The Road to Schenectady — Part 3

Peachfront’s Note: This is part of a series Roger is writing on how writers get their ideas, based on his own experiences. Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 2. Today he’s going to talk about the role of community, especially the kuro5hin.org community, and how it encouraged him to create.

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So far I’ve written mostly about the things I wrote for myself which happened to find a public audience because the site kuro5hin.org existed where they could be published, if not for money, then with an expectation of a wide audience if they survived the very democratic upvoting process.

Rusty Foster also published The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect on his servers outside of the usual kuro5hin voting process in response to strong community support for the idea. There was a period of time around 2002 when Rusty openly mused about having a “stable of writers” he would support outside of traditional publishing venues. There were at the time dozens of frequent kuro5hin contributors who might have been candidates for such a venture.

Of course, it was not to be.

What I have not written about much are the things I wrote only because kuro5hin existed as a likely outlet. All of the Passages stories except the first, The Happiness Broker and its sequel, the popular Plant essays and even the series that forged my reputation on kuro5hin, A Casino Odyssey were all written because kuro5hin existed.

I suppose it’s easy to say that makes me an egomaniac who only cares about being fluffed but from my end of the telescope it seems a lot more complicated.

Some of my stuff got a pretty hostile reception, like my libertarian-bashing sendup of Yet Another Effort and my musings on astrology and mysticism, but still I wrote up the next idea that seemed worthy.

I only stopped when one of the trolls created a votebot to make it impossible for even a popular and anticipated story to be legitimately voted up, denying me access to the front page.

I find writing easy but it’s still an extra effort to take a cool internal vision and turn it into something that holds up for another person who might not share my background or interests. So if it wasn’t to fluff my ego, why did I write for K5?

As with the very different compulsion to write MOPI I’m honestly not sure. It’s as if some ideas have a life of their own and aren’t content with living inside of my head. But like people they differ in their level of drive; MOPI wanted out no matter what but The Fifth Gift would have been content to stay a personal fantasy if I hadn’t been asked to write something “positive about transhumanism.”

I suspect I’m not the only one like this. Kuro5hin and its Scoop-based progeny seem to have brought a lot of people like me out of the woodwork.

Rusty Foster created kuro5hin.org and its software engine Scoop as a reaction to the unpleasantness of what was then the most popular tech blog on the Internet, Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda’s slashdot.org. The slashdot story submission process was believed to favor clique members and the not very well community-moderated comments were a cesspool of trolling and linkbait.

Scoop was Rusty’s answer to this situation; kuro5hin went live in late December 1999 and managed to draw off a healthy following of Slashdot refugees, eventually including myself. I made my grand entrance with A Casino Odyssey in July 2001.

In June 2002 Rusty launched a fundraiser which brought in over $37,000, and for awhile there was talk of expanding kuro5hin’s scope to create a nonprofit foundation to explore the possibilities of community edited media. It was in the wake of this that I published Passages and then MOPI there. But the foundation was never quite able to get its footing, kuro5hin stayed pretty much the same, and there was a sharp dropoff in story queue submissions after 2003.

Of course, kuro5hin was not the biggest success of Rusty Foster’s Scoop software, and his other successes probably helped doom kuro5hin by drawing his attention away from it. In October 2003 Markos Moulitsas decided to move his DailyKos blog from Movable Type to Scoop.

“Kos” didn’t enable the story voting feature that had attracted me to kuro5hin, but he did leave in place — while openly wondering if it would serve any useful purpose — the Scoop “diary” feature that allowed users to post unmoderated stories that appeared on a sidebar.

The diary feature turned out to be wildly popular, with many vibrant sub-communities forming around popular writers and meeting in the comment sections of their diaries. DailyKos went from being the most popular Democratic political blog to being the “largest progressive community blog in the United States” with an estimated 2.5 million unique viewers a month.

Other Democratic politicians took note, and when I made my way to Maine and met Rusty in person in 2008 his main source of income turned out to be consulting on Scoop blogs for Democratic political candidates. This involved a lot of travel and apparently not much time for administering kuro5hin.

Some writers whose stars like mine had flared on kuro5hin now migrated to a scoop site set up by k5 member “Hulver.” But HUSI never attracted the wide readership or incredibly high Google pagerank that kuro5hin had enjoyed.

(Amazingly, kuro5hin has incredibly high pagerank even today despite being little more than a hollow shell of its former self for more than half a decade, a phenomenon nobody seems to be able to explain.)

Others migrated to sites like Everything2 or Wikipedia, or just dropped off the face of the Internet as far as anyone could tell.

Sam “zenofchai” Montgomery-Blinn started a science fiction magazine, Bull Spec, which bought the reprint rights to publish my story Mortal Passage in print form.

In my own Internet travels I have never found a home comparable to kuro5hin that inspired that urge to write down and refine what might otherwise have been idle fantasies. I have noticed that being a popular writer on a big site like DailyKos is pretty much a full-time job, one I don’t have time for since I have a real full-time job.

Places with low barriers to entry also tend to have low readership and participation. The new trend toward “social media” like Facebook has filled the Inter-ether with hucksters intent on gaming the search engines and ranking algorithms, a game that interests me not at all.

While I wrote a lot of stuff because kuro5hin existed as a place to put it, in a sense I still wrote it all for myself.

If I wanted to game a system, I would have made a very different decision in 1994 when I cranked up Bank Street Writer and asked myself how I wanted to record the vision with which I’d awakened of a depraved future where immortality was creating a new and profound type of insanity. Should I write it for the editors, I wondered, bowdlerizing and over-explaining it to make it publishable, or write it as my heart wanted to in all its terrible splendor?

I wrote that first chapter of MOPI, and everything since, the way I would have wanted to read it myself. The fact that others have liked any of it has been nice. In some cases some of the criticism has given me pause to think and humbled me a bit. But it would not be a localroger joint if I dolled it up to make it look profitable for the suits or jacked it with buzzwords and shout-outs to enhance its SEO.

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