When I was writing my series about “Paleo E-Books”, one of the sites I mentioned was Shifti.org, the wiki successor to the defunct Transfomation Stories Archive. In the course of writing about it, I came to read some of the stories there—and found I enjoyed them enough to contribute a few myself.
While independent e-publishing sites such as Smashwords or unfiltered document hosts such as Scribd are what generally come to mind when you think of independent e-publishing, smaller themed fiction sites such as Shifti represent another way—one which does not tend to get as much media coverage.
As you might guess, Shifti.org hosts mainly stories that involve some form of transformation taking place. It lists 722 pages in the “Story” category at the time of this writing.
Some of these stories center around transformation as fetish (as Hazelton says below, “Rule 34” applies), but most of them simply use it as a metaphor for exploring what it is like to be different. (Or, for that matter, exploring what it would be like to be turned into a furry animal.)
I interviewed Shifti’s technical administrator, Daniel “ShadowWolf” Hazelton, through Google Wave about how the site works, the stories that are hosted there, and whether sites such as Shifti might represent the future of fiction on the Internet.
Here is what he had to say.
Whose idea was Shifti.org? Where did the idea come from?
Originally Shifti lived on menagerie.tf and was BD’s idea. When the administrators and owners of menagerie moved to their current residence the site died. Moved forward a couple of years and people on the TSA-Talk mailing list started really complaining about how the "Transformation Story Archive" had not updated in ages. Rather than just join in on the bitching, I took the cues from BD and installed the MediaWiki code-base, then handed BD the keys for all the configuration. You can find more in-depth bits on Shifti itself – the history of the site is documented there.
The Transformation Stories Archive was an ordinary, admin-edited webpage. Whose idea was it to make Shifti a wiki?
My original plans for a replacement for the archive had been to use something like Drupal. It was BD’s earlier work having run the original Shifti – which used the TikiWiki codebase – and his endorsement of the MediaWiki codebase (at one time BD was in the top 10 for edits by a human on Wikipedia – which is where the codebase originated) that were the driving force behind the selection of the code-base and the decision to run it as a Wiki.
Are you the only administrator of Shifti.org? Who are the others and what do they do?
There are a few of us out there. I am what you might call the "Tech Admin" – I keep the server running, manage code-base upgrades and am the main force behind turning design ideas into new skins for Shifti. BD is behind the “laid-back, accept everything until there is a complaint” attitude – and is supposed to be the actual admin-in-chief. JonBuck is a librarian IRL and was given the administrator status so he could help bring the benefits of his knowledge of library science to the design and layout of the category and semantic tagging systems.
Viqsi was the original "content administrator" – but since Shifti really started booming her job has become one of working with me to design a replacement for the "MonoBook" skin that all MediaWiki installs ship with by default. And then there is Devin – we added him to the staff to help carry the load of making sure basic content tags were applied where needed and any other job he might be needed for.
Now… not all of the administrators are active. BD has a very demanding day-job with a major videogame company, Jon works as a librarian at a major university, Viqsi is a self-employed IT specialist that does a lot of work for her Temple and Devin has been mostly cut-off from the net because of the recession. Like Viqsi I am self-employed, but unlike her I do not have a steady contract that consumes my time. This means that I am often the only administrator that sees Shifti every day.
There are over 700 stories and numerous shared settings on the site now. After you created Shifti.org, how did you entice others to start using it?
There are a large number of factors involved. The initial announcement went out on the TSA-Talk mailing list – that surely caused the initial surge in traffic. But it’s growth since then? Word-of-mouth, people doing things similar to what JonBuck did (ie, replacing a personal site with a redirect to their Shifti userpage) or large numbers of links to Shifti from other sites.
So… we’ve basically done nothing to entice people to begin using Shifti. What we did was create a resource and offer a friendly atmosphere. That, possibly combined with the fact that a number of our users are well-known figures in the TF Community is probably what proved to be the biggest draw.
Why do you think so many people write these stories?
I couldn’t say. Each person may have their own reasons – whether it is a form of escapism, a quirk of how their personal muse works or an almost infinite number of other reasons. What I can say, however, is why I write the stories I do. For me a TF or Furry story is a way to work around preconceptions people might have with how things are supposed to work in a story.
That isn’t, however, the only reason – every so often I run a "TF War" on TSA-Talk that is an exercise in power-gaming and one-upsmanship – but it is also to help people hone their descriptive and characterization skills. And then there is the somewhat infamous "Bastard Assassins From Hell" series that I am the co-writer of – its characters started life as characters from the 2006 TF Wars and have been growing since then.
Has running Shifti taught you anything new and unexpected?
If anything it taught me that I am a bit too cynical. 😛 Seriously though, it actually taught me that I make a half-decent editor even though I personally think I suck at it. As far as unexpected, though… Perhaps only that “Rule 34” is a lot more true than anyone would ever expect.
Do you think that sites like Shifti, small sites for fiction and other writings around a common theme, represent a possible future of e-publishing? Or just the future of Internet fiction?
Perhaps not "small sites"… The answer to both is "yes and no". It works as a great way for people to get their work on the Internet and connected to their audience but it also fails at that because some TF stories are accessible to people that are not TF fans. Look at Bard’s "Space Cadet" stories (“Becoming a Patrol Sentient”, et al) – they are good Science Fiction first and good TF stories second.
As for Internet Fiction… Yes, it might just be – because it is providing a condensed resource that offers a way for people to get their works out to a large audience without any monetary outlay – and it can provide a layer of anonymity for those that want it. I could keep going on with reasons why it’s likely the way of the future, but I think the picture is clear. (and besides, I’m obviously biased 🙂
How do you think people will be able to find "the good stuff" if and when these sites become even more common (and perhaps print declines)?
That is the tricky part of it all. On Shifti we allow for anyone to create a list of stories that are their favorites. These can be comprehensive or little updated – both methods have their own pro’s and con’s. Alternatively there could be a central tagging system that is managed by the sites administrators.
What it all basically comes down to is finding a method that works within the design of the site. For Shifti we use the favorites lists because the site is as much about community participation as it is reading or writing fiction.
For a site with a different setup there are many other possible methods. Each site will have to find it’s own and as time passes it will become obvious which work and which do not. That is one of the best things about the way things are advancing – the speed at which things are advancing is causing people to look at and try all possible solutions and then those solutions that work well will rise to the top.
Have you looked at the possibility of setting up some kind of wiki plugin or application to export stories into e-book formats such as ePub? Like the fanfic-site downloading applications mentioned here?
Because Shifti does not require a copyright assignment beyond what is needed for us to make those stories that have been posted available to the wider internet that would be problematic. We could, I suppose, alter the text of our copyright policy to make such non-problematic, but changing that policy and extending the changes such that they effect all content – even that posted prior to the change – would be just as problem filled.
How would copyright come into it? You’re already making the stories available via the website; adding a format converter would only add more ways they can be read from the website. If you’re offering stories free for the reading in HTML, a format which can easily be saved to disk already, seems as if it would only be a small step to allow it to be saved in the formats of most use to the individual reader.
Yes, it would be a small step. However copyright law is a twisted maze of poorly thought out logic that often doesn’t make sense. So the best direction to take with anything that even comes close to touching on copyrights is the one where nothing gets done without explicit permission from the person/people that hold the copyright.
That is also something that is a big worry for Shifti because we are a small site and do not have the money to be able to fight a copyright case. Yes, we do fall under the "Safe Harbor" section of the DMCA, but that does not protect us from lawsuits being leveled by our international users.
So to be completely safe we have to make sure that we do everything possible to remain within the law – even where doing such is not necessary or does not appear to be necessary.
Do you see much possible interaction between a site like Shifti and users of e-book devices or applications?
Perhaps – but only if those devices either get full XHTML1.1 (Strict) and CSS2.1 (with some CSS3 imports) support. Otherwise another interface will be needed to output the pages in a format that a mobile device can handle.
What about the use of conversion apps, such as the ones I mentioned earlier, or Calibre?
It is quite possible and the problem then becomes getting something functioning that can help users automate the process – perhaps even getting something like a "mobile" sub-domain going.
At this time there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes at Shifti to make properly tagging pages with the correct semantic tags and categories easier and also in developing a new "skin" that will help to provide Shifti with a unique and identifiable visual identity.
So… It might happen, but it isn’t going to be anytime soon. It might be as far in the future as 2011 before a dedicated version of Shifti for e-book/mobile devices is ready to go. But I’m not going to say it can’t or won’t happen sometime this year – it all depends on how soon we can get the current outstanding projects completed.
Apart from stories posted to Shifti, do you read e-books yourself? If so, what devices or applications do you use?
Sadly no. I would, but my Palm (an ancient Tungsten) cannot access my wireless network (its hardware is very, very limited and basically requires an open WAP) and it also has a shot digitizer. If I had the money I probably would, because I read a crap-ton of books.
Thanks, ShadowWolf, for participating in this interview!
I will be letting him know the URL once I post it; perhaps he will be able to answer any further questions in the comments.