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Medium Dawn Felagund of the Fountain

This Site Owner's Perspective on the Whole LotRFF Debacle

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

This Site Owner's Perspective on the Whole LotRFF Debacle

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can of worms
So I go away for a week--less than a week!--and our normally tranquil corner of the fandom Interwebz explodes with the news that the large and well-known Tolkien fanfic site LotR Fanfiction (lack of link intentional) has not only been sold but sold to an owner who hopes to turn a profit on the site by hopping onto the social media bandwagon. People are understandably distraught and pissed off. The site apparently went offline without notice; on one of the mailing lists to which I belong, a site mod reported that even the moderators were unaware of the change in ownership or that the site was being taken down temporarily while it changed hands. [personal profile] esteliel has written an excellent post that sleuths out some of the darker intentions behind this Keith Mander fellow's interest in LotRFF.

I've registered my distaste with fandom-for-profit before, but as several folks have pointed out, one of the skeevier aspects of the whole LotRFF ownership change is that the site was established and maintained for many years as a not-for-profit site, and authors chose to post their work there under those terms. There are certainly fanfic sites that include ads--fanfiction.net probably being the most prominent example--but those sites have always been run in that way, and authors choose to post their work there, or not, depending on their comfort level with the site owners collecting ad revenues to support the site's upkeep and possible profit. Even Fanlib, for all its ickiness, made clear at the get-go their intentions at making a profit from the site, and fans voted with their feet, and as a result, Fanlib went the way of the dodo.

Of course, this isn't an option for the writers who have archived their work on LotRFF and are no longer active in the fandom, for whatever reason, and whose work is now going to make a profit for an unsavory fandom outsider.

Nor does it help those who have made this site their home over the years, who have spent their time posting their work and reviewing the work of other writers, or who have volunteered their time trying to build a website into a community; those who now find that community something very different than what they worked to build. In talking to members of the SWG over the years, sometimes they tell me that the SWG is their online home. Home. I find that a very telling choice of words. Home doesn't mean that you like everything or everyone between your four virtual walls. But you go there knowing what to expect. I feel terrible for those who discovered, without warning and overnight, that they had lost their online home.

Of course, the new owner, Keith Mander, is trying to sell himself and the change as something good for the members of the site. Everything from his offer to "chat" with site users to his chummy-and-grammatically-incorrect "I'll post more information about the plans real soon" has all the big-toothed, greasy-smiled appeal of a used-car salesman who tosses an arm over the shoulders of the customers he's about to fleece. Reminds me of the slipperiness of the early communications with the Fanlib people (who, ironically, initially showed their darker intentions on LotRFF).

Naturally, I bring my perspective as a site owner myself to this whole thing. Firstly, I will say that I do understand the pressures--financial and emotional--of running a fandom archive. Because the SWG is a rather niche community, for me, this has always been less a financial issue than one of time and energy. (And my comods are amazing women who have helped to keep me and the SWG afloat these past few months of RL craziness.) Certainly, I can understand why sites like HASA with operating costs of several hundred dollars each month--many times more than what I pay for a year of hosting the SWG--ask for donations or even host ads on the site. Yes, there are honestly times when the easiest thing to do would be to give up the whole endeavor. So I do not know and do not mean to judge the LotRFF owner for her choice to hand over the reins to a new owner.

But a couple of things bug me. First is that, from all reports I've heard to this point, neither the current nor former owner are responding to requests to delete accounts. This is bad news. I've had very few requests for account deletions on the SWG over the years, but when I receive one, I do it immediately, no questions asked. It really is a basic issue of trust that a site owner respect an author's right not to have her name associated with a site she's no longer interested in supporting.

Secondly is that I've heard from at least one site moderator saying that she was as clueless as everyone else about the change. Again, bad news. A site owner, of course, gets the final say on what happens on her site, even if (like the SWG) she typically requires a majority of moderators to agree on something before it becomes official. But comoderators--people who have devoted dozens or even hundreds of hours to helping build a site and grow a community--provide perspective that the owner may not always have. I can say that input from my SWG comods has nixed ideas that wouldn't work, brought to life ideas I never would have thought of myself (the Season of Writing Dangerously is a perfect example of that!), and turned scattered sparks of inspiration into something actually workable. Good comods tell you when you have egg all over your face before you stand in front of your members and tell them that ... you've just sold the site out from under them? That the moderators seem to have not been involved in any way in this troubles me and bodes poorly for Mander's intentions of maintaining a fan-friendly community. (Especially since Mander is an outsider who would likely learn much from consulting site moderators.)

I find myself very grateful that my LotRFF account was one of the accounts lost when they had that data loss a few years back. I'm really sorry to all who find the equivalent of their fandom living room has been turned into a sleazy casino. The SWG and Many Paths to Tread remain an open door for any and all who are interested.

This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!

  • *applause!* and a great Amen!

    The one I find myself feeling the most sorry for is the site owner. She is going to find her name mud within much of the fandom, and I am quite sure that she was pressured and cajoled by Mr. Morder Mander. There is a reason that sleazy used car salesmen are so often successful-- they are experts on pushing people's buttons. She may have made some money off this, and shed herself of a financial burden, but she's lost the trust of many people, and it will not be easily regained if at all.

    But does Mr. M. care about that even a little lick? I don't think so.

    • I doubt he does either. I don't know Adora but I do feel for her; I can only imagine the amount of time a site of that size took to maintain. I know how much time I have put into the SWG over the years and the regret I sometimes feel that I can't have that time back, and it has primarily come from my own creative time.

      At the same time, I can't imagine pulling something like that on the members of the SWG. I have come to know and care about so many of them as friends; it would be a huge violation of the trust they have put in me and my archive. Perhaps on a bigger site, it felt less like an insult to individuals (as I contemplate making such a choice for the SWG, I feel queasy knowing how it will affect people personally), but I have trouble believing that. I don't know. I have quite a mixture of feelings about her decision. :^/
  • Sleaze I understand. Used car salesman is a good description. What I do not understand is not telling your mods that you're in the process of selling the site they work on. That just blows my mind.

    And I am beyond annoyed that while I can, and did, take down the handful of stories I had posted on the site, I cannot remove myself as a member.

    Edited at 2011-07-03 03:11 am (UTC)
  • Beyond not telling the mods (or at least I never heard squat about it. not heard from Adora in over a year which shows you how concerned she was about maintaining her site), there should have been a mass email to all members explaining about the change of ownership, so those no longer actively checking the site would know and have the option to remove their stories.

    Mr. Saru-Mander is now deleting accounts per the homepage, so I have officially resigned my position as moderator and asked my account to be deleted. To say I'm disgusted by how this whole thing has been handled would be putting it mildly. If only we had known she needed more funds... I'd have taken the site over and found a way to get the money! I've invested over four years in that site! :(

    *not a happy camper*
    • not heard from Adora in over a year which shows you how concerned she was about maintaining her site

      Well that explains some of what I was wrangling with in my comment to Dreamflower above. I guess with that kind of distance, it was maybe easier to see it as just a site without thinking of the individuals her choice would hurt. I was telling DF that when I contemplate making a similar choice for the SWG (which, for the record, I am most certainly never going to do--this is just a thought experiment!), I feel ill at the thought of imagining the reactions of people who have invested so much into the site.

      If only we had known she needed more funds...

      I somehow doubt that was really the issue. It can certainly be expensive to run a large site, but dang. There are so many options before reaching the point of selling the site! Sites like HASA ask for donations, sites like OSA host ads ... selling the site to a used car salesman seems rather drastic! I don't know Adora and can't begin to fathom her motives; the whole thing is just so hard for me to wrap my brain around.
  • I've deleted all my stories, even though I know they won't earn much from my story, but it's the principle of things.

    But FUCK! I forgot to save reviews. :(. Oh well, time to move on to original fiction, I guess.
    • Do you think the reviews might be up on the Wayback Machine? I know it hasn't archived stories for the SWG, but LotRFF was a much bigger site.

      I agree that it is the principle of the matter. What was done was a huge violation of trust, imo, and I wouldn't want to support a site that engages in that sort of thing.
  • Dawn, a practical question: does SWG/MPTT offer the ability to backdate new additions to the archive? So if I have a drabble written in 2005 that I want wherever my fic is posted but don't necessarily want people to think it's my current standard, can I post it to the website but have the website display an older posted date? That was a great help to me when I was first moving to AO3.

    On the larger issues: I do have my own thoughts on all this, but I'm keeping my nose clean on this one, at least in public. :-)
    • I am bumping in on this to say that yes, we as archive moderators can backdate (we have that listed in the TOS (it's under point four under the heading author etiquette) as an option when people post more than 10 stories at the same time), but we can only do that manually and directly in the database. I am not sure if there is a mod for this that can allow the writer to backdate it themselves, but I could look into that. If you'd like works backdated, drop us an e-mail at the moderator adress. :)
    • (no subject) - dawn_felagund - Expand
  • sometimes they tell me that the SWG is their online home. Home. I find that a very telling choice of words. Home doesn't mean that you like everything or everyone between your four virtual walls. But you go there knowing what to expect. I feel terrible for those who discovered, without warning and overnight, that they had lost their online home.

    Yes, LOTRFF was like that for me. The actual re-posting of in excess of 2 million words is time-consuming and grueling. I am not bothered if a site owner wants to put up ads to help maintain a site. I see ads on most sites I visit outside the fanfic community, and if I go onto FFN, I get an ad almost as soon as I enter. I don't post on FFN due to rating rules, and have no idea how they run the site or if they make some profit from the content of the authors who host their work there. That honestly bothers me less than the fact that if he's going to use something similar to Google Adsense, he probably will run into the problems of adult ads coming up on adult rated stories, and if he gets targeted for that, will no doubt take adult stories down, as other sites have, including FFN.

    In any event, I'm uploading everything to Faerie (Esteliel's archive) because I am thinking of people who read me: If they do not feel at ease reading on LOTRFF on principle, I owe it to them and their encouragement over the years to host the work somewhere else.

    Also Keith Mander is purely and simply a businessman. He does not know or care about the fandom, the stories we read and love to write. Having worked for young entrepreneurial businessmen, I know they can be quite charming, to keep their *employees* working hard, but sentimental they aint, (I don't expect them to be, to be honest.) and if he finds LOTRFF loses traffic and is not worth his while, he'll either ditch it or maybe change it into something very, very different.

    At any rate, once the site came back online, it was 'all over bar the shouting', so the only thing to do is what most of us have been doing, working hard on getting our stories onto other archives.

    Edited at 2011-07-03 07:37 am (UTC)
    • *hugs* You know, I'd read you anywhere and would send you reviews by e-mail at need. But yes, the problem with the taking down of adult material is the one thing that bothers me most, as much as the fear that the Tolkien Estate may tell Mr. Saru-Mander (I like NiRi's name for him) to stuff it, taking the site down quite efficiently at once.

      Dawn's image of a virtual home where you wish to know what to expect is a good one - of course, with the new social-media-mining happiness of some businessmen, this same thing may happen more and more. And off-fanfic-example in Real Life would be the recent selling of the Huffington Post, the famous US online news paper which relied mostly on the for-free blog contribution of the members and journalists posting there, to AOL for 135 million US Dollar.

      This is the problem with many of our communities, which are based on for-profit providers providing the web-spaces we post in: the forums at FFN, the blogs hosted by blogger (owned by Google), and so on. Even non-profit-sites like HASA are mostly run on hosting services that are run by companies who will demand money for their hosting service, and who will be subject to pressures of business. Live Journal is another service of that kind. I am glad that HASA is transparent about their hosting costs and donation balance, though, and also very glad that Estelliel provides an alternative archive, now - where I hope the former community from LOTRFF will rebuild itself, in time.

      Still, this whole debacle has served to kick me into contributing more to HASA...
    • (no subject) - dawn_felagund - Expand
  • Yyyyyyeeeeeeeeeaaaaah I'm real glad I never posted there.
  • (no subject) -
    • It's less an issue that there's no place for these writers to go. I mod/webmaster two websites that host stories based on the writings of JRR Tolkien, and there are many, many more. The one I own--the SWG--I started for the very reason that I was increasingly annoyed that I couldn't easily find the kinds of stories that I wanted to read on the sites that existed at the time. People have occasionally groused that they don't like this or that about a particular site, and my response is similar to yours: If I learned to set up and run a website, anyone can, so go forth and start your own! :)

      In this instance, it's more an issue of trust--or trust broken, perhaps. I don't know how familiar you are with the fandom subculture, but those who write so-called "fanfic" generally look very unkindly upon for-profit ventures with that work for a variety of reasons ethical and legal. Since our archives are generally run by fellow writers and fans, who are usually also friends, it's a violation of both a strongly held value (supposedly also held by the former owner of this site) about the importance of keeping our work not-for-profit and a violation of the trust of people who were colleagues and friends.

      Incidentally, esteliel has set up an alternative site for LotRFF refugees ... I wish her all the luck in the world! :)
  • The number 1 rule of the LotRFF archive was

    1.) This site is for personal, nonprofit use only. You will not attempt to reproduce, exploit, sell or otherwise infringe on the written words and identities of other members.

    - and that is still what it's saying on the page. Both Adora and Keith Mander are acting against their own TOS. ;)

    I have no legal knowledge, but I'm wondering, if Keith Mander changes the TOS to reflect that he will make money with the site (and thus, the stories archived on it), wouldn't he have to send a mail to each member and ask their permission? Because I definitely think that such a big change to the TOS needs to be done on an opt-in basis. Oh well, he probably won't, but my stories are gone from there now anyway.

    I wish him good luck with earning the thousands of dollars he plans to put into revamping the site. I think we all know that's not going to happen. ;)
    • I know that whenever we make even a small change to the site ToS on the SWG, we post about it in the newsletter and on the site sidebar. When we make major changes, we do contact the members who are affected, as when we changed how het and slash were labeled on the archive. It would certainly be courteous--I also can't comment on the legality--to contact those who would be affected by the change. But I think I've come to the conclusion that my idea of how to run a site and Mander's are quite different. ;)

      I wish him good luck with earning the thousands of dollars he plans to put into revamping the site.

      *snerk* I told my husband that I hope he does make that investment and loses every dime ...

      I'll be putting out the SWG newsletter soon. Do you want me to put something up about your new site? ETA ... And I don't know how familiar you are with eFiction, but if you run into any problems and we SWG-folk can be of any help, please give me a holler! :)

      Edited at 2011-07-03 07:51 pm (UTC)
  • With this happening, I all the more realise how lucky I am with working with two site owners (you Dawn and another archive). I replied to Keith (mostly) and Adora there from the perspective of a moderator. Not that both will think, go gee, she is right. I don't have that expectation.

    At the SWG, it has always been.. working besides one another, listening to the other and gaining different perspectives learning as we go along, even if we're as slow as ents. ;) That makes it a true labour of love, but the way the LOTRFF mods have been treated, I feel for them. Most of them have been around for so long and absolutely deserved better.

    So thank you Dawn :)
    • Not that both will think, go gee, she is right.

      Yeah, we're coming from a completely different perspective than Mander! (I still don't want to comment on Adora. I think I have this desire to imagine that people in our community always at least share somewhat our values.) I think we both think first of the people who use the site and who have invested so much in terms of time, energy, and creativity. Mander is thinking in terms of dollars and cents. A bunch of petulant moderators who won't nod along with everything he proposes like a bunch of bobblehead dolls probably aren't worth cultivating the favor of.

      Which I think is naive in the end. I think these "investors" in fandom have the mistaken idea that people just wander off the street one day and decide to start posting fanfic with no knowledge of communities and subcultures that have been around, in some fandoms, for decades. That might happen sometimes, but we both know the strength of fannish communities and how quickly word gets around ... and how damaging that word can be to the person or site who incurs the wrath of a majority of fans in a community. A for-profit site owner who actually did work to maintain a community to its users' expectations might actually find success.

      At the SWG, it has always been.. working besides one another, listening to the other and gaining different perspectives learning as we go along, even if we're as slow as ents. ;)

      Lol! That's a good (and apt!) analogy!

      The last people I want for comods is a bunch of bobbleheads. ;) What I love about our SWG comods is the different knowledge and insight and experience that each person brings. But then, I want the site to appeal to a variety of users, so that kind of diversity matters. If I was trying to squeeze it into a business model ... maybe not so much.
  • When I read that this guy said the he wants to "dominate new fandoms", my first thought was "What a jerk!" (actually a more florid insult in Spanish). He would be grotesque if he wasn't so insulting to people's work, intelligence and sense of community. I hope he loses every cent he puts into this and that the Tolkien Estate tear him to bits when they find out he is trying to make money out of fanfiction.
    • I'm glad you mentioned that. I found that word choice ... distasteful ... as well. Dominate is not a word you hear often in this community for how site owners and authors work together ... or how sites work together, for that matter. My philosophy has always been that we all do better when we all do better. Maybe I've been spending too much time by campfires singing "Kumbaya." ;)
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