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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: inn_keep.txt

Cyberspace Innkeeping

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Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community 

Copyright 1992 by John Coate,

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 sceen.  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 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
Consitutional 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.  Many computer professionals
who currently work for large companies still see themselves as essentially
self-employed.  They are good places to run into others who may lead you to
your next work opportunity.

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 serendipitious
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 accomodates
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.  Usually they don't have the time
for yet another steep 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, the people
themselves create the information and share it with each other.  In a way we
who manage systems 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 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

Conferencing 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 useable 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.


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 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 the chat lines can be anonymous or 
not, depending on how you prefer to do it.   If you comment in the public 
forum, there is a way to look up the actual name of the person.  But you can 
create a sub-ID that, if you only chat with it, is anonymous.  It can be a 
way of playing games, or it can be a form of personal protection.  
Both are valid.

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

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 email and chat to conferencing

Being able to talk 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
conference 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.

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 Prodigy approach where they have 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 five years.  Sometimes they
have a special event like a picnic or a beach party.  A few times we have had
some real big blowout bashes over in a big loft in San Francisco.  We even
entertained a couple of them with a band formed from WELL members.  Recently,
we organized a group visit to the local art museum to view a special exibit 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 enviroment.

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, most 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 deathy 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" to 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 pub 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.    

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.  I leave out gender
here because gender is often revealed in your name, if nowhere else.

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).  Related to that is the populist feel of it.  This is where
the not-famous people hang out.

Still, this is one area that needs improvement, in my view, and the search for
an even more level playing field and a wider demographic base was one of the
reasons I went from the PC-based WELL to minitel-based 101 Online.  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
have the necessary equipment.  Few people buy a PC and modem just to
join an online service.

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.


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 discourgage 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 <Flame On> before you launch your

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.


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 Tseen 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, TYou meanIyou're onezie' and TI think
that's rabar over there' and glad cries and furious conversation and the other
people in the bookstore were like, TWho 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.

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.  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 compete with or bypass the phone
company.  There are software companies and independent programmers.
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

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

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.


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 governement 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
responsibilites 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 apparantly 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 Goverment 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

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 right 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" means 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."

When I came over to 101 Online I changed the phrase to say, "you are
responsible for your comments" and added that "claims against unautorized
reproduction are the responsibility of the user."  I felt that the word "own"
in the WELL's phrase caused some to misinterpret that the WELL considered each
comment to be a piece of copyrighted intellectual property, which was never
the intent.

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


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?

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

I feel we are in a good postition to test some of these issues because on 101
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:
keeping 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.

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 P especially if they are part of your host group.
The trick is to make your alliances with the best qualities in a person.

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 happens 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 suggestions, you
welcome them.  

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.  

The 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.

Censor, ban and boot: the heavy artillery

The hosts of the conferences 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.

The second instrument of power available to a host is "banning."  This means
that a user can be denied the privelege 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 harrassment by one
person to another.  Harrassment, which means "intent to annoy," does
happen online.  To keep it to a minimum and to let the one who feels
harrassed 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. Another
form of harrassment is cracking into another person's private mail or files.  

However, in each of these cases 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 is part of the community

For seven years at the WELL and at 101 Online 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 must also
be a part of it.  We contribute to the discussions, we 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 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.  No room for being jaded.

VI. The Future

The Internet is growing so fast it can barely keep track of itself.
Computerized communications reach more people all the time.  Surveilance 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

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

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

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.

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.  For freedom and democracy to survive, 
we must increase direct communication among ourselves - the people.

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.

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.

Fight for 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.

John Coate was for six year 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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