When did social media or online social networking start? Was it a few years ago off the back of MySpace, Facebook and Web 2.0?

No. It was thriving in San Francisco and the Bay Area before Mark Zuckerberg, twenty-something CEO and founder of Facebook, was born.

From 1985 a community gathered online to communicate over a network known as The WELL. WELL is an acronym for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. The WELL network initially did not use the internet. It was like a bulletin board system (BBS), an ancestor of social media systems today.

In the 1980s The WELL was an IT start-up. It used a small office in Sausalito with a VAX computer and lots of modems. Through word of mouth The WELL grew its user base among the general public. AOL launched the same year while Microsoft Network (MSN) arrived about a decade later. There had long been CompuServe, though in the mid-1980s it charged a very high US$20 an hour.

The WELL name came partly from the term “Whole Earth”. It had become famous in the title of the hippie print media bible which was first published in 1968, Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog was the Wikipedia of the time for people seeking an alternative rural lifestyle and looking for such things as farming tools and related eclectic information [PDF].

Wired magazine has described Stuart Brand, biologist by training, and co-founder of the Catalog, as an “intellectual pied piper“. It fits. Brand has achieved a lot, including co-founding The WELL with Larry Brilliant.

In April 2008 a remarkable artefact of The WELL’s history emerged. It’s a seven minute video of an office party at The WELL in Sausalito.

The video is compulsory viewing for regular Lightbulb readers. Watch and hear 1989 party folk tell you how at The WELL they found friends and romantic partners online, work opportunities online and a reason to not own a television.

American cyberculture author, Howard Rheingold, was at the party. He put the video online and introduces it.

Twenty years on, hundreds of millions worldwide do what you are doing now. They read blogs. Blogs have elements of an online conference facility or bulletin board system, eg you can comment, go ahead I dare you!.

Social media is growing fast – eg RSVP, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Bebo and YouTube. Whether you use them or send messages on your mobile phone you’re doing something with antecedents in The Well.

So if social media is growing what became of The Well? Let’s consider its technology evolution, IP strategy and policies for regulation of its community of users.

1. Evolution of technology

The WELL hardly experienced commercial success. There were many obstacles. It’s taken over 20 years for a myriad of inventors, owners of infrastructure and people to:

  • simplify online communication technology (eg modems, the web, browsers, data compression solutions for various software, and Web 2.0 ease of use for uploading and styling publisher and user-generated multimedia content);
  • increase internet bandwidth (in Australia only in the current decade);
  • make the technology affordable (Wired reports that the first computer for The Well cost US$150,000 and the software cost US$100,000, that’s 1985 dollars! And it’s not counting the costs for the staff Brand brought into the venture.); and
  • change the habits of users and develop skills of suppliers and users.

2.  Intellectual property for technology

The WELL was set up on a semi-commercial basis but struggled to make a profit. At start-up it charged users a monthly fee of US$8 and US$2 per hour. By 1991 the Wired article tells us The WELL had maybe 5,000 users. In contrast AOL had 100,000 and revenues of US$21 million. The WELL’s influence remains completely disproportional to its commercial results, technology constraints, and user base numbers.

Assume that prior to its launch The WELL could obtain a good patent and did so. Could it have strengthened its financial position by licensing such a patent to other online networks?

The vast majority of patents earn little or no revenue, let alone profit. A patent monopoly lasts 20 years generally. This would have been too short to capitalise on today’s social media sites by insisting on licensing and royalties.

The same problem dogged Douglas Engelbart, the co-inventor in 1968 of the mouse. It took twenty years for the mouse to became a common navigation device and by then his patent position was well on its way to expiry.

3.  Regulation of use of technology

The WELL even has lessons for legal regulation of online communities. That last word is important.

On a related Rheingold video, you can hear about and from John Coate. In late 1986 Coate became a manager at The Well. Prior to that, and he’s another clue, he’d spent 12 years at The Farm, originally a rural place for hippies. Like The WELL it continues to this day.

On writing the first law blog post in Lightbulb on social media, in August 2006, I quoted Coate’s rules for regulation of an online community. His simple list is at the end of that post – Wisdom for Commercialisation of Social Networking Websites. It’s exceptional and I suspect reflects the open-minded experience Coate sought at The Farm.

Call it what you will – intellectual property development, invention, innovation, creativity – all require open minds. San Francisco has had at least three generations of such growth through the beatniks, hippies, and cyberculture aficionados. The region and its people have encouraged communal thought and practice. Combining that with world-ranking educational facilities, academic and corporate research facilities, and venture capital has made the region a global economic, technical and creative epicentre.

Values glue communities. Coate’s rules of 20 years ago for regulating an online community contain core values which have stood the test of time. I’ve been guided by them in regularly drafting for clients online community or website terms of use, privacy statements and rules for online forums. It’s proof that The WELL was deep.

Noric Dilanchian