When the Town Square Shatters

Once again, science fiction fandom shows us how to use the internet.

Cory Doctorow
6 min readJul 23, 2023
An undated early flier for GEnie’s Science Fiction Round Table.

When it comes to the social internet, chances are that science fiction fans got there first. The first non-technical discussion forums on the internet — ancient mailing lists — were devoted to sf. The original high-traffic non-technical Usenet groups? Also sftnal. (This isn’t always something to be proud of — long before Donald Trump’s dank meme army, before Gamergate, sf’s “Rabid Puppies” and “Sad Puppies” were figuring out how to combine pop culture, the internet and far-right conspiratorialism into a vicious harassment machine).

Sf’s mix of technophilia, subculture, and its long tradition of gluing together a distributed community with written materials made it a natural for digital, networked communications.

Long before Twitter created — and then destroyed — a single, unified conversation that linked practitioners with the people who normally lived far downstream of their work, science fiction had created a single, unified “town square.”

And decades before a mediocre billionaire uncaringly smashed that unified conversation into a million flinders, sf fans and writers were living through their own Anatevka moment.

Twitter users bemoaning the end of the “unified conversation,” I am here from your future to tell you what happens next.

In 1985, engineers at General Electric realized that they had a vastly underutilized, incredibly expensive resource and resolved to find a way to press it into service and grab a piece of the future in the bargain.

That resource was GEIS, the General Electric Information Service, a commercial, time-sharing mainframe network that GE marketed to its blue-chip clients as a turnkey way to coordinate inter-office memos and data-sharing between branch offices.

GEIS combined multi-million-dollar computers with modem-banks that could be reached via local dialup from most of the USA. In other words, it looked a lot like Compuserve, AOL, or other online services — but GEIS was much older than either. Built for intracompany business, GEIS nevertheless ended up hosting an ever-growing, stubbornly unkillable quantity of conversational socializing. Once you connect people, they will connect with each other.

After ignoring this for years, GE decided to lean into it, and GEnie (the General Electric Network for Information Exchange) was born.

You see, while GEIS was quite busy during the day, it was almost entirely dormant bet ween 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., when the corporate employees who used it went home (this was back in those golden years when no one expected you to remain tethered to your company’s IT infrastructure after you clocked out).

GEnie aimed to absorb those idle cycles and fill those empty leased lines. For a flat monthly fee, GEnie subscribers could dial into a special subsection of GEIS designed for socializing — but only between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. If you stayed online after the sun rose, you got hit with a $20/hour dial-in fee.

GEnie was divided into “roundtables” (RTs), each devoted to a different subject: politics, Disney, sports, pets — and, of course, science fiction.

The SFRT (Science Fiction Round Table) was the first and last universal town square English-language science fiction ever had.

This was made possible by a stroke of genius (or accident of history): every paid-up member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA, now the “Science Fiction Writers Association”) got a free membership to SFRT, with unlimited time, including in that 8 a.m.-6 p.m. slot.

Before long, every sf and fantasy (and horror!) writer with a modem in the USA and Canada (and elsewhere) was dialing up to the SFRT and carrying on a kind of infinitely large consuite dream blunt-rotation. Wanna see Damon Knight trading quips with George RR Martin, only to be interrupted by Neil Gaiman tag teaming with Kristine Kathryn Rusch? That happened like every day.

It was amazing. I saw an ad for GEnie in the pages of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine around 1986 and immediately signed up — I’d been playing on local BBSes since we got our first modem in 1981 when I was ten, but this was something else altogether.

As a 16 year old baby writer, putting stories in the mail and collecting form rejections, I found myself in a thriving, accepting community whose members included virtually every living writer I idolized. Many of them became friends. Many of them became lifelong friends.

When I was accepted into the Clarion writing workshop in 1992 and realized I couldn’t afford it, some of the greatest writers in the field mailed me $10 and $15 checks to help pay my tuition. One of those checks came from Patrick Nielsen Hayden. A decade later, Patrick — then the senior editor at Tor Books, the largest sf publisher in the world — bought my first novel. He’s bought every novel since.

I wasn’t the only fan or aspiring writer to join that endless consuite. It was huge. It was vibrant.

It was amazing.

And then, it died.

Partly, that was because of the internet. Of course.

The internet came along. It was bigger. It was better. Once web browsers entered the picture, it was easier to use. GEnie was text-only, accessed via a terminal program that used arcane text commands that were easier to use than, say, a text-based Usenet reader, but still too much for many. When GE finally released its first graphic interface, it was slow, buggy and crude.

But mostly, it the GEnie died because GE didn’t give a shit about GEnie. These were the Jack Welch years, when the company was getting out of the “doing things” business and converting itself into a doomed, cockamamie finance scam.

A mediocre, ultrawealthy sociopath found himself in charge of a once-in-history, all-encompassing town square, and he destroyed it, without even noticing.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the bad news: there never was another universal town square for science fiction. The community splintered across many different platforms. While that was a real loss, it wasn’t an unmitigated loss. Those communities incubated all kinds of writers and readers who found the SFRT inhospitable or overwhelming.

But the other reason the community never recohered is that we kept trusting other businesses to own those communities, and they kept betraying our trust. Prodigy wanted us to “stop talking to each other and start buying things.” Livejournal purged its queers.

The most successful successor to GEnie SFRT is Archive of Our Own (AO3), a freewheeling, welcoming, volunteer-run, nonprofit fanfic site with a gaggle of pro-bono lawyers and a deep bench of community specialists and technologists.

As the post-Twitter world splinters onto many, many platforms (incredibly, some of the people leaving Twitter are trying to establish themselves on a rival owned by an even more vicious, self-regarding, deluded billionaire), the most AO3-like alternative is the Fediverse, designed to thwart the capture of communities by ensuring that users can hop between servers, or set up their own, without losing their relationships.

AO3 is living in the Fediverse’s future. It’s got everything, from disgruntled ex-community members seeking to destroy it, to heavily resourced cyberattacks.

As we think about what we’re going to do now that the town square has been shattered and will never re-form, we should be looking to AO3 and fandom to see what’s coming next, and what will and won’t succeed.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Red Team Blues. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation, a detailed policy plan for dismantling Big Tech (Verso, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).