The Main Page - A Review

Governance Structures Found in Several Different Text-Based Online Communities

Ethical and Social Problems that Arise in Online Communities

Identities and Social Interactions in MUDs

Online Gaming Communities and Their Governance Structures

Created in 1985 The WELL was one of the first online communities to evolve and is still going strong today.  The Well is a “non-anonymous community site” and requires members to reveal their “real names” to other members (WELL Community Guidelines). Based on mutual respect and cooperation, The WELL’s governing principle is “You Own Your Own Words,” or  “YOYOW”  (WELL Community Guidelines). The community consists of various conferences that are headed by volunteers known as Hosts.  Some conferences are private, but many are open to whoever would like to participate.  The WELL has a Member Agreement and Host Agreement that outline the behavior expected from members and hosts.  For example, members are asked not to use profanity or other inappropriate language and to only post an item in one place on The WELL, among other things.  The Member Agreement also provides members with suggestions for courses of action they can take should they feel that the host of a conference has unfairly censored them:
  • Email the host and discuss the deletion privately.
  • Start a topic to discuss the deletion publicly.
  • If your comment was deleted as "off-topic," start a topic where your comment will not be considered off-topic.
  • Re-post a new version of your deleted comment in another conference.
  • Re-post a new version of your deleted comment on your Web page, and point to it from within WELL conferences.
  • Alter your approach in the conference.

Hosts are given a variety of powers and responsibilities.  WELL management stays out of the resolution of social issues, giving Hosts the ability to exercise their powers at their own discretion. Hosts are “exemplary citizens of the online community,” those are known for helping other users and sharing their knowledge on various subjects, and have been entrusted with responsibility for a conference (WELL Host Agreement).  The duties of a host include “keeping the conference running smoothly, managing it in consistency with the WELL’s technical needs and limitations, ensuring that users can find information as easily as possible and helping maintain an open and useful conversational environment in the conference” (WELL Host Agreement). While Hosts are given the power to “ hide or scribble any responses, freeze, retire or kill any topics, and install or modify menu information and banners within the conference,” WELL management asks them to use their powers sparingly and responsibly (WELL Host Agreement).
Highlighting the fact that the boundaries of governments with regard to cyberspace are still beign negotiated, The WELL cautions it’s members about the possibility of outside laws being enforced on actions and speech in The WELL.     

“You are legally and ethically responsible for any works - writings, files, pictures, or any other work - that you post or transmit using any of the WELL’s services” (WELL Member Agreement)

“Under US law, you retain copyright on all works you create and post to the WELL, unless you choose specifically to renounce it.” (WELL Member Agreement)

“Illegal activity under the laws of California and the United States using your WELL account is a violation of this agreement.  Since the law as to jurisdiction of online systems is unsettled, we urge you to consider the possible effect of laws outside the WELL’s locality or your residence. The WELL is open to members worldwide (and works published on the World Wide Web, Usenet, or other such services are accessible to anyone on the Internet), and The WELL cannot guarantee that you won’t run into legal trouble from other jurisdictions over your works” (WELL Member Agreement).

These remarks highlight the unresolved state of many ethical issues surrounding governance online within specific online communities and imposed governance from the “real” world. Should online communities be subject to the laws of the physical world? If so, then whose jurisdiction do online communites fall under? When members are located all over the world how will jurisdiction be negotiated?  These are just a few of the ethical questions that arise around the topic of online governance.

The WELL Member Agreement -
The WELL Host Agreement -
The WELL Community Guidelines -