Howard Rheingold

Uncovering the first Citizen of the Internet
Aug 31, 2021
Related Writing

The First Citizen of the Internet

Howard wrote a book called "Virtual Community" in 1993.


In 1985, for 2 hours every day, Howard Rheingold would plug his PC into the telephone line. He would connect to the WELL (Whole Earth "Lectronic Link"), and his seven year old daughter would watch him congregate and speak with his "invisible friends." Hidden in the walls of his house was an entire cast of characters, welcoming him, as he discovered the secret door to a computer-mediated counterculture. It started with 100 members, but by 1993, when the world wide web launched, it grew to 8,000 people.

Meeting in Person

house party full of strangers - aliiances, cracking up, fights, love - meeting strangers who knew the intimate details of his personal life - not a recnogiznable face in the house

Rapid Evolution of Social Norms

self-design of a new kind of culture - Norms, social contracts, rapid evolution - high-speed social evolution

On community values

"We are impelled to relate with each other for our survival. But we do not yet relate with the inclusivity, realism, self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment, openness, freedom, equality, and love of genuine community. It is clearly no longer enough to be simply social animals, babbling together at cocktail parties and brawling with each other in business and over boundaries. It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task--to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed."
The three kinds of collective goods that Smith proposes as the social glue that binds the WELL into something resembling a community are social network capital, knowledge capital, and communion.


The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost--intellectual leverage, social leverage, commercial leverage, and most important, political leverage. But the technology will not in itself fulfill that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population. More people must learn about that leverage and learn to use it, while we still have the freedom to do so, if it is to live up to its potential.

Big Power and Big Money

warns that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities

awlways have found a way to control new communications media that emerged in the past

The odds are always good that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities; big power and big money always found ways to control new communications media when they emerged in the past. The Net is still out of control in fundamental ways, but it might not stay that way for long. What we know and do now is important because it is still possible for people around the world to make sure this new sphere of vital human discourse remains open to the citizens of the planet before the political and economic big boys seize it, censor it, meter it, and sell it back to us.

one-to-many politics - interent many-to-many - "electronic agora" vs. the "camouflaged panopticon"

Affecting Life

The places I visit in my mind, and the people I communicate with from one moment to the next, are entirely different from the content of my thoughts or the state of my circle of friends before I started dabbling in virtual communities. One minute I'm involved in the minutiae of local matters such as planning next week's bridge game, and the next minute I'm part of a debate raging in seven countries. Not only do I inhabit my virtual communities; to the degree that I carry around their conversations in my head and begin to mix it up with them in real life, my virtual communities also inhabit my life. I've been colonized; my sense of family at the most fundamental level has been virtualized.

affeting our language

The Next Escape

CMC might become the next great escape medium, in the tradition of radio serials, Saturday matinees, soap operas--which means that the new medium will be in some way a conduit for and reflector of our cultural codes, our social subconscious, our images of who "we" might be, just as previous media have been. There are other serious reasons that ordinary nontechnical citizens need to know something about this new medium and its social impact. Something big is afoot, and the final shape has not been determined.

1950 - television hailed the advent of the greatest educational medium in history

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