anything past that and you can take it to a private area.

Whenever it is possible, I advocate giving access controls to the
parents themselves, as we did at 101 Online where a parent can create
a sub-ID for their kid and then control where the kid goes on the
system. If you don't want your kid to go into the chat area then you
can shut off access. Same with the Forum. I feel this is far better
than trying to make everything conform to a so-called "family"
standard maintained by paid censors, as on Prodigy. 

V. Keeping it Running

Your primary job

As manager of an online service, everything you do boils down to one
thing: keep the dialogue going.

In this sense it's like running a railroad or a cruise ship. In those
kinds of businesses there is the need to keep the motors running or,
in our case, the modems running. But the customers must also be
pleased aesthetically as well as other ways that are not so tangible
as making schedules and keeping the restrooms clean. We have to have
good quality conversations and the atmosphere has to be warm enough
that it encourages people to open up. You can't have just one of
these things going for you; it has to run right and people have to
like it.

Being a service business means that success brings increased pressure
to deliver a high standard to the growing number of people. A service
business isn't like doing a painting or making a record. It's more
like an airline that upgrades its planes as the technology moves
forward. The basic product needs to be constantly refined and made
more efficient. Furthermore, large sizes of people involved in the
same conversation changes the dynamics of the conversation. Growth
means the potential for more good minds and hearts meeting and
relating and sharing what they know. But size could cause the
conversation to deteriorate by becoming cumbersome and complicated. 

The real fuel that drives the engine of online interaction is
enthusiasm. And you work to build and preserve that just as much as
you work to keep the equipment together. 

An informal atmosphere

You need to have rules and policies, but leave a lot of room for
judgement calls. I like to run it similar to the way they referee NBA
basketball games. There actually is a certain amount of body contact
that goes on, but at some point you decide to blow the whistle and
call a foul.

While I believe that it is important to have wide acceptance of
various personal codes of conduct, I do like to cultivate a social
atmosphere where it's basically not OK to be a jerk. What that means
in practical terms is rightfully a hot, ongoing discussion topic that
helps a group arrive at its social equilibrium. 

My feeling is that informality is essential to the healthy growth of
an online community. According to Ray Oldenburg in _The Great Good
Place_, "the activity that goes on in third places is largely
unplanned, unscheduled, unorganized and unstructured. Here, however,
is the charm. It is just these deviations from the middle-class
penchant for organization that give the third place much of its
character and allure and that allow it to offer a radical departure
from the routines of home and work." Hence, I favor just enough rules
to get us by and no more.

Whoever's there: those are your people

You can target and you can recruit and you can bring in your friends,
but a lot of the population of the scene is self-selected. And these
people whom you, too, will be meeting for the first time are going to
be your customers and, hopefully, your allies, especially if they are
part of your host group. The trick is to make your alliances with the
best qualities in a person. Then, help introduce that good part of
someone to the good part of someone else. 

They aren't going to all agree and you don't want them to all agree.
If everyone agreed on everything, the place would get dull fast. And
they aren't going to all like each other either. While it would be
lovely if everyone got along, even if they disagree about a lot of
things, it's a pretty unrealistic expectation. So, you have to be
diplomatic. You will have to perform all sorts of little mediations
between people, even if it's just to say, "aw, he's not so bad,
really."

The flip side of this is that when someone really special comes
along, find a place for them so that the whole scene will benefit. 

The big suggestion box

Suggestions and advice happen at one time or another in just about
every area of a system. In that sense the whole thing is like one
huge suggestion box. While you don't have to do everything that
everyone tells you, and ultimately you make the decisions, it is
essential that people know that you are listening and that you not
only listen to advice and suggestion, you welcome it. 

You need a big fuse

If you want to manage an online system that is devoted to the free
exchange of ideas and opinions, then you need to have your tolerances
set very high so that you don't melt down when the disagreement gets
too thick.

There will always be people who disagree with your views or your
approach and sometimes they may even be right. This is your
opportunity to show what you mean by tolerance, because you have to
expect a certain amount of criticism and you can't freak out when you
get it.

Use a light touch

Computers and and other high-tech gadgets call to mind images of
Orwell's 1984 and other scary visions of people droning away at
terminals while Big Brother determines their destiny and even their
everyday actions. Ironically, among those most concerned about such
possibilities are computer professionals themselves. As manager of an
online environment you have a lot of clout, should you choose to
wield it, so you need to be almost reassuring to people that you
aren't interested in such heavy-handed control practices. Try to use
a light touch in your actions and in the way you communicate to
people both publicly and privately. Even if you are refusing to take
a suggested action. People like to know that their views are
respected and considered and that they won't be treated in an
arbitrary manner as if they were a number instead of a person. 

"Innkeeping" for an online scene is a balance between setting policy
rules based on your own vision of things, and finding the "sense of
the group" so that you may incorporate it into whatever decision you
make. Different online systems deal with these matters in different
ways. Some won't allow any real controversy at all, to the point that
they kick you off the system if you try to continue talking about
controversial things. Another has a set of words that, if included in
a posting, automatically gets that posting censored. Some just knock
out all the irrelevant comments as if they were a butcher whacking
the fat off the edge of the steak. 

Just about anything that smacks of heavy-handed administration has a
kind of chilling effect on a scene that is based on the free flow of
ideas. People won't stick around if it isn't any fun or if they feel
they are being squelched.

Dealing with the dark side

The upbeat tone of this essay is not intended to deny the reality
that there is a dark side to online interaction. This is an arena of
real life, as valid and dynamic as any other. This means that there
is both opportunity and risk. Especially now in these early days when
there is so much excitement about this wonderful new meetingplace, a
newcomer can have the illusion that the intentions of everyone they
encounter in the online population are as good as they may appear
from their words or tone of their conversation. It isn't always so.

Some aspects of how much privacy you have and how much control you
have over what people know or can find out about you varies according
to the design of each online system and some are common to all
systems.

Common dangers to all include: "Cracking" (breaking into someone's
account, usually by guessing or obtaining their password); the system
operator's ability to read you email and files without being
detected; email that moves through the Internet can be read by the
postmaster of every site it passes through; material you have erased
and believe to be gone may be stored and retrieved on backup tapes at
the system location.

Some Unix-based systems, like the WELL, provide abundant opportunity
for someone to check on the doings of others. You can see if someone
is online, you can find out what they are doing, you can sometimes
read their files and you can see when they log in and log out. It's a
double-edged sword because the tools that allow people a lot of
freedom and variety in how they communicate also provide better
opportunity to snoop and harass.

As the manager of an online scene, you have a responsibility to
inform people that there is danger and risk as well as opportunity.
Think of yourself, perhaps, as the proprietor of a swimming pool or a
beach resort. There is abundant opportunity for people to have fun,
but if you aren't careful and aware, you could drown. Of course, you
can't drown or get physically hurt from an online encounter or
relationship, but you can get emotionally hurt and those wounds are
just as real as they are anywhere else.

This is tricky stuff for everyone. How do you develop trust? Do you
assume good intentions on someone's part unless they show you
otherwise? Do you watch guardedly and only open up when someone earns
it? The process of arriving at a sane balance is a journey that the
group takes towards self- definition. 

Censor, ban and boot: the heavy artillery 

The hosts of the conferences and forums have their own challenge in
keeping things moving and energetic without it getting out of hand to
the point that people feel intimidated or hurt. The atmosphere
definitely varies from place to place based on how the host handles
things. There are different tolerances for topic drift or what one
person can say to another. Ad hominem statements are discouraged just
about everywhere, but one host may, upon reading a comment that
attacks the person more than the statement, censor the comment
outright. Another may just get into the conversation at that point
and say something regarding ad hominem statements. Another may just
let the fur fly. The balance is tricky when you want to build traffic
because some people will want things quite polite or they won't say
anything at all, and some people won't participate if they think
there's too much control going on. 

My own preference for censoring or removing a comment is that if
someone says something that is outright illegal such as, "hey
everybody, I just found this credit card. Here's the number!" then
you remove it. But if it's something controversial or personally
offensive, then I prefer to let the comment stay there and perhaps
make a comment after it, saying something like, "here is an example
of a truly offensive comment which says a lot more about the person
making it than the person to whom it is directed." 

The second instrument of power available to a host is "banning." This
means that a user can be denied the privilege of commenting in a
given conference if that person has sufficiently violated the
guidelines of that conference. This is a more serious action and one
that engenders even more controversy and discussion than censoring. 

Finally there is the most extreme action: booting someone off of the
system. In the six years I was at the WELL, we did this only three
times. I feel booting should be limited almost soley to deep and
repeated harassment by one person to another. Harassment, which means
"intent to annoy," does happen online. To keep it to a minimum and to
let the one who feels harassed make the determination, online systems
should have user controls in email and in real-time interaction (like
chatting) that allow you to block incoming messages from any given
person.

However, in each of these cases mentioned above, the boot wasn't
permanent.

Rather than treating it like being exiled from a country, never to
return, it is more like being told to step outside of the saloon
until you cool down. Because the point isn't to get rid of people.
The point is to try to make it so everyone wants to stay and talk. 

The Management as part of the community

For many years I have been the manager of an interactive online
environment. The people, the discussions they have, and the
relationships that weave into the fabric of community are the main
products of my business. But those of us who manage these products
can also be a part of it. We too contribute to the discussions, joke
and argue and tell stories about ourselves and the adventures we've
had. We don't hold ourselves separate from the folks. We understand
that it involves the heart as well as the mind. In that way we are
akin to the innkeepers of old where the proprietor hangs out around
the table and fireplace, sharing a cup with the guests. The whole
place feels cozier because of it.

But trust is not something easily granted by people; it has to be
built. Particularly when the people involved are so independent
minded. For a long time I had the very strong impression that if I
acted too capriciously or with a heavy authoritarian hand that a
bunch of people would sort of turn and say, "oh, gee I didn't know
you were really the Brain Police. I guess I was wrong." That used to
hang over me like a Sword of Damacles. Sometimes it still does,
especially when there is some sort of crisis. And the trust has to be
maintained. Can't ever take it for granted. 

VI. The Future

The Internet is growing so fast it can barely keep track of itself.
Computerized communications reach more people all the time.
Surveillance is refined now to the point that satellites can track
individual vehicles from space. Photo images can be altered
undetectably. Laptops are more powerful than computers that once
filled entire rooms. Virtual reality. Genetic engineering. 

We've been hearing it all our lives, but it still holds that never
before has technology had the potential to do more good or more harm.
I might sound like someone back in the early part of the century when
I say this but I'm going to say it anyway because it is the essence
of everything I have learned about communication in cyberspace:
humanity must dominate technology and never the other way around.

Above all else, I want these communication tools to help; to be part
of the solution and not more of the problem. 

To this end, I want to sound a warning about five areas of great
concern to me.

First, the cost of the phone call to an online service is
prohibitively expensive for people outside of the local urban calling
areas. Even the big packet- switching nets don't go to cities with
populations below about 100,000. This means that many of the people
who could most benefit from being in touch online are priced right
out of the market. And we all suffer from not having the input and
views of people who live out in the country. I urge that we press for
national information highways that are affordable to everyone. 

Second, our society has computer users and non-computer users. While
hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts dial into online nets around the
country, the general population is largely unaware that such systems
even exist, let alone as potentially important to them as their car
or their TV. Still, millions of dollars have been and are being spent
to bring online communications to the general public in the form of
dedicated terminals such as Minitels and smart phones. Moreover, the
phone companies and the cable TV companies are preparing to go to war
over who will carry video signal to the nation. But for all the talk
I have heard and all the reports I have read about hooking up the
"global online community" little is happening to create systems where
computer users and the general public can meet and talk on a common
system. This is incredibly short-sighted, in my view. The real
communication breakthrough will occur when those who use computers
and those who don't can exchange openly and freely because access to
the meetingplace is not confined by the equipment that gets you
there. The real system of the people will be one that combines these
two worlds in a way that works for both.

Third, I feel great alarm at some of the recent raids on hackers and
sysops who, in utter disregard of due process, have had their
equipment and systems confiscated before any proof or conviction is
forthcoming. This is nothing short of tyranny by law enforcement,
especially in cases involving morality standards and not actual
cracking or file theft. Moreover, I am concerned about some recent
government proposals that would only allow encryption schemes that
can be read by government authorities. There must be limits to
government power in cyberspace.

Fourth, ownership of media is becoming more concentrated every day.
Fewer corporations own more media outlets all the time. And it's
getting worse. Right now the FCC wants to remove the limits on how
many radio and TV stations a single corporation can own. Cable
companies have almost complete vertical monopolies over the TV
industry, from production to network to cable. We watch what they
want us to watch. Now some cable companies and phone companies are
merging, creating a new class of media giant. For freedom and
democracy to survive, we must increase direct communication among
ourselves - the people. But that will happen only if we, the people,
demand that the structure of this new communications revolution be
based on the "open platform" model. This model concedes that private
communication industry will prosper mightily, but demands that
certain protections be thoroughly built-in. These protections include
universal affordable service, free speech, privacy protection, widely
available public service applications, and diversity of information
sources. Let me pause on this final point for a moment. With this
upcoming hybrid of telephone and television, let's make sure that the
best of both are openly available to all so that, as in the printed
word where everyone can be a writer and publisher as well as a
reader, each person can be a broadcaster as well a consumer. If this
happens there can be a communications renaissance. If it doesn't,
then we may end up with another television "wasteland" with "five
hundred channels and nothing on."

And finally, cyberspace is wonderful. It has the potential to hook us
all up in ways that most of us didn't dream possible only a few
decades ago. But the planet's wealth is increasingly concentrated in
the hands of the few. And our planetary environment is deteriorating
badly. Species are becoming extinct, global warming and ozone
depletion aren't just theories anymore, and the planet's ability to
sustain huge populations while resources are being plundered at
unprecedented rates, is in peril.

What I don't want to see is that this virtual world will become a
substitute reality that serves to placate a population that accepts a
world where it's no longer safe to go outside because the air is too
foul, the danger of skin cancer from the sun is too great or the
social inequities of the real world are that much easier to ignore. 

So I say that those of us who develop and use these tools in these
still-early days have the responsibility to make sure that our work
isn't co-opted into some huge techno-pacifier. 

Rather, let us build into these networks a pervasive community spirit
that invigorates our society at every level, from local to global,
with a new democratic awareness. I don't think I was ever more
inspired than when I learned that the failed coup in Russia was
thwarted in great measure because the resisters, holding out in their
various enclaves around Moscow and the rest of Russia, stayed in
touch through an online network. Or more recently when the people of
Thailand used cellular phones to stay in touch and organized after
the military had cut off their phone lines. In both these cases,
popular communication was a critical element in beating back military
tyranny.

Big wheels are turning around the world right now. Let us make sure
that we work to help, and not hinder, this great movement toward
democracy and self-determination that may be the only hope for a
world that, more than ever, needs to talk freely to itself. 



APPENDIX A:
Principles of Cyberspace Innkeeping
John Coate 

The currency is human attention. Work with it. Discourage abuse of it.

You are in the relationship business.

Welcome newcomers. Help them find their place. 

Show by example.

Strive to influence and persuade.

Have a big fuse. Never let the bottom drop out. 

Use a light touch. Don't be authoritarian. 

Affirm people. Encourage them to open up. 

Expect ferment. Allow some tumbling.

Leave room in the rules for judgement calls. 

Think "tolerance."

Encourage personal and professional overlap. 

Don't give in to tyranny by individual or group. 

Encourage face-to-face encounters.

Help it be "woman-friendly."

It isn't just you: let the people help shape it. 

Be part of the community.

Author: John Coate 

APPENDIX B:
General Advice for the New Online User
Hilarie Gardner - calliope@well.sf.ca.us

The benefits of being on-line far outweigh the risks, but being aware
of the risks, the tools, and the support available better prepares the
newcomer for the adventure.

1) that system footprints or tracks may be read to see:
 *when and where your logins occurred
 *when and what commands you've executed
 *even information deleted may be retrieved from backups 

2) that your account is only as secure as it's password 

3) that sysops or root-holders:
 *may read mail, files or directories without leaving footprints
 *may undelete files you've erased
 *may release your files, etc. under warrant

4) that default file protection may not be secure for newly created
files

5) that mail:
 *may be compromised by each forwarding site
 *bounces may appear in entirety to the postmaster
 *is owned by BOTH the sender and the receiver

6) that identifying biographies may be system searched or remotely fingered

7) that other users' identities:
 *may not be what they appear
 *may be falsely registered
 *may have had their own account compromised 

Be aware of the social dangers possible online: 

 *Harassment, or frequent or unsolicited messages from another user,
 occasionally sent randomly to women's id's
 *Stalking, or being watched or followed online, occasionally coupled
 with physical confrontation
 *Flaming, or emotional verbal attacks
 *Addiction, or the need for support/feedback available online
 outweighing a reasonable budget of time or money.

Know how to protect yourself: (privacy begins at home) 

1) Protect your password:
 *Chose a strong password ( a combination of upper and lower case
 characters, and not a name or a dictionary word).
 *Do not leave your terminal logged in unattended.
 *Do not let anyone watch you log in.
 * Log out cleanly. 

2) Protect your files:
 *Know the default for newly created files.
 *Occasionally monitor your files.

3) Protect your information:
 *Never send compromising information (your phone number, password,
address, or vacation dates) by chat, sends, mail, or in your bio.
*See if encryption is available if necessary. 

See what education/communication means are available: 

*Join a support group like the Santa Monica PEN's PEN Femmes, or the
online groups BAWiT or SYSTERS.

*Attend seminars, classes or study groups. 

*Make use of private, special interest forums online. 

*Use peer pressure in public online to settle disputes. 

*Answer harassment & inappropriate behavior directly and
unambiguously, and then post for comment and discussion. 

*Advocate for grievance procedures, tolerance guidelines and the
discouragement of false or anonymous user registrations. 

*Do not submit to unreasonable pressure. 

*Speak up for what you want.