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What Is SFF Net? - A Conversation with Jeffry Dwight
By Kurt Roth

Originally published in The Marketlist (#9) in 1997. Used by permission. Updated to reflect current information on 01 March 2002.

SFF Net is a rapidly growing on-line community of writers, editors, publishers, and readers--designed by Jeffry Dwight to support intelligent conversation on all manner of genre literature. With its powerful web, mail, news, ftp, and chat servers, it's the place to meet on the net.

KR: Jeffry, what inspired you to create SFF Net?

JD: I've always been interested in sysopping. Way back in 1985, I ran a dial-up BBS in Chicago, and I've been involved in several BBSes throughout the following dozen years. In 1990, I joined Genie and discovered the online SF community. I was a sysop on Genie for a couple of years and spent a lot of time in the SF areas. It was during this time that I made my first professional fiction sales and joined SFWA.

When I took Greyware Automation Products online in early 1995, it was in order to advertise and distribute Greyware's software and consulting services. So I set up a web server for Greyware, then realized there was plenty of bandwidth left over. Since I'd made it a habit to "pay forward" to the SF community, I told other pro writers that if they wanted a page, Greyware would give them one for free.

Rob Sawyer was the first to take me up on the offer. Within three months, hundreds of authors were making their virtual homes on Greyware. I started collecting links to other sites, and set up some web forms to allow people to add their own links in real time. I called this collection of links SFF Net (Science Fiction and Fantasy Network of Links). I also gave free pages to SFWA and HWA, and let the various SFRTs (Genie's Science Fiction Roundtable topics) put up pages, too.

Meanwhile, Greyware's products were selling well, but customers were complaining about the slow connections. Turns out the slow-down was because the authors' pages and SFF Net were becoming fairly big hits. Various pages won awards, which caused "flash crowds"--a condition that occurs when a hundred thousand (or several million) people descend on a site at the same time.

The freebie SFF Net stuff was killing Greyware, so I came up with a plan to separate them. I experimented with other ways to build an online community. For example, I set up private FTP sites, and put up an experimental private news server. Alan Rodgers and others tested out the news server in mid-1995. When the "the sky is falling" Genie scares started again--especially after the buyout--Alan Rodgers dropped me an email and asked me to put the news server back up.

I set up the news server again, this time throwing it open to the public, and made "author groups" that corresponded somewhat to the SFRT's author topics--the exception being that I only made groups for authors who had home pages on Greyware.

Nic Grabien, Jim Macdonald, and other officials of the SFRT were naturally concerned about the future of Genie's SFRT. I let them know they were welcome to set up a Genie-refugee spot on the Greyware news server. I even went ahead and registered a domain name (DM.NET, for Dueling Modems) for Nic, in case he wanted to bring the SFRT directly onto the Internet.

It seemed to me that Nic's need and my need coincided. He wanted to put the SFRT on the net, and I needed to divorce SFF Net from Greyware's resources. So Nic and I talked about starting up DM as an independent entity. Negotiations broke down eventually--during which time a lot of steam was lost for the site, and I put out a lot of money--and Nic and I decided to go our separate ways.

I brought out SFF Net as a separate company and began soliciting memberships. Jim Macdonald agreed to help out with running the place. Several hundred writers (we're now open to SFWA, HWA, NINC, RWA, etc.) have pages and newsgroups on SFF Net. We also have lots of paying members. Even without hobnobbing with the authors, a membership on SFF Net is a bargain for the various services provided.

That's the "what" of what happened--or at least part of it--but I just realized not much "why." Let's try these on for size:

Because I believe in and want to support the free exchange of information. Yeah, well, somewhat. I am a member of the ACLU and the EFF, and I'm a fairly strict First Amendmentist, but that's not why I started SFF Net.

Because I had nothing better to do? Nah.

Because I could.

This may be closer to the truth. After getting Greyware online, I found myself naturally drawn to Internet programming. All three of my non-fiction books this year (1997) have been about programming for the Internet. I learned a lot while setting up SFF Net, and still have a lot to learn. With each new service I provide for the members, I either have to master a new protocol or invent one. I enjoy the challenge.

KR: Clearly, you're "paying forward" in a big way. How important is it to you, and why?

JD: I first encountered the term "paying forward" in a Heinlein novel--I forget which one. I think it was presented as some sort of karma-balancing shtick, but it struck me as an eminently reasonable way to look at human interaction. One cannot pay forward any more than one can pay back--the ledgers are separate, and "balance" is amphigorous--but one may achieve a sense of satisfaction with his own behavior, and hope that another will benefit. I guess it's a cross between the golden rule and sharing the loot when you're flush, not because you want to share, but because you know you'll be bust someday, and want others to share with you then. A healthy psyche is one that simultaneously embraces the virtue of "paying forward" and the truth that "no good deed goes unpunished." The trick is to continue indulging the former no matter how many times the latter slaps you in the face.

KR: Sounds like quite an investment on your part. Is there a break-even financial plan in the works?

JD: SFF Net is like PBS, except that we don't interrupt your regular programming with regular whining about being broke. SFF Net is maintained by volunteer labor, private financing, and membership fees. As membership increases, we'll be able to add new services. We hope we can make SFF Net the kind of place people will pay to join.

KR: What services are available and what kind of traffic are they experiencing?

JD: In general, our services are available 24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year. Anyone with access to the Internet can reach us. (1997 details about specific servers and protocols deleted. Please see Membership Plans for current information.)

The content of the chat servers (and most of SFF Net) is 99% up to the members. In my opinion, my job is to provide services, not to prescribe how the services are used. I think it's great that several of the members have started up regular chat sessions. I'm all for anything that makes people feel "at home" on SFF Net.

KR: Can you describe the basic package?

JD: SFF Net is open to anyone with Internet access. SFF Net is a destination rather than an onramp. The term I use is "value-added provider." SFF Net provides dozens of services and content areas to the general public and its members.

I've always wanted SFF Net to be a place where like-minded people could gather, talk, exchange information, and generally feel "at home" on the Internet. I think we're on track for that goal, and I'm excited about the future.


About Kurt Roth

Kurt's articles have appeared in Speculations, Tangent, and The New York Review of Science Fiction among others. Watch for his short stories "Rift" and "Drawing Blood" forthcoming in Odyssey and "The Gest of Sir Brandiles" in Mike Ashley's THE CHRONICLES OF THE ROUND TABLE.

 

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