A tick clutched the scalp of Howard Rheingold's 2-year-old daughter. Rheingold's wife called the pediatrician, who was out. Howard logged onto the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a computer bulletin board. Before the pediatrician called back, Rheingold reports in "The Virtual Community" (Addison-Wesley, October 1993), he'd received the expert advice he needed -- from, no kidding, Flash Gordon, M.D.
The WELL also plays a starring role in Rheingold's professional life. Asked to serve on a congressional advisory panel on "Communication Systems for an Information Age," he prepared for his first meeting by opening a "conference" (an electronic discussion) on the WELL. "An amazing collection of minds flocked to that topic," he writes -- and Rheingold trundled off to Washington with 200 pages of personalized expert advice.
The WELL is one of 30,000 U.S. bulletin board systems.
On the one hand, they are changing the nature of scientific practice. "The cutting edge of scientific discourse is migrating to the virtual communities," Rheingold says.
But cyberspace also can be bizarre. Consider multi-user dungeons, "imaginary worlds in computer data bases where people . . . improvise melodramas." A reputable scientist Rheingold knows "spends hours as an imaginary ensign aboard a virtual starship full of other real people around the world who pretend they are characters in a 'Star Trek' adventure."
Most discussions of electronic networks are lifeless. Not Rheingold's. Bulletin boarding is a "virtual village," he says, "[where] there's always another mind." He likens the huge Unix Users Network,or Usenet, to "a giant coffee house with a thousand rooms . . . a worldwide digital version of the Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park, an unedited collection of letters to the editor, a floating flea-market, a vast electronic Chautauqua."
In short, the systems' dispersed users are bound by a sense of community. "Virtual communities are social aggregations," Rheingold writes, "that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on . . . public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace."
The nets' behavioral norms also affect Rheingold's professional affairs. "I give useful information freely and I believe my requests for information are met more swiftly,in greater detail, than they would have been otherwise," he says.
But there's more to it than reciprocity. The BBS society at its best, Rheingold reports, "feels more like a gift economy, where people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet quid pro quo."
But there's nothing automatic about community, electronic or other. The WELL was conceived by Whole Earth Review founder Stewart Brand as a "low-rules, high-tone discussion [which] re-creates the atmosphere of a Paris salon." Pulling that off requires special players, such as a gifted system operator, or sysop, the best of whom acts as "innkeeper, bartender, bouncer, matchmaker, mediator and community-maker."
Then there are volunteer (but officially recognized) hosts for each conference. They play the "same role in the WELL that a good host is supposed to serve at a party -- to welcome newcomers, introduce people to one another, clean up after the guests, provoke discussion and break up fights if necessary."
To prevent a bulletin board from dissolving into chaos, the founder or sysop needs to temper the power of a loose, self-organizing culture with a modicum of discipline. Tom Jennings, creator of Fido, an early bulletin board, describes his system as "viciously independent." Still, his golden rule for members is equivocal: "Thou shalt not offend; thou shalt not be easily offended."
Issues involved in global network development and management are complex. The High Performance Computing bill, which President Bush signed in 1991, creates the legal framework for our new electronic highway system.
"[But] the question of who will run it and who will be allowed to use it is wide open," writes Rheingold with concern. Enter, among others, Lotus Development founder Mitch Kapor. His Electronic Frontier Foundation champions intellectual property rights, civil liberties and public access.
Electronic networks have the potential to transform corporations, economics and society itself. Rheingold's enchanting, frightening, thrilling, accessible book brings a raft of monumental issues and opportunities into sharp focus.
(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801;  420-8200.)