Thoughts on the BSI

What’s the BSI, you ask? This is the BSI:

The Big Scary Idea: The Big Scary Business Plan

The quick story: back in late spring of ‘06, Jason sits on my office couch and says, “Think of a way to save science fiction publishing.”

This was the result.


General Company Description

BSI is the first all-media, advertising-supported speculative fiction website providing both pro-selected and user-rated content with popularity-based revenue sharing for all content providers.

This follows on, of course, from the latest round of discussions about sf magazines and the survival thereof. But you should go and have a look at it, because it’s long, reasonably detailed, will probably answer at least some of the immediate questions you have about it, and in among the community-focused web 2.0 utopianism there’s some food for thought.

So what we have is a one-stop, does-everything website. You go to BSI to read sf stories, watch sf short films, read sf reviews or other related nonfiction, or look at sf art. And because the design is about enabling as much as about providing, you can contribute any of the above yourself. Everything can be rated and commented on. Everything is free-to-browse; the website is funded through a combination of adverts, sponsorships, donations, and a couple of other sources. Contributors then get paid in proportion to how often their stuff gets looked at.

My first reaction is that with the exception of the $1M launch competition, I have very little doubt that this model, or one like it, would work. There doesn’t seem to be much in the proposal that’s new; there are already similarly structured, but not sf-focused, websites making healthy money using these ideas. Moreover, while print prose sf certainly isn’t dead or dying, it is (paging Dr Roberts!) clearly no longer the dominant form in which sf exists. If you are trying to find an audience for sf, focusing on the stuff that’s made of sentences won’t cut it; multimedia is the way to go.

The question in my mind, then, is: is this a website that I would want to visit? These are the people the BSI sees as its audience:

  • Rabid Fan. Science fiction or fantasy reader. Goes to conventions. Gets in heated debates about Star Trek flavors. The middle-aged white male. We don’t want to irritate this person so much that they leave the site. Most likely to donate money to us.
  • Casual Fan. People who enjoy science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies, as well as television such as Buffy and Serenity. Broad range, skewing male. We want to appeal to this person so much they invite their friends to come.
  • Progressive. Someone who’s interested in progressive thoughts, ideas, and futurism, but eschews the fan mentality. Broad range, also skews male. We want to have content that appeals to this person.

Technically speaking, I’m not any of these people. I’m too young to be a rabid fan, but I’m clearly more than a casual fan. (As an aside, I am far from convinced that the ‘casual fan’ category skews male — at least, not judging by TV fandoms as they are represented on my livejournal friendslist, which I admit is not scientific.) Practically speaking, though, I probably do fall into the rabid fan category. I rarely get into debates about which version of Star Trek is best (because it’s obviously DS9), but I go to conventions, I read truckloads, I watch lots of sf television and film, and then I write about it all.

So I’m one of the people that the BSI doesn’t want to irritate so much that I leave the site. However, they’re starting from a disadvantage, in that there are reasons I very rarely visit existing advertising-funded community-oriented sites like Fark and SomethingAwful: it’s because they are usually annoying websites filled with idiots for whom I have very little patience. The community sites that I do use — such as livejournal — are based much more on peer-to-peer interactions than multi-valency community interactions, so I can choose who and what I want to read. In a way, the most optimistic aspect of the BSI, it seems to me, isn’t the financial and business side, it’s the idea that a space can be created where all the various kinds of sf fan that now exist will want to congregate together, when the past decade seems to suggest that most people are more comfortable off in their own multiple splinter fandoms.

Against that, what is there for me at BSI? Short fiction edited by a professional editor — let’s say, for the sake of argument, Ellen Datlow — that’s good. But I didn’t go to the parts of that weren’t SCIFICTION very often, and I still don’t. Would I go there to watch new video? If it was professionally produced, perhaps, but by and large I don’t have much time for fan productions, and when it comes to user-created content I don’t have huge amounts of faith in the wisdom of crowds. Would I go there for discussion and debate? Possibly; but I already have plenty of smart people I can talk to about stuff, and I’m sceptical that such a large site could live up to that level of conversation. Never mind the fact that occasionally — just occasionally — I like to enjoy content that isn’t sf-related. All of which can be boiled down to this: I don’t need another time-sink, and the BSI looks, by design, like a big time-sink.

So to answer my earlier question, no, it’s probably not a site I would want to visit much. The thing is, for the success of the site, that’s irrelevant. The BSI isn’t really aimed at me, and it doesn’t need me. By extension, it probably doesn’t need most of the people reading this; and to create a new, sustainable sf magazine, I suspect that’s exactly the sort of thinking that’s needed.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the BSI

  1. Should I read anything into the fact that all of the potential target audiences ‘skew male’?

    My initial reaction is that I’m not sure how necessary such a site would be, not just to fans like you or me but the groups it’s supposedly targeting. All of these people have already found their own communities if they’re even online. Unless the BSI is targeting the entry-level fans (which is not my impression from what you’ve quoted here, but I’ll have to read the whole document), I’m not sure what it can add to the conversation beyond offering a new venue for short fiction, which is obviously a good thing.

  2. Pingback: SF Diplomat
  3. Obviously it’s easy for me to be an armchair critic and poo-poo this buisiness plan, but I’m not convinced it would work that well. I think it covers too much ground, and relies on having a large userbase which would take a long time to build. It’s hard to get users to move from one site to the other unless you can offer them something to make it worth moving, and a share of the revenues may be the key but they’ve got to sign up and put their $5 down first.

    I’m also not convinced that there’s enough in common between their three groups of projected users or that the three groups of users even exist – I probably class as a rabid fan and I’d likely go and read bits of their fiction, but I don’t need a community site, and it does put me off a little that their goal is not to irritate me so much that I leave the site (and also assumes that I am middle-aged and white). As far as I can tell the casual fan who watches SF TV and films and cares enough about them to post to the internet is female and often likes fanfic, and they are firmly entrenched in Livejournal and other places that allow fanfic.

    In short, I think there are good ideas in there and attempting to break through to the BoingBoing/Slashdot readers is a good idea, I’m just not convinced this would actually do it and I would be happy to be proved wrong. Not that this will happen anytime soon, since they’re not going ahead with anything past the business plan.

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