July 6, 2012 3:42 PM   Subscribe

For sale: one online community, vintage. The Well, one of the oldest online communities, is up for sale again, according to a filing by it's current owner, the much beleagured Salon. A retrospective of the site from a user also says that some users are currently in discussion to buy it back. posted by zabuni (44 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Does Sterling still have his Well address? That's been my main reminder of it's continued existance.
posted by Artw at 3:44 PM on July 6, 2012

Looks like he still doing his state of the world on the Well as of this year.
posted by zabuni at 3:48 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ah yes. I usually think of that as being on "some Usenet thing".
posted by Artw at 3:51 PM on July 6, 2012

The Well is the Abe Vigoda of online communities.
posted by tommasz at 4:02 PM on July 6, 2012 [8 favorites] treats freelancers poorly and has undergone a sad 10-year decline from a thriving home for reported journalism to a base for the predictable "get mad at the Republicans" writings of the remaining core staff.

Nevertheless, Glenn Greenwald does great work and Alex Pareene brings the site a missing sense of humor. I hope they are able to pull it together and bounce back from their crazy redesign, which is a mutant combination of Wordpress and a 1990s British print tabloid.
posted by steinsaltz at 4:08 PM on July 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

There but for the grace of amazon adwords goes Metafilter.
posted by crunchland at 4:21 PM on July 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yeah, it's a bit quaint, but some of us still call it home.

Speaking of which, this reminds me of my folks' decision to sell their house (aka, "my childhood home") early this year. Hmmm, I guess the reasons are even somewhat similar: the user base is stagnant (but thankfully not declining! Hmmm, maybe "stable" would be a better word here...), they don't really want to put any more money into improvements or upkeep, and frankly they're just a bit tired of dealing with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing it. And unlike their old house, I can still receive mail at my WELL account while they find a new owner.
posted by mosk at 4:24 PM on July 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Jon Carroll writes about his experience with the Well.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:29 PM on July 6, 2012

Argh! I missed that link in the FPP. My bad.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:30 PM on July 6, 2012

I still real Salon sometimes but noticed recently that they'd managed to redesign the mobile version of the site away. It made me wonder how much of a development budget they had if they couldn't figure out how to make such an essential feature work. Seems like a bad omen for heath of the site.
posted by octothorpe at 4:33 PM on July 6, 2012

I feel for the people who might lose their beloved email addresses over this. Long ago the site was a fansite and it offered webmail service. I used this as home base for several years, including my PayPal gateway and main portal for mail about my web novel. Then one day the Dick heirs decided they wanted the domain, and when they got it they decided to shut off the email service. They must have thought it was tacky or something, because it was run by a third party and involved no maintenance by the PKD site owner himself except some web setup and a link. Anyway that fucked up my PayPal service for years, resulted in thousands of broken links, and general chaos.

I kind of have to wonder about the optics of this on Salon's part. The "beleaguered" link says they lost about $1 million on $1 million in revenue. The Well is an expensive indulgence for its few users, and should be bringing in several hundred thousand on its own. How much does it cost to run a web community with only a few thousand users? They obviously aren't spending the money on bandwidth. There was a staff, which suggests a level of upkeep and moderation and maintenance that we probably only dream of here or at slashdot or the blown-out hulk of what used to be kuro5hin, but how many people does it take, again, to keep the peace on a site with only a few thousand users, most of whom are historic and well-behaved?
posted by localroger at 4:49 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I liked Salon back when it still covered sports.
posted by oddman at 5:11 PM on July 6, 2012

how much is it?
posted by parmanparman at 5:33 PM on July 6, 2012

I didn't realize the WELL was related to the Whole Earth Catalog. <keanuwhoa />
posted by mkb at 5:44 PM on July 6, 2012

When I think of The Well, I think of Prodigy dial-up service. At 27.7 baud. And waiting ten minutes for something/anything to download.

Good times.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:49 PM on July 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

posted by DU at 6:07 PM on July 6, 2012

27.7? You had it easy. When I was that age, we had Compuserve at 300 baud, paying $8 an hour, and we considered ourselves lucky to have it!
posted by crunchland at 6:27 PM on July 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Then one day the Dick heirs decided they wanted the domain, and when they got it they decided to shut off the email service.

What a bunch of dicks.
posted by euphorb at 6:27 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Back of the napkin calculations. 3000 subscribers who pay 100-150/year means you have $300k-400k in subscription revenue. Plus you have which is a pretty valuable domain name. There is also some value in the brand as demonstrated by the fact that one can still get fpp's on a number of sites just talking about selling it.
The revenues are very low and there is no clear path to growth without an increased SG&A. Thus I'd put the value at no more than 1x revenue and possibly a discount based on anticipated subscriber retention.
A business plan might require another $500k into the business over two years plus cash generated from the business. You put in $80-100k cash with the additional $700k borrowed at 8-10% interest only on a 7 year note. That's $800k total funding in. Amortized acquisition costs are $60k-70k/year. Debt service is a other $70k. You take no salary the first year, hire two people and budget for a migration, relaunch and ongoing marketing. That puts SG&A to about $300k/year. Now grow the revenues to $600k to barely pay yourself and break even. Then push to $1 million. Payoff your debt and sell the business for 2-3million. You have taken your $100k and in 7 years made into a million or so. Not a bad return.
posted by humanfont at 6:29 PM on July 6, 2012

For those interested in more info, you can't go past The Well by Katie Hafner. A great read,
posted by unliteral at 6:55 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hmm. The WELL is for sale again: $100 or so annual subscription fees.
Metafilter is awesome as usual: $5 permanent subscription.

I am very aware of the WELL's historical significance, and I feel for the members potentially losing their community, but it just doesn't shock me. I hope they do organize and follow through with a member buyout.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:58 PM on July 6, 2012

Yeah humanfront this looks like a profit-making operation. So why is Salon selling it?
posted by localroger at 7:05 PM on July 6, 2012

I'd read Salon for years, and subscribed for a few years, but their new redesign is so horrible I may never go back. I went to the mobile site for a while after the redesign, but then they ruined that, too.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:14 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Calling Salon "beleaguered" reminds me of a throwaway joke from the Daily Show about a decade ago:

Ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who usually just goes by his first name, "Ailing"...
posted by HeroZero at 7:22 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The mangement team at Salon has too many problems and the Well can only help them by providing an influx of short term cash. Look at their income statement and their 10-k. They don't have a million dollars turn the Well around. They are starved for cash and they have enormous debts. Revenues are in serious decline going from 6.8 million in 2009 to 3.8 last year. Their content production costs are 3.2 million, advertising 1.5 million, and almost a million on their software platform. I look at the business and io think, wow what a mess. They borrowed too much and got so much bigger than they needed to be in terms of structural costs, that there is no way to fix it from a business perspective. They willl probably find a vanity investor willing to throw money away for the fun, but no one is going to get a return with the business as it is structured now.
posted by humanfont at 8:31 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

DU: 27.7?

Well, 28.8 just never really lived up to the hype, you know?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 8:44 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

> baud

My niece the engineer/mathematician laughs whenever I use that word. She says it's a sure indicator of old age, nobody says "baud" any more.

My first Well reading and writing from home were with a vt-220 terminal and a 300 baud modem -- no computer needed, in those days, just dial in directly to the VAX.

> 3000 subscribers

Yeah, and if some marketroid figures out that they can data-mine every detail off every backup tape of everything each of those thousands of people has written about what they like, dislike, buy, and sell ....

Oh, wait, luckily the Well was so impoverished in its early days that they overwrote the backup tapes routinely. I hope they've been as good about avoiding building up a vast archive in later years.

It's going to be dang hard to sell the Well users to a new owner, I suspect.

I remember the day after Netcom got sold -- and every single user's directories were suddenly world-readable.

One of my fond early memories of the Well is walking into the office early one morning and finding Erik Fair, in a tuxedo -- he'd come directly from a holiday party -- finishing up tying the Well's little local network to Usenet.

"What's that?" I said?

PicoSpan had a certain charm, but once I got the "nn" newsreader and killfile working, and understood newsgroups, the world opened up.
posted by hank at 10:22 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

How much would the domain name be worth on it's own? Obviously they mean "well" like you get water from, but "" on it's own might be worth something for a health and wellness site.

The domain name, stripped from the community and repurposed might be worth more, dollar for dollar, then the community.
posted by delmoi at 11:30 PM on July 6, 2012

The Well always felt like a gated community to me for people who'd liked to talk a good deal about the wild future of cyberspace but who had no desire to experience it for themselves.

It's no wonder it has been on lifesupport for decades now.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:49 AM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't understand the Salon redesign as well. It doesn't function properly at all and it looks atrocious. It's a serious step back and I guess it's an indication of the poor management at that place. As stated above, Glenn Greenwald is the only reason to visit that site.

The other day I was looking through one of my Whole Earth Magazines from the late 80s and it had an extensive article on the Well. I bet it's online somewhere...
posted by cloeburner at 3:37 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nevertheless, Glenn Greenwald does great work and Alex Pareene brings the site a missing sense of humor. I hope they are able to pull it together and bounce back from their crazy redesign, which is a mutant combination of Wordpress and a 1990s British print tabloid.

David Sirota is almost always interesting, too.

But that redesign is so horrible I literally cannot read Salon from work anymore without it freezing up my (creaky) Internet Explorer (yes, yes, I know, but IE is all that is permitted by the local IT gods, so there you go). The other disturbing thing I've noticed (I've been reading it less and less lately) has been article after article from Alternet or other places. There seems to be a drop in original content that's putting Salon in danger of turning into a badly-designed Google Reader.
posted by jhandey at 4:01 AM on July 7, 2012

delmoi: The domain name, stripped from the community and repurposed might be worth more, dollar for dollar, then the community.

This is likely true. I spend a big part of my day doing website and domain valuations, and what typical web users consider valuable isn't usually what gets the big bucks.

The users are probably too brand-loyal to stay around if a new buyer wants to change the site drastically, so that revenue source is likely out. probably has awesome aged backlinks and a great PageRank, so that's something. The health niche is huge these days, so that's something else.

The site's content might not even be worth the hassle of transferring to a new host for a buyer, depending on their goals. This could end up being like a lovely old house that gets torn down to build condos.
posted by third word on a random page at 4:53 AM on July 7, 2012

I miss
posted by blue_beetle at 5:41 AM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was a member of The WELL for about a year, and it never quite clicked with me... it's a great community with a horrible interface. I guess it seems great to long-time members because it's what they've known. It's specifically designed and maintained to encourage and direct all conversation topics into existing mega-threads, making it extremely difficult and confusing for users to enter a new (to them) conversation.

It's the community everyone is mourning, but online communities are or should be very mobile. There are any of a number of great solutions available for free, or, if they want to get fancy, for a small fee insignificant next to the cost of trying to buy the WELL for themselves.

Thus, to me it's evident that they're not really mourning for the imminent death of the community... because you can't kill a well-knit community, online. They're mourning the nostalgic tradition of their archaic interface. They've gone from a community who looked forward in the past, to one that looks back in the future.

I wonder if the complete destruction of their old domain and interface isn't just the shock needed to bring the actual community to the forefront again. A metaphorical Exodus.
posted by gilrain at 7:14 AM on July 7, 2012

Fancy interfaces usually lose. Look at Drudge, Craigslist, etc. The Well should move to cheap virtual infrastructure and storage. Spend any savings on hosting and operating
cost on recruiting and good moderators. Same thing for
posted by humanfont at 8:50 AM on July 7, 2012

Those sites (Drudge, Craigslist) are successful in spite of their crappy, archaic interfaces. There's nothing wrong with sites that are pretty to look at AND functional.
posted by crunchland at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2012

The WELL community continues at a trickle, but it's a great way to connect with a small but very high quality group of people. And there is a TON of great info in the archived discussions, the signal to noise ratio was very high. I think of Metafilter as the successor to the WELL that way; this is where the party moved to.

On the financial front, though, a lot of users there aren't paying anything monthly. Me, for example. So I don't know how it would work going forward.
posted by msalt at 2:13 PM on July 7, 2012

I hear this ("lot of users there aren't paying anything monthly") and it makes me feel like such a chump. I have been paying a subscription to The WELL since 1986. Year in, year out. Sometimes it feels like the very opposite of the real world: it seems the WELL insiders are the 99% and I am in the 1%, of the chumps who pay the fees. Grumble.
posted by brianstorms at 4:52 PM on July 7, 2012

As for Turner's WELL document above, it omits a lot of the history (couldn't find any mention of Karl Zinn, or Bob Parnes, or CONFER, or Marcus Watts, who ported CONFER over to other machines and called it PicoSpan). And it concentrates on this counterculture WELL myth that's been pushed for so many years. If you were not a Bay Area resident, but lived somewhere far away, the San Francisco scene simply did not figure into the WELL experience much at all. Sure, the WELL was provincial and biased absurdly to the Bay Area, but you could ignore it pretty easily and discover that The WELL had all kinds of communities of people having nothing to do with San Francisco or the Grateful Dead.

The other thing that must be said is that there was a thriving virtual community long before The WELL ever existed, and it was called PLATO. It was far larger than The WELL. I was originally drawn to The WELL because it was the closest approximation to the PLATO online community, although The WELL lacked tons of things that made PLATO so amazing (graphics, games, the ability to create programs; instant messaging; chat rooms, etc.)

I was disappointed to see that Turner's book makes no mention of PLATO. I suspect he has never heard of it.
posted by brianstorms at 5:04 PM on July 7, 2012

Meanwhile, Echo is still up and running. Granted, hardly anyone uses it anymore.

:::sigh::: YPots (Young People of Today) have no idea what a wonderful place the interweb used to be.
posted by old_growler at 5:35 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The other thing that must be said is that there was a thriving virtual community long before The WELL ever existed, and it was called PLATO.

And how IS that awesome book you've been writing for 583 years coming along Brian? Just around the bend?
posted by jscott at 3:24 PM on July 9, 2012

Interesting stuff brianstorms. Just downloaded Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of PLATO System. Thanks for the heads up.
posted by unliteral at 5:20 PM on July 9, 2012

Oh--that was in the FPP. Never mind.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:40 AM on July 10, 2012

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