The WELL is a virtual online community with user-generated content that was so influential, it was once featured on the cover of Wired magazine, and a top 80’s UK pop star created an account, to promote his brand there. (Sound familiar?) As you might have read last week, corporate owner laid off the WELL staff and is now looking for a buyer. Now the WELL’s last users (it still has over 2,000 subscribers) are making a last-minute bid to buy the WELL from Salon: A thread called “Would you kick in $1,000 for The Well?” (subscriber account required), has already garnered over 120 members pledging $1000 (some less, many more, with at least one pledge of $10,000), for an estimated total of over $120,000. That’s a lot of money, especially coming from so few people, but it may not be enough. Many have pointed out that the domain name is probably quite attractive to organizations willing to pay a lot to own it. (For example, an HMO who wants turn into a wellness resource.) So at the moment, it’s still unclear what this user-driven campaign will do, though I hope the WELL can survive in some form.

In any case, as someone who’s been a member of the WELL since the mid-90s (I joined with the Gen X contingent), then went on to write a lot about other virtual communities, chief among them Second Life, it’s hard to miss the ironies at play:

Wagner James Au the WELLFor one, Salon was in great part inspired by the WELL, since a lot of its first writers and editors were members of the service. For another, it’s an example of how virtual communities can fall into jeopardy, no matter how influential they once were. Read the 1997 Wired magazine article by Katie Hafner (which subsequently became a book), with the sub-head, “The World’s Most Influential Online Community (And It’s Not AOL)”. It’s an accurate title. Writers like Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, Howard Rheingold, and Neal Stephenson are (or were) members, as were a lot of writers for Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and other leading media outlets. As I noted, an 80s popstar became a big fan, but where it was Duran Duran joining Second Life, in 2006, in the mid-90s and the WELL, it was Billy Idol. (As you might have guessed by now, I owe a lot of my writing career to the WELL too.)

Despite all that influence and media attention, it’s now struggling to survive, a victim to a failed revenue model, and the growth of other online communities which do what what the WELL did at its peak, but with more users, on platforms that are easier to use. And despite all that, its remaining members are still pledging a lot of money to keep it operational, in the face of so many changes:

“[T]here’s a lot of uncertainty here,” as writer Joe Flower put it in a recent WELL post. “We know almost nothing about the behind-the-scenes negotiations. In any of the twists and turns that we are facing, negotiations of various kinds, I Socialverse app have no doubt that it would help a lot for those negotiating to be able to say that they could raise X thousand, that people have pledged that much. Even if they never had to call on those pledges, the very idea that people here are showing that they value the institution and community that is the Well is, I think, hugely important. I’m quite aware that there are people here with hugely varying income levels. That is one of the Well’s many charms. And we all value the Well in our lives.”

In the future, I see a similar fate for other virtual communities, like Second Life. Which in the end, might not be such a bad thing.

UPDATE, 7/3: Earl Crabb, the WELL host who helped launched the pledge drive effort, recently posted an update in the WELL thread that they’re now looking for a large investor to get involved: “We are at a point where we need to be looking at this investment sector. If you have a minimum of $30,000 that you would be willing to invest, given that we have a reasonable business plan, please speak up, here… in email, whatever way you’re comfortable with.” E-mail him: esoft at well dot com. You can also join the private WELL conference color.pri to discuss the plan (but only after you’ve pledged money in the effort).