The conference is the result of collaboration between alumni and the college, for the time being hosted by the Utne Reader at its salon discussion site. John Sheehy '82 was the president and publisher of the magazine when its circuit of salons in various cities began moving online. At the same time, he was active on the Reed alumni board, which put him in touch with Howard Rheingold '68, a prominent cyberspace per-sonality and author of The Virtual Community. Sheehy had a good home for a Reed virtual community, and Rheingold--having quite literally "written the book" on the subject--had the skill needed to bring Reed's to life.
"Howard's sort of the ultimate cyber-bartender," Sheehy says. "He knows how to manage the community . . . and sort of let it create its own world, essentially with its own interests and its own passions." Reedies, of course, are no strangers to community, sometimes to the point of obsession. "The Reed virtual community," Rheingold says, "would not exist without the Reed face-to-face community. The center of the Reed experience is those four years on campus, where everyone is aligned to intellectual inquiry. . . . That experience is strong enough and valued enough and rare enough that Reedies, even decades later, find other Reedies interesting. So the online community really comes out of that matrix."
The result has been a wide-ranging set of discussions, populated by alumni with remarkably divergent backgrounds. By the end of August 1998, more than 400 alumni had logged in to hold forth on more than 60 different topics, ranging from discussions of pranks, (see inside back cover) the Doyle Owl, and Reed's oral history, to chats about cooking, gardening, and child-rearing, to serious discussions of theology and coping with grief. "Reedies tend to do interesting things after they leave school," Rheingold observes, "and that makes it very interesting, because you have a richer collection of perspectives than you did at college, when everyone's background was being a kid."
While the online salon is currently an engaging way for alumni to get together, it also suggests remarkable possibilities for the future, both for active students and the alumni they will become. "The vision I started with," Rheingold says, "was, 'let's start it for alumni, but let's think about extending the Reed experience beyond the four years we're on campus.'" So far, one prospective student has been lured to Reed from the discussion group, and recent grads have sought career advice from alumni in the group. "When Reedies have such loyalty to the institution, should we confine that experience to the four years you're on campus, and once every ten years when you go to a reunion?" He expresses an interest in enhancing the Alumni College experience, for example, by getting alumni together first online, then meeting each other on campus face-to-face.
The alumni relations office is hoping to acquire a separate server that will give added flexibility for alumni web pages and the ability to host online conferences at Reed. Until that time, new media dreams will have to remain just that. But if continuing growth and enthusiasm is any measure, the Reed experiment in virtual community appears to be a real success.
William Abernathy '88 is a freelance writer who lives in New York. This is his first article for Reed.