The Electric Minds Community
Electric Minds (commonly abbreviated "EMinds") was founded in 1996 by Howard Rheingold (EMinds user ID <howard>), author of
The Virtual Community, a book that stemmed from his experiences on The WELL. With WellEngaged conferencing software (derived from that used by The WELL) and a team of talented individuals, he created a Web site that was named as one of the top 10 Web sites of 1996 by Time magazine. Electric Minds also was noted for hosting discussions for the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue chess match. It quickly gained popularity, with tens of thousands of registered users.
In 1997, Softbank, which had been the major investor in Electric Minds, pulled its funding, causing Rheingold to sell Electric Minds to Durand Communications, Inc., an Internet company from Santa Barbara, California (the company for which I was working at that time), which used a conferencing platform we had designed, CommunityWare. I and the other Durand developers labored in a two-month crash program to make our conferencing software work like WellEngaged, to ensure that the community enjoyed some continuity. This effort proved successful, and Electric Minds became the largest online community hosted by CommunityWare, with over 100,000 user accounts. In the process, I became an active member of the community, whose technical input was appreciated by the existing community members. Rheingold stayed with Durand as a consultant and host of the Electric Minds community for a time, but later left, and the role of Electric Minds Community Host was filled by longtime user and conference host Harry Pike (EMinds user ID <maddog>).
When Durand Communications was acquired by Online System Services Inc. of Denver, Colorado (now Webb Interactive Services Inc.), CommunityWare was combined with OSS' existing product and became the "WebbMe" portal system, with Electric Minds still featured prominently. The community continued to function even as Webb's technological focus shifted away from WebbMe and towards its newer AccelX product line. However, due to budgetary constraints and the lack of available space at Webb's NOC facility in downtown Denver, WebbMe was finally shut down at the end of January, 2001. We, the remaining members of the Electric Minds community, gathered in our temporary home, a private conference at Cafe Utne, facing an uncertain future.
The community members, however, were not about to give up so easily. I was one of them, and, since I had worked extensively on both CommunityWare and WebbMe, I decided to try a gamble. Along with my wife, Pamela Boulais (EMinds user ID <silverwrist>), I started working with Harry Pike and the other community members, to begin an effort to make Electric Minds an active community once more. As Pamela collected donation checks from the community members towards a new server, I labored in my spare time to create a new conferencing platform patterned after the original CommunityWare, but written in Java and using JSP and Java Servlets (unlike the original, which used Microsoft ASP and VBScript technology). I have made this software, the Venice Web Communities System, available under the Mozilla Public License, hosting its development on SourceForge. Further
development on this system is ongoing, to include more features from the original CommunityWare, as well as
new features inspired by other conferencing systems now prevalent.
I bought our new server, christened "Phoenix," using the funds donated by the community members, from a computer retailer in Englewood, Colorado. Server colocation was graciously provided by Bill Rockefeller of NetWizards, a provider of domain registration services, DSL access, and dialup network access, located in the San Francisco area. Additional support for the minds.com domain has been provided by Kevin Braun (EMinds user ID <wolfee>), Network Technician for Webb Interactive. The new server runs Debian GNU/Linux, Apache, Apache Tomcat, and MySQL, as well as the Venice software; I have frequently described the server as "open source right down to the metal."
The new community is run mostly by consensus; Harry is responsible for decisions regarding the conferencing structure of the Electric Minds community, as well as for coordination among the conference hosts, while I am responsible for the administration of the server and the further development of the Venice software. The other community members offer their input as necessary to ensure the community's smooth functioning. There has been discussion about forming a not-for-profit foundation to manage the server and the Electric Minds trademarks (which are still owned by Webb Interactive). One of the resources to be made available on the new Electric Minds is the entire stored archive of conversations from the original Electric Minds, dating back to its earliest days; this will undoubtedly remain a priceless resource for researchers into the nature of virtual communities.
This is not the first attempt to make Electric Minds a truly independent community; there were discussions along those lines as far back as 1997, when Electric Minds' fate was uncertain prior to the Durand acquisition. However, those attempts largely became bogged down in questions of governance. The present-day efforts differ in that they are mainly based on the open-source philosophy (which existed in 1997, but was not as widely known or understood) and the successful example of groups such as the Apache Software Foundation. The community's desire is to keep Electric Minds a free and open virtual community, without registration fees or such; Venice provides space for banner ads, but the community remains ambivalent towards their use in Electric Minds.
While certain individuals have stood out in their efforts to keep EMinds alive, it is not possible to say too much about the spirit of every one of the community's members that has kept the community together throughout its history. The speed with which the process has come together, especially collecting the money required to buy the server so quickly, has been phenomenal. The community also extends its thanks to Kai Hagen of Cafe Utne for providing the "lifeboat" it needed during its times of trouble.
Electric Minds remains a diverse and fun virtual community, with members all across the United States and around the world. The community welcomes new members; please feel free to visit http://www.minds.com. Registration is required to participate in discussions, but is free of charge (and your email address will not be sold or rented to anyone else). The community's leaders and conference hosts stand ready to assist you if you have any problems.
Eric J. Bowersox (EMinds user ID <erbo>)
Server Administrator, Electric Minds Community
The following Electric Minds users contributed to this article:
- Pamela Boulais <silverwrist>
- Andrea Force <vita>
- Harry Pike <maddog>
- Sarah Stettler <starling>