If you’ve followed my blog for while, you’ll know that I’ve been fairly interested in the history of web serials. Recently, I got the chance to talk to someone who’s been writing since the very early days of web fiction. Eric Burns-White has been posting stories on the internet since the 1980’s. Here are some of his thoughts on the early days of web serials.
T4nky: Hi! I’ve been planning on doing an article on the Usenet days of web serials and were told you were the guy to talk to. Is it ok if I ask you a few questions?
Eric Burns-White: Sure! Depending on your definition of web serials, of course. 🙂
T4nky: My definition, for all intents and purposes would be the
@webfictionguide def. However, my first question is about Usnet. I know that Usenet was basically the internet pre-internet. How did it work? Did you access it via dial-up?
EBW: Well, it wasn’t the internet pre-internet — it ran on the internet. The internet dates back decades. It’s closer to say it was the web before the web, but even that’s a bit off. Generally, one accessed it via a college account (or rarely work or private) via dialup or in-lab. Well, it wasn’t the internet pre-internet — it ran on the internet. The internet dates back decades. That was then supplanted by NICBBS, which used the same technology, and that was supplanted by Listservs.
T4nky: How was it divided up? Were there various “web sites?” When you finally started posting your stories, where did you put them on Usenet?
EBW: As for “sites” — there weren’t so much sites as there were lists that various people maintained. Honestly, wherever people communicate with each other in any fashion, someone uses it to tell stories. I made two of my biggest moves (to Upstate, NY and to Seattle) to move in with Superguy writers but I posted my last novella-length Superguy piece in 2009.
People could then use e-mail based commands to request archives and lists of the archives on these services. Those lists would give instructions on subscribing or finding the archives for stories and the like. In effect, everything was word of mouth. Search technology was far less ubiquitous or user-friendly. Usenet, on the other hand, was based on a protocol called NNTP. Posts distributed to local repositories.
Now, I’ve done a lot of things online, but in the period you’re talking about I wrote for two lists. (This would have been 1986-87ish through the 90’s, for the record.) One was called SFStory, and it was officially a round-robin collaborative story. One person would write a post, the next person would pick the story up, and so on. I say “officially” because in practice we ended up adopting characters and plots & keeping clear of others. We would respond to *events* in other peoples’ stories in our own, giving a sense of unity.
The other list was called Superguy — a superhero universe — which followed a more traditional shared universe setup.We had our own stories under our own titles, but loosely coordinated and borrowed. Superguy’s better explained at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superguy. (Coincidentially, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was also an early Superguy writer.) Over time, of course, we adapted to different methods.
For a while the stories were available via Gopher. A good number of Superguy writers later on reposted their stories to (here it is) Usenet. Usenet *did* have their own story groups of course (most notably the Legion of Net.Heroes and its ilk). One other note — it’s easy to make all this sound like ancient history
T4nky: I’ve noticed you made the transition to the world wide web at some point. When did you do this and why?
EBW:It’s nothing so formal. As new technologies emerged, writers went with them. It’s still happening now.
T4nky: Could I have a link to this list?
EBW: The wikipedia article I linked has links to Superguy. I’ll also mention — though I wasn’t involved with it — Dargon: http://dargonzine.org/