FEED THE WEB FIRST

I was associated with the genesis of the Well,…

…one of the first public computer conferencing systems to be plugged into the internet. The Well was conceived and built by others, but as director of the poor nonprofit that owned it, and as one of the first participants to join when it opened, I was involved in creating its policies. It became clear almost from day one that the technical specifications of the software that the Well used directly shaped the kind of community growing within it. Other models of conferencing software used elsewhere produced different kinds of communities. The Well’s software–as implemented by the Well–encouraged linear conversations and community memory; it discouraged anonymity, but encouraged responsibility for words and topics; it permitted limited forms of dissent and retraction, and it allowed users to invent their own tools. It did all this primarily by means of Unix code–by the software standards set up within the Well–rather than by posted rules. The community it shaped was distinctive and long-lived. In fact the community, with all its quirks, is still going, even though the software that runs it has evolved into a web browser interface. The behavior-changing standards remain. The power to mold a community by code rather than regulation was eventually articulated by Well users into a serviceable maxim: Peace through tools, not rules.

The internet and the web also contain toolish standards that invisibly shape our behavior. We have ideas about ownership, about accessibility, about privacy, and about identity that are all shaped by the code of HTML and TCP/IP, among others. Currently only a small portion of our lives flow through these webs, but as cyberspace subsumes televisionspace and phonespace and much of retailspace, the influence of standards upon social behavior will grow.

 

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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK