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Thursday, December 12, 1996

Only Connect

It would have required a quantum leap in prescience 30-odd years ago to have foreseen the gang of cosmologists known as the Merry Pranksters as germinal avatars of the Internet. The hubris inherent in attempting to reduce the world --- and, in the euphoria of certain chemically-enhanced moments, the universe --- to a village seemed the stuff of poetic madness, if not, as the vested classes viewed it, actual felonious aberrance.

Yet out of Ken Kesey's levitated platoon of dreamers emerged a practical visionary named Stewart Brand. Brand's efforts in the mid-1960s to harness all the new applications of media resulted in a series of Trips Festivals, the first of which was held at Longshoreman's Hall in January 1966. Connectivity, as we now labor to understand the concept, was born.

With the advent of personal computers and their large scale availability in the late 1980s, Brand's Whole Earth Review added an electronic component for its eclectic gumbo of Dead Heads, hackers, Silicon Valley techies and sundry media types --- the on-line service The WELL.

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The ethos Brand had instilled began to erode soon after the WELL added Internet access in 1992 to its fabled conferencing discussions. By 1994 the WELL had been sold to one of its investors, Bruce Katz, who had formerly owned the Rockport shoe company and was intent upon maximizing the profit capability of the WELL. The longhaired, laid-back bearing of the middle-aged Katz belied the fact that the mergers-and-acquisitions mania could make inroads anywhere. If there was one criterion of self-definition for Brand and his compatriots in their previous incarnation, you can bet they assayed it relative to the nascent phenomenon of Rich Hippies.

"Things started changing around 1993," says former WELL Customer Service Manager Matisse Enzer. "Up until then the people who ran the WELL were also avid users of the service. We were from the same social strata as our members and hung around together. The people now running the WELL don't use it and don't have that same idea of community."

Since its inception the WELL has often been saddled with a hipper-than-thou image which many non-anointed have regarded as disdain. That perception has allowed an almost indistinguishable transition into the profit-maximization policies of Bruce Katz. The frequency and specifics of WELL users' complaints haven't varied much since Katz' takeover, and only in the past three months has there emerged palpable evidence of WELL management's conscious decision to accelerate its momentum with a full-fledged move up into the corporate arena.

This past year the WELL transferred the connectivity end of its business to Hooked, a local Internet service provider, merging into a new entity, Whole Earth Networks. In October, a Computer Currents consumer survey of ISPs rated the WELL dead last in customer support availability. A comment from a former WELL member reiterated the failure to distinguish between the current WELL ownership and its predecessors: "These people think they're so cool that they don't have to provide decent service."

For myself and other WELL "dial-up" Web site operators, that distinction became apparent in September. Some 300 WELL Web site operators have dial-up accounts at a monthly service charge of $25. The other option, "corporate" accounts, start at $100 a month. In September an on-line program called AccessWatch stopped working. An essential and popular program for those with Web sites, and probably the most sophisticated "counter" program available, AccessWatch furnishes daily tallies on the number of visits a Web site receives and their point-of-origin by country and network on any given day in the current month. For Web sites with a sizable international readership, this newsletter included, the program is indispensable, and many dial-up users have subscribed to the WELL solely for that component. Suddenly not having it available, one laconic user said, "is like Nielsen deciding he doesn't need polling to operate his business." Interestingly enough, however, AccessWatch continued to function for corporate account Web sites.

My repeated e-mails and calls to Hooked systems administrators since September either went unacknowledged or were responded to with cavalier evasiveness bordering on outright snideness. Last week I e-mailed the 300 dial-up Web site operators and their responses were uniformly similar regarding Whole Earth Networks' conduct: Nasty, arrogant, inefficient, outrageous, contemptuous, went the refrain. A number of users informed me that Hooked had actually admitted two months ago in an on-line conference that it was not as experienced as the WELL staff it had replaced. Hooked President David Holub's reaction when I phoned him could have been an enterpriser's clinic on the art of calculated obtuseness: "Probably my training as an engineer is giving me trouble understanding a journalist like yourself. You say there have been many complaints about a particular program we feature? I don't have a single piece of mail about AccessWatch. No one has brought that to my attention. But I could check into that if you like."

Last month Hooked began responding to AccessWatch complaints by advising that only corporate account members could be guaranteed reliable AccessWatch service. That blithe pronouncement confirmed the consensus among my correspondents that Whole Earth was browbeating dial-ups into either opening corporate accounts or moving on to another ISP.

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On December 5 attorney Gary Near and I drafted a letter demanding that Whole Earth restore reliable AccessWatch service to its dial-up subscribers, or offer them corporate accounts at their current monthly rates. They have not responded to date, although the next day a moderator in a WELL conference stated that the program was now up and running again.

If Bruce Katz' intentions were to employ Hooked to effect the bait-and-switch and squeeze-out tactics necessary to fulfill his long-range agenda, he couldn't have been more ham-fisted. Notoriety of this sort hardly augurs well for small companies anxious to compete against on-line behemoths like AOL.

Stewart Brand wasn't available to comment on the present status of his pioneering effort. We'll have to await his declamations, if any, on whether cyberspace has augmented the impersonal world he once railed against. The designation plate on the old Pranksters' bus read "Furthur," and despite the waggish misspelling its layered meaning was sufficiently clear. A whole bunch of people I've spoken with lately understand that legacy, and we're determined to continue the ride.

---Copyright John Hutchison 1996

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