Lessons From The WELL + Making a World Where the Sun Rises the Next Morning

With a career in online community spanning more than 25 years, including 20+ leading influential online community The WELL and 13 as director of communities for Salon, Gail Ann Williams is a pioneer of our industry.

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”

Big Quotes

“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

“Salon [had] Table Talk, which was an amazing, huge forum site and free [that was] not paying for itself. [A couple of years into my tenure, 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.

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