1990 : Loss on TheWell

Throughout my doctoral study,  I have been working with archive focus in order to gather historical materials around computer and communication networks in the late 1980’s. The idea behind this engagement was to try and gain an insight into the many early networks that were active around this period. I was hopeful that I may encounter the topic of loss within these unfolding networks. Primarily as there was very little known about history of death online. By rummaging through books, newspaper articles and media that was created between 1985-1990, I encountered the oldest virtual community that is still in operation: TheWell. It was in this ‘Virtual Community’ that a the documented death of a member occurred in the summer of 1990.

Virtual Community

Undoubtedly TheWell is a well-documented network. This can be attributed to how it attracted a particular kind of tech savvy educated user –  mainly a left leaning, 30-40 year old, with a postgraduate education and knack for articulating their experiences. From the outset TheWell claimed to be attempting to be different. As a Virtual Community, it was open to anyone who wished to join and its business model did not just focus on targeting researchers or corporate executives (Hafner, 1997). Within the historical accounts, TheWell is positioned as a new player in a landscape where BBSes[1] had been considered ‘nerd’s hangouts’ and the university-centered ARPANET was not focused on ‘the cultural effects of bringing people together’ (Hafner, 1997).

The Infrastructure

When TheWell opened in 1985, computers ownership was considered to be limited within accounts of the era. Home computers where typically black and white displays and had no hard drives. Although the Macintosh had been released a year earlier and the Graphic User Interface was beginning to come into view,TheWell was run using PicoSpan[2] and demanded knowledge of Unix Arcana. When it first launched the system was run off a  VAX 11/750, with six modems and six phone lines.  Even in the technological comfortable San Francisco bay area, modems had been considered a still rare resource (Hafner, 1997). The network speed was slow and the most expensive modems were only capable of speeds of 9.6kbp (Ryan, 2010).  To put that into perspective, the first generation iPhone released in 2007 ran at 3.6 Mbps- almost four hundred times as fast (Ryan, 2010).

Death Manifests

As a researcher, TheWell is noted within its histories for the rich interaction whose ‘intensity and intimacy’ notably spanned births, marriages, divorces and even death (Rheingold, 1993; Ryan, 2010).This first encounter with death is attributed losing an active TheWell member on June 1st 1990. Prior his death, the member chose to commit ‘Infocide’ (Reagle, 2012) by erasing the ‘scribbles’ or posts he had written across TheWell.  As Howard Rheingold notes, deleting content deeply upset other members and was generally frowned upon because ‘even one person’s deletions left Swiss cheese-like holes in The Well’s collective memory’ (Hafner, 1997). Shortly after deleting his posts, the member went on to commit suicide (Hafner, 1997).Howard Rheingold’s biographic account about the experience of loosing someone he knew to suicide, highlights how: ‘From the moment we heard the news, the population of TheWELL went through a period of transformation’ (Rheingold, 1993; Hafner, 1997). Topics opened and became devoted to the deceased, which included requests by family for fellow members to post eulogies and memories.

These early accounts discussing death in networks raise issues that the bereaved are still grappling with online.  Themes around managing digital legacy at End of Life, appropriate mourning etiquette and management of conflict arising through different social norms are all still problematic aspects seen around contemporary examples of death online.

Making the New York Times

The suicide of a TheWell member and the resulting mourning that unfolded did not pass by unnoticed – rather it became the focus of a New York Times Article: ‘Programmed for Life and death’ (Markoff, 1990). The piece provides further insights into the mourning practices of TheWell community, noting that alongside the eulogies and outpourings of grief, friends of the deceased created a ‘new computer file’ to collate his old writings and back them up on floppy disk (Markoff, 1990). Searching the internet now for the deceased, Google will still lead visitors towards a memorial site that was constructed in 1994. Designed as a ‘Under Construction’ memorial page, it was created four years after the deceased death and is written with a promise to return and finish the tribute at a later date. It sadly never has been.

 

“others see the experience in a different light, as a glimpse of a future in which computers change the way people live and work, and ultimately the way they die” (Markoff, 1990).

 

 

Cited

Hafner, K., 1997. The Epic Saga of The Well: The World’s Most Influential Online Community (And It’s Not AOL). Wired, May.

Lewis, P. H., 1994. Strangers, Not Their Computers, Build a Network in Time of Grief. New York Times, 8 March.

Markoff, J., 1990. Programmed for Life and Death. New York Times, 26th August.

Reagle, J., 2012. “410 Gone”: Infocide in Open Content Communities. Selected Papers of Internet Research, North America, October.

Rheingold, H., 1993. The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier.. s.l.:MIT press.

Ryan, J., 2010. A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London: reaktion books.

 

Notes

[1] BBBes – Bulletin Board Systems. A way of people connecting using telephone lines and a modem to upload and download ‘bulletins’ and exchange messages.

[2] PicoSpan was considered to be: user ‘unfriendly’ conference software and it became the heart of the TheWell’s early infrastructure (Hafner, 1997).

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