Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link
A large part of humanity has always been having the ability to connect with others no matter what the time period is. However, social media has not always been around to provide humans the opportunity to connect with mass groups of people from a wide variety of areas. Before social media many used what are known as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) to communicate with others in their own local areas and beyond. A very large BBS formed out of the bay area is known as WELL, which is debatably one of the most well known BBS’s to date. This stands for “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”. WELL was first launched in 1985 by two men by the name of Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. The purpose of WELL was very similar to the social media outlets that are used today in the sense that their goal was to create a virtual community. When WELL first began it had about 6,000 users and from there it continued to grow across the world.
Since WELL was so large its users had a variety of different purposes for using the website. There are no specific topics that users are limited to talk about, and they are also given the option to remain anonymous. Compared to other BBS’s, WELL had a widespread user base that was not limited to a specific geographic region. This allowed for the culture to be very diverse and driven by users, which the users took control of. What WELL was commonly used for was bringing people together who shared similar interests in different fields. As mentioned previously, before BBS’s it was very hard to communicate with new people from around the world, so having these BBS’s opened up many new possibilities that people had not seen before. In the Star Tribune out of Minneapolis, Howard Rheingold, a WELL user described the BBS as a “virtual village where there’s always another mind.” The opportunity to hear different voices that weren’t available to be heard before was what drew many users to the platform. This allowed people’s understanding of their interest to grow along with providing different perspectives.
Although WELL is referred to as the most notable BBS from its time there are still many characteristics that remain unknown. Since WELL was so big a lot of users’ actions went unnoticed and as a result of this the platform was used to set up and execute some negative actions. Notably in 1992 a group of hackers used WELL to organize a plan to break into different computer systems throughout the United States. Newsday, a newspaper out of Long Island stated that “five young New Yorkers indicted Wednesday on federal charges of breaking into computer systems nationwide”, later on in the article it states “A conference had been set up on The WELL, an electronic gathering place for computer users”. While they may not have been documented it is safe to assume that these were not the only people using WELL to help with illegal activity, especially due to the lack of cybersecurity. This type of activity may have been prevalent across all BBS’s and could be part of the reason why they declined over time.
Overall, WELL provided a space for a group of people with diverse interests to come into contact with others who shared similar thoughts and goals. In Kevin Driscoll’s book The Modem World, he says “ The roots of today’s social media are in the interconnection of these local communities and small scale networks.” Despite users each using WELL for different reasons the overall purpose was to provide a space for groups of people to connect. WELL ended up being successful in their goal, and was used heavily through the 1990s. In the end WELL was one of the most prominent BBS’s and provided a space for people to share their ideas and connect with others from across the world.
By Joshua Quittner, STAFF W. “The System Strikes Back at Hackers: [NASSAU AND SUFFOLK Edition].” Newsday Jul 10 1992, Combined editions ed.: 06. ProQuest. 28 Sep. 2022 .
Peters, Tom. “Bulletin Board Systems Opening New Worlds: [METRO Edition].” Star Tribune Oct 05 1993: 02D. ProQuest. 28 Sep. 2022 .
Driscoll, Kevin. “The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media”, Louis Stern Memorial Fund, 2022, pg. 20-21.