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On The Net: Secrets of the Webmasters (part one) by James Patrick Kelly

social capital

 

In the eight (eight!) years that I have had the honor to be your web columnist, I have on many occasions experienced surprise and delight at sites I’ve discovered. But if I step back to look at the enterprise of bringing science fiction and fantasy to the web in the aggregate, what is particularly surprising is how often the best sites are the work a lone webmaster. Why do they do it? It certainly isn’t for the money—most websites cost their creators. And, while it may be for the fame, or as we say in skiffy, egoboo <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egoboo>, renown among the digerati is slow to come and hard to quantify. So what’s up?

One of the other hats I wear, when I’m not at my desk clicking links for Sheila and Brian, is that of Chairman of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts <http://www.nh.gov/nharts>. It’s an unpaid position; my fellow councilors and I advise and set policy for the paid staff of this tiny state agency. In my work for the Council, I come in contact with a lot of non-profit arts organizations: writers groups, theater companies, museums, orchestras, and the like. These organizations depend on what some sociologists call social capital <cpn.org/tools/dictionary/capital.html> “Social capital refers to those stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems.” Perhaps the best-known exposition of the concept is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community <bowlingalone.com> by Robert D. Putnam. In this book, Putnam documents the erosion of social capital: these days people volunteer less, socialize less, communicate less and most alarmingly, seem to care less about building communities. We certainly see this worrisome trend at the Arts Council.

But it is the peculiar characteristic of science fiction in general and fandom in particular that we are awash in social capital. Some may criticize us for being too argumentative and insular, but nobody in their right mind would say that we don’t care, that we don’t communicate, that we don’t socialize and that we don’t volunteer. There is incontrovertible evidence of this on the last pages of this very issue: The SF Convention Calendar <asimovs.com> compiled by Erwin S. Strauss <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erwin_Strauss>, aka “Filthy Pierre,” lists two-dozen volunteer-run conventions. Or check out the Asimov’s Forum <asimovs.com/aspnet_forum> or the Nightshades Book Discussion Area <nightshadebooks.com/cgi-bin/discus/discus.cgi> or SFF.Net’s newsgroups <webnews.sff.net>. Just be sure to wear your flame retardant suit! And then consider the Science Fiction Writers of America <sfwa.org>, which has almost two hundred volunteers serving on committees.

I would argue that science fiction and fantasy webmasters are also key contributors to the social capital of our genre, building and sustaining community online. But enough social theory! In the next two columns we’re going to take a peek behind the scenes of some of must-click websites. I wanted to use these columns to interview several of our most influential webmasters and ask them how and why they do it. So let’s get started.

 

 

the webmaster speaks

 

Locus Online <locusmag.com> is the creation of Mark. R. Kelly, who is, by the way, no relation. Mark says of himself, “I discovered SF via Star Trek and 2001, and then Asimov and Heinlein and Bradbury and Silverberg and the rest, and began buying Locus when it was mimeographed, from what was then a tiny one-room bookshop above a dry cleaner called A Change of Hobbit. I graduated UCLA with a B.A. in math, did graduate work in computer science at Cal State University Northridge, and got a job with a certain large aerospace corporation that I’ve held for twenty-four years now, working as a software engineer and process improvement specialist.” He has lived in England, the Midwest, and the California High Desert, but has spent the past several decades in the Los Angeles suburbs. Asimov’s readers will recall that Mark was the longtime short fiction reviewer for the print version of Locus. In 2002, he picked up the first ever Hugo given for a website for his Locus Online.

Mark started the site in April 1997. How did that come about? “The departments at my day job were encouraged to set up website pages for the company ‘intranet.’ I volunteered to spend company time learning html to do so. At that time Locus had purchased the ‘locusmag.com’ domain for e-mail purposes, but had no website. I volunteered to Charles Brown to set up a Locus webpage. In the first few months we settled on the selection of excerpts to post from each issue of the magazine, and I began experimenting with unique content for the website that would be in the spirit of the magazine while taking advantage of the web. Charles has been very generous in granting me wide reign in doing whatever I wanted to with the site, with very little interference or micromanaging, but with the understanding that the site shouldn’t undercut the subscriber basis for the magazine. Thus, when a trial period of posting sample reviews from the magazine didn’t work out, I started accepting independent reviews by others specially for the website, more often of films or graphic novels or slipstream books. Somewhat independently from all this, I had been compiling data on SF awards for years, and had talked with one major publisher about the idea of doing an awards book. When that didn’t work out, and considering the problems of issuing such an instantly-out-of-date reference work in print, the Locus website provided a venue for that material, even though it meant ‘giving it away for free.’“

 

 

locusmag.com

 

Currently Mark spends roughly two hours a day on Locus Online. He has no help in maintaining the site. Mark doesn’t use any website application software, preferring to edit html files in Wordpad and to use Paint Shop Pro to format and create graphics. He relies on Microsoft Access to compile information on books, magazines, awards, and author events. Over the years he has refined programming in those databases to semi-automatically generate webpages. Mark does get some content from Locus to promote upcoming issues and he regularly commissions special-to-the-website reviews and essays. Everything else on the site, the news bulletins, the new books and magazines pages, the posting of “blinks” and author events, he does himself. He uses Blogger to host his editorial blog, which is linked to the website.

According to the statistics kept by Mark’s hosting service, Locus Online gets between eight to ten thousand visits a day, depending on the day of the week, with traffic usually peaking on Mondays. Mark says , “I assume that Locus Online readers include the readership of Locus Magazine—the dedicated readers and professional writers and editors in the SF field, the ‘insiders’—and extends fairly far into the more casual readers and fans who don’t read the magazine or wouldn’t pay for a subscription. So I try to scale the website content to a more ‘average’ reader who’s probably not as expert or well-versed in the field as a reader of the magazine.”

When I asked Mark about the economics of Locus Online he was remarkably forthcoming. He says that excluding his own time, he spent about four thousand dollars on the website in 2005. On the income side of the ledger: “The site has three sources of revenue. Locus Publications pays me a fee each month to maintain Locus’ presence on the web, including the subscription form, the annual Locus poll form, and samples of current issues. I sell banner ad space, both directly to individual authors and publishers, and indirectly via an agency that provides randomly cycling banners for clients they solicit for my site. I link book titles to Amazon.com wherever possible, and purchases through those links pay me a few cents commission for each item. These three subtotals are roughly equal, monthly. Annually, the total revenue covers the expenses mentioned above, as well as what I spend on books and magazines and even a convention trip or two.”

In the future Mark plans to expand the awards index and to knit it together with the Locus Online site and William Contento’s Locus Index. According to Mark, “This would give more casual SF readers an entry point to discovering the field, understanding its scope and breadth, the writers to know and the classics to look for. I know what I want to do; doing it is just a matter of finding the time to do it. The great sacrifice I’ve made in doing the website, and developing these various expanded features, is that I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. Many, an embarrassing number of, prominent books in the past decade I know by reputation without actually having read them.”

So Mark, if you could make a living from Locus Online, would you quit your day job? He doesn’t hesitate. “In a moment.”

 

 

exit

 

I was struck by how much of what Mark Kelly does helps build the social capital of science fiction. For many, if not most of the professional writers I know, clicking Locus Online is a daily ritual. And when events happen that impact the entire field, like the controversial debut of the New York Times science fiction columnist or the untimely death of Octavia Butler or the latest award news, Locus Online is where our little community first gathers for links and letters. I use Mark’s awards index—which he gives away for free—regularly, not only in writing this column, but also to recommend stories, as he says, to give “more casual SF readers an entry point to discovering the field.”

In Part Two of this column, I’ll visit with some other talented webmasters and make more sweeping generalizations about the culture of science fiction. Meanwhile, let me exit on a geek note. You may have noticed a change in the way I point you toward the sites mentioned in this column. From now on, I’ll be leaving off the http://www wherever possible. You can almost always type what comes after http://www and have Explorer and Firefox pick up the link.

And getting rid of that unnecessary alphabet soup leaves more room for links!

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Copyright

"On The Net: Secrets of the Webmasters" by James Patrick Kelly, copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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