From the website... [links mine.]
Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. An outgrowth of the Whole Earth Review. Reknowned for its "conferences." Probably the most famous BulletinBoardSystem on the Internet from the days of yore, attracting all sorts of digicenti. The ElectronicFrontierFoundation had its roots in TheWell.
Recently, it's been bought by Salon.com (http://www.salon.com).
Conferences on The WELL
Contrary to UseNet newsgroups, the conferences on TheWell feature a strong focus on topics (ie. the creation of new threads requires a little bit of effort while the adding of responses to existing threads is very easy). Responses are added to the end of the topic, there are no branches in the thread. This works quite well as TheWell features only one server, unlike UseNet.
The level of contributions is a bit higher than on UseNet since there is a "host" per conference. The host is not a moderator in the UseNet sense because postings don't require the host's approval. The host may delete postings, however. The host keeps the conferences alive by contributing new material, helping newbies, creating appropriate new topics.
As there are no anonymous postings on TheWell, there is no spam per se. There is, however, the usual amount of weirdness one finds on UseNet -- conspiracy theories, Atlantis believers, etc.
Even the technical conferences have a human touch. There is always a personal introduction topic for the newbies, there are such topics as "What I fed my kids today" (cooking) or "How was my database day today?" (databases).
There is a web interface (WellEngaged) to the conferences as well as a menu driven shell (PicoSpan) that you can access via telnet.
The WELL is home to many famous people such as authors BruceSterling or NealStephenson or DavidCrosby?. Odd sidenote, because of JohnPerryBarlow, David Gans, and other people associated with the GratefulDead?, it is also home to a lot of DeadHeads?. (Add more to this list as you see fit.)
The WELL has had shaped more of the early web-centric Internet than any other forum of thinking heads. In fact, it is often considered canonical of the Internet simply because those who write about the Internet hung out there. For those who think of the WELL as the birthplace of popular digital culture, we may already be in the PostWELL era.
A complete account costs $15 per month and offers 10MB of space for mail, web space, files, whatever.
A really, really, really good background on The WELL lives at http://www.eff.org/Net_culture/Virtual_community/well_figallo.article. I'm sure more fervent readers will be able to extract quotes of interest to them from this piece, like "The WELL 'sells its user to each other' and it considers its users to be both its consumers and its primary producers."
See also HowardRheingold.
What's really interesting to me is to see that The Well is still running a Gopher server. I helped the Well get that Gopher server running, back in '93 or so - I agreed to be one of the editors, but in truth about all I did was help them get the technology working. I did do one thing other thing with them, which was to get the TheWELLGopher#Manifesto written. It was based loosely on the manifesto for the WholeEarthReview (which you can see [here]). --PaulHolbrook
One of the most significant features of The Well is the demographics of its user base. The Well predates widely available internet connectivity, and was originally operated with direct dial-up modems, much like a BBS. Indeed, the structure of the Well closely resembles a BBS. By virtue of operating in the San Francisco Bay area, and in light of the realities of long-distance communication charges, it mostly attracted Bay area residents, initially, and branched out into other parts of California over time. Thus, the user community as a whole represents the Bay Area culture, being more liberal, more supportive, more caring for and trusting of strangers, than is the case with other forums. While the Well is now available exclusively via IP, with dialup connectivity no longer available, the demographics haven't changed much -- probably because so many competing commercial services became available by the time the Well was a practical alternative outside of California.