The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Getting the Message : Expansion Plan by Owner of On-Line Service Sets Off an Electronic Uproar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 5:32 last Friday evening, Bruce Katz posted an electronic message on the Well, the venerable Sausalito-based on-line service of which he is the owner.

He would be taking over day-to-day operations, it said. Longtime General Manager Maurice Weitman would be moving to an advisory position. A few other changes, like making the service more accessible to new users, were also afoot.

By the end of the evening, Topic No. 1639 on the bulletin board's News forum was crammed with responses--the number has since surpassed 500--accusing Katz of sacrificing the Well's soul with his plans to expand, reorganize and perhaps make some money. Howard Rheingold, one of cyberspace's best-known citizens, had threatened to resign from the firm's board. And there were repeated demands for Katz to face his critics on-line.

The uproar, which continued this week, reflects the growing pains at one of the nation's oldest and best-known electronic communities. And it has broader implications--about how community will be redefined in an era when technology is making it increasingly easy to cross geographical and cultural boundaries.

Some Well-ites argue that while the much-touted information superhighway may create one big virtual world, people will always want to congregate--virtually or otherwise--in small groups with others who share common interests. The Well--an acronym for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link--says one longtime member, is "where you go to be high-minded, not to find a new 'Vette"--and many of its members want it to stay that way, business considerations be damned.

Katz, a former shoe magnate who bought the Well earlier this year, is trying to bring the service into the modern age. It currently looks and feels about the same as it did when it was founded a decade ago--it still uses a cumbersome, text-only interface--and that just isn't the way to tap the huge new market of would-be cybercitizens.

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But Katz, who made a mint as co-founder of Rockport Shoes, has suddenly discovered that his on-line customers have a different sort of power than most shareholders--and they like to exercise it.

"Saturday night I wasn't sure I had the courage to go on line," said Katz, who by Tuesday had won over some of his harshest critics through electronic give-and-take. "Sometimes I'm dismayed, but I'm learning the extent to which this community views the company as their territory and their sanctuary and their home."

What he has yet to find out is whether this community--and, by extension, dozens of other mid-sized, general-interest computer bulletin boards around the country--will be able to hang on to its niches as big media conglomerates barge into the on-line world.

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"The smaller, narrowcast communities and on-line services are on a river that leads to the ocean, and the ocean is the Internet," said Mary Modahl, senior technology analyst at the Forrester Group in Cambridge, Mass. "The chances are good that all of them will find themselves as servers on a larger network. The question is how will they attract people onto them and how will they charge, and that challenge remains for the Well and for all communities that are for-profit."

The big commercial on-line services have had rocky expansion experiences in recent months too--in part because they're resented by the old guard. Earlier this year, many of America Online's customers were unable to log on to the service as the company's computers became too overloaded to handle the growth. But the real insult came several months later, when once-isolated AOL connected to the global Internet: AOL subscribers were hit with a wave of hostility as longtime Internet users complained of blatant ignorance and violations of "nettiquette."

Prodigy Services Co., another on-line service, is planning to connect to the Internet within a few weeks, and it is taking pains to train its members "to avoid a situation like AOL," said a Prodigy spokesman.

But Well-ites draw a sharp distinction between their on-line environment and that of Prodigy or AOL, which one Well member dismisses as having "no personality." Those companies provide information such as stock quotes and home shopping, while the point of the Well is to "conference." Indeed, the greatest fear voiced on Topic 1639 seems to be that the Well will turn into America Online.

"The question is, is this a grass-roots medium that's created by the people who use it, or is it a mass medium that delivers a commodity to a passive audience?" says Rheingold, author of the recently released "Virtual Communities."

Indeed, it seems that no other on-line entity, big or small, faces quite the same philosophical challenges as the Well.

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Founded in 1985 by the nonprofit Point Foundation, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, the Well has been long been a home to hundreds of computer-literate Deadheads from the Bay Area. It also attracts what Rheingold describes as "the kind of people who listen to NPR and read Harper's magazine and have a willingness to have longer discussions about things that have intellectual content."

But Katz's plans--which call for opening an office in New York, upgrading the Well's ancient interface, forming new Wells in other cities and providing high-speed Internet connections to customers--mean the community of 10,000 or so may get an influx of new members.

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While some are threatened by the prospect, a growing number of the Well's on-line participants seem to think that some change is not such a bad idea.

"My first monthly bill was $200 because it was so hard to use the interface," recalls Kathleen Creighton, a Well member who writes for a computer newspaper. "It can get pretty expensive."

"I don't want to lose the community we've got, but the organization which supports it is either going to have to drain off the sour old molasses of the '60s or the whole thing is going to die," posted John Perry Barlow, an on-line personality who has been on the Well since 1986.

Still, for a business like the Well, community is commodity. And Katz, who says that community is precisely what he wants to foster, is quickly learning that that means personal participation--to a point.

When he took a 50% stake in the company in 1991, he recalls, the staff was spending so much time on-line that no one had time to fix the computer.

"I came in and said, 'You have to break away from this damn screen and get an air conditioner in the computer room, otherwise the computer breaks and you have to spend more time on-line telling people why.' " Similarly, "I don't need to have a huge debate about whether new users want a menu-driven interface instead of having to remember commands."

But from his early, tentative postings over the weekend--"I may soon exceed the polite length of a posting so I may have to start Part II . . . pretty soon," Katz wrote in one--the executive has not only won over some detractors, but has nearly gotten addicted to posting himself.

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"I'm signing on at 1:30 in the morning, at 5:30 in the morning. I got so into it, I couldn't turn it off. I'd post something, then somebody else will make a posting. Thirty minutes go by, and I'd have to turn it on again and reconnect," Katz says. "It's hard to know when to stop."

This approach seems to be working: "Bruce, I've read your postings with interest. . . . I felt you were really there and speaking from the heart," posted a one-time critic. "Reading what you have posted in this topic, you seem pretty level-headed, and not prone to invective. Good for you--you'll do OK. I have the beginning of what might become respect for you, and I wish you good luck."

VOICES

Here are online comments about the Well reorganization:

"If, as it appears, you are taking over the reins, can you please explain: What is your vision for the future of the WELL?"

--Howard Rheingold

"We ARE the product. Without us...Bruce doesn't own WELL, he owns a ghost town, inhabited with the archives of our words."

--Kathleen Creighton (casey)

"It is personally very painful to me to have so many people who don't know me from Adam portraying me in ways that they do in some of these conferences."

--Bruce Katz, owner and CEO of the WELL

"I don't want to lose the community we've got, but the organization which supports it is either going to have to drain off the sour old molasses of the '60s or the whole thing is going to die."

--John Perry Barlow (barlow)

WELL AT A GLANCE

* Year on-line servie was founded: 1985

* Location: Sausalito, Calif.

* Origin of name: Acronym for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link

* Subscribers: About 10,000

* Most popular discussion groups: Media, Tour News (for the Grateful Dead), Sexuality

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