From Counterculture to Cyberculture:
Community Discourse and the Dilemma of Modernity
Virtual communities are discussed as expressions of the
modern tension between individuality and community, emphasizing the role
that counterculture and its values played in shaping the virtual community
project. This article analyzes postings to the WELL conferences and the
online groups that served as incubators and testing ground for the term
"virtual community," revealing how this concept was culturally shaped by
the countercultural ideals of WELL users and how the tension between
individualism and communitarian ideals was dealt with. The overarching
conclusion is that virtual communities act both as solvent and glue in
modern society, being similar to the "small group" movement.
Rare is the major modern communication technology
that has not been received with high hopes for social and political
renewal (Czitrom, 1982; Lappin, 1995; Marvin, 1988). Two central visions
characterize these expectations. On the one hand is the hope for greater
individual autonomy and increased personal agency (Shapiro, 1999). For
example, early long-distance social interaction technologies such as mail
order catalogues were seen as forms of empowerment for ordinary
individuals (Boorstin, 1973). On the other hand, dreams of social harmony
and homogenization tend to surround the birth of revolutionary
communication technologies, as far back as the telegraph and the telephone
in the 19th century (Marvin, 1988; Standage, 1998). A constant
theme of discourse in both individualistic and communitarian visions, as
noticed by Carey (1988) and Boorstin (1978), is that of announcing the
emergence of a Republic of Technology, where social relationships would
become less hierarchical, more transparent, and personal, while
communities would be stronger and more effective. The mythopoetic origins
of these visions recede into the depths of the modern subconscious (Carey,
1988; Czitrom, 1982). They also reflect the double-edged nature of the
"great transformation" (Polanyi, 1944) brought about by modernity: the
rise of the individual occurring simultaneously with an increasing
yearning to rejuvenate community bonds (Taylor, 1989). The tension between
individualism and community specific to modern life has affected most
aspects of public and private life, including modern communication
technology (Nye, 1997).
Although a good part of the story about
how culture has shaped the rise of modern communication technologies has
been told, this is still a work in progress. For some technologies-the
telephone (Fischer, 1992; Marvin, 1988), the telegraph (Standage, 1998),
the power grid (Nye, 1998), and the automobile (Nye, 1998)-we have
excellent cultural histories. For others, especially newer communication
technologies, much ground remains unexplored. While scholars studying "old
technologies" have succeeded in showing which specific social and cultural
forces have shaped the emergence of the modern electronic universe,
efforts to clarify the social and cultural resources of the collection of
devices and connections known collectively as "the Internet" are still in
the exploratory phase. With some exceptions (Abbate, 1999; Castells,
2001), current cultural analyses of the Internet tend to be either
polemical (Barbrook & Cameron, 1995; Borsook, 2000; Eubanks, 1999;
Turner, 1999) or descriptive (Hafner & Lyon, 1996). What is needed is
a more solid analytic and sociological framework, which can reveal what
cultural and social forces, in what specific historical context, have
shaped the discourse surrounding the dual social promises—individualistic
and community-oriented—of the Internet.
The present article aims
to fill this gap by targeting an important discursive trope surrounding
the emergence of the Internet, that of "virtual community." The goal is to
identify the cultural origins and social functions of this concept by
placing it in socio-historical perspective and by revealing how it deals
with the modern tension between individualism and communitarianism. The
basic idea advanced here is that the socio-political hopes surrounding
virtual community ideals derive their force and shape from the "high
modern" (Giddens, 1991) repository of visions provided by the social and
cultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s known as "the counterculture."
Although this connection has been noted before (Castells, 2001; Hafner,
1997; Seabrook, 1997), this analysis will go deeper than the metaphorical
or formal connection found in the current literature. With a few
exceptions (e.g., Castells, 1996), the counterculture is mentioned as a
"color item," as a peripheral factor that added spice and a certain amount
of "fun factor" to what "neophytes" might consider "cold" or "geometrical"
technologies (Hafner, 1997). Even Castells' investigation (2001), which
has shown that the very idea of "virtual community" is a representative
symbol of the countercultural ethos, is too cursory to reveal all the
major implications of the connection between the virtual community concept
and counterculture. Seabrook (1997) has provided the most extensive and
detailed analysis of the phenomenon to date, offering a good cultural,
although not always scientifically rigorous, framework for understanding
the countercultural roots of the virtual community phenomenon.
Since the topic of "virtual community" is a vast one, the present
article is limited to discussing only one of its facets: the way in which
it deals with the relationship between individuals and community. It will
highlight how the virtual community concept has inherited a number of
contradictions by virtue of being shaped socially and culturally by one
version of the counterculture, which has embraced technology. This will be
accomplished by analyzing the discourse about virtual communities found in
the postings and literature generated by the members of the paradigmatic
virtual community, the WELL (i.e., Whole Earth Lectronic Link), an early
computer conferencing environment. This choice is justified by the fact
that the book that first brought the term "virtual community" to the
public was written as a reflection on the social processes on the WELL by
one of its most articulate members, Howard Rheingold (1993). The WELL is
one of the first self-proclaimed virtual communities and an active late
countercultural organization. Moreover, it was founded and supported for a
number of years by the Whole Earth publishing group, owned by Stewart
Brand, a well-known countercultural activist, who was directly or
indirectly involved in many contemporary techno-social initiatives related
to virtual community ideals.1
The present analysis aims
to demonstrate that as an incarnation of the countercultural communal
movement, the WELL had to deal with a number of ideological tensions:
between self-expression and true community involvement, between ascribed
and achieved identities, between intentional sociability and actional
efficiency, and between strong and weak social ties. These contradictions
left their imprint on the idea of virtual community, or at least on the
concept of virtual community that the WELL put in public circulation
An important conclusion of this study is that
virtual community is a discursive and social subspecies of the
counterculture that reflects the fundamental modern tension between
individualism and communitarianism. Virtual communities are related to a
number of phenomena that also reflect this tension: the small group, weak
tie, individually-centered groups (Wuthnow, 1994, 1998), molded by an
expressive and instrumental individualistic ethos (Bellah, Madsen,
Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985/1996; Yankelovich, 1981), which have
generated social arrangements characterized by "networked individualism"
(Wellman, 2001). From this perspective, similar to the small groups
movement analyzed by Wuthnow (1994) in Sharing the Journey,
virtual community is not necessarily the solution to the social challenges
of late modern American society, but rather one of its symptoms (Fernback
& Thompson, 1995; Lievrouw, 1998; Shapiro, 1999; Sunstein, 2001).
Embracing virtual communities can act both as a solvent and glue for
modern society, making social commitments more flexible but also
facilitating individual adaptation to these flexible social arrangements.
Virtual Community: Countercultural
The literature that talks about the role of
computer-mediated communication in social life is rich in pronouncements
about how communication technology will enhance the quality of modern
social life. Computer-based communication networks are believed to have
positive effects on social interactions, which are most frequently
presented in socio-psychological (Hiltz, 1984; Hiltz & Turoff, 1978;
Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Rheingold, 1993), political (Berman
& Weitzer, 1997; Braman, 1994; Doctor, 1991, 1992), or sociological
terms (Smith, 1992; Watson, 1997).2
Why do these
expectations sound appealing? What historical and cultural precedents made
the idea of cyber-sociability interesting to the public? A possible
explanation for the diffusion of this vision is the fact that the
literature discussing it plays on the expectation, sometimes assumed,
sometimes explicitly expressed, that computer communication entails a new
social covenant, which will solve modern society's conflict between the
individual impulse of self-realization and community constraints. This
vision, a recurring one in modern intellectual history, was most recently
revived as the dream of creating social groups through computer networks
that can be seen as virtual or online communities, where both
individuality and communal spirit can be preserved or even enhanced. This
vision, first articulated by activist-analyst proponents (Barlow, 1994,
1996; Hauben, 1995; Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Horn, 1998; Rheingold, 1987,
1993; Rushkof, 1994; Schuler, 1996; Watson, 1997), purportedly describes a
new and superior form of human association (Horn, 1998; Rheingold, 1987,
1990, 1991, 1993; Rushkof, 1994; Smith, 1992; Watson, 1997). The main
appeal of the new social compact is its purported capacity to foster more
authentic and deeper social involvement, while being deeply egalitarian,
individualistic, less prone to prejudice, and more emotionally satisfying.
These characteristics are better fostered by computer networks because
cybermediated communication allows, through its very technical
characteristics, more freedom of expression, increased efficiency, and
wider access (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Rheingold, 1987, 1991).
Although not rejecting the proposition that online communication
environments can and do foster social groups that display community
characteristics—group-sanctioned identities or jargons, norms, strong
personal relationships (Baym, 1998; Jankowski, 2002; McLaughlin, Osborne,
& Ellison, 1997; Parks & Floyd, 1996)—the present article starts
from the premise that virtual community is a term that has both
descriptive and normative (prescriptive) connotations. Those of a
descriptive nature cover the obvious reality that people use the Internet
for various social purposes, of which reinforcing pre-existing
community-oriented social and spiritual resources are probably very
important (Baym, 1998; Calhoun, 1998; Castells, 2001; DiMaggio, Hargittai,
Neuman, & Robinson, 2001; Doheny-Farina, 1996; Hampton & Wellman,
1999, 2000; Howard, Rainie, & Jones, 2002; Katz & Rice, 2002;
Neustadtl & Robinson, 2002; Putnam, 2000; Wellman & Gulia, 1999).
As Calhoun aptly put it, "the Internet mainly makes it easier for us to do
some things we were already doing and allows those with the resources to
do some things that they already wanted to do" (Calhoun, 1998, p. 382).
In addition to its descriptive nuances, the term virtual community
also incorporates prescriptive ones, which suggest that virtual
communities are an evolutionary step in the history of sociability,
solving the conflict between autonomy and conformity, and that their
ontology is quite different from that of older social formations (Barlow,
1994, 1996; Rheingold, 1987, 1990, 1993; Watson, 1997). Following Roszak
(1986, 1994), the present article will propose that these prescriptive
connotations were attached to the concept during its forging in the
intellectual furnace of the 1960s-1970s countercultural revolution, when
the main rhetorical resources fueling the virtual community vision were
The counterculture was an intensely personal,
revolutionary movement, born out of the period of effervescence that
characterized the 1960s (Roszak, 1995). Although multifaceted, one of its
core components was the communal/anarchist movement, whose goal was to
restore a simpler, more egalitarian, and more personal social environment.
This was to counter the tendency of modern society toward uniformity,
regimentation, and massification (Kanter, 1972; Roszak, 1995; Veysey,
The countercultural communal movement was the offspring of
older, anarchist ideals but with some added nuances (Kanter, 1972). First,
it was intensely spiritual and at times religious (Wuthnow, 1976). Second,
at least in the early seventies, it was a movement that emphasized
individual freedom and was embraced as a means for individual liberation
and for rediscovering the lost potentialities of the self (Fairfield,
1972; Yablonsky, 1968). This led to an emphasis on abandoning mainstream
family, value, and communication conventions. An "openness ideal" was
widely embraced (Wuthnow, 1976), expressed as "open social relationships"
(non-possessive marriage or child rearing arrangements) or "open
communication" (free and spontaneous expression of feelings, regardless of
situation or consequences) (Fairfield, 1972; Yablonsky, 1968). Third, and
most importantly, some of the communal experiences had a positive attitude
to technology (Roszak, 1994). Technology, rejected or even hated in the
classical anarchist movement, was embraced by many countercultural
communities as a means for liberation, although, as it will be emphasized
below, not by all of them. The logic behind this new approach was that
technology becomes an instrument of evil only when under the control of
governmental or business bureaucracies. If properly controlled, through
personalization and individual manufacture, technology can be made into a
"convivial" (friendly, "humane") instrument of personal and group
liberation (Roszak, 1986, 1994, 1995).
In the section that follows
we will explore the relationship between the version of the
countercultural movement that accepted the role of technology in the
social revolution of late 20th century-which henceforth will be
called techno-counterculture-and a specific type of technology, that which
is dedicated to communication and computing. This will prepare the ground
for the central analysis of this article: understanding how the
techno-countercultural WELL project created the generative environment for
the virtual community idea and how this circumstance has imprinted the
concept with characteristics and tensions specific to the counterculture.
In the process, it will be shown how the "open communication" ideal, a
uniquely countercultural value, participates in creating the ideological
tension between individualism and communitarianism that characterizes both
the general countercultural and the techno-countercultural (virtual
Technology and "Open Communication"
The connection between techno-communitarian
activism, especially during the earlier phases of the computer revolution,
and the counterculture was noticed quite early by Roszak (1986, 1994). His
views are important because he coined the term and made it famous from a
semi-activist position through a well-known book: The making of a
counter culture: Reflections on the technocratic society and its youthful
opposition (1995), first published in 1969. One of Roszak's major
contributions to the debate about the counterculture is his attempt to
define the boundaries of the phenomenon. Although manifesting a certain
affinity with the other major movements of the time, especially the civil
rights and the anti-war movement, the counterculture is seen by him as a
distinct social phenomenon. Roszak points to the fact that the
counterculture was a social and cultural project covering the
"underground," anarchistic movements of the sixties. Its main aim was to
reconstruct the social order through novel human experiences and social
relationships (Roszak, 1995).
We now remember these experiences
only under the rubric of the "communal" experiment-especially the hippie
communes and the transcendental religious movements of the sixties. The
role played by technology in shaping the counterculture is far less known.
Roszak was one of the few observers who noted that the counterculture had
a complex relationship with technology, leading to its splitting into two
branches: one techno-rejectionist and the other, as Roszak (1994) calls
it, "techno-reversionary." While the former better fits the current
stereotype about the sixties, seen as a na?ve "return to nature," the
later strand was more complex, in that its members preferred to combine
home-spun lifestyles with expressive-individualist values and a good dose
of high technology, especially of the electronic kind.
to Roszak (1994), the main goal of the techno-countercultural or
techno-reversionary movement was not to destroy modern life, far less its
technological components, as its anarchist predecessors or technophobic
contemporaries strived to do. One of the revolutionary aims of the
techno-counterculture was to change the social order by "personalizing" a
number of technologies, especially those related to communication. This
version of the counterculture believed that human experiences and social
relationships mediated by specific "convivial technologies" could be more
authentic and liberating (Roszak, 1994, 1995; Rushkof, 1994). According to
Roszak (1986), techno-countercultural sociability was not adverse to
technology, in general; it only opposed its corporate and governmental
Adopting a "techno-reversionary" attitude, the
techno-counterculture promoted a life ideal in which powerful technologies
are incorporated into "primitive" lifestyles. Moreover,
techno-countercultural ideals have quickly trickled down to the rest of
the society, influencing important informal (and later formal)
technological organizations. Roszak and other chroniclers of the personal
computer revolution have shown, for example, how the San Francisco Bay
Area countercultural environment was essential for nurturing the circles
of innovation responsible for the emergence of personal and networked
computing (Freiberger & Swaine, 1999; Levy, 1985; Roszak, 1994). For
example, the Resource One, People's Computer Company, Homebrew Computer
Club, the Whole Earth Catalogue, and the Community Memory initiatives-the
incubators for the first personal computer or computer conferencing
prototypes-were core elements of the techno-countercultural movement. The
two earliest luminaries of commercial personal computing, Steve Jobs and
Steve Wozniak, and the entire ethos of the Apple computing culture, are a
direct product of the techno-counterculture (Levy, 2000).
techno-counterculture's points of attraction for techno-visionaries, both
marginal and mainstream, was the dream diffused through publications such
as the Whole Earth Catalogue, of a "new Jeffersonian democracy based, not
upon equal distribution of land, but upon equal access to information"
(Roszak, 1994, p. 147). According to this scenario, networked "personal"
(as opposed to mainframe, institutionally-maintained) computers would play
a crucial role in reorganizing the social order. The
techno-counterculture's destiny "was to create a global culture of global
villages cradled in a healthy natural environment, [where] one pictures
the computer terminal as a sort of hearth or campfire around which, by way
of their modems and satellite transmitters, the clans gather to exchange
gossip and graffiti with their counterparts half a world away" (Roszak,
1994). In essence, for many techno-countercultural activists, "the result
of high industrial technology would be something like a tribal democracy
where the citizenry might still be dressed in buckskin and go berry
picking in the woods. (Roszak, 1994)
In addition to and informing
their technophilia, techno-countercultural experiments embraced an "open
communication" ideal. The "consciousness reformation" (Wuthnow, 1976) or
"expressive revolution" (Bernice, 1981b) that has led to the broader
countercultural movement, and by implication to its "techno" variant, was
dominated by the belief that to solve the ills of modernity (i.e.,
anonymity, massification, alienation), "revolutionizing the self" comes
before revolutionizing society. In distinction to previous anarchist
dreams, which focused on redistribution of external resources and power,
the counterculture proposed a more radical project, which envisaged a
total reconstruction of human consciousness and interpersonal human
relationships as preconditions for any future social revolution (Bernice,
1981b; Veysey, 1978; Watts, 1998). In essence, the counterculture saw
social revolution as nearly impossible until the internalized oppressive
patterns of culture that shape people's most profound sense of self are
destroyed or modified (Braunstein & Doyle, 2002; Nelson, 1987; Watts,
1998). Thus, any "external freedom" project was linked to an
internal-psychological openness ideal, as the famous Beatles song
proclaimed (Lennon, 1968): "You say you'll change the constitution/ well,
you know/ we all want to change your head/ You tell me it's the
institution/ well, you know/ You better free your mind instead."
The broader countercultural movement found the best tool for
opening up the self and society at large in "open communication." This is
communication that is spontaneous, free, unhindered, and self-expressive
(Veysey, 1978). Its goals are to share the joy of discovering and
developing the "true" potential of the self. Open communication is
communal and individualistic at the same time, reflecting what Veysey
(1978) calls the paradox of counterculture, where the individual and
community are concomitantly developed. In countercultural groups, personal
and group identities can be merged through a process of communication that
transcends conventions and is reduced to exchanging expressive "vibes"
between individuals (Wuthnow, 1976). These exchanges are aesthetic and
emotional in nature. The practical implication is that the more
spontaneous and more self-expressive the social interaction, the less
constraining and freer the group and the fuller the communal experience.
This is a social ideal that focuses on the need for "communicating"—i.e.,
expressing one's self spontaneously and immediately—as a terminal value
(Rokeach, 1979), as an ideal final state.
communication, self-expression, and communal experience, countercultural
communities attempt to resolve a fundamental contradiction between the
core values of individualism and communitarianism. The goal of
self-realization for all community members is premised on what might best
be called a mystic egalitarianism: Each act of self-realization discovers
a personal truth that is unique and probably incommunicable, making each
self-actualized individual profoundly different from every other member of
his or her "community" (Watts, 1998). One effect of the ineffability of
each personal truth is to put them all beyond the reach of any yardstick
of evaluation. Because it is impossible to say for certain that any one
personal truth is more or less valid than any other, any attempt to do so
would necessarily be arbitrary and oppressive. It follows that the process
of communication/expression that intentional communities wish to foster is
one in which no exchange participant is privileged over another and
communication is freed as much as possible from the fetters of valuation
and judgment. Since all utterances are, or at least must at least be
presumed to be, of equal value, each has an equal right to be heard
(Bernice, 1981a). The other effect of this mystic egalitarianism is that
little common ground is available upon which individuals can base the ties
that would bind them together in a community. Instead of tradition and a
shared belief system, they must make do with tolerance and respect for
each other's individuality. The reconciliation of individualism with
community ties is thus affected by a lopsided compromise in which the very
idea of community is profoundly transformed.
Open communication: From Counterculture
If the virtual community project is a part of that
branch of the counterculture that has embraced technology, as was
suggested above and will be fully demonstrated in the section discussing
the WELL that follows, the "open communication" ideal will be easily
recognizable in the discourses surrounding the virtual community idea.
This means that both the virtual community concept and its corresponding
discourse will be characterized by the same contradiction between
individualism and communitarianism that "open communication" and the
Most early virtual community
literature dedicated to the social effects of personal and networked
computing, to computer conferencing, and later on to the Internet, starts
from the premise that the revolutionary effects of these technologies are
derived from their capacity to foster open communication (Coate, 1992;
Rheingold, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993; Seabrook, 1997; WELL, 1985-2003a,
1985-2003b, 1985-2003c). The customary arguments in support of this idea
are two and are interconnected:
- The non-hierarchical and socially "transparent" structure of
computer networks generates an environment of "open communication"
where, freed from the social masks of class, gender, and race which
model face-to-face interaction, people are more likely to express their
authentic emotions and concerns. Taking advantage of the fact that
identity in computer-mediated communication environments can be hidden
or manipulated, social actors can explore and express unknown facets of
their personalities. In the process, emotional involvement can be
deepened, and expressive abilities and personal freedom enlarged.
- Such "open communication environments" are also characterized by the
users' ability not only to consume but also to produce information,
which eliminates the middlemen in social, political, and cultural life,
flattens social hierarchies, and enlarges social freedom and equality.
By having more access to information, users of computer-mediated
communication will be better able and more motivated to participate in
social and political affairs.
At first glance, these arguments seem to spring
naturally from the nature of computer-mediated communication technology,
which is more flexible and decentralized than the electronic
broadcasting/mass press model of communication. However, upon closer
examination, one can distinguish the marks of the larger countercultural
"meaning system" (Wuthnow, 1976). The first idea, that communication
technologies can generate better communities because they erase the social
cues that hinder real-life interactions, extracts its visionary force from
the countercultural belief that shedding all external signs of social
differentiation and disposing of social and communicative conventions and
codes (in speech, clothing, or manners) facilitates social equalization
and self-realization (Kanter, 1972; Miller, 1991; Veysey, 1978). The
second idea, that we can break down the social isolation of modern
individuals and rebuild community through the disintermediation effects of
communication technology (i.e., the ability not only to consume, but also
to produce information) is also a widely known countercultural idea
For example, Community Memory—an early computer
conferencing system and one of the earliest virtual community projects—is
described by its creator, Felsenstein (1994), as a product of
countercultural ideals and contexts and as an epitome of the idea that
communication technology makes users into producers of information. His
work is premised on the principle that if one succeeds in establishing a
more manageable system of communication, where every participant has equal
access to the means of producing communication flows, and gains personal
control over them, the social system sustained by these flows will become
more "communitarian," i.e., will make people want to connect to other
people. As he put it, in a computer conferencing environment: "People do
NOT want to be subjected to centralized information. They DO want to be
able to explore the social space of their surroundings and to ask the
question: 'Who's out there?'" (Felsenstein, 1993).
(1994) recounts how his idea of creating tools for "convivial" electronic
communication for the Community Memory project came from his brief stint
at the Barb, one of the flagship underground publications of the
time. Although initially enthusiastic about the capacity of the
underground press to speak for whole communities in a democratic manner,
he soon became disillusioned, realizing that hierarchical control and
centralization were, in the given production and diffusion context, still
a reality. Inspired by a more "flexible" freedom ideal, he adopted the
"open communication" idea as a design principle; in order to be
emancipatory, social communication should be as unmediated as possible.
The WELL as Virtual Community and its
Techno-countercultural ideas and projects did not
disappear with the apparent death of the counterculture at the end of the
1970s. In fact, they have slowly become part of the mainstream, which is
one of the reasons this brand of counterculture has become a controversial
subject of debate in alternative activist circles. The apparition of a
central techno-countercultural publication, the Coevolution
Quarterly, which later became the Whole Earth Review, marked
an attempt to reconcile technology with social experimentation and led to
a serious rift in the American counterculture. Despite this controversy,
or maybe because of it, the sociotechnical ideas of the 1960s and early
1970s were incorporated into the computer and networking projects of the
1980s and 1990s. One of these projects was the WELL, which has refined
some of the techno-countercultural ideas into what is now known as the
"virtual community" project. The WELL is a bulletin board and conferencing
system, still functional and accessible through the World Wide Web (http://www.well.org/). It was created as
an electronic commune by countercultural activists and was initially run
and managed by former hippies. Founded by Stewart Brand, publisher of the
flagship publication of the techno-countercultural movement mentioned
above, the Whole Earth Review, the WELL was initially managed by
Matthew McClure, a former member of Stephen Gaskin's Tennessee commune,
The Farm, followed by Cliff Figallo and John Coate, also Farm "graduates"
(Hafner, 1997). The Farm, which still survives and maintains a website (http://www.thefarm.org/), was known
during the 1960s and 1970s as a communal/anarchist settlement of the first
order, being for a while a countercultural pilgrimage destination (Hafner,
1997). WELL users were initially recruited mainly from the countercultural
population of the San Francisco Bay area, especially from the followers of
the Grateful Dead, a famous American countercultural band.
the early WELL users and its managers brought with them from their
communal/countercultural past a vision of community and communication that
emphasized unhindered freedom of expression. For example, the WELL's motto
"you own your words" can be seen as a variation of the famous sixties
dictum "do your own thing." This made the WELL a place of intense verbal
participation, emotional openness, and often intense conflict (Hafner,
The virtual community vision that emerged on the WELL was
animated by generous ideals: freedom of expression and egalitarianism.
However, the actual social life of the WELL was characterized by debate
and even conflict. The contentious issues that arose were the opposite of
the early ideals. Factionalism, power struggles, and accusations of
betrayal of ideals led to a major scission in the user base. In 1995, some
of the old-time members abandoned the WELL, forming their own, non-profit
computer conferencing forum, the River (http://www.river.com/). In 1999 the WELL
itself was sold to a for-profit organization, Salon.com.
was founded as a self-conscious virtual community and it has proclaimed
itself as such (Rheingold, 1987). Yet, the fact that the virtual community
ideal and project, together with the tensions they entail, were the
product of an essentially techno-countercultural organization, the WELL,
has been largely neglected in the academic literature. This is probably
the reason why a discussion about the nature and affiliation with a larger
family of social groups of the WELL has been slow to take shape. This
section will explain in some detail the role some techno-countercultural
visions played in forging the virtual community ideal, as this took shape
on the WELL. This will help us better understand the utility and the main
shortcoming of the virtual community concept as a sociological tool, as
well as the inherent tensions it brings to the larger debate about the
role of virtual communities in social life.
between countercultural and virtual community ideals, in the WELL context,
are not easy to detect. This is because the rhetorical registers on which
the two vocabularies play are quite different. What in the counterculture
was a style of interpersonal interaction later on became a "rationalized"
socio-technological ideal. Yet, analysis of some illustrative documents
produced by the members, managers and chroniclers of the WELL shows that
the virtual community rhetoric generated on the WELL is infused with the
terms (and inherent contradictions) that characterize the
techno-countercultural project, and that the ideal of "open communication"
and its ambiguous role in making/unmaking community is also present here.
In a number of programmatic postings to the "virtual community"
conference (WELL, 1985-2003c) dedicated to the issue: "Is the WELL a
community? How so? Or, why not?" the countercultural ideal of
self-actualization and self-expression is clearly stated, although in a
conflicted relationship with the other goal of the WELL, community and
conviviality. In fact, the theme running throughout more than 500 postings
spread over a period of several years is: How can community be defined in
such a way that individuality is not suppressed? There is no definitive
answer to this question, but the tension is usually resolved in favor of
preserving or emphasizing the individualistic term of the equation.
A representative posting proposes a definition for virtual
communities that invokes the open communication ideal as a bridge between
individuality and community.
XXX (xxx)3 Sun 01 Mar 1992 (11:01 PM)
There are many definitions of community - some of which have been
described above - but the one _I_ find most meaningful (and, probably,
most difficult) comes from the book 'A Different Drum' by M. Scott Peck.
He describes community as a group of people who have _chosen_ to
"communicate honestly with each other, and whose relationships go deeper
than their masks of composure." A group that shares joy and pleasure as
well as sorrow and pain. [?] The most succinct thing I can say about it is
that true community provides a place for knowing myself (and others) and
making helpful changes in my lifestyle/behaviors. (WELL, 1985-2003c)
The terms of this definition are strikingly
similar to those used by members of countercultural projects (Wuthnow,
1976). Central in both visions is an emphasis on emotional support and
"open communication," beyond "masks of composure," where authenticity and
self-expression of feelings replace social conventions. In addition, the
WELL user's declared goals for participating in communities of any kind
are self-knowledge and self-adjustment, which are central individualist
values. Interestingly, and revealing the contradictions of community
building in a countercultural context, this user mentions in the second
part of the posting that she does not believe that the WELL meets even her
relaxed definition of community, the WELL being, in her view, too cliquish
and conflict-ridden to be a "real" community. This highlights clearly the
difficulty WELL users had in defining and sustaining a common
understanding of the WELL as a "community," and their tendency to fall
back on the individualistic benefits of this social environment.
Another way of appropriating the concept of community and aligning
it to the countercultural environment specific to the WELL was to attach a
strong subjective, personal understanding to the term. In one of the more
succinct answers to the question "is the WELL a community?", Howard
Rheingold posted a comment stating that community is "what matters to me,"
which provoked the following repartee from a fellow user:
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Wed 19 Feb 1992 (03:45 PM)
[?] *I* find a community here for myself, and I don't believe that it is
necessary for everybody else to agree for my sense of my community to be
YYY (yyy) Wed 19 Feb 1992 (07:11 PM)
Right--the fact that *you* find a community here does not mean that the
WELL itself, alone from your perception, is one. In other words, the
medium stands alone. What people do with it is highly individual. (WELL,
This exchange, which is only one of the many
dedicated to the issue, highlights the inherent tension between
individualism and communitarian values that confronted the WELL users when
they tried to define their online group. This is also present in John
Coate's discussion of the representative ethos found on the WELL and in
virtual communities, in general. In a document widely circulated on the
WELL and on the Internet, Coate (1992) programmatically affirms that
online environments are naturally prepared to embrace individualists of
the "electronic frontier" kind, who "are not by nature team-players" and
who "work for themselves[,?] possess great awareness and concern about
their rights as individuals [and are] outspoken and articulate" (Coate,
1992). Communities, including their online extensions, formed by such
strongly individualistic people are subjectively-defined interest groups,
the result of formal and self-beneficial agreement:
I like to say that if you think you are in a community you
probably are, and if you don't, you aren't. Online, this sense of
community is far less obvious than it would be in a small town or a church
community. In fact, it only exists as a commonly-held, ongoing agreement
of the participants who make it be true *for them.* Ultimately, all
communities are a set of agreements among the people and in any community
(and especially these days when many neighbors hardly know each other),
one can always have strong or weak involvement with the group. But the
online environment lends itself well to a person who wants to interact
online, follow rules, observe protocol and etiquette, and still being
completely disengaged from any sense of belonging to a community. (Coate,
Coate's vision is one of communities made for
individualists and sustained by their social and intellectual resources.
The emphasis is on individual autonomy and self-interest, which, again,
redefine community as a subjective entity to be evaluated in terms of
"what matters to me."
This type of thinking continues throughout
the postings to the WELL's virtual community conference, which make
allusion to tropes and values borrowed from the counterculture,
illuminating how the fundamental contradiction of countercultural
communities becomes an inherent contradiction for this archetypal virtual
community, as well. For example, community is defined in terms of personal
ZZZ (zzzzz) Wed 19 Feb 1992 (10:31 PM) If a
community is something to have one's life enriched, then the WELL is a
community. (WELL, 1985-2003c)
Another user, one of the early managers of the
WELL and a former member of The Farm, using countercultural organic
QQQ (qqq) Tue 25 Feb 1992 (09:44 AM) I do not believe that
one has to cop to being a "member of a community" for one to actually be a
member of a community. Being a member does not obligate one to act in any
certain way except to participate in some interaction. One certainly does
not have to give up one's autonomy to be a part of a community any more
than the fern by the pond has to do anything special to be a part of the
pond's ecology. (WELL, 1985-2003c)
He is echoed by a WELL member who embraces an
explicit countercultural belief: The main role of self-respecting virtual
communities is to cater to their members' need to remain themselves. Rules
and norms are the end of any community:
VVV (vvv) Tue 25 Feb 1992 (11:01 AM) My notion of
a community has something to do with the idea that it is freely and
voluntarily formed, and that once a member, one doesn't need to alter
one's behavior much in order to remain a member. That is, the person who
consistently rants is no less a member than the constantly nurturing one:
both contribute a part of themselves to the mixture that becomes the
community. To the extent that rules are imposed (and my own impression,
reinforced by brief excursions to other networks is that the WELL is
largely free of rules), the community loses its vibrancy. (WELL,
The same WELL user further elaborates on the
potential such an ideal can have to generate community. His conclusion is
that the WELL, and virtual communities in general, are broken mirrors,
reflecting not a reality greater than the sum of its parts but the unique
individuality of their members' selves:
VVV (vvv) Tue 25 Feb 1992 (11:01 AM) Another point
which may or may not be relevant: it seems to me that the WELL functions
as a mirror to each of its users. It's clear that the person whose
postings consist chiefly of flames, for example, looks at the WELL and
denounces something he sees there, but in fact what he sees is his own
projection, and his frequent denunciations chiefly reveal his poor
self-image. Just as, to cite another example, the person who posts only
supportive and nurturing comments may be mainly displaying his own hunger
for nurturing. One thing I like about the WELL is the openness with which
people reveal how they see themselves in the mirror (even if they don't
agree that what they see in the WELL is a mirror). (WELL, 1985-2003c)
These personalized—"community is what the term
means to me"—and possessive—"this is my community"—definitions,
sometimes noticed in the literature dedicated to online groups (Jones,
1997), are additional indicators of tension between individualism and
communitarianism broadly defined. This tension is not just covert or
implied in the discourse; it was in fact overtly noticed by an "outsider"
WELL user, a British science writer who never felt welcomed on the WELL
and who rejected the idea that the WELL, or any computer-mediated group,
could be a community, precisely because they placed too much emphasis on
self-expression and individualism:
CCC (ccc) Wed 04 Sep 1991 (08:28 AM) [?] My
overall impression is that the WELL is by no means "the community" it
claims to be. There are, apparently, something over 3500 people supposedly
involved here. So why is it that only a small handful of them ever post
anything? Go into any conference at random, and you'll see the same names
time and time again, mercilessly and monotonously trumpeting their views.
It's like walking into a small-town bar, where the locals have ways of
making it plain that they'd sooner you weren't there. "Try posting
something", is the expected sympathetic advice to a newcomer. Well, I
tried it, in the Science conference, where a debate about homeopathy is
raging. "Prove that it works!" cried the Antis, "show us the references!"
Since I've written a book about it, I left a polite posting, complete with
references & abstracts. No reaction. The debate continued to storm
around me, prejudices healthily intact. I left another message, and
another. Still nothing. I began to understand how dog turd on a pavement
feels on a hot afternoon. [?] The WELL seems to be all about
self-expression, not communication. Expression is a solitary activity -
like shouting in the forest, perhaps I should say screaming into the
electrovoid. I have a picture in my mind's eye of the WELL - actually, of
about fifty little wells - each one sunk deep into rock; each one
perfectly insulated from every other one; and at the bottom of each, a
person with a keyboard, furiously and fruitlessly hammering away. (WELL,
This posting attracted a long series of repartees
and comments, in many instances the members admitting that the WELL fell
short of its communitarian ideal. In this, and many other exchanges on the
WELL, the individualistic and communitarian visions of the WELL vigorously
clash, revealing its fundamental contradiction.
Studying the WELL
as a participant observer, Seabrook (1997) adds supplementary details to
the picture. He offers an in-depth description of the way in which the
countercultural demand for self-expression engulfs the declared ideal of
harmony, how community spirit is drowned by self-absorbed competition for
attention, and how conviviality is soured by hazing rituals. He suggests
that core components of the virtual communitarian discourse, which
emphasize a social valuation of the self, create the premises for social
groups that are unstable, torn apart by conflict, fragmented, and
Seabrook (1997) notes that although the virtual
community ideal that ostensibly animates the WELL is one of social
equality, the participants are divided into insiders and outsiders.
Echoing the observation of the British WELL user mentioned above, who
complained of exclusionary behavior on the WELL, Seabrook notes that the
WELL is a collection of single-issue conferences, each dominated by an
exclusive clique and each requiring from its members a continuous effort
to prove their originality and "authenticity" of feeling and ideas.
Acceptance is difficult, and as with all exclusive groups,
involves an inevitable hazing ritual. In this case, hazing was emotional,
his work being mercilessly criticized by older members who did not refrain
from ad hominem attacks. For example, a WELL member who had read some
articles that Seabrook published in The New Yorker commented in
response to one of them: "Sounds like he's a chucklehead and will be
rightfully driven from the net. In fact, I'd like his e-mail address
*right now* myself. I've got this pent-up hostility-oh, 45 years'
worth-I'd like to do something with :-)" (Seabrook, 1997). After some
exchanges, Seabrook is recognized as "one of ours," his affiliation with
The New Yorker being probably a major opinion-swaying factor. The
end result of this process, however, is admission to what Seabrook
recognizes as an elitist group. Ironically, Rheingold acknowledges the
existence of these hazing rituals (although he never mentions it in his
own book) when, as a WELL member, he gives Seabrook this piece of advice:
"It's an initiation ritual, John Seabrook. Stick around and help us dump
it on the next guy. ;-)" (Seabrook, 1997, p. 177).
difficulty of winning acceptance into the group, once accepted, its
members feel little commitment to it and little inclination to maintain
its coherence. Participation in multiple groups, where one can leverage
his or her verbal and intellectual skills, is the norm. Membership in
online groups is, concludes Seabrook (1997), not for supporting others but
for drawing attention to oneself.
Howard Rheingolds Well: A Trip to
Utopia and Back
Another perspective on the central tension between
individualism and communitarianism in the virtual community project as it
took shape on the WELL can be found in Rheingold's Virtual
Community (1993). This is a book written by a prominent WELL member,
about the WELL, its members, lifestyles, and values, and was the most
important symbolic vehicle of the 1990s through which the virtual
community idea was popularized to the mainstream public.
was published in two slightly different versions, one in 1993 and the
second in 2001 (Rheingold, 1993, 2001). The main difference between the
two editions is the addition in 2001 of a long final chapter, in which
Rheingold meditates on the evolution of the ideas he first proposed at the
beginning of the 1990s, both in the larger societal discussion and in his
own work. In 2001 he is much more skeptical, at times even critical, of
the virtual community project, retracting some of the claims he made in
1993 about the fundamental mechanisms and socio-ethical implications of
online social interactions.
Yet, the ideas and the implicit
ideology found in the first edition of the book do not cease to be
important. They played a capital role in summarizing and shaping the
debate about the role of virtual communities at the end of the
20th century. In fact, as a historical document about the
effervescent era of the late 80s-early 90s, Rheingold's book is of greater
importance through what it claimed to be true and certain in 1993 than by
what it doubted in 2001.
The WELL's community and supportive
spirit is presented in Rheingold's first edition of the book in positive
and optimistic terms, the book minimizing, both theoretically and
narratively, most major tensions or conflicts described by other authors
(Hafner, 1997; Seabrook, 1997). Yet, the theoretical contribution of the
opus is torn by contradictions specific to the techno-countercultural
project. Moreover, these contradictions, which can be gleaned in the
penumbra of the main argument about the mechanism by which virtual
communities are generated, never became an issue in the book because they
are solved through the same lopsided compromise in favor of individualism
that we have seen explicitly stated in postings to the WELL's virtual
Rheingold's initial and openly stated model
of online social interaction is strongly influenced by social exchange
theory, which explains social action through rational self-interest. This
is a theory that tries to explain how individual behavior can create
collective action. He takes what is a descriptive and productive
sociological idea and makes it into a normative one, however, when he adds
that cooperative behaviors always emerge online as a product
only of rational choice: "whenever CMC [computer-mediated
communication] technology becomes available to people anywhere, they
inevitably build virtual communities with it, just as microorganisms
inevitably create colonies" (Rheingold, 1993, p.7). This image makes the
growth of virtual community look like the accretion of a coral reef from
free-floating, independent organisms, an idea which he probably picked up
from a posting on the WELL,4 and which he combines with his
belief that the seed from which social groups emerge online is human
beings' inborn rational self-interest. Because people are only
reason-driven and have an "innate" need to preserve and enhance their
autonomous status through cost-benefit analysis, Rheingold concludes:
"Every cooperative group of people exists in the face of a competitive
world because that group of people recognizes there is something valuable
that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a group's
collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated
individuals into a community" (Rheingold, 1993, p. 13).5
Rheingold (1993) simplifies the discussion about communities to a
strictly utilitarian perspective, reducing a complex phenomenon to one of
its aspects. This may be because the book was addressed to a popular
audience. Yet, Rheingold's utilitarianism seems to have roots that go
deeper than the rhetorical constraints of the genre in which he writes.
Reducing communication to self-interested "information exchange" also
answers the call for a more egalitarian, non-judgmental social order,
which is the core value that innerved the social life of the WELL.
Embracing this value, Rheingold's book speaks not only or primarily for
the author as a specific individual, but for the social environment that
made the topic of his book possible.
Rheingold later abandoned
some of the hopes expressed in Virtual Community about the role
virtual communities might play in reinventing social life. In the 2001
version of the book, he introduces a counter-model for explaining how
virtual communities are born and thrive. The model is especially skeptical
about the capacity of virtual environments to amplify (only) the good in
its denizens, be it generosity, emotional support or cooperation. He now
believes that online conferencing can equally boost unhealthy
attention-seeking behavior and attitudinal negativism, suggesting,
although not openly, that on-line interaction can generate a form of
Rheingold is also far more skeptical
about the democratic value of online communities, noting that even if
online interaction facilitates participation, which at least in some
contexts is probably true, this can be a liability, not an asset, for
democracy. Making a distinction that resonates with the old Aristotelian
difference between democracy—the rule of the many—and
ohlocracy—the rule of too many, Rheingold notes that
when deliberation becomes an end in itself, not a means toward an end, a
representative, versus a direct, method of decision making might be
The most important amendment Rheingold makes to his
initial model is his abandonment of the idea that mixing self-interest
with technology automatically produces community. In the 2001 version he
emphasizes that virtual communities are not "natural ecosystems," the
freer, the happier. Instead, virtual communities are like cultivated
fields, the more careful the farmer, the more flourishing the community.
Rheingold also embraces Wellman's path-breaking work on the role of
pre-existing social networks in reinforcing and extending
computer-mediated networks (Wellman, 2001; Wellman et al., 1996). The true
virtue of virtual communities is now their capacity for maintaining the
ties between those who are already connected through values, social
similarity, or personal ties, regardless of their geographic location.
Rheingold's self-declared "apostasy" marks the end of a mini
cultural cycle. His new intellectual position shows that the fundamental
and unrecognized contradiction between individualism and communitarianism,
initially resolved in favor of the latter, has been at least (and at last)
partially recognized. This shift represents an overture toward a more
critical and reflexive understanding of the role the virtual community
project currently plays, and will play in society—one that emphasizes,
rather than denies, its intrinsic dilemmas.
Virtual Community and the
In the preceding section, based on contemporaneous
accounts of how virtual community discourse emerged on the WELL, we found
both explicit and implicit signs of a deep tension between individualist
and communitarian ideals, and indications that the perceived solution
often emphasized the former, rather than the latter. The most probable
source of this tension is the past social and cultural context in which
the virtual community idea emerged—that of the countercultural reaction to
the ills of modernity. In this last section, using insights from Wuthnow's
(1994) work, we will try to explain where the virtual community ideal
might take us as a future-oriented project.
dedicated to countercultural communities and to their successor movements
suggests that they were responses to the central dilemma of modernity: How
can individual autonomy be reconciled with the highly socialized nature of
the new human order? (Bellah et al., 1985/1996; Berman, 1970; Roszak,
1995; Wuthnow, 1976).
The counterculture tried to reverse the
trend toward massification and anonymization, not by repressing the newly
conquered autonomy of modern personalities but by exacerbating it (Berman,
1970; Roszak, 1995). This was and is an ambitious and immensely difficult
project, and the various social formations it generated, including the
virtual community movement, are still struggling to strike the right
balance between commitment and individualism (Fernback & Thompson,
Yet the past failures of the countercultural movement
cannot be transformed into a prophecy for the future of the virtual
community project. Modernity is a knot of contradictions, characterized by
tensions rather than by Manichean processes (Bell, 1976/1996; Taylor,
1989). Virtual or countercultural communities, despite their penchant for
individualism, should not be seen as either/or social formations, but as
contradictory groups (Jones, 1998). They resemble, in their complexity, a
cognate social phenomenon, Wuthnow's (1994) "small groups." These are
voluntary associations dealing with a variety of issues, including:
spirituality, addiction, and book reading. Small groups are different from
previous forms of voluntary associations in that they are more flexible,
very open, and informal. They resemble the virtual community ideal in that
they emphasize individualistic values and non-judgmental support of
members by each other. Their mission, according to Wuthnow (1994), is to
offer their members an occasion "to focus on themselves in the presence of
others" (p. 6), and their ethos, which asserts only the weakest of
obligations, can be summarized as follows: "Come if you have time. Talk if
you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinion. Never criticize. Leave
quietly if you become dissatisfied" (p.6).
Wuthnow's assessment of
small groups is that they are a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the
main contradiction of modernity. This perspective can also be applied to
virtual communities. Like many small groups, virtual communities are based
on weak ties and voluntary participation, emotional support, open
communication, and non-judgmental interaction among members. While helping
us to adapt to a new type of sociability—more flexible and
individualistic—they further increase the flexibility of our social
structures and the amount of individualism in our ethos. If small groups
and virtual communities are the glue that holds together a high-modern
society, especially the American one, "they are then a social solvent as
well," says Wuthnow (1994), adding that the "solvent helps people slip
away from previous forms of social organization [and] it facilitates the
enormous adjustments required" (p. 25). Virtual communities, like many
small groups, are based on discursive interaction, storytelling, and
verbal exchanges. This communication helps the members focus on the
process and on their journey into unknown futures in the presence of
others. The title of Wuthnow's book, Sharing the Journey,
captures this metaphor, befitting the nature of virtual communities as it
is described in this article, where community and companionship is found,
but for an individualistic journey.
In brief, the WELL and other
self-conscious virtual communities, like small groups, are characterized
by a high level of individualism, yet not entirely devoid of community
spirit. Under certain conditions, they can be a step toward social
re-connection of those who feel isolated from the larger society. Although
the social space that small groups or virtual communities create will fall
short of the traditional community ideal, it might create "ties that bind"
(Jones, 1998). Even individualistic values, such as freedom and openness,
can be construed socially, if used for reviving public discourse and
preserving public goods, such as freedom of speech or the right to
privacy, which the WELL has so prominently professed and defended
Summary and Conclusions
This article has put in socio-historical context
the concept of virtual community and has revealed some of its discursive
implications. Specifically, it showed that the discourse about virtual
community relies on a set of contradictory values: individualistic and
communitarian. These values are reinforced by a belief in self-expression,
self-interest, and open communication, which the founders of virtual
communities inherited from their countercultural past. This study does
not, however, limit itself to establishing formal relationships between
narrative patterns found in the countercultural discourse and in the
claims made by virtual community discourse. It also argues that this
consonance reflects the fact that virtual community is an attempt to
formulate a "new technological deal" between people's social and
individualistic impulses in substantive terms as a response to the
challenge of modernity. The force that animates this vision is the modern
promethean impulse to invent not only our technologies but also ourselves
and our communities. This vision proposes a new type of social bond, one
that is weaker than traditional arrangements but still capable of
nurturing social interaction, in a manner similar to that of the small
group movement described by Wuthnow (1994).
between individuality, self-expression, and communitarianism is probably
one of the thorniest issues of our day, and many scholars and activists
are still struggling to find the right balance between individualism and
communitarianism. This arduous project is even more challenging online,
where issues of power, legally-acceptable behavior, and social anomie are
increasing, rather than decreasing. These are issues communication
scholars are keenly aware of and which they intensely debate. The present
article, offering the larger perspective of the modern conflict between
individualism and communitarianism, hopes to stimulate and further this
- Brand was also involved with the MIT Medialab, whose early
countercultural zeitgeist-inspired goal was to redefine the relationship
between human creativity and computing. He also is known to have been
one of the minor helpers at Douglas Engelbarts 1968 demonstration of a
human amplification device, the earliest prototype of a complex virtual
- For a summary of research see the excellent literature reviews by
Baym (1998), Harrison (1999), d Jankowski (2002).
- Except for those by Howard Rheingoldwho published some of his
contributions to the WELL in his books, all other postings discussed
here pre the anonymity of the user. The sequence XXX (xxx) designates
the place where the real name followed by the "handle (WELL name) would
have been in the posting. The letters used in this article are unique
for each contributor cited. All postings cited are from the WELL virtual
- In a posting, one of the WELL managers directly compares the WELL
with a coral reef, although this analogy was meant to have a historical,
rather than a sociological connotation:"The WELL is conversations built
up over years sort of like how coral keeps building on itself (WELL,
- This idea is borrowed from Smith (1992), another WELL participant
and author of a Masters thesis about the logic of virtual commons.
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About the Author
is Assistant Professor at Purdue University, Department
of Communication. He studies the interaction between on-line and off-line
social ties, with an emphasis on the social-spatial dimension of their
relationships. Details about his research projects can be found at http://www.matei.org/ and http://www.mentalmaps.info/
Address: 2132 Beering Hall, Department of
Communication, Purdue University, 100 N. University Drive, West Lafayette,
IN, 47907 USA