The River, a User-Owned Virtual Community

By Howard Rheingold

So we decided to create a computer conferencing system devoted to high-quality conversations, owned and governed by the people who make the conversations..

Ten years ago, I plugged my computer into my telephone and discovered the WELL, a computer conferencing system that enabled people all over the country to participate in group conversations. The people who logged into the WELL every day for years at a time began to think of ourselves as a community. I was so fascinated by the phenomenon that I wrote a book about it, "The Virtual Community." And I continue to be involved daily in issues related to virtual communities.

Through an accident of history, the WELL had two impoverished and laissez-faire owners for the first decade of its existence. The inmates who thought they owned the asylum back in 1985 when WELL founder Stewart Brand went off to write a book were surprised when the WELL was sold in 1994. The new owner, Bruce Katz, seemed to understand that community was at the heart of the business. But he also wanted to expand the WELL, which had grown over the years from five or six hundred to more than ten thousand. Katz started spending significant money creating the infrastructure for future WELLs of hundreds of thousands. It's a vision worth supporting. I support it and will work to help it thrive. But it is his vision. Some of the people who had been creating the conversations realized that our self-governance was an illusion as long as we couldn't determine the destiny of the business that made the conversations possible. So we decided to create a computer conferencing system devoted to high-quality conversations, owned and governed by the people who make the conversations.

Among us, the several hundred founders of what we decided to call The River had an astonishingly powerful pool of volunteer labor. We had the technical, legal, administrative, social, financial, and marketing expertise to create a self-sustaining computer conferencing business. We argued for weeks, then raised thirty thousand dollars from three hundred people in six days, incorporated as a California cooperative corporation, bought a computer, found a place to put it, connected it to the Internet, installed computer conferencing software, and started having conversations.

Democracy turned out to be more interesting than we had bargained for.

When our common cause was fear for the future of the WELL, a group of admittedly idiosyncratically individualists who normally wouldn't agree on the time of day put aside our differences and accomplished an enormous amount of decision-making and effective action in a short amount of time. When it took the elected Implementation Committee a few more months to get set up to open, however, the temporary moratorium on intramural bickering dissolved rapidly. We fell to arguing in most vicious terms. And then we discovered that the charter of the organization we had created collectively had given us a tool for transforming yet another meaningless back-biting argument about who should have done what when into decisive action: we had an election. We argued about the bylaws, sent out e-mail to River enthusiasts who had strayed from the community-building and backbiting, gathered a quorum, held a campaign, held debates, broke out into fights over dozens of issues, including fights over whether or not the issues we were fighting over were trivial. But we held the election, and the newly elected Board of Directors is authorized to complete the process of turning our alpha-test into a real business.

Anybody who wants to join the The River can pay twenty dollars a month, and anybody who wanted to become a voting member can pay an additional hundred dollars a year. Members elect the board of directors, the directors hire and fire the staff. We adopted bylaws that give the members the power to call an emergency meeting online, if enough members agree the situation warrants the measure. And we started creating the seeds of community by starting conversations about everything from technology to the arts, sports to politics to ufos. And among the conversations have been heated ones about how to run the place.

Democracy is a process.

It is often frustrating, always raucous and argumentative and heated, requiring many people to have public conversations with many other people. It's a skill that Americans learned in kindergarten, and which we practice in many aspects of our lives. For a couple hundred members of a virtual community to pick up stakes, join resources in a cooperative venture, and set out for new territory is a very American phenomenon. As the people in the former Communist bloc countries are now learning, democracy isn't just a matter of honest elections. There is an invisible superstructure of conversation, involving skills honed in classroom debates and barroom arguments, that gives free citizens the individual and collective intelligence necessary to govern ourselves.

If the River grows to a thousand people, we will be able to hire a professional staff, but the volunteer spirit is part of why we went to the trouble of creating something new. If it works, any community of interest of a few hundred people can create a self-governed virtual community. For information about the River, which aims to open to the public in November, 1995, send email to or point your Web browser at The River.

The WELL was the mother ship. New York's ECHO, the activist Electronic Frontier Foundation, Austin's Spring, Women's Wire, and now the River have emerged from the WELL to create distinct new cultures. I'll continue to dwell in the WELL. But the River is the one where I own a piece of the action, and have a say in the destiny of the community.

Last modified October 26, 1995.
Tomorrow | Brainstorms
What's New & Rheingoldian?