The WELL and Usenet Alternative Newsgroups: Revisiting the Free Speech Revolution on the Electronic Frontier of the 1980s and 1990s

Julie Momméja



The democratization of personal computers and their increasing role as tools of individual empowerment, starting in the second half of the 1980s, brought along new ways of interpersonal communication on what was about to be known as cyberspace (Barlow 1990).
            The examples of The WELL, founded by Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand in 1985, and of the alt. groups created by John Gilmore (Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder) and Brian Reid in 1987, both in the San Francisco Bay Area, illustrate new territories of free speech on an electronic frontier under construction (Rheingold 1993; Dyson 1998).

Inspired by the libertarian ideals of the local counterculture and the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, these two forums of discussion embody a techno-social revolution underway. One where the sharing of information - that may otherwise be judged as taboo in the offline world - is encouraged. Both The WELL and the alt. groups embody the development of virtual communities where online speech not only liberates itself from mainstream society, but also creates novel ways of socializing on a new "augmented territory" (Musso 2010, 76).

Based on on-site archival research and personal meetings with the main founders and members of these platforms (Brand, Brilliant, Felsenstein, Gilmore), this paper reflects on how the personal computer and online network access revolutionized communication and communities, both online and offline. How did these groups manage to implement the American constitutional value of free speech on cyberspace? With implications and repercussions (such as "fake news") still tangible nowadays through web 2.0, this paper proposes to shed some light on the digital revolution of the 1980s and 1990s and how it can help us navigate the ongoing controversies occurring on modern social networks.


virtual community, communication, computer, revolution, coevolution, free speech, dissent, web 2.0, disinformation

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Date of publication: 2021-10-10 16:24:57
Date of submission: 2021-04-26 23:20:07


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