Sep 3, 07

Cliff Figallo and the Evolution of Virtual Community

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Cliff Figallo is a man with deep roots in the evolution of the social internet. Currently a social web consultant advising three startups, Cliff began his career with the Point Foundation, which published the Whole Earth Catalog and operated the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, known as The WELL. As the second director of The WELL -- founded in 1985 -- Cliff managed its transition from a Bay Area computer bulletin board system for an eclectic combination of authors, journalists, deadheads and forward thinkers, to a globally linked online community and seminal influence on the social web -- the system that led Howard Rheingold to coin the term "virtual community."

Before joining The WELL, Cliff and conferencing manager John "Tex" Coate had been part of The Farm, a large, robust intentional community in Tennessee led by Stephen Gaskin.

Cliff has authored two books: Hosting Web Communities and with wife Nancy Rhine, Building the Knowledge Management Network. He blogs about climate change at Climate Frog., tracking climate-driven events, he says, "so that we can learn something useful for when those events are more widespread and severe."

"There are enough blogs out there urging us to reduce carbon emissions and reduce our environmental footprints," says Cliff. "Those actions are urgent and essential, but won't change whatever climatic developments are going to happen over the next four to five decades. During that period, we are likely to see many violent storms, extreme drought and flooding and sea level rise. We are not at all ready."

Part 1 of the Worldchanging interview with Cliff focuses on his early history and his work on The WELL.

Jon: At the beginning of your career, you moved from communal living on The Farm to community building on The WELL. What led to that transition?

Cliff: In the particular case of the Farm, I would have said then (in 1983) that it was disenchantment with the status of the mission we'd set out on 12 years earlier. Today, with an additonal 24 years of hindsight, I'd say it was that we'd grown up and our values had changed.

With growing families and more personal (than collective) ambitions to have an effect on the world, many of us felt had come to feel limited and constricted by a social arrangement that had once provided plenty of interesting opportunities. We'd failed – with all of the shared goodwill and agreement – to create a working system of governance for the Farm, and our collective economy was on the verge of collapse.

And then, there was the charismatic leader situation. Stephen Gaskin had founded the Farm around his teachings and ideals. We'd all been aligned, appreciated the way he put our values into words, and we put all we had into a mission to help save the world by providing a good example of altruism, fairness, hard work and a global perspective on just about everything. As the years passed, Stephen became more political and the rest of us became more independent. There was no need for any one person to hold more power and credibility than the rest. Not everyone agreed, though, and there were schisms, including the boozers who'd decided that if we could smoke pot daily, we could handle a few beers on the weekend. Like I said, I was disenchanted, as were hundreds of us out of the 800 or so residents at that time.

Problem was, none of us had any savings. We'd all agreed to live collectively. So as I was looking for a paying job off the Farm, it happened that one of my friends, Matthew McClure – who'd left the Farm a few months previously, had been hired by an old employer, Stewart Brand, to work on the Whole Earth Software Catalog. There was an opening for a research librarian to track the reviewed products.

I had been doing the books for Farm Foods, first on an Apple //e with twin floppy drives. That had proven to be the wrong tool for the amount of business we were doing, so I went computer shopping. This was at the time when the IBM PC was new and Apple had just released the Lisa. I ended up bying a Tandy Radio Shack 2-terminal system running Xenix. I learned some Unix commands and that experience won me the job at Whole Earth. I moved my family – wife and 5 kids – to Marin County for a job paying $10/hour.

I had never used a modem. But the culture at Whole Earth was like a halfway house for dropping back in.

Jon: The WELL was a dialup BBS – did it feel like a community then? Or did the community background you and others had nudge that environment in more of a communal direction?

Cliff: I was scrambling to keep employed by Whole Earth after the second edition of the Software Catalog was done. I kept Point's books for over a year, and also put my carpentry skills to work helping to remodel the working space for what was then a publishing operation. Sometime in 1985 I first heard the rumor that we might add a computer networking system to our activities, and at some point I was asked to partition off a room that we could air condition, where the hosting machinery would go.

Matthew was put in charge of the new business, which had been christened as an acronym – The WELL. I was initially its bookkeeper and developer of a billing system for tracking the monthly and hourly charges to its users. Stewart and Matthew invited the first round of users, selected from writers who'd worked on the software catalog, attendees of the first Hackers' Conference, computer-literate colleagues and subscribers of the new Whole Earth Review magazine, which had replaced CoEvolution Quarterly.

So this selection defined the first community. Stewart had wanted to put Matthew's experience living on a back-to-the-land community for over a decade to work in stewarding an electronically-mediated community. Surely there must be valuable lessons learned that Matthew could provide. Sitting in the room next to him, I'd ask Matthew how he regarded The WELL as compared to the Farm. I was reticent to divide my time between bookkeeping and learning The WELL, so Matthew would relate to me some of the earliest interactions.

It was clear to me that he was avoiding as much similarity with our old absolute guru as possible. Yes, we could bring some wisdom about relationships and fair sharing of limited resources. Yes, we could apply some lessons learned about dealing with people who were "into the juice" – being greedy about attracting attention. And yes, we could appeal to whatever value people put into becoming part of a new community.

I become more active on The WELL after Matthew asked if I'd be into replacing him if he left to start his own programming company. By the time this happened, in August 1986, over a year and a half after The WELL launched, I was familiar enough with The WELL to introduce myself and start getting myself in trouble.

Some people were finding common ground and building familiarity and respect with others. A few early members had relationships that preceded their time online, but the few dozen active members at that time were mostly in what I called "tail-sniffing mode. The community was going to develop, as I soon learned, from friction.

Jon: What kind of friction? And how did it differ, if at all, from friction you encountered in face to face communities, like the Farm?

Cliff: You made a deep commitment when you joined the Farm. It was, in essence, joining an ashram with Stephen as the guru. You joined to be his student. You also made a vow of poverty, to not keep any monetary or material assets as your own, but to share them with the rest of the community. You stopped smoking, drinking, eating meat, being violent...and you generally agreed to be a nice person with everyone.

Compare that with The WELL's requiring that you have a modem, you have a PC and you are willing to pay 8 bucks a month plus 2 bucks an hour to mix it up with the rest of the members.

I'd like to be able to report that on the Farm – with all those other commitments and agreements already made – there was less friction than on The WELL. But I can't. Living collectively and spiritually is a hard yoga. You work hard, you sometimes don't eat enough, you get grouchy, you like most of your neighbors, but you just can't get along with could get frustrating. But at base, you knew that you were all on the same mission, and it was a noble mission and it deserved for us to try hard to cooperate and achieve something worthwhile.

The friction on The WELL, though I don't think it was any more prevalent than on the Farm, could be a lot meaner. There were no social agreements that served as a governor on nastiness. If someone wanted to sink the harpoon, they went ahead and did it. The WELL was a business, not an ashram, and as its referees, we had chosen to be appropriately more liberal about the exercise of anger. People got busted on the Farm for expressing anger and being mean. That might mean loss of a leadership position on one of our many working crews. It might mean getting called out by Stephen at a Farm meeting. It might even mean getting sent on the road for 30 days to think about it. We didn't do shunning, but if you were a hardass, people weren't shy about telling you about it.

The shielding you get in the online medium allows for higher levels of extreme emotional expression, including anger and insult. That's the big difference. It's one of degree rather than quantity, in comparing a face-to-face intentional community with a virtual subscription community. But The WELL did develop past the point where its members experimented with one another, testing limits of pain and tolerance. Thanks in part to our monthly face-to-face parties, partly to the life-and-death experiences we went through together, and partly to the great writing skills of many of our members, The WELL became a more compassionate community as the years passed. It became more and more important that people expressed care for one another as a counterweight to the vigorous debates and passionate arguments.

But it was friction that I think first made people care about feelings and the potential of finding community through the modem. My first exposure to it, after taking over for Matthew, was in the rising profile of a particular member whose biting wit had begun to irritate some of our to put it...intellectually proud members. Let's call him Alexander and describe him as waging a single-handed virtual community guerilla campaign against a few dire enemies and a growing army of concerned citizens. Alexander had a point, but was determined not to yield any ground without taking some folks down with him.

As the new Director, I was being implored by a growing chorus of members to pull Alexander's access privileges to The WELL. And the arguments increasingly invoked the idea that the "community" was at risk. Of course, there was another side that defended Alexander's actions as natural and justified. The threat to community, in their view, would be that we expelled those who brought different opinions into the mix. Alexander was a divisive force, but he forced both sides to fall back on a concept of a community that had been more abstract before.

There were other community-ripening frictions during the first couple of years. The beginning of the years-long discussion thread about the meaning of Stewart Brand's formative disclaimer: You Own Your Own Words. Around those mind-frazzling loops of conflicting logic, many relationships were created or cast up on the rocks. But at least people cared. There was some commonly relevant idea for everyone to join in arguing about.

On the Farm, in our third year we had run through everyone's savings that they'd donated, and we hadn't yet build a business that could cover all our food costs, so we went through what we now call Wheatberry Winter – a time when the variety of food was as meager as I ever hope to see again. Buckwheat groats with buckwheat gravy, anyone? This was a major failure in planning. Imagine going through that in your home or community. Someone would get some blame, right? On the Farm, it just told us that we had to work harder and bring in more bucks.

A breakdown at The WELL was more likely to happen in the mechanics of hardware, software and communications equipment. These happened way more often than they should have, but system failures became part of the early WELL environment. You could give up in disgust and quit, or you could patiently type in one letter every ten seconds and wait for things to get fixed, or you could come to the office and help fix things. Somehow, in spite of all the grief we took as managers of a chronically ailing system, few of our core members abandoned us. And the fact that we'd all made it through another unintended shutdown, or another major social free-for-all seemed to create a stronger community.

Jon: The early WELL was a precursor, defining what community could be online, yet as you point out it was a dysfunctional family. I know you've been involved, as a consultant, with many other online community efforts since you left The WELL. Do you think the idea of community has been evolving? Do you think it's changed in the world of "Web 2.0"?

Cliff: Though I've been involved in creating, managing and facilitating many different online groups over the years, I've never found the same deep dynamic that developed in those first 8 years of The WELL. That was a unique situation with a unique origin story. The democratization of the Internet and the expansion of the Web interface have made the community development environment infinitely wider, but also a bit shallower. If you get irritated in an online social space today, you can move on to one of the kajillion alternatives. In the late 80s, The WELL was one of the few conversation places you could find through a modem, so you might take a few days off in frustration, but you'd return for another round since, after all, you'd already configured your modem for it.

The definition of "community" – whatever it is – has been spindled, bent, folded and probably mutilated by its passage into the virtual realm. The idea now seems to apply to people who buy the same products, who are identified as "friends" in social networking environments, who come together physically for a few days (see: Burning Man), who simply use the same conversational interface, and you name it...if it fits the Web 2.0 concept – user-driven content – it's got the community tag on it.

I spent most of a chapter in my book, Hosting Web Communities, explaining some of these variations on community – that they vary with the amount of actual interactivity, whether the focus is on a common interest or on the personalities of the members, whether the people join because of the topic, the members, or the platform that mediates their interaction. But frankly, I wish there were other terms to describe these associations besides "community." The word is now bearing an awful burden.

I have an especially strong referrent for the term, having lived on the Farm for 12 years. To me, a true community requires commitment at a level that you rarely find in exclusively online groups. Community grows out of going through difficult changes together – life and death shit. WELL members did develop some impressive levels of commitment and relationship beyond what went on through the software interface. It facilitated relationship building. This does occur, I understand, through many other Web sites these days – MeetUp certainly comes to mind – and I can't claim to know what's going on as "community building" in the vast majority of social sites. I can only hope that lots of people are finding meaningful real communities through the Web.

With the tremendous increase in bandwidth today, compared with what we had at The WELL, a personal profile can convey a lot about a person, and can thus provide a better idea of their personality – providing they're not spoofing you. On The WELL, you had to interact with a person for a while, in various contexts, to build an image of them in your mind. The classic first meatspace meeting was often mindboggling since the mind's image rarely matched the actual appearance.

But the ubiquity of the Web today makes it much more likely that online and offline relationships will intersect and complement one another. Facebook was created to provide a resource for enhancing what might become real life relationships among students on a given campus.

Bringing the Farm back into the present day, with email as the communications medium, it's ironic to me that after spending so much time getting to know people in the intensely intimate environment of the Farm, I find it somewhat difficult interacting with those same people through the Net. Those 24 years since I left have changed us all, and we're not all on the same page anymore. In fact, I'm taking a break from our Farm alumni email list, partly cuz I'm so busy, but also because it became frustrating.

Jon: Where do you, specifically, find community today? Or are you having trouble finding that same sense of connection anywhere?

Cliff: First of all, I have a large, blended family. Between my wife and I there are 8 "kids" (all over 29 years old) and 6 grandkids. We don't all live in the same region, but the contact and communication makes that a community unto itself.

Then there's the Farm alumni, about 200 of which live within an hour's driving distance. We get together in various configurations many times each year. We keep up with the news about one anothers' kids and grandkids and health issues. We work on progressive issues together.

I still stay in touch and even occasionally work with people I met through The WELL and through the early cyberspatial meetings I attended back in The Day. But this is less a single community than a shared sense of having gone through a passage together.

Oddly (to me) is that I don't feel part of any community here where I live, in Mill Valley. I'm beginning to link up with people here in the context of my reporting on climate change impacts. Specifically, I'm finding people who are aware and give a shit about the impending rise in sea level that, sooner or later, is going to submerge a lot of the local roads, businesses and neighborhoods. That's a community of purpose and common cause.

I'm also becoming more interested in communities that people can be part of as they age. Some "homes" have a lot more sense of community than others, and it's those active social ties that can provide you with motivation to keep on living instead of throwing in the towel. Will communal practices be rediscovered as alternatives for aging boomers? There's millions of us who won't have enough money saved to simply kick back for 10-20 years and watch the sun set. We may need to depend on one another, even when we're all decrepit.

Community is instinctive, I believe. But individual wealth, and looking out for Number One is culturally inbred in American society. Community requires mutual accomodation and shared values. The American Dream says, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins."

We're at pivotal points in American society, in global politics, in planetary climate change, and in my own generation's maturation process. The future will reward those who collaborate, and that collaboration may even save the asses of those who don't.


I love Cliff's last words: "The future will reward those who collaborate, and that collaboration may even save the asses of those who don't."

As he learned from his experiences on The Farm and at the WELL, it is very hard for people to collaborate. I've also noticed that many people find it hard to accept the fact of friction (or conflict) as humans strive to work together toward a common goal - like changing the world for the better.

Recently I participated in a conversation on about The Cycle of Emergence. The basic premise is that new states of being and/or consciousness emerge out of conflict. Our group spent so much time talking about conflict - is it good, is it bad? How do you deal with it constructively? Should we accept that it's inevitable? There was a lot of talking just to get comfortable with the idea that conflict exists and that we can work with it. And this was a group of people who are relatively sophisticated about philosophical and ethical concepts.

I am fascinated that WorldChanging put this interview up - in a way acknowledging the friction/conflict involved in creating something different, something more. And I look forward to more such pieces on the "human mechanics" of changing our world and making it more sustainable.

Posted by: Julia Erickson on August 30, 2007 5:25 PM

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