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Venerable online community The WELL purchased by its own members

Members of The WELL, one of the first-ever successful virtual communities, banded together to buy the site from current owner Salon.


Aja Romano


Many online communities feel like a virtual home away from home, but few have a greater claim to this title than the WELL, which has not only been in operation since 1985, but literally gave us the phrase “virtual community.”

Now, WELL subscribers are taking their site back—literally—in a successful bid to buy the website and the domain name from Salon, which has owned it for the past 13 years. As noted in the WELL’s press release, the sale marks the first time an online community has been successfully privatized by its own members.

The WELL, short for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, began life as a dial-up bulletin board, in the age when “dial-up” meant dialing into a local bulletin board using your home phone line. As one of the rare communities to operate and remain profitable for its entire 27-year history entirely through member subscriptions with no advertising, the WELL has a deeply loyal userbase, many of whom have been there since the beginning.

Several early members—including Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg and BoingBoing editor Cory Doctorow—would go on to become movers and shakers in the Internet industry. Doctorow wrote on BoingBoing about the sale:

I have been a WELL user since the early 1990s, and have enormous affection and respect for the community there. Though I don’t often use it actively any longer, my experiences there were formative to my understanding of the online world. Congratulations to the Well Group folks for navigating these waters.

Commenting on an earlier BoingBoing post about the sale, WELL user chrisspurgeon wrote, “My 15 years or so on the WELL shaped my mind and soul in a million ways big and small. Nowhere else have I come close to feeling the same sense of endless possibility that an online community can have.”

Current members undoubtedly feel the same way; after news of the sale, WELL users gauged community interest in acquisition, mounted a pledge drive, formed an LLC, and negotiated the sale, all in a less than a month. The 11 investors in purchasing company The Well Group, LLC, include “Internet pioneers, a healthcare futurist, entrepreneurs, and a professional clown teacher.”

With membership never numbering more than several thousand, the WELL is a sort of modern Freemasonry for the tech-savvy: It operates in the open, in a limited capacity, but its reach stretches across the Internet, influencing everything from online business to online privacy and more.

If the bid at privatization proves successful—and with its track record of sustainability, there’s no reason to assume otherwise—then the WELL could once again be a trailblazer for online communities.  And this time, it could provide the inspiration for other online community members to attain ownership over the spaces they call their virtual home.

Photo via The WELL

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