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The Relaunch of Electric Minds

By Erbo in Internet
Fri May 04, 2001 at 12:59:34 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

As Server Administrator of the Electric Minds Community, and speaking on behalf of our Community Host, Harry Pike, and all our conference hosts, I am pleased to announce the relaunch of the Electric Minds Community, one of the pioneering virtual communities on the Internet, as of April 23, 2001, at the URL http://www.minds.com. This follows an intensive effort by members of the community to ensure its future survival and independence. This article discusses the history of Electric Minds, as well as the current effort resulting in its relaunch.

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 Relaunch

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.

Looking Ahead

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>


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What do you think about the relaunch of Electric Minds?
o Awesome! Congratulations to the community for making it happen! 22%
o It's a good thing...hope it works out. 28%
o Ho hum...can't you post more articles about K5? 4%
o Bo-ring...yet another Web bulletin board site. 28%
o Evil! EMinds hasn't been worth it since Howard sold out! 0%
o I can't be bothered...I only read K5. 10%
o Inoshiro's in the basement, mixing up the medicine 8%

Votes: 50
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o http://www .minds.com.
o Howard Rheingold
o The WELL
o Webb Interactive Services Inc.
o AccelX
o Cafe Utne
o Venice Web Communities System
o SourceForg e
o NetWizards
o Apache Software Foundation
o Also by Erbo

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The Relaunch of Electric Minds | 36 comments (8 topical, 28 editorial, 0 hidden)
Why this is interesting (4.66 / 3) (#22)
by rusty on Tue Apr 24, 2001 at 08:34:42 PM EST

I'm sorry to see that there have been no topical comments yet. That sucks. Because this generally doesn't seem to be getting across, here's why I think this is an interesting story.

Electric Minds has been operating as a continuous community since 1996. In net years, that's as close to infinity as makes no difference. It's an object study in how internet community can last through software changes, and even site (i.e. location) changes. I'm always interested in stories like this-- the former inhabitants of InfoWorld Electric forums could tell a similar story about the move to IWeThey.

The other interesting thing, to me, is the way this community has undergone a lot of being shuffled back and forth from one corporate master to another, and been used as the test platform for one new system after another, and still held together as people. Now they've decided to take charge of things, collectively, and I hope it works for them.

The point here is that communities are people, wherever they might be, real life, online, whatever. They're not places, or software or protocols. Too often we (and I include myself first and foremost in that "we"!) forget this.

Not the real rusty

Exactly! Plus some further pointers (none / 0) (#23)
by Erbo on Wed Apr 25, 2001 at 02:22:35 AM EST

Rusty, you've hit the nail on the head. We--myself, Harry, Pamela, all our conference hosts, and all the people who just hang out there and post--are Electric Minds. No matter what software we use. No matter who "owns" the name. No matter where the server is located, or what it runs.

Over its history, Electric Minds has been envisioned by its various corporate masters as serving a variety of purposes. In the end, however, the community insists on serving no other purpose but its own. The present organization is an attempt to codify that at last, and work to achieve the stability that was sorely lacking from its previous incarnations. Having been steeped in the open-source tradition myself recently (I was Employee #3 at Jabber.com Inc. until I was laid off about three months ago), I seized on that as the most useful metaphor for bringing the community together under its own banner. I designed Venice the way I did for the same reason Durand spent two months adapting CommunityWare--to ensure a smooth transition for the community.

Incidentally, some old friends of ours who are heavily involved in the convept of virtual community have taken notice. They are Casey Hughes of KMUnity.net (formerly COO of Durand Communications) and Max Gail of LAP.org (you may know him as "Wojo" from Barney Miller). Their interest is in defining a "Social Operating System" for virtual communities, which would encompass not only a community's code but also its conventions, processes, and social norms (kind of the "oral tradition" of the community). They are believers in the "chaordic" principle of self-organization popularized by Dee Hock of VISA International. To completely reiterate what they're talking about would take far too much space here; I recommend that you not only check out their Web sites, but have a look at the ongoing discussion on EMinds in the topic "Running LAPs" (topic 16 in the conference "The Commons", or <Commons.16> in Venice post link syntax). A direct link is here.

Electric Minds - virtual community since 1996. http://www.electricminds.org
[ Parent ]

virtual communities aren't.. (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by chuqui on Fri Apr 27, 2001 at 11:52:20 PM EST

rusty says some things that really echo true to me, based on what I've come to realize recently with my own attempts at virtual communities.

Virtual communities aren't virtual -- they're real communities that are electronically enabled. The nuts and bolts make it possible, the people make it work (or not).

It almost doesn't matter what technology exists, it's the people that make it click or not (don't believe me, go lurk in alt.callahans sometime)

Electric minds has some great stuff, from first glance. But it's important to remember the trick isn't to build great software, because it's useless if you don't have great people. It's to find ways to bring the right people together, and give them things that'll let them become what they want to be.

-- Chuq Von Rospach, Internet Gnome <http://www.chuqui.com> <kuro@chuqui.com> "The first rule of holes: If you are in one, stop digging"
[ Parent ]
You're darned right (none / 0) (#31)
by Erbo on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 01:53:13 AM EST

I think every single EMinder would agree with your statement, Chuq. Keeping EMinds together required not only my skill with an Emacs buffer, but Harry's skill at keeping the community together, and the faith of every single community member that what we were doing was the right thing.

An amazing thing has happened since our opening on Monday. Many of the people who were EMinds users in the early days have stopped by, whether out of curiosity, nostalgia, or respect for the spirit of those of us that have kept it alive. (Even Howard has dropped in, wishing us luck in our new incarnation. Speaking of a Callahan's metaphor, I feel a little like Jake Stonebender opening up Mary's Place right about now.) Some of them are even contributing good suggestions for refining Venice, suggestions that I will be looking at as I continue to upgrade the software. But it's gratifying to see posts by a lot of these people, some of whom I haven't "read" in years.

Of course, we've had new people show up in that time. One good example is a group of refugees from the closing of Netscape's community forums that called themselves the "NetNomads"; originally, they set up shop in a community created on WebbMe, but many of them "crossed over" to Electric Minds. A couple of them are now conference hosts.

People like Max Gail and Casey Hughes (see my reply to Rusty's post) are working to extend the lessons from places like Electric Minds to virtual communities everywhere. But, no matter how good your principles are, it still comes down to the people involved. The group of people we have is beyond great; they are phenomenal. I'm privileged to be running a server for all of us.

Electric Minds - virtual community since 1996. http://www.electricminds.org
[ Parent ]

Only since 1996? (none / 0) (#35)
by Wondertoad on Thu May 10, 2001 at 06:07:19 PM EST

My own Cellar has been going for twice as long, since 1990.

But then, I didn't go for venture capital money or advertising or corporate buyout or "repurposing" or etc. My only concern is the occasional ego-boost from writing messages on other communities that say "hey, I've had a virtual community since 1990!"

[ Parent ]

I didn't say we were the *oldest* (none / 0) (#36)
by Erbo on Fri May 11, 2001 at 11:34:41 AM EST

The WELL, for instance, is older than even your site (dating from at least the mid-80's), let alone ours.

As for the money bit...you're right. Howard has said that his most fundamental error with EMinds was getting into the whole venture-capital thing. Venture capital, he says, "isn't a healthy way to grow a social enterprise." Then Durand bought Electric Minds, and we thought we could turn it into a showcase of our technology for people who wanted to pay for virtual communities. There weren't enough of those. Then, when we became Webb, we thought we could compete with Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos, etc., by creating a "portal site." It didn't work out, and we pretty much ceased development on that system after Webb bought netIgnite and their technology effectively took over, a full two years before they finally pulled the plug on EMinds. (We sometimes say that it was more like netIgnite acquired Webb, rather than the other way around.) At the end, there were only a couple of people left who knew anything at all about the WebbMe code, or even cared very much.

Is it possible to make money hosting a virtual community? Maybe, maybe not...but there certainly won't be a lot of money in it. We might make a buck here and there by selling T-shirts or some such, but certainly not a revenue stream worthy of attracting big investors. Better to stay not-for-profit and expand in a more organic fashion, the way Howard thinks it should have happened in the first place.

Electric Minds - virtual community since 1996. http://www.electricminds.org
[ Parent ]

Nice design (3.00 / 3) (#25)
by Farq Q. Fenderson on Wed Apr 25, 2001 at 02:03:54 PM EST

The layout of the site is nice. Some of the options in the profile are neat, too, if you're the creative type.

This looks like the beginning of a very powerful environment. Kudos.

farq will not be coming back
eh? (none / 0) (#34)
by eudas on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 09:56:51 PM EST

this will probably sound like a nay-sayer and is mildly off-topic, but i could swear i saw this get voted down off the queue.

oh well...
"We're placing this wood in your ass for the good of the world" -- mrgoat
The Relaunch of Electric Minds | 36 comments (8 topical, 28 editorial, 0 hidden)
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