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Killed By the Cloud

Mitch Wagner

This morning I did not do something I've done nearly every morning for the past 20 years: Log in to a little online community called SFF.net to kibitz a bit with my pals there. The reason: SFF.net is gone. Killed by the cloud.

SFF.net was originally founded as a haven for science fiction and fantasy fans -- hence the acronym -- but it branched out into a community that shared a common interest in... well, each other. For 20 years, the members of SFF.net have talked and argued and supported each other, sometimes financially, and done the things that online communities do.

SFF.net was run by a couple of guys named Jeffry Dwight and Steve Ratzlaff and, for a few years, a man named James Macdonald who writes science fiction and fantasy in collaboration with his wife, Debra Doyle. The last I checked, Dwight and Ratzlaff were in the Dallas, Texas, area; Macdonald and his family lived in rural New Hampshire ("as far north as you can go without speaking French," he says). They were running sff.net out of a server in Dwight's garage, as a passion project adjunct to Greyware Automation Products, a networking business.

I'm a little bit vague on specifics here. That's the nature of online friendships. I've never met Dwight and Ratzlaff, though I'd like to. I have gotten together with Macdonald and Doyle a few times when I lived in Boston.

What killed sff.net? The cloud.

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More precisely, "the economics of hosting services favor large providers over small communities," according to a memorial page for sff.net by Dwight and Ratzlaff.

Free hosting, free email, and social media (all supported by advertisements) came along, and large providers took over the remainder of the business by offering low-cost sites with tools for designing and maintaining websites without understanding HTML. Google was only a year old when SFF Net started. Social media sites, such as Facebook, founded in 2004, have mostly replaced the traditional "bulletin board" sites.

SFF.net was founded in 1997, but its roots go back longer. It was a spinoff of an online service called GEnie, founded in 1985, which ran on GE's mainframes. When rumors began in the 90s that GE was going to shut down GEnie, SFF.net launched as a kind of lifeboat. GEnie eventually did die, on December 31, 1999. It was an indirect victim of the Y2K bug; then-owners IDT, a telecom company, didn't bother updating the software for the new millennium.

So that's 32 years of online history hitting a big milestone today.

When I started doing online communities with GEnie, that was a very unusual activity that I couldn't even explain to my real-life friends. Now, everybody does it -- on Facebook, Twitter and myriad smaller cloud communities. When I started with online communities, sometimes somebody would say something that got me angry for hours afterwards; my wife would be baffled. "Why do you care about somebody you haven't even met?" she'd wonder. Now, these same kinds of feuds happen on Twitter and Facebook and they're front-page news on The New York Times. The President of the United States spends his time with them.

I'm a little bit sad about sff.net shutting down, but not a lot. Much of the population of sff.net had already dwindled before this year. Many went to Facebook, of course, and I keep in touch with them there. I made some real friends on GEnie and sff.net -- by now we've been friends a long time -- and we see each other occasionally in real life, when we're in the same cities. There is one particular friend I'm a little concerned with losing touch with, but he's already set up a spinoff of SFF.net -- a spinoff of a spinoff -- using an open source BBS discussion system on a private cloud server.

Like a character in the book "Dune" says: "Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place." A friend shared that quote in the final hours of SFF.net.

— Mitch Wagner Follow me on Twitter Visit my LinkedIn profile Visit my blog Friend me on Facebook Editor, Enterprise Cloud News

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