Travels in Cyberspace

Posted on September 29, 2011

I thought I might share my experiences with writing sites to begin with. The first I joined (for free) was called Urbis.com. I don’t know if you know it. It was created by a fellow called Steve Spargo (who actually got to the cover of Esquire Magazine) and run by he and his sister. It was New York based. He called it a `creative democracy’. It continued to develop over the number of years I was a member. It is no longer, which is a shame because it came closest to achieving a balance between writing and reviewing. The problem is as you stated it – reviewers are less populous on the ground, and good reviewers even more so. Urbis was based on an economy of `credits’  – reviews gain credits – you pay to open reviews with credits. Longer reviews attract more credits – so much per word following a minimum limit. Reviews for longer pieces gain more credits – a 2,000 word story or poem compared to a 5,000 word chapter segment – there was a sliding rate of three categories. In the beginning there was little attempt to encourage reviewers, though that is essentially the driver. A reviewer wants to be rewarded (or some do – all I wanted was good reviews of what I posted – which required credits). Of course, the problem then is – if it is going to cost you hundreds of credits to open a review, you want it to be a good one. A Quality Reviewer rating % algorithm was incorporated, so before you opened a review you could check out the reviewer, and previous reviews they had completed (copy and paste bandits beware). On opening the review you would rate the reviewer. If the review was unsatisfactory according to site guidelines to be constructive, not over quote, trivial etc – be polite etc, then you could apply for a refund on the review – Steve’s sister assessed this. The site had several useful tools, including three text analysis items. It was possible to analysis text for recurring words and phrases – they would be listed in order and number of occurrence. At first there was little advertising except for a Google Ad strip and line links to topics assumed associated with the text of your piece.  Premium paid membership was introduced after about three years – analysis tools and discounts on credits required to open reviews – storage more items. There were problems as any site experiences, and posting chapters as I was consumed a lot of time, as I would have to complete three reviews of smaller items to be able to open one of my own. It had forums, and groups and an internal message service (could copy and paste to). Another attractive feature was a java program running the home page which would scroll recent activity on the site i.e. Review completed By – Work Submitted etc Comment:

A group frustrated with the inability to use a comment feature such as in Word formed a group in Yahoo Groups and called themselves Urbis Whores. Members would post work to folders and reviews of those pieces. Then I came on Writers Cafe which although great looking, was just that a shop window. No one I came across was interested in doing a review and it was hard to get anyone to look at my work. I left them. I began to use Writing.com – they have a voluntary economy based upon Gift Points – which can be purchased. It also has a lot of useful information for the writer, as well as groups (including review groups). They have several mechanisms for requesting reviews. Then I came across Damian’s site Vicious Writers, which made steps to embrace other media besides the written.

I understand that this is the modern world, and social media sites have the lead, but to me a writing site should be about writing primarily. There are social media sites to post videos and pictures. Even Writing.com which might be considered staid or conservative in approach is full of distractions. Urbis had the intention of moving into that area before it disappeared, taking with it the over 600 reviews I did with it, and my reviewer rating built up over years – never mind the contacts with several friends through the site. So there is always that prospect.

I suppose the trouble is, people who have become successful, or good writers have no need to review and comment on others work (and as you know it is hard to be constructive, helpful and not get beat up by some over-sensitive precious soul).

The other use of a website is to store and display your writing i.e. it is not published yet there is a place where others can ready and enjoy your writing – some people have no desire for criticism.

I am also a member of the Autonomy website, which is a Harper Collins invention – an active slush pile. I have a novel posted there called Future Crime. The idea is to get your book onto as many members’ bookshelves as possible – the five books who are at the top for the month (The Editors Desk) are reviewed by Harper Collins editors. The problem is how to get your book on over 250+ bookshelves without constantly spamming ( a quirk the site allows), or by commenting on others works (various responses to helpful comments – they want to promote their book through comments (displayed below book info – not criticism – though there is a means to cherry-pick comments and move them to the top. So you have a pile of 5,000 odd wannabes with books in various stages of completion and quality scrambling over one another to get to the top, chiefly by means of begging, spamming or other devious means – fake users as supporters. Oh, they also have a Commenter Rating mechanism which the other day saw me drop from 73 to 6075 inexplicably, though through the forum I noted this has happened before – and it relates to the algorithm of books backed and time backed and rank etc. One of the book I backed dropped from position 3 to 4 – and somehow that was the cause for the decimation of my rating (the rating did help attract new members to ask for comment or back my book). After two years, my book rating has been up to 700 and now recently has plunged to 1174 or something. I am on 6 bookshelves.

Then I found Writers Harbor, and I am interested to see what develops. Good luck with your venture. May I wish you smooth sailing in cyberspace.

Last edited by Brian Armour on September 29, 2011, 5:49 am


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2 responses to Travels in Cyberspace

  1. Now that’s all interesting stuff. You raise a bunch of points, and mention many of the reefs and black waters I too have witnessed.

    1) Urbis.com and other sites that are no more.

    A lot of people got very upset when it disappeared. Running a website is nowhere near as easy as many people think. That initial enthusiasm gets a real testing when the going gets rough. There seems to be an endless supply of software gremlins. No sooner do you get one snag fixed, than the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head. Now that change has affected something else, in a manner we never expected. I’ve just gotten used to it. that’s why you will see under "News" items like "Software test for tweak #019". It’s a beta test, and we play around and see what won’t work. Then we fix it…  A lot of people get discouraged, and find the costs and time factors too distressing. I understand that. I get quite a kick out of solving problems, and I get a lot of help from a few members (I love you, Katie!). We’re going since January 2007, and my enthusiasm is as hot as ever.
    If you go to http://www.tunaboathelicopters.org (which is a cyberportal into Writers’ Harbor) you will discover that I have been very proactive in a helicopter safety program. I have never made a cent out of it, but I get grateful emails from pilots from all over the world, thanking me. Some have told me harrowing stories, where they avoided serious catastrophe because they recognized the deteriorating flight profile from my cautionary articles. And somehow, that is all a megga reward in itself. I can’t even imagine living without Writers’ Harbor. It’s an endless encouragement to me to think, dream, ponder. Heck, it’s fun. So in terms of life expectancy? It ain’t going anywhere if I can help it.  And truthfully, in terms of domain names and coding costs? Thousands of dollars. In terms of man hours? Thousands of man hours. It’s not something I would want to casually discard! So you don’t have to worry about Writers’ Harbor casually being shut down one day, because I’ve discovered horse riding or backgammon or something.

    2)  credits to earn the right to post.
    Yes, I’ve seen that. On "Writers in touch" (run by a very nice lady) you have to post three comments in order to win the right to post one story or poem. That is not as convoluted as Urbis.com (algorithms? Holy Cow) but still imposes a rule.
    I’m not inclined that way, but under the new "Family" software being developed, individual Family Moderators will be given a wide variety of tools to use as they see fit. If a family in the future requests that feature, I’m sure we can write it for that particular Family. The reason I personally would not make it mandatory right across Writers’ Harbor is that I think I would rather have as few rules as possible. If you want to just write and post, hey, just do so. I’d rather have genuine reviewers, sincere reviewers, than "forced" reviews.
    Yes, there is a shortage of reviewers. But the more you write and read in Cyberspace, I think you learn that behind every story is a real, thinking, feeling human being. Many have truly awesome stories to tell, but lack the technical skills to make it hum. But oh, what a story they have to tell! I just get a kick out of cheering people along. It’s just brilliant for me to get a message saying "thanks" for a helpful review.  So I’m happy to write and review. And there are others like me. A shortage of reviewers? Yes. But will you solve that problem by force of rules? I doubt it. But again, if a particular Family of Writers in the future wants such an arrangement, (applicable only within the confines of their own Family) then we can provide it, I’m sure.  

  2. "I understand that this is the modern world, and social media sites have the lead, but to me a writing site should be about writing primarily. There are social media sites to post videos and pictures. Even Writing.com which might be considered staid or conservative in approach is full of distractions."

    I tend to think "what’s the point of trying to out-Facebook Facebook?"

    And I agree the essence should be the writing, not the fancy bells and whistles.

    Having said that… a strong part in my thinking is to allow people freedom and the tools to do their own thing. If you try and have a few great self appointed website gurus calling all the shots, your development is going to be stymied to some considerable degree by the personal preferences and possibly narrow prejudices of those select few.
    I’d rather try and tap in on the creative ideas and energies of a great many people.  And allow people the tools to individually craft their own ideal surroundings.

    How-ever. Here you run smack-bang-whallop into yet another problem:  

    grandiose ideas,
    poor results,
    disappointment,
    burn-out….
    silence…
    extinction!

    I call it "the extinction effect"   (TEE)

    I had an interesting exchange of messages with Damian about this. We both agreed that this was a big problem. For instance, people starting up groups all over the place, joining groups, promoting groups… and the next thing, you have a vast collection of dead or dying groups. New members post to those groups, and, in Damian’s words, "wonder why they are being ignored".

    Trying to factor that in to our new software development, the WH approach is going to be very gradual. Yes, there will be the capability to have different "families" of writers. But it won’t be easy to start a new one. Yes, there will be sub-Family, smaller groups. Each Family can have different groups. But again, you can’t just automatically create yet another group. More on this later.

    I’m all for new software and technical development, but I’m also very sanguine about it. I don’t expect results overnight. Take, for example, the #1 interface.  (What you get when you click on any avatar)
    You get 4 control icons.
    "View all works" is the only one that requires no user input. It’s completely automatic.  
    The other three all require user input. Using the two "favorite" functions is dead easy (click top right hand corner on the command), and I use it a lot.
    It hasn’t caught on yet, which doesn’t surprise me, but it’s there, and people are free to use it or not.
    The fourth function (Story Guide) has a lot of capability, but requires a LOT of user input.

    Again, people can use it or not. One of the "tweaks" I want is where you can quickly see (before you click on any "favorites" icon) how many "favorites" are in fact listed there. If you see "0" you know not to bother, because that writer has not used that function yet. The same for the "Writer’s Guide", except it will probably be black-and-white (as opposed to color plus a red ACTIVE label) when there is no content there to view.

    So you see I’m realistic, and I don’t expect miracles overnight.  The default setting is that everybody is a member of the Main default Family, but as time goes by, everybody has the option to leave the Main Family (you can only belong to one Family) and apply to join any Family of their choice. A drop down box will show the agenda of that family, and the joining criteria (if applicable).

    Will it be used? Well, we’ll see. I’m hoping Vicious Writers will stay together, as a fairly well identified and creative group. It would be a shame to see yet another collection of creative souls drift apart, as is common in cyberspace.

    I’m not worried about the future of Writers’ Harbor. The waters are calm.
    I’m the dude in the deck chair on the beach, wearing ridiculous rainbow colored Bimini shorts, scribbling away, quite contentedly, and watching with great interest and curiosity to see what unfolds. I’m patient. In essence, I believe cyberspace is an exciting place, with a great potential for good.

    Later!  

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