John Coate I had the great fortune to have coffee with someone I really admire this morning: John Coate.

If you are into the 'Community' discussion at all and you haven't heard his name, you are really missing out. I came across John's canonical essay, Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community, originally written in 1992 and revised in 1998, while I was at Riya, but somehow lost the bookmark until just recently. Lucky that, though, because when I re-found it and re-bookmarked it with Ma.gnolia, my friend Marnie Webb noticed I had bookmarked the non-updated version and also indicated that she knows John, who now works with her as the Director of Techsoup. Even before I had the chance to ask her for an introduction, John, himself, dropped me an email tell me that he enjoys my blog and suggested we meet sometime. (to which I jumped up and down yelling OMG OMG OMG)

We finally got to have that meeting this morning.

I was a little nervous that we would talk and I would say ridiculously inane things. I mean, the guy built the community behind THE WELL, which launched the EFF, co-founded the SFGate and was on the original advisory board for Techsoup. However, having a conversation with John was like catching up with an old friend. I found our ideas flowing back and forth easily and we had many laughs exchanging crazy stories about virtual communities.

At one point, John said to me, "Tara, we are in the relationship business, there is no rushing here." which made me want to stand on my chair and yell, Hallelujah!. He hadn't even read my recent entry on Trained Seals. After 20 years of experience in virtual communities, John has seen it all and will tell you that there have been no two experiences that are the same. He acknowledges that his Innkeeping essay was full of 'tips' but said, "There are no guarantees. I just advise people to get involved and see what happens."

Hearing John talk about his beginnings at The Well was my personal highlight [and I am paraphrasing here from rough notes]:

I don't know how much you know about my personal history, but when I was hired at The Well as the Marketing Director [he pauses and kind of laughs], my previous work experience was that I was an auto mechanic. I was, basically, hired because we were both part of the same commune and they recognized my ability to build relationships with people. When we started out, there was no marketing budget, so our "plan" was to build something meaningful for people. On the commune, it was not only about what we said to one another, it was how you said it. How you made people feel. As The Well grew, I was floored to see that this same goodwill could happen via this machine. That it could be recreated virtually.

In reflection of 'new marketing':

The first time I heard the word 'viral marketing', I asked, "what's that?" When it was explained to me, I replied, "Oh yeah, we did that. That's all there was, really. This is what the web was built on...people forming groups around ideas."

Throughout the conversation, he expressed his concerns about the current landscape of 'Community Marketing':

Self-forming groups is where it's at. These are communities. You can't 'make' a community. In the early web days, the page metaphor was a trap. Companies had it all wrong wanting to drive 'eyeballs'. Now everyone wants their own social network and a community on their own site.

Remember that I'm terribly paraphrasing here, but I think I've caught the essence, at least. The hour and a half we sat there seemed like 5 minutes and both of us had to run off, but John agreed to continue talking in various different forms. I'm hoping he'll be part of the upcoming community roundtables I'm planning as well as even coming to Citizen Space to tell his story...I'm also dying to hear more about his 13 years of commune living.

Definitely check out John's work and stop in at The Well (which was around before web browsers). You'll definitely hear more from him if I have my way. ;)