updated 8/18/2005 9:11:44 PM ET 2005-08-19T01:11:44

The Well, an eclectic online community whose profits have never quite measured up to its pioneering influence, is being put on the sales block by its current owner, long-struggling Web publisher Salon Media Group Inc.

"We have really ambitious goals with Salon and didn't want to dilute our efforts by trying to support two different brands," said Elizabeth Hambrecht, Salon's chief executive officer.

Salon plans to take its time to ensure the new owner is a good fit for The Well's main asset —its community of roughly 4,000 members. There were about 6,000 members when San Francisco-based Salon bought the Well for $5 million in stock 6 1/2 years ago.

Although its audience has shrunk since its heyday in the early 1990s, the Well still looms large in Silicon Valley because of its place in online lore.

The service started in 1985 as a quasi-social experiment by Steward Brand, the founder of the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog, and Larry Brillant, an entrepreneur trying to popularize the concept of computer conferencing systems. They called it the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, or Well.

Starting with just a few hundred people connecting over clunky telephone modems, the Well turned into a bustling online hub as high-tech geeks, iconoclasts, hippies, artists and journalists began to exchange ideas and share intimate details of their personal lives.

The emotional and intellectual bonds formed over the Well's electronic connections inspired one early participant, Howard Rheingold, to coin the phrase, "virtual community."

Despite its impact, the Well has never been a big moneymaker. It currently generates $500,000 in annual revenue and is "marginally profitable," Hambrecht said.

Salon has lost money through most of its 10-year history.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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