'Thank a hippie' for online communities, ex-Gaskin's Farm member tells Easthampton 'Nerd Night' audience

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Entrepreneur Craig Issod, a former member of Gaskin's Farm, says today's online communities owe a debt of gratitude to the hippie communes of the 60s and 70s. (Mary Serreze Photo)

EASTHAMPTON — Today's virtual communities had their roots in the hippie communes of the 1960s and '70s.

That's according to Southampton resident Craig Issod, an entrepreneur and former member of the legendary Tennessee commune known as "The Farm," founded in 1971 by Stephen Gaskin, who died July 1. Issod addressed a crowd of about 130 at the Eastworks Building Monday night as part of the phenomenon known as "Nerd Night."

Nerd Nights occur monthly around the globe, and feature "fun yet informative presentations." A Northampton-area chapter was founded in October. Monday's crowd sipped beer and wine, nibbled on take-out food, and gave two speakers their rapt attention.

Issod's talk was entitled "Communes, Communications, and Community — How the Counterculture and Commune movements of the early 1970′s influenced the internet age, computers, social media and other aspects of life in the 21st century."

Issod chronicled the enthusiastic and early adoption of technology at The Farm, saying the group was on the cutting edge of electronic communications and online community formation.

The Farm was interested in outreach, said Issod, so formed a printing and publishing business early on. In the '80s, book publishing moved to computers, which were networked using AppleTalk, but still not connected to the outside world.

Members built ham radio stations and deployed CB radios, both used when the Farm started a non-profit called Plenty International, which helped rebuild parts of Guatemala after the earthquake of 1976.

Issod noted that several ex-members of The Farm were instrumental in establishing The WELL, an influential early online community based out of San Francisco and associated with Stuart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog.

"Matthew McClure, Cliff Figallo, and John Coate started The WELL along with Stuart Brand and Larry Brilliant," said Issod. "It was an early social network, and they learned a lot about virtual community."

Issod said the rules for living in a real community — such as an expectation of civility — translate well to rules for a productive online community.

He said Facebook does not provide a good platform for substantive discussion, and that he still prefers durable, old-fashioned moderated forums with well-organized threads, similar to those pioneered by CompuServe and AOL in the '80s and '90s.

"That way the information is archived, and available to the next person. With Facebook, it's here and then it's gone."

Issod said he first connected to the Internet in 1994, and since then has built and managed dozens of websites.

"I ended up being good at this because of my experience on the farm," said Issod. "Communes require rules and agreements. We learned how to work together to get things done."

Issod said today's users of social media should "Thank a Hippie" for their experience.

Voice-over professional Mo Lotman opened the evening with a discussion of his experience doing voice work for commercials, video games, e-learning and corporate communications over the last 20 years.

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