On this episode, the inside stories and lessons that Gail shares, from The WELL, weave together to create an overall theme of how to protect, respect and inform the communities that we serve. Including:
- The right and wrong ways to close a community
- Understanding privacy and confidentiality in community spaces
- What happens when your community software reaches “religious significance”
“Cliff Figallo, who hired me at The WELL, said that a community is a complex network of relationships that endure over time, and I found that really profound because that’s one of the differences to me. What makes something a community? Let’s say some people get into an elevator together. You can get really metaphorical and crazy and say this is a family that lasts for three minutes. That’s kind of nonsense. I don’t know what kind of elevator rides you usually have, but there’s a point where you need to have time and you need to have a complex relationship, and I think part of that is that there needs to be an ability for some people to go deeper and know each other much better than others. It’s really important to have sort of key people who anchor the conversation with different kinds of degrees of connection to one another, because that’s what makes the community, and that’s what makes it feel like it’s a place, like a town where some of the people have very complex close relationships and others just like kind of live there and say hi when they go by in the street.” -@wellgail
“A couple years after I joined Salon, Table Talk, which was an amazing, huge forum site and free and not paying for itself, in an ad situation. One day, [I was told,] ‘Hey, I think we’re going to close Table Talk on Monday,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we don’t do this. We don’t close a community with no notice.’ [They said,] ‘It’ll be less traumatic for people. It’s kind of like pulling a bandage off.’ No, it doesn’t work that way.” -@wellgail
“As consumers in online communities, we need to start asking people who run the community, when you close, how do I export my data? When you close, how do I contact all of my contacts and tell them where I want to go and find out where we’re going to be talking about where we land off your site? Where do we talk elsewhere? I’ve gone through this. I think many of us have.” -@wellgail
“Maybe [efforts to save online communities] don’t matter to ownership groups, but they should. I mean, this is your legacy. These are the people who trusted you, and if they can pull it together and keep it going as a membership operation, then you as the founder or you as the current steward of that community, I think you’re kind of obligated to cheer them on and support them to the degree that you can. … It’s not mandated by capitalism. It’s got to come from a sense of actual community responsibility to other humans and actually understanding the value and importance of what we do.” -@wellgail
“In the original software, [when a post was hidden on The WELL,] you would see something that said ‘censored.’ It was a little bit dramatic. That was something that we changed to say ‘hidden.’ It’s hidden. That’s the language we use. If you think it’s censorship, go ahead and bring that up, but let’s not tell everybody it’s censorship from the get-go. They might [recognize something was wrong with their post]. It might not be a fight. … Let’s be neutral, let’s not start fights we don’t have to, in the software itself.” -@wellgail
“People would be very open in confiding in one another and then saying, ‘Wow, if my boss ever read this, I’d be fired.’ And you’re thinking, ‘Okay, some people here don’t like you. Your boss could pay $15 for one month, get in here, and see this.’ The people who don’t like you, if they’re really mean, they could tell your boss to sign up, and they’re still not personally releasing your material. But you’re making all these assumptions. Don’t put yourself at that much risk.” -@wellgail
About Gail Ann Williams
Gail Ann Williams is a collaboration and problem-solving fanatic. A professional in the online community sector since 1991, when she became the conferencing manager at The WELL, Gail set out to solve nitty-gritty puzzles of how social networking can best work in our lives, and how online community toolsets and practices can work better. Her stewardship of that legendary community space, through two decades of challenge and community drama, led to a deepening of both idealism and practical skepticism.
Now she primarily consults with media, storytelling and social sites. Gail especially enjoys overall strategic planning for new ventures along with practical problem-solving for those that are choosing or evolving the most appropriate tools and cultural norms for their members. She also writes for craft beer publications and is a certified beer judge.
- Gail’s website
- The WELL, influential online community launched in 1985, which Gail led from 1991 through 2012
- Salon Media Group, best known for Salon, where Gail was director of communities for 13 years, when the company owned The WELL
- Gail’s user page on The WELL
- “Terse outline” of Gail’s “On Being in the Community Business” presentation at 1994’s IEEE conference
- TechSoup, formerly Compumentor, who sent a volunteer to the nonprofit arts group where Gail worked to help them setup a modem, helping to facilitate her discovery of The WELL
- Google search for “ecology,” the first definition of which reminds Patrick of community
- Cliff Figallo, who hired Gail at The WELL
- John Coate, employee #2 at The WELL and “the first online community manager”
- The WELL: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community by Katie Hafner
- “The Epic Saga of The WELL” by Katie Hafner for Wired
- Bruce Katz, former owner of The WELL
- “Salon Magazine Buys a Virtual Community” by The Associated Press
- Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, co-founders of The WELL
- “Users Bet $400,000 on The WELL, an Original Online Hangout” by Don Clark for The Wall Street Journal, about Salon Media Group selling The WELL to a group of community members
- Cindy Jeffers, former CEO of Salon Media Group, who opted to sell The WELL shortly after joining the company
- Pete Hanson, long time developer at The WELL, who Gail describes as one of the community’s “champions”
- “Au Revoir, Table Talk” by Mary Elizabeth Williams for Salon, about Salon’s closure of their Table Talk community
- Fotolog, a photo sharing site
- “It’s Time for Online Community Software to Allow Members to Download Their Content” by Patrick
- Community Signal episode about IMDb’s message board closure
- ipernity, a photo sharing site used by Gail’s mother
- Wikipedia page for PicoSpan, the software that powers The WELL
- “Don’t Piss in The WELL” by Earl Vickers, a folk song about The WELL
- “Online Community Building Concepts” by Gail (written in 1994)
00:14 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. This week I have the pleasure of speaking with Gail Ann Williams drawing on so many lessons from her time at The WELL and Salon, including transitioning community ownership, the right way to close communities and why understanding privacy within community spaces is so important. Gail is a collaboration and problem solving fanatic, a professional in the online community sector since 1991 when she became the conferencing manager at pioneering online community, The WELL. Gail sets out to solve nitty-gritty puzzles of how social networking can best work in our lives and how online community toolsets and practices can work. Her stewardship of that legendary community space through two decades of challenge and community drama led to a deepening of both idealism and practical skepticism. She also spent 13 years as the director of communities at Salon Media Group. Now she primarily consults with media, storytelling and social sites. Gail especially enjoys overall strategic planning for new ventures along with practical problem solving for those that are choosing or evolving the most appropriate tools and cultural norms for their members. She also writes for craft beer publications and is a certified beer judge. Gail, welcome.
01:26 Gail Ann Williams: Thanks, Patrick, been looking forward to talking with you. This is great.
01:34 Patrick O’Keefe: I’m so glad you agreed to come on the show, as you’re someone who I have always held in high regard but only spoken to once or twice, and I just want to give people a sense of your work in the profession, your bio sort of speaks for itself, 21 years leading The WELL, 13 years in community at Salon, but one thing that really jumped out to me in looking at your WELL user page is that in 1994 you gave a presentation called On Being in the Community Business at the IEEE conference, and I’m going to repeat that, On Being in the Community Business 23 years ago and you were talking about virtual and online community. And to me that’s just amazing, and there are a lot of people that think the business of community, and online community, was something that just popped up in the last five years or so or that the “professionalizing” of the industry is something that happened last week, and I’m a big proponent of kind of knowing the history and recognizing those who helped pave the ways. So it’s really an honor to have you on, and thanks again for spending some time with us.
02:28 Gail Ann Williams: Thank you. It was interesting at the beginning I remember when I first signed up for The WELL I was working for a nonprofit arts group. It was a small theater. And we got this great grant to get a modem and somebody to help us use the modem through an organization called Compumentor, which assigns volunteers to nonprofit groups, and it was extremely exciting, and so I got a modem and then it was like, okay, so we have a modem, who can we talk to, and this was a point in time, it’s 1990, a lot of people knew bulletin boards existed and people who had military or university jobs, they were connected, but most of my friends, when I told them what I was doing they were like, what are you talking about? Well, you know computers can connect to other computers over the telephone lines, and they’d say, well, so what, and it’s like but it’s a way people can talk to each other, why don’t they just call each other. We have come a long way from that time, but at the very beginning, and I was not an original member of The WELL, it had already been going for five years when I joined, and when I got in there I was like, oh, my gosh, I can see several things going on here that are fascinating. There are people using this who obviously see it really differently, and there are the people who are the innate mediators and lawmakers and peacemakers who are trying to make social sense of it, and then there are the people who are just like, “Wow, this is improvisation. Let’s do anything.” We put that together with all kinds of other approaches, people who want to have ordered information being shared between people on a forum that you can go back and get, and all of these things are kind of at cross-purposes but altogether they made an ecosystem of smart people who created something incredibly vibrant and powerful. We all know what this is now, but at that time it was very difficult to tell people what I was doing. What do you do for a living, I’d be like, um, have you ever been like in a campground and you didn’t know everybody and you’re sitting around the campfire and you can’t quite see their faces?
04:46 Patrick O’Keefe: I even want to go back a little further than that, and I was looking in your background and your degree in college is in the conservation of natural resources, and I found that interesting that you…conservation of natural resources and you ended up in community. When you think about that role at that time, whatever you were thinking when you were going for that degree, the conservation of natural resources, is there any correlation to community work?
05:09 Gail Ann Williams: So, I was a student at Berkeley and there was a period of time, I’m not sure that it’s the case now, but there was a period of time where there was always one major that was being put together. It was the newest discipline, and if you had an interest that tied into that major you could basically decide what courses to take and work with the adviser and say this is why these go together. At that time it was the first sort of ecology with a political sensibility to it, sort of policy in an ecology course, and so it was by nature something that was very inner-disciplinary, and I was a great proponent of saving the earth and being kind to lands and making things last so it was perfect for me because I could take any class I wanted essentially. I just had to tie it together in this rubric, and so I took video-making classes. I took some earth science and a soil science course, which seems like a really bizarre thing, that would never be useful in the directions I’ve gone, but it turned out that having worked and knowing that these soil profiles and the sand and the loam and where the life is, even that provided a metaphor and a construct, so I found that that kind of a very generalized, yet literally grounded and very social education was perfect for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do yet, but it turns out that people will laugh about being a generalist and kind of crossing a lot of disciplines in a shallow way, but for working with people, it’s great to have a lot of insights from a lot of difference disciplines.
06:50 Patrick O’Keefe: If you type ecology into Google the first thing that comes up is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and their physical surroundings. I see community there, but then again I see community everywhere I look. I need a hobby I guess, no.
07:24 Gail Ann Williams: No. It’s really powerful to look at the different scientific disciplines and how they tie together community and the meaning of community, and that is one of the broad meanings of community in the biological sense and it is a powerful way to look at things. But at another level I feel like getting down and defining community in a practical way is one of the first things that you have to do as a professional. I really admire a definition that Cliff Figallo, who hired me at The WELL, he had said it one time that a community is a complex network of relationships that endure over time, and I found that really profound because that’s one of the differences to me. What makes something a community, well let’s say some people get into an elevator together and you can get really metaphorical and crazy and say well this is a family that lasts for three minutes. That’s kind of nonsense. I mean I don’t know what kind of elevator rides you usually have, but there’s a point where you need to have time and you need to have a complex relationship, and I think part of that is that there needs to be an ability for some people to go deeper and know each other much better than others. It’s really important I think to have sort of key people who anchor the conversation with different kinds of degrees of connection to one another, because that’s what makes the community, and that’s what makes it feel like it’s a place, like a town where some of the people have very complex close relationships and others just like kind of live there and say hi when they go by in the street and maybe come to a formal community gathering once in a while but others are every day in someone’s backyard having a barbecue.
08:47 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. It’s interesting because there are companies that you buy a product and there’s a note in there and it says “Welcome to the community.” I mean I really just bought a pair of shoes for $20. I don’t know that I’m necessarily part of the community. You mentioned being hired at The WELL, and you joined in 1990, by the end of ’91 you were the conferencing manager and that’s what they called the community manager. You replaced John Coate who was employee number two at The WELL, and according to his Twitter, the first community manager, period. Tell me about that moment of replacing John Coate and leading The WELL after really only being a member for a relatively short time.
09:24 Gail Ann Williams: Well, it was really interesting because from my perspective I had been working in nonprofits and theater and all kinds of movements and I – now I spent an intense 18 months or something like that actually online. I really immersed myself. I sort of fell in love or got addicted and then I got more analytical as I sort of pulled myself back a bit. I think that happens to a lot of people that are in this field. It’s like we have this innate attraction. This is our place. So when John left this was the beginning of a really interesting complicated back story of the ownership of the business and probably way too much to go into on a podcast but I came aboard with a lot of idealism and I talked to John when I started and I just had all of these great, I was thinking, wow, I’ve got these ideas that we’re going to make it easier to be a conference host and moderate and already been told that I can make small adjustments to the software. That’s going to be fantastic. So I talked with John and he was really discouraged and it was all about the board and the ownership, and so you know, this was like, okay, is that going to be what I’m going to be dealing with? And it wasn’t for a while. I’ve got to say that I had a good four years where I didn’t really have interface personally with board members. I didn’t really have to be thinking at night of, like, what is the ownership doing, and that was great for me.
10:56 Gail Ann Williams: But then, later on, I got into that step, too, and that was part of the long drama of The WELL kind of from the time I was hired forward. There was a tremendous distrust of the ownership by the community members and I saw myself as being in both camps, but at a lot of times, I knew that I was really seen by people who were very close friends of mine as being like a mouthpiece of the corporate entity. So that was really weird. But essentially just before we started to talk in our little pre-discussion, one of the really interesting things about all of this that we have to keep in mind is that we are trying to do something that is really beautiful, innate human activity of great meaning. We’re doing this on databases that can be data-mined and that are owned by people who might be good people but might have different financial pressures in the future or might sell their businesses off and they might close the business and then sell the mailing list and the data off, and that’s like, these are things that we kind of always know and I feel like right now we’re at a point where maybe members of these communities are sophisticated enough to start to care about it, and I hope that’s true because I feel like these are the conversations we need to have right now both as members and as practitioners is to say what are we promising people and where did they think they are, in what way are they feeling safe and is that a safety that we can, in fact, bring them or is it an illusion that we’re all kind of going along with.
12:36 Patrick O’Keefe: There’s a few things there I really want to unpack, but I was just curious about The WELL ownership, you know, you said that for your time that your first four years you basically didn’t have to interact too much with the board, with the owners, etc., so it sounds like they let you at least sort of do what you wanted to, do what you felt was best for the community. Do you feel that the distrust of ownership, sometimes what happens is, right, you know the community manager, you know the person you talk to on a daily basis, as such they’re a human to you, right? But the owners sometimes you don’t necessarily know what they’re doing at all times, and even though they were hand-off with you, there was a distrust, was it justified do you think? Was it a fear of what could be rather than what was? I’m kind of curious what you felt about that.
13:14 Gail Ann Williams: Well, this has all been written up at great lengths in a book called The WELL by Katie Haffner, and also a previous article by her, a very long article that was almost a whole issue of Wired. You can go back and archive some files online.
13:25 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. We’ll link to that in the show notes as well.
13:30 Gail Ann Williams: It’s very interesting. At that time, let’s see, I felt that I had a kind of a middle ground point of view over the time I felt that the numbers community were somewhat unfairly attacking and speaking of the owner, who had been a part owner in the past and then bought out his partner, who is Bruce Katz. He had some habits that members of the crew described as the five-year plan of the week. This is not an easy person to work for in some ways when there’s like this new high-level genius idea that would be very had to implement and then the next week there’s another one and the first one has been scratched just when you started digging research on it. That was kind of going on, and that was difficult. And so that would have been I think a really good crew that the staff really cared about the community and we could work through that, and there are other members of his team that would communicate with him and I sort of thought this will work out because at some point this is a business and you say, okay, here’s how much this would cost and what does this do and let’s decide. We can navigate this because we have logic and sustainability on our side, but Bruce also wanted to directly be part of the community in sort of like he wanted to be the community hero is how I saw it and it was a community that was incredibly skeptical of heroes, full of very smart people who enjoyed taking one another down a peg, so he was particularly unsuited for that particular role, and so when he would tell his new brilliant idea that really hadn’t been flushed out yet and talked through to the community, the community would freak out and be scared by it, and some of these were silly ideas that would have been not good but I didn’t think they would happen so I was just like, come on, let’s be chill.
15:34 Gail Ann Williams: So, that was a very interesting time, because that put me in obviously a really weird position. And so, members of the community that during that time started to build a plan to just create another community and go, and that went on for a while. Various people in community started like telling me what was going on and like this is confidentially I’ve got to tell you this, and then I’m like, okay, now what do I do with this information. So I’m just like, okay, we’ll just see what happens. And so when they announced what was happening, which totally freaked out the owner, and I just said to him, look, it’s like it’s not easy to go someplace else and new people are still coming to the system so just the worst thing to do would be to overreact at some way. Let’s just say, hey, lots of good ventures are started here, good luck to every cool thing that come out of The WELL and just be chill about it. So that went on for a little while and there were some disputes about power and structure and governments on the new system and more people kept involvement in both places. They slowed down on The WELL for a while and then they came back to The WELL after a while, and some new people who had joined over there came back, and so it was not the end of times. But mainly that was because really nothing had changed. Realistically there were no changes, and so the weird thing is later on when Salon.com bought The WELL and went into that phase I think some of the hard things for me was that in some ways the sort of covenant that I had with members was nothing is going to get broken, and so that made a really interesting thing. And The WELL would still do a command line login and some of the core brilliant thinkers and everyday visitors still used command line on The WELL. Even though they’re using web tools everywhere else in their online life, it’s super important to them. And there is a web interface, but the web interface never got the chance to evolve as much as it probably should have because it’s still tied to command line, and so in a really interesting way I think having a very mercurial, volatile, creative ownership scared people into being conservative in a really odd way, and it turned out that the conservatism, certainly not political conservatism at The WELL, but it was a conservatism about the interface.
18:03 Patrick O’Keefe: I do want to talk about the ownership just a little bit, especially the last change, because as you kind of highlighted The WELL’s changed ownership a few times. Just for anyone listening, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant founded it in 1985 and Bruce Katz the founder of Rockport, bought full control in 1994 after having previously held some ownership in it, It was then sold to Salon in 1999 for around $2 million, according to The New York Times. Salon tried to sell the community in ’05 but couldn’t find the right buyer, then in 2012 Salon laid off The WELL’s staff, which included you, unfortunately, and sold the community, for a reported price of $400,000, to a group of former members. You were there for all of those transitions going down the timeline, including as a consultant after the most recent sale, but just with that most recent transition, what was the story there from your perspective behind that period of transition from Salon and at first to sell and finally completing a sale?
18:53 Gail Ann Williams: I just read something that was published last spring about Salon, and I really had no involvement after that time in 2013, but the CEO who took over at that point just had a very different vision, somewhat directed by her experience at Huffington Post and for Salon to have this other little subscription business on the side of The WELL made no sense to her at all. So as soon as she became CEO that was I think a done deal that The WELL was done. Years earlier I talked to some people in The WELL community who had rather deep pockets about if anything ever went wrong if they would step forward and maybe purchase The WELL, so I sort of hoped that that would come to play and some of the people who worked at Salon at the time of the layoff they knew about this and they were optimistic, so essentially we were laid off but we really thought that something was going to move. So we just kind of chilled out. I mean we kept everything running and waited a little while. There’s a lot I probably can’t talk about, but at a certain point we realized that it wasn’t going to come together as we’d expected, and so it was a really interesting dilemma because we sort of thought if we just posted, hey, we’re all laid off and right now they’re looking for a new owner and they’re willing to just essentially sell the domain, we would have mass panic. So we were like trying to figure out is there any way that we can help shepherd this in any way, and so we talked to a couple of key people who are thoughtful people who later became part of the group that bought The WELL, and nobody knew how it was going to work right away but they knew they didn’t want to expose the laid off staff to any kind of risk and so they decided what we’re going to do is wait until a filing had to happen with the federal government, because it’s a publicly traded site, and as soon as that filing happened that would say we were laid off then the discussion of how can community purchase The WELL would start.
21:09 Gail Ann Williams: And so, that was some thought going into it. I think that people were incredibly concerned but we didn’t really get panicked by my standards of what I expected could happen with people could do mass-deletions of their stuff. There’s a lot of things that would not be good. That really would have meant it was over. And so, fortunately, this group of people came together and decided to not try to form a co-op or do anything super complicated but just be an ownership group of people who had a deep stake in The WELL and who had a fair diversity of opinions and ways of interacting and ways of using the system. That was a good thing. So it turned out it took a year of really complicated work just switching over like all of the subscription services and all of that kind of stuff, all the things that were – all of the machinery behind the machinery, but, yeah, I stayed on and helped make that be a transition and I think one of the champions of The WELL is Pete Hanson who has been the engineer there and he’s been the developer of everything. He’s the jack of all trades on the tech side, and he’s a wonderful participant in the community with a sense of humor. People love him and keeping him on and keeping him involved in the transition, and he’s still part of The WELL, that was incredibly important for going forward.
22:34 Gail Ann Williams: It was clear to me that I should be involved in a transition at that point because for this idea, The WELL to go to new ownership, that’s, well, people. There kind of needed to be a new community director or a new business director really who could say, okay, I’m stepping forward from the community of experience here, I’m going to bring a new perspective to it. So that was sort of foreseen all along, and I kind of hated to give it up but on another level, I was preparing for it for quite a while and I was awfully glad that the door wasn’t just shut because I had gone through that before at Salon. Well, a couple years after I joined Salon, Salon Table Talk, which was an amazing huge forum site at the time and free and not paying for itself in an ad situation for a free site was just something that was very familiar to a lot of people. It’s like how do we monetize this community and we can run ads and no one will look at them because the words of their friends are much more interesting than any distracting ads nearby and because of that experience and being told one day, hey, I think we’re going to close Table Talk on Monday, and like, no, we don’t do this. We don’t close a community with no notice. It’ll be less traumatic for people. It’s kind of like pulling a bandage off. It’s like, no, it doesn’t work that way. So that was a huge battle early on, and what we did basically, and also it’s like it coincided with me going on I was leaving for vacation to go backpacking where I would be completely out of cell phone reach or any reach, so I’m like at that point I’m like, okay, we need a plan, and I was actually driving up to Northern California up near Mount Shasta and I remember going and I couldn’t use my cell phone, so I was on a pay phone calling back and talking to Pete Hanson and saying, okay, can we do this, can we simply use The WELL’s membership device as a way to get people access to still use Table Talk and give them a really low price, and, yes, it means that they’ll also be able to visit The WELL and that will be a social thing that will be very interesting but can we do this as a mechanism, because I don’t think most of them want to part of The WELL. It’s kind of like, okay, you’re Swedes, you also have to have a Norwegian passport. It’s like they’re not going to want to go, oh, good, now we get to be in Norway. They’re going to be like, “Really? I want to be in Sweden. What’s this damn Norwegian passport about?” And the outside world is going to say, “But they’re all the same.” They’re like, “No, they’re not.”
25:09 Gail Ann Williams: And that’s what happened. It was kind of crazy, but we saved Table Talk for a while by saying Table Talk was one of the benefits of joining The WELL and we gave the Table Talkers a really low price of WELL subscription, and that went on for a while and then at a certain point Salon kept trying to figure out how to pay for journalism, which is something everyone is still struggling with, and at a certain point there was a pay-wall plan with a membership and the idea was, well, Table Talk is more closely allied with Salon so why doesn’t that become part of the paywall membership and not have it be this peculiar way that it’s been attached to a WELL membership. So then we converted it all back again. We kept Table Talk going for a very long time, and with the staffing choices that were made by the powers that be at Salon lead us to have to close Table Talk eventually. There was no question that there would be a good long period of time to talk about it, people would be able to make their alliances and figure out where to go, and I think this is something, this is another one of my current hobby horses. I think that as consumers in online communities we need to start asking people who run the community, okay, when you close, how do I export my data? When we close how do I contact all of my contacts and tell them where I want to go and find out where we’re going to be talking about where we land off your site? Where do we talk elsewhere? And I’ve gone through this. I think many of us have.
26:45 Gail Ann Williams: I was part of a really peculiar sort of a refugee flight from an early site called Fotolog, with an F, and Fotolog was astonishing and cool at the beginning. It was one of the first sorts of really simple social photo sharing sites, and it had a really strange trajectory, which actually has something to do with The WELL, I’m afraid. People in The WELL were really excited about it, including a member who was a journalist from Brazil and then she wrote an article about it in a major Brazilian newspaper and pretty soon after that there was this giant influx of Brazilian and Argentinean members who were mostly really young taking selfies at the beach and these sort of thoughtful photographers, many of whom were really playing with their photos themselves or who were playing sort of visual games and sort of North American intellectual visual games with their photos and so forth were loaded with all these South American teenagers who are very nice people but had completely different interests and ways of interacting. So I would put up a picture of I don’t know, I take a lot of different photos, but say a really interesting succulent with a really beautiful spiral shape that I had found and say, here, this is great, here’s the intersection of math and the planet kingdom. And so my friends who normally we would be commenting on each other’s photos would not have a chance to comment because all of these wonderful teenagers from Brazil and Argentina would be posting look at me, look at my latest picture, look at my latest picture. They would be really spamming in an attention-seeking way and not a commercial way but totally spamming it out. So people started freaking out and talking about where to go, and that was the beginning of the rise of Flickr, and so essentially people went to Flickr and made an effort to find each other there and sort of stayed in a certain way for quite a while before Flickr changed their interface and made it less about socializing and more about photography collection or sort of what I would say storage, so they really changed the meaning of the service at some point, and at that point I think most of those connections sort of died away.
28:59 Patrick O’Keefe: I’m glad that you morphed the conversation into the closure of communities, because I actually wanted to go there next and you kind of answered it already so we’re good there. But it’s definitely an area I’ve been thinking about lately. Frankly, it’s not an area that a lot of people talk about it because a lot of people who talk about community are consultants or people who get paid to offer advice on community and that doesn’t make money. You don’t make money on the closing site, you make it on the opening site, right?
29:22 Gail Ann Williams: That’s right.
29:24 Patrick O’Keefe: I think it’s such an important consideration, and you kind of hammered home the key thoughts I would have anyway. A few years ago I wrote a piece. I think it was titled It’s Time for Online Community Software to Allow Members to Download Their Content. It’s like you said, it’s just time for that, and I’ve been happy to see a couple of software options do that. My thing is that it needs to happen in the software, like people making software that powers most communities need to have it built in because the owners won’t add it or don’t think about it, and the fact is a lot of communities are very resource-strapped anyway. A lot of the communities that close, I’m gonna talk about IMDb in a second, but they’re not owned by Amazon, right? They’re not owned by Amazon. They don’t have potentially a limitless amount of money to create an exporter. So I’ve been happy to see some software programs adapt that just easy download my own post, download my own photos, download my own stuff.
30:11 Gail Ann Williams: Yeah.
30:12 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s so important because IMDb closed, and you’re talking about a community in 1999 that started in 1999. 28-year-old community, how many members, massive number, how many posts, massive, millions and millions of posts, people made friendships, probably got married, they only know each other through IMDb. And IMDb announced that the community was closing in two weeks and deleted it all. I mean, a vacation, like you’re backpacking, can go two weeks. So, what, you’re a member of IMDb, you have all of your friends there, you go on vacation, you come back, and it’s gone and you have no way to reach anyone? It’s so frustrating to see someone who has the resources to close it right, close it wrong.
30:51 Gail Ann Williams: Yeah. And also I think you see… Well, my mom who is in her eighties and is an amazing storyteller with amazing collections of old photographs that she’s scanned, she went from Flickr to a French site called ipernity, which is essentially, actually very… one could either say crude or stunningly faithful clone of early Flickr. They didn’t have the sophistication of a really good algorithm to get interestingness right for photos. There are some things that are a little bit hinky, but the layout is what people loved early on. You could use it for various things, including putting up a picture and telling a story about it. So, it’s kind of a hybrid of a blog and a photo site. And there is a group of people who emerge again and again, back to the Fotolog days, who really want to use photos in storytelling and interactions, and sometimes they’ll put up a photo with no words, and sometimes they want to talk about it. And that format is not being honored these days, in terms of big commercial sites. There’s questions about how to pay for it, I suppose. But what happened at ipernity is that, after they announced that they were closing, and actually, a lot of us put… I mean, I helped my mom download thousands of photos. It was really kind of a huge project. There’s a group there that’s going to try to take it over as a nonprofit association. And those kinds of efforts, maybe they don’t matter to ownership groups, but they should. I mean, this is your legacy. These are the people who trusted you, and if they can pull it together and keep it going as a membership operation, then you as the founder or you as the current steward of that community, I think you’re kind of obligated to cheer them on and support them to the degree that you can.
32:47 Gail Ann Williams: As you say, okay, this business division isn’t working, or even this business isn’t working. That bridge for those people is, it’s a core duty, and I think we really have to make that a social norm, because it’s certainly not going to be… It’s not mandated by capitalism. It’s got to come from a sense of actual community responsibility to other humans, and actually understanding the value and importance of what we do. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about films or how to fix our motorcycle or our collections of family photos or travel photos. It doesn’t make any difference what those things are. If there are people who put tremendous time and care and pieces of their lives into these and have made other connections there, I think there really is an obligation to let people find a way to go forward together.
33:41 Patrick O’Keefe: Sign me up, you know. [Laughs] Sign me up! I am all on board for calling out… and maybe shaming isn’t the right word, but being critical about people who don’t take this seriously. Like you said, it’s a responsibility. If you can tap into community and you can try to host a community when it benefits your business, you’ve got to do what’s in your power to make sure that community, if you have to close it… Which, closing communities happens. Like, I’m not here advocating for communities to stay open forever, necessarily. Stuff happens. I’ve closed communities. But there’s a way to do it, right. There’s a way to do it, encourage people to connect with one another, give them the tools to do so, so that, you know, they don’t just simply get disconnected. So, I’m on board. Something you touched on, you know, when you joined The WELL was you were told you could make some tweaks to the software – and maybe that wasn’t the case after you got there. But long-running communities do struggle with substantial software changes. Something you said in the pre-show questionnaire I thought was interesting was, “Honoring old software that’s taken on a religious significance, for some, turned out to be a complex choice. It was ultimately a problem as well as a wise move, perhaps in equal measures.” Software has a religious significance. Talk about that, if you could.
34:47 Gail Ann Williams: Okay. Well, PicoSpan, which is the venerable software that The WELL still runs, Picospan does have a religious significance. I would say that there are lots of ways to see that. One of them is that, for example, there was a folk song written by a member some years ago with the title of “Don’t Piss in The WELL”, which was about treating one another with respect, and it has all these references to the use of the software that are completely organic and seamless in the song, but mean that the song has no relevance to anyone who is not using the software. So, it has a language. It has a meaning. There are people who said very strange things at times during The WELL’s years of discussing the software. They hated it. It was hard to learn. But if you took it away, they would go somewhere else. And you’d get these really peculiar juxtapositions where people would say, “I’d rather be on an island in Second Life than have to use a web conferencing software.” What does that mean? So, yeah, it was at least a deep identity, if not a religious thing. And there actually is a really peculiar little folk religion element on The WELL. It’s kind of a joke, but a typo by one of our illustrious members years ago, he typed something about… I don’t remember the total context, but he was referring to God, and he managed to type G-O-P-O-D. So, Gopod became a sort of a joke deity. But then some of these people would use it in earnest, and they’d say, you know, “I pray to Gopod that your kid gets better.” And you’re like, at least… I mean, they may not be serious about it, but they’re at least referring to it in a way that’s serious. And so, I feel like the meaning of the software, once people get a sense of the software, it is their shared place. It has identity to it.
36:45 Gail Ann Williams: So, then, later, you move something around in a modern format. You take away the ability to thumbs-down someone on a system because you decided that it should only be thumbs up, which is probably a really good idea but probably should have been built in from the beginning, and people freak. It is really hard to evolve software. But I did make a lot of changes with a really wonderful developer named Bryan Higgins over especially the first ten years of working with The WELL. We changed a lot of things, and some of it was language that was built in. In the original PicoSpan, if a conference host hid a post that they didn’t like or that was long or off-topic, it just meant that you had to take an extra command to see it. It was not visible until you opened it up. And so, destructive, per se, but in the original software, you would see something that said: “Censored.” So, it was a little bit dramatic. And that was something that changed to say “Hidden.” It’s hidden. That’s the language we use. If you think it’s censorship, go ahead and bring that up, but let’s not tell everybody it’s censorship from the get-go. They might go, “Oh, yeah, I guess that was a little wordy.” It might not be a fight. There was a lot of functionality that was changed, but I think the language changes… I really think about how important it is that the navigation and the description of actions are things that make sense with the culture. And we changed “Fair Witness” to “Host” because that designation for the sort of moderator role encouraged some people to just kind of witness and not ever try to make things fun or involving or merciful. Host actually is sort of a kinder, more encompassing role for a group.
38:31 Gail Ann Williams: Another one was, it used to be if you tried to go to a private area on The WELL, you’d see something that said “Failed Security Clearance”, and this was particularly weird if you had two accounts like I had. Even before I worked for The WELL, I had an account for the theater company I was working for and a personal account. I would try to go to a private conference and I’d see failed security clearance and I’d go, “Oh, no. Have I been locked out?” And, like, “Oh, wait. I’m in the wrong account.” And it was just sort of hostile. And so, one of my changes was to make that say your account name is not a member of the conference name, so then it’s just neutral and it’s feedback and it’s friendlier. It’s not sort of, you know, twee and silly and chirpy, but it’s just, let’s be neutral, let’s not start fights we don’t have to in the software itself. And this is just one teeny little piece of evolving software to go along with the culture of a place, but I think that those kinds of things could be built into most platforms. It could say, you know, let the error messages and the navigation be adjustable by the community managers. It’s just one idea.
39:43 Patrick O’Keefe: You know, I want to talk about privacy because you mentioned to me that privacy for groups and paranoia about confidentiality is incredibly important and strangely hard for people to understand. I don’t really know that I’ve thought much about that. What do you mean? What do you mean when you say that privacy for groups and paranoia about confidentiality?
40:00 Gail Ann Williams: Well, one of the things, being deeply involved in The WELL for a couple of decades, there’s a couple of things that we see. One is that people would be very open in confiding in one another, and then saying, “Wow, if my boss ever read this, I’d be fired.” And you’re thinking, like, okay. Some people here don’t like you. Your boss could pay $15 for one month, get in here, and see this. The people who don’t like you, if they’re really mean, they could tell your boss to sign up, and they’re still not personally releasing your material. But you’re making all these assumptions. Don’t put yourself at that much risk. Early on, when I first worked at The WELL, people would set up private conferences, and you couldn’t tell who else was the member of a private conference. So, unless they’d actually posted in the forum, they could be lurking and you wouldn’t know they were there. So, that was an early software change that we did, is to say, okay, you need to able to go into a private area and see who else has access immediately, and be able to look through that. Because if you’re going to join a private group about… it could be anything, substance abuse or something like that, there’s people that you aren’t ready to tell about that. You might as well make sure that there’s nobody in there that’s married to the person you don’t want to tell or something. There’s all these connections in complex communities, and it’s hard enough if you do have some visibility into it, but for the software to obscure that was crazy. Now, even when you know exactly who’s in a group of people, and say that you got a group of people right now together and you said, “Let’s do something bold and we could lose our jobs about it,” or it could be illegal, or it could be not illegal now but it might be in the future – whatever concerns you’ve got about your privacy or your reputation being harmed. You get your group of people together. You chose a platform. You say, “Okay, we’re going to use a Google Group or we’re going to use Slack.” You choose something and you start freely talking to one another, and you decided you’re going to trust that people here will follow by whatever rules. They’re not going to forward your statements to others. Okay, you’re already making an assumption there.
42:09 Gail Ann Williams: What you don’t know is who’s going to be invited to the group later, what the ownership does when they get a subpoena. I mean, there’s all these things that people don’t think about, and then they put themselves at risk. And I find this really deeply troubling, because I found when I rewrote the privacy statement for The WELL… And, like, you know, privacy documents are mostly just like, let’s look at the legal form and make sure we don’t expose ourselves to any legal jeopardy. But when I wrote that, I was trying really hard to be sure that we’re not saying “your secrets are safe here”, or “you can trust people in a private area here”, because you can’t. Anytime we tell people something, we are trusting that person, we’re trusting other people that come along, and we’re making assumptions. If we’re leaving it in hard text or photographic evidence, we are trusting that nothing will come along that will completely change the context of the place that we’re using. And so, I feel like there’s a lack of sophistication about that, even amongst online community veterans, that is somewhat stunning at times.
43:21 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. I mean, there’s at least two sides to that. There’s the community and then there’s the person, right? The community, to your point, I’m thankful I never thought about doing, saying that, or ever had that thought of saying, like, “You could trust this.” Because really, you know, even private messages on the community – we say this in our guidelines – if a member reports that you threaten them or said you were going to come to their house or something much worse, we’re going to look into that, right? We’re going to limit the scope of it, but I can’t let people just go crazy in private messages. And so, even the contents of private messages in a lot of communities, you know, yes, 99.9% of them are private, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to threaten people or whatever.
43:57 Gail Ann Williams: Right.
43:57 Patrick O’Keefe: But we see this play out. I mean, I want to believe. I believe literacy is getting better in this area. But we see this play out over and over again. I mean, Snapchat is a super easy example, right? People send things over Snapchat and then they are surprised that they pop up somewhere online, and you know, no one’s ever going to be able to stop anyone from pointing a camera at a screen, right? You know, it’s the simplest hack in the true definition of the word “hack”, right? Not illegal access, but just finding a creative solution. Like, I can point my DSLR at my cell phone screen and take a picture or record video of whatever’s being displayed on there through Snapchat. I can save that. And yeah, it’s just something that I think each generation may be getting a little more intelligent about that, but each generation has to discover on their own platform of choice, unfortunately.
44:39 Gail Ann Williams: Yeah. So, another… My manifesto of best practices, along with find ways… think ahead for how people can remove their data later, would be, don’t overpromise. You don’t open a place on a shoestring, or even with really nice venture capital money, and say, “Here is a place where your group will have privacy and confidentiality forever,” because you can’t promise that. And I feel like there’s a fair amount of that that goes on.
45:09 Patrick O’Keefe: You know, speaking of best practices, you published a list, in 1994, of community-building concepts, and on it, you said, “Collaborate in making a world where the sun rises the next morning. There’s no reason to push for the climax you seek in a novel or movie which then ends, so keep that particular dramatic sense at bay.” And I love that statement, you know. This hour has flown by. I can probably talk to you for a bit longer, but I really appreciate you joining the program, and thank you for spending this time with us.
45:36 Gail Ann Williams: Thanks, Patrick. It was a lot of fun.
45:38 Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Gail Ann Williams, formerly the conferencing manager and executive director of The WELL, and director of communities for Salon Media Group, who now consults at gailwilliams.com. You can find her still active on The WELL under the username gail. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and I will see you next week.
Thank you for listening to Community Signal.