FM Interviews
First Monday


FM Interviews: Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold is a prolific author, with 11 books to his credit including Tools for Thought (1985), Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind (1988), and Virtual Reality (1991). In 1985, Howard became involved in the WELL, which ultimately led to The Virtual Community (1993). He was Editor Emeritus of The Whole Earth Review, 1990-94, and editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1994). In 1994, Howard was one of the principal architects and the first Executive Editor of HotWired, the online World Wide Web multimedia publication of Wired Ventures. In 1996, he founded and launched Electric Minds, named by Time magazine as one of the ten best Web sites of 1996. Rheingold's books have been translated into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish. His Web site can be found at http://www.rheingold.com

This interview originally appeared in Mindjack in the September 1 and 15 issues. The interview was conducted by Dan Richards, with occasional contributions from an online audience, in July and August, 1999. It appears in First Monday with his kind permission.

First Monday (FM): Howard, I've been thinking about what sort of questions might get us started off on the right foot. Could you tell me a little about some of your favorite desserts - and any fond memories you might have of enjoying them?

Howard Rheingold (HR): For some reason, probably rooted in genetics, I developed a taste for cooked raisins. When I was in elementary school, the other kids hated them. I traded. I had entire lunch trays, with the scooped-out compartments in the metal - the next time I saw those was in jail - filled with cooked raisins. So when I discovered that about once in every eighteen thousand pies you come across a raisin pie, I was in heaven. Raisin pie! The words send shivers down my spine. So I sought them out. And of course, my mother made them for me. She still does, from time to time. It's funny you should ask, but I actually do remember that the very best raisin pie I ever had was in the wee hours in the Grayhound bus terminal in Klamath Falls, Oregon, when I was around 14 and going to the world's fair in Seattle with my road buddy, Kim. I remember remarking to him at the time that for the rest of my life I might be haunted by the memory of the lunch counter in the Grayhound bus terminal in Klamath Falls, Oregon. We talked about that insight on my first acid trip, and years later, he would mention it. He's dead now so can't corroborate. In fact, in high school, when my pals teased me about the beautiful cheerleader who was my biology lab partner and deliberately provoked me into pubescent testosterone frenzy, I described fantasies that involved her and cooked raisins.

Zucchini bread season is upon us. I put a TRIPLE dose of raisins in, and I buy ESPECIALLY fat ones, and I PLUMP them in sugar water first. Yum! So glad you asked.

FM: I understand you have a study that is fully detached from your house. Is this due to tectonic events in the Bay Area?

HR: It's due to my wife getting really tired of film crews speaking foreign languages in our bedroom on the way to my office. The last straw when I was starting up Electric Minds and we didn't have an office and my business development director was working in my office and we forgot about it and had dinner and went to bed and were watching television for an hour when suddenly my business development guy came charging out of my office.

The actual construction of the office was perhaps the most stressful event in the history of our marriage. I was starting a company, we had Justin living on our couch because the office (including our guest bed) wasn't finished, and we were undertaking a major remodeling.

The third building in the master plan was finished today. The sauna. Ahhh.

FM: I'm interested in your thoughts on the future of online communication accessibility. We're probably less than a few years away from having inexpensive and very mobile communication systems that will virtually allow for permanent Web and IT access.

What benefits and dangers do you see developing from the type of scenario - in which permanent Web and IT access will not only be available, but possibly desirable? Is there a line - and where should we, as (hopefully) consciously evolving beings, draw that line?

HR: Big question, and I'm a big enough guy to duck the answer, because I'm not sure I know what the heck I'm talking about! ;-)

I am not hesitant to admit that I do find it a little weird and creepy that more and more people spend our time communicating with each other by sitting alone in rooms, staring at screens, moving our fingers. As I've written elsewhere, I think we have a lot of generally beneficial things to blame for this situation: automobiles, elevators, jet planes, for example. I will say that I've noticed that the advent of affordable cell phones is adding something weird to the public sphere. More and more, in parks and other public places, including, most obnoxiously, restaurants, museums, and concert halls, there are people who are physically present but mentally absent - having conversations with people who aren't there. Probably this will not be seen as weird in a year or two.

I think we should draw lines as individuals, and from those individual decisions, collective norms should emerge. It's rude to interrupt a conversation with a human being in front of you to answer a telephone, to ditch a dinner party in your living room to e-mail from your den, to use call waiting to decide which friend or business associate is more important at the moment, etc. So where we draw the line, IMO, has to do with etiquette, civility, sociability. I wrote something about this in an article for Wired.

FM: Howard, I'm thinking about "breaks" and opportunities in careers.

Could you tell me a little about what you would consider to be the first "major break" in your career - how it came about, and how it positioned you for further opportunities?

HR: I think I got a lot of bad breaks. Tools for Thought was supposed to put me on the map at age 35, but first the publisher delayed it an entire season in order to rush out an Apple IIC book. Then, on the pub date, they dissolved the entire computer book division, laid off 40 people, and forgot to put my book on the order forms (which I only found out because I had befriended the local rep). I got a break when my agent coerced me into writing a book about Virtual Reality, a subject that didn't interest me that much before a publisher got me interested.

FM: Howard, tell us about your breaks as a public speaker?

HR: That was totally accidental. When I researched my VR book, I was the only person in the world who had visited the key labs in U.S., Japan, and Europe, so I kept getting invitations to talk about VR. I brought the slides I made at the various installations, and talked about the technology, where it came from, what people were doing with it, and where it was going. It turns out that speakers get treated and paid a lot better than writers. First class travel and accommodations, and sometimes I get checks that amount to more than I made in an entire year during the first ten years of my career. It is exciting in one way: I love interacting with audiences, even in a debate where they throw hostile questions at me. And I love being in new places. And I learn something everywhere I go. It is stultifying in the sense that I end up saying the same things over and over, even though each speech is customized for its audience.

FM: What was your first enterprise, Howard?

HR: I started writing professionally at 23.

FM: What was your first company?

HR: Big companies have trouble writing checks to individuals, so for the past 20 years, I've had "Clear Communications" on my checks and letterhead. It's just a "doing business as" name. Electric Minds was my first and maybe last corporation.

FM: Could you tell us about your Electric Minds experience?

HR: In the Summer and Fall of 1994, I helped create HotWired and served as its first Executive Editor. I quit a couple weeks after it launched, in late 1994. What I had in mind had elements of a magazine (editorial filtering, creative design, regular, high-quality, "content"), but was much more like a community (many to many, unfiltered, audience-created content). I spent most of 1995 having great fun updating my Web page every day. I did all the writing, editing, design, illustrations, html. I talked friends of mine in America, Europe and Japan into writing for free. In late 1995, I got it into my head that I should expand what I was having such fun doing. When I sat down to figure out how to pay my writers and editors, hire a "real" designer, license a Webconferencing system, it looked like it would cost tens of thousands per month, and take us three or four months to launch.

Lesson number one was that everything in a startup that depends on cutting-edge technology takes longer and costs more than originally estimated, even when you take lesson number one into account.

Deciding to pay people reasonably well (but by no means extravagantly) for editorial content, art and design, technical services, led me to need more money than I had. That's when I made what I now clearly see to be my most fundamental error. I got caught up in the intoxication of venture-capital financing, which was in a particular state of mania in late 1995. I connected with a business partner I didn't know, but who knew how to go about securing financing and putting together a company - my second fundamental error. I failed to listen to my own nagging doubts and made a bad choice in partners.

I take responsibility for making the decisions that led to both the success and the failure of Electric Minds. We made a lot of bad decisions. Probably not many more than average for startups. But the decision to go for venture capital made all of the other decisions moot. So my new partner introduced me to a fellow from Softbank Ventures, for whom a million dollars was a relatively small investment. Softbank was an early investor in Yahoo, had bought Comdex and Ziff-Davis outright. I told the guy from Softbank that if we could figure out how to combine community and publishing, then the other companies in the Softbank investment portfolio could leverage that knowledge profitably. I believed, and still do, that it is possible to grow healthy, sustained online discussions around Yahoo, Comdex, and Ziff-Davis. Electric Minds was supposed to be an experiment. And the million dollars I was asking for was just a down payment on a several-year relationship. At that point, any business plan for an Internet business was a conjecture, and thinking about how virtual communities could make business was in the realm of science-fiction. We agreed that the first step was to build an exemplary product that would demonstrate the cultural viability of combining editorial content and virtual community. We agreed that it would take at least three years to become profitable.

Both Softbank and I realized that we were gambling that within three years Electric Minds could attract sufficient traffic to make significant advertising revenues.

We were funded in March, 1996, and launched in November. In December, Time magazine named us one of the ten best Web sites of 1996. By July, we were out of business. Softbank, which had been expanding its investment funds to billions of dollars in size, mostly through Asian-based investors, stopped expanding. And when something that big stops expanding, it's a big loss. They were making millions of dollars a day just moving their electronic liquidity around world markets. Moving electronic liquidity around world markets is really the only game in town. All other industries and enterprises are tickets to that game. When Softbank's bubble stopped growing, they started thinking like venture capitalists again. It is my belief that the person who sponsored us for Softbank was thinking properly about the way to research the future of the medium, but wasn't thinking properly as a venture capitalist.

Venture capitalists want ten times their investment, and they would prefer to get it in three to five years. Good venture capitalists bring their connections and experience to the table, and actively help the founders build a business. In many business plans, including ours, a specific schedule of financial milestones is established. In many venture capital investment contracts, there are "claw-back"; provisions - what an evocative term! - that empower the investor to take more control of the company every time a milestone is missed. When Softbank took a cold look at their investments, and started weeding out the ones that were less likely to achieve a ten times return on investment, they withdrew their verbal promises - which had not yet gone to written contract - of bridge financing. We had revenues - IBM had contracted Electric Minds as the exclusive provider of virtual community services when they conducted the Kasparov versus Deep Blue II chess match. Although we had not started out with the intention of providing virtual community building services for other commercial enterprises, the need to ramp up revenues made it an attractive idea, and one that was not outside our original mission to encourage virtual communities on the Web.

When someone has two million dollars invested, in hopes of expanding it to twenty million, they tend to push hard in the direction of attractive revenue sources. I knew clearly what I wanted to accomplish when I started - launch a sustainable and high cultural enterprise on the Web, to show how content and community could work together to create a new hybrid medium, and to encourage the growth of many-to-many communication on the Web. But the gravitational attraction of a $20 million goal can draw the enterprise away from the course the founder originally envisioned. In order to continue paying for what many reviewers had acknowledged as high quality content and conversations, Electric Minds was on its way to growing from 14 employees to 30, with most of our revenues derived from contract work building virtual communities for others. Jerry Yang at Yahoo was enthused about us, and gave us permission to create an experiment in Web-form-based community building. We were in discussions with Ziff-Davis, IBM, and Softbank Expos.

When we ran out of operating capital and dissolved the business, I found myself not only relieved, but happy that I wouldn't be spending my time doing what I had promised to do for Ziff, IBM, and Softbank Expos. The Yahoo project still seemed like it could have been fun. But I never set out to create a virtual community-building agency and didn't want to spend my time running one. I never set out to make tens of millions of dollars - which probably contributed to our failure to thrive.

When I had the time to think about where I had gone wrong, it seemed clear to me, and still does, that if I had simply added inexpensive conferencing software and continued doing my amateur editing and design, I could have grown something less fancy but more sustainable, if not in financial terms. Venture capital, I concluded, might be a good way to ramp up a Netscape or a Yahoo or create a market for a kind of technology product that never existed before. But it isn't a healthy way to grow a social enterprise. It doesn't take too many people to sustain a small online community. Of course, many great conversations take place via mailing lists. But conferencing (BBS, message-board, newsgroup) media have their own unique capabilities; they are also a little more expensive to run than a list.

When we created the River, the idea was to create a cooperative corporation that would enable the people who made the conversation to also own and control the business that made the conversation possible. A couple hundred people each contributed a couple hundred dollars, agreed to pay $15 a month, and that turned out to be sufficient to buy a Pentium box and software licenses, and make a co-location deal with an Internet service provider. Technical and accounting services are voluntary. It works pretty well.

I have returned to spending my time the way I most enjoyed before my two years as an entrepreneur. I update my Web site regularly and communicate directly with my audience. I'm adding inexpensive Webconferencing software in a week or two, and I'm creating a small community to discuss the things that interest me - technology, the future, media, social change. It's a hobby - I carry the costs. It makes me much happier to run it.

Setting up the River as a coop had its problems. Running a coop, particularly among Americans, can result in perpetual and not altogether pleasant shareholders meetings. There's a lot of blah-blah-blah in making decisions democratically. People get angry and leave. But a sufficient number remained so that the River has survived for three years. The legal structure that enabled them to organize was a California cooperative corporation. The legal restrictions on cooperative corporations vary from country to country, state to state.

Increasingly, Webconferencing software is becoming more and more capable, and as several excellent products compete with each other, the prices are dropping. It's not very expensive to add many-to-many communications with a Web-based interface to any Web site. David Wooley maintains a list of the various Webconferencing products.

Now, just so I don't forget to look at the bigger picture, I definitely acknowledge that there are legitimate questions to pursue about whether spending time typing messages to strangers via computers is a healthy way for people and civilizations to spend their time. There is the perpetual and also legitimate debate about whether it debases the word "community" - and what is the word supposed to mean these days, anyway? - to use it to describe online conversations. All I can say is that many people might end up much happier by starting out to grow a small, unprofitable, sustainable Web-based cultural enterprise, than to invite the pressure-toward-hypergrowth that accompanies venture capital financing.

FM: I definitely see smaller private communities as the real future of extracting knowledge from the sea of information. Actually the sea is also a cesspool - a garbage dump along the information highway. It seems as though the more that information becomes available - the more we all need each other to sift through it for the gold nuggets. In a closely-knit and well-run virtual community, I feel like I have my back covered. I feel like I'd drown out there on my own.

Howard, what is the best possible future and use of virtual communities you can envision? Do you see many smaller virtual collectives adding to the quality of life of the members? Can VC's actually help make the world smaller by giving us a common ground on which to share and communicate with others - regardless of geographical location? Is this really a small world after all?

HR: I hope that the art of civil discourse will spread from places like Brainstorms. Access to the raw tools for many to many communication is not sufficient. You need to know how to use them. We would all be better off if the flamers, lamers, and spammers who destroyed so much of Usenet and many other virtual communities would sit in front of their keyboards.

FM: So, your experience has been that virtual community environments stand a better chance of providing fertile ground when allowed to grow organically over time in smaller barrels?

There is definitely an idea that seems to be in the air after some time - and we can now see an "experiment" such as the Well compared to the larger so-called communities like AOL. In this case, smaller appears to be better. Less is more. Would you agree, or am I comparing apples to orangutans?

HR: Yes, I think you are making a category error. There are plenty of communities within AOL. Building communities is not AOL's business, however, judging from their actions and not their words. Those communities within AOL thrive for the same reason that communities thrive within the WELL, because the members have a strong enough affinity, and put in the work, to keep them together.

FM: Howard, I'm thinking about the world of ideas. You've written about and have an interest in the subject of memetics. For those of us who are new to the world of memes, could you give us a general introduction - and perhaps steer us towards some further resources?

HR: My agent, John Brockman, runs an interesting forum called The Edge Foundation. You can find a lot of fascinating speculation from very solid scientists and scholars at Edge.Org. I also highly recommend the piece "The Evolution of Culture" by Daniel Dennett, who is the first person who has done some rigorous thinking about Richard Dawkins' notion of "meme," which seems to have been new-age-ized by less rigorous thinkers.

FM: What, in particular, do you find compelling about memetics?

HR: I am an interested skeptic. We need a richer vocabulary for talking about the way ideas propagate, but I'm suspicious of extending the biological evolutionary metaphor.

FM: Howard, with telecommuting becoming more possible every year, many people are working more from home offices. You had worked in your home for many years before building an office as an annex to your house. What advice could you give to telecommuters concerning work practices, discipline and organization? The idea of working from home is, I'm sure, attractive to many people - but making the time and space in which to work effectively may be a hurdle for some. Could you help us out here with any insights?

HR: You really need to be a peculiar kind of person to really enjoy working at home ALL the time, although I can see how beneficial it might be if, for example, one commuter out of ten worked at home one day a week. Discipline for me was easy: if I didn't sell enough writing, I couldn't pay the rent, and would have to take a temp job. So I got my daily writing and communicating done. My mind jumps all over the place, so I tend to keep my office files, desktop, bookshelves pretty orderly. Externalizing order so you can see at a glance what remains to be done and where your materials and references are is a great help. And do get away from your computer once every hour or so and do some stretching and yoga.

FM: Howard, in what order would you recommend reading your books?

HR: I'd start with Tools for Thought. Unless interested, you could skip Virtual Reality and go directly to The Virtual Community. Higher Creativity is still in print and They Have a Word for It will be reissued soon. Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind is out of print.

FM: Howard, with January 1, 2000 just around the corner, do you have any plans - and are you making any preparations? Any parting Rheingoldian words you may have for us?

HR: Traditionally, we have a New Year's Eve party, and this year will be no different. We have a color theme every year. People wear white or red or black or gold and bring food and drink in the theme color. This year, I want it to be camo and Judy and Mame want it to be pink, but they have agreed that guests should be required to bring some batteries. I will do some elementary Y2K prep - a week's worth of food, $1,000 cash, batteries, water purifier.

My main Y2K preparation is to provide my neighbors on all four sides, including the fire department across the street, with abundant produce for my garden, along with a neighborly note. ;-)

Don't worry, be happy!


Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

FM Interviews: Howard Rheingold
First Monday, volume 4, number 11 (November 1999),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_11/rheingold/index.html





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