WELL Done

On April 5, the day the Web magazine Salon morphed into a network, the media had lots of stories to pursue. First, Salon introduced a new URL (www.salon.com), a new site design, new editorial content, and a new ad campaign. Then, two days later, Salon announced it had bought the WELL, generating such a press frenzy that The Industry Standard soon posted a story offering analysis and links to all the other stories that had appeared on the Web.

The WELL is the Internet's elite bulletin board, a kind of laid-back gated community online that dates to 1985 and counts among its residents the hippest of writers and thinkers. Because a virtual community is self-reflexive by nature, it was no surprise that within hours of the Salon takeover, people were talking about it on the WELL.

The WELL's response was overwhelmingly positive, first and foremost because so many Salon staffers are longtime WELL members. Bruce Katz, a previous owner of the WELL, had never shown up much on the opinionated bulletin board, leading passionate users to conclude that he could not understand its true nature.

By contrast, Salon has the highest respect for the WELL, says Scott Rosenberg, vice president of site development for Salon and a longtime WELL member— so much so that when Salon launched its online chat room, "We modeled it very much on the WELL." Because Salon understands the fragile nature of online communities, Rosenberg says, "We're not coming into this with a vast master plan to transform the WELL. If we stormed in and said, 'We're the new owners. We're changing everything,' a lot of people would get very upset and leave."

By Friday, skeptical comments had begun to appear on the WELL. The primary concern was whether Salon would replace the WELL's conferencing software, a prospect that led some users to fantasize taking up their pitchforks and staging a rebellion at Salon headquarters on Mission Street in San Francisco. Other postings discussed Salon content (thumbs down on Camille Paglia), and one posed what is perhaps the most pertinent question about the acquisition: What's in it for Salon?

The first and obvious answer is revenue. The WELL currently charges members $10 to $15 a month, netting an estimated $750,000 a year. By marketing the WELL to Salon readers, Salon expects to increase WELL membership, thereby increasing revenues for Salon. But the WELL represents another hidden potential for profit: a database of information on 7000 high-end intellectuals. When subscribing to the WELL, users supply both their names and their credit card numbers.

Currently, Salon collects information on readers in traditional ways: through surveys and server logs, which identify the last site the user clicked on and the nation the user resides in. According to Rosenberg, Salon tries to collect reader demographics "without being intrusive. If you enter Table Talk [Salon's chat room], we get your name and your e-mail, but we don't use that in a marketing sense. We're not going to sell it on a list."

Rosenberg realizes that user data must be respected if Salon is to preserve its good name on the WELL. "If we started behaving badly with that information, people would know and they would spread the word. The WELL is fiercely privacy oriented, and we'd be nuts to try to exploit that in any way."

If Salon was concerned about negative feedback, it had no further to look than its own chat room. By Friday, Table Talk people were complaining about the redesign (too busy, too much like a newspaper, too many ads), and over the weekend some "TTers" had launched into tirades against their counterparts on the WELL (those boring, repetitive, name-droppers). The feuding certainly kept Table Talk moderator Mary Elizabeth Williams busy. But what better way to generate buzz than by instigating a flame war online?


By the Numbers

Rudolph Giuliani must be feeling pretty cocky, having temporarily dodged allegations of police misconduct by introducing a new "courtesy" campaign. But the mayor is not immune from further press criticism of his vaunted arrest rate. The centerpiece of his war on crime, the arrest rate gives him proof that crime is falling. Yet for all the good publicity the numbers bring, they may turn out to be a double-edged sword.

The mayor's magic abacus is officially known as "CompStat," after a software program that compiles statistics precinct by precinct. Twice a week, as the stats come in, CompStat meetings are held at a command center on the eighth floor of police headquarters downtown, where large screens display the latest crime trends. Giuliani recently testified to Congress that CompStat allows the NYPD to stop a crime "trend" before it becomes a crime "wave."

CompStat bashing is nothing new. But in recent weeks, worship of the miraculous database has come under fire in columns by Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News, Murray Weiss of the New York Post, and Bob Herbert of The New York Times. According to Gonzalez, police chief Louis Anemone is "notorious for berating commanders who fail to improve their stats." When that pressure trickles down, Herbert suggests, it leads to street cops searching thousands of innocent people and putting thousands of petty offenders in jail.

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