Tech Assessment The Superguy Listserver Essay Research

Tech Assessment: The Superguy Listserver Essay, Research Paper


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Technology Assessment: The _Superguy_ Listserver

By Chris Meadows

MED 355: Cable TV and New Technology

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others. It has its problems as well as its advantages, its

strengths as well as its weaknesses. The ways in which it uses

technology for composition and distribution for the most part

contribute to its success, though the areas of storage and

information have room for improvement. However, this improvement

may not be feasible. It remains to be seen exactly how long

_Superguy_ will continue to exist, but prospects would seem to be

good for _Superguy_ to continue for a long, long time to come.

Technology Assessment: The _Superguy_ Listserver

MED 355: Cable TV and New Technology

November 7, 1994

In 1969, when the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)

created the small computer network that would eventually grow

into the Internet, no one could have guessed what it would

become. From its humble beginning as a tiny military research

network known as ARPAnet, the Internet has increased in volume

exponentially and is now growing at an estimated rate of 15%

every month (Engst & Dickson, _Explorer Kit_ 23).

Along with its size, the applications to which Internet lends

itself have also grown. Formerly intended for sharing somewhat

limited computer resources among researchers across the United

States, the Internet is now a global communication network that

supports thousands of Usenet discussion groups, Internet Relay

Chat talk service, data retrieval systems such as World Wide Web(WWW), Wide Area Information Search (WAIS), and Gopher, FTP file

transfer protocol, Telnet remote access to computers, electronic

mail that can reach hundreds of thousands of people, and many

other functions. Internet has grown from a small military

network into a much larger commercial one.

Many organizations and groups both large and small make

extensive use of the Internet and associated services, for

communication and other purposes. One of these organizations,

and the focus of this technology assessment, is the _Superguy_

Internet listserver.

_Superguy_ is a distribution network that was formed in 1987

to send out humorous collaborative superhero fiction to

subscribers. A similar distribution system for humorous

science-fiction stories (known as SFStory) already existed, and

Chris “Creeper” Wilcox felt it might be fun to create one based

on superheroes (Burns, _Superguy FAQ_).

The concept behind collaborative fiction such as _Superguy_

is that each writer creates a set of characters and chronicles

the adventures of those characters in a series of stories. These

stories are all set in the same world, so that characters in a

story being written by one author may notice and react to events

that another author is describing. Sometimes two or more authors

may work together on a story or on a series of stories, in what

is termed a “crossover.”

Shortly after its beginning, _Superguy_ began to attract

authors and readers. With each new author, the _Superguy_

universe grew and expanded. Against all expectations, the

_Superguy_ listserv has lasted for over seven years and is still

going strong. Says author Bill Dickson, “Considering the influx

of new writers–we’re getting a couple every year–I would say

that it could probably keep going for a good long time, but I

wouldn’t even hazard a guess how long” (personal interview).

As an organization, _Superguy_ consists of two

subgroups–authors and readers–and a distribution network tobring the two together. The number of authors on the list has

remained more or less stable over the last seven years. Many

authors have come and gone, writing from one to several story

installments and then disappearing. However, a core group of

about a dozen authors is responsible for the majority of the

writing, and many of these have been with the list from its


There is actually no distinct chain of command among the

_Superguy_ authors. None of the writers has any real authority

over any of the others, except where that writer’s own characters

are concerned. However, there are two distinct subgroups of

authors, categorized by seniority.

One subgroup, jokingly referred to as the “Old Farts,” is

made up of those writers who have been with the _Superguy_

listserver for several years. Though they have no real authority

over the newer authors, the opinions and advice of the Old Farts

are valued because of their familiarity with _Superguy_ historyand traditions (Burns, _Superguy FAQ_). The other subgroup is

made up of the newer writers–those who have started in the last

couple of years. It is uncertain at what point a newer author

becomes an Old Fart.

There are few qualifications necessary to become a _Superguy_

author. Anyone who wishes to may submit a story at any time. It

is recommended, however, that would-be authors read enough of the

_Superguy_ archives to understand how best to write in the

setting before they begin (Burns).

The _Superguy_ listserver presently has over 120 subscribed

readers (Olson, personal correspondence). The list of addresses

includes individuals from many nations around the world,

including Australia, Canada, China, Germany, the Netherlands,

South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, there are an

unknown number of other readers worldwide who read _Superguy_ via

its Usenet echo, bit.listserv.superguy.

_Superguy_’s primary means of distribution is through itsInternet electronic mail listserver, whose address is A listserver’s function is to

distribute electronic mail to all the addresses on its subscriber

list. Thus, when a writer sends a story to the _Superguy_

listserver, that story is then automatically sent to all those

readers and other authors who are subscribers. Anyone who wishes

to may subscribe to the _Superguy_ listserver.

The primary purpose of the _Superguy_ organization is to

distribute stories from the writers to the readers. This serves

the double purpose of providing the writers with a ready audience

and providing the readers with free, entertaining stories.

In theory, _Superguy_ is similar to printed media in some of

these respects. Its episodic format lends itself especially to a

comparison to comic books. However, unlike most comic books,

_Superguy_ is a free publication. Readers do not have to pay to

receive it (except for their normal Internet service providers’

fees), nor are the writers paid for writing it. Furthermore, authors of printed media typically cannot receive the kind of

instant reader response that is possible through the Internet.

However, _Superguy_ does operate under some constraints. In

order to go through the listserver, all _Superguy_ stories must

be in ASCII text format, which means they cannot contain special

formatting characters (such as underlining or italics) or

illustrations. In addition, the stories must be written and sent

in episodic format, as complete stories are far too large for

email distribution. This episodic format can lead to confusion

if a sufficient length of time passes between episodes.

In order to function, _Superguy_ requires three things.

First, a method of distribution for its stories. This need is

served by the _Superguy_ Internet listserver, which is currently

in its third incarnation. Without a way to get the stories from

their authors to the readers, _Superguy_ would not be able to

fulfil its purpose.

Second, _Superguy_ needs to maintain the number of readers ithas, while at the same time continuing attract new ones.

Fortunately, it has had a rather successful track record in this

area, having over 120 known subscribers. If not for the readers,

then _Superguy_ would have no reason for existing.

Third, _Superguy_ must have some means of drawing in new

writers, as well as keeping the ones it has. Each new writer

brings a unique perspective to the _Superguy_ universe, and

without enough authors to write the stories, _Superguy_ could

stagnate and die. While the readers are the ones for whom the

stories are written, it is the authors who keep _Superguy_ going.

The _Superguy_ listserver is an outgrowth of the Internet,

and as such is a very technological entity. The use of this

technology begins with the creative process. Because the stories

will be distributed over a computer network, it is necessary to

use a computer to write the stories themselves. Typically,

_Superguy_ stories are composed on a personal computer or

mainframe word processor and then uploaded to the Internet.

Computers are arguably the most efficient tool for writing.

Using a word processor allows an amount of flexibility in editing

that is far beyond the traditional pen and paper or typewriter

methods of writing, enabling correcting or altering what is being

written with far less effort than doing the same for typed or

written material. Using computers in this fashion has typically

worked quite well for _Superguy_.

As soon as the story installment has been written, the next

step is to send it to the readers on the list. This is done by

using electronic mail, or email, to send it to the _Superguy_

listserver. Through the listserver, the story is emailed to

subscribers around the world, arriving in their electronic

mailboxes usually within minutes.

As soon as the mail has been received, subscribers will use

their email programs to read the story. They then have the

option of using electronic mail to reply to it, providing the

author with comments and suggestions concerning his story. Other than the main _Superguy_ listserver, there are two

other, smaller electronic mail listservers, called _Superpen_ and

_Superchat_, that are used for communication among the authors.

This communication typically includes the discussion of upcoming

storylines, plotting, technical matters, and other administrative

business having to do with writing _Superguy_ stories. Unlike

_Superguy_, which is a public listserver, _Superpen_ and

_Superchat_ are private, limited to the authors only (though

_Superchat_ will be opened to all readers who wish to subscribe

as soon as its administrator decides that it is ready).

The electronic mail systems Superguy uses have thus far

worked quite well and efficiently. Using email, it is possible

to send a message rapidly, effectively, to one person or to many

people, and be reasonably certain that they will receive it.

This swift form of communication allows for much greater

productivity, both in planning stories and in sending them out.

Printed media is excruciatingly slow in comparison.

Another means of distribution for _Superguy_, beyond the

listserv, is Netnews, also known as Usenet News. Netnews stores

items on a remote site rather than in the user’s own directory,

which allows the reader to take a look at this material without

risk of having his electronic mail queue fill up with it.

The _Superguy_ listserv is echoed to a Usenet newsgroup,

bit.listserv.superguy. This means that all of the stories which

are sent through _Superguy_ also become available on this

newsgroup. This increases the listserv’s potential audience by

allowing people who cannot or do not wish to subscribe to the

listserver to read _Superguy_ via netnews.

However, the newsgroup bit.listserv.superguy has a relatively

small circulation–that is, it is not widely available.

Therefore, in the hope of attracting more readers, selected

_Superguy_ stories are reposted to the newsgroup

rec.arts.comics.creative. This newsgroup, like the _Superguy_

listserv, exists for the purpose of distributing humoroussuperhero fiction. Unlike _Superguy_, however, it has no single

setting and no email counterpart. Because there are many more

non-_Superguy_ stories posted here than _Superguy_ stories, it is

uncertain how effective this is for bringing in new readers.

Over the last seven years of writing, _Superguy_ has built up

a huge history, inclusive of around 30 megabytes’ worth of

stories. All this back-story can be quite confusing to new

readers. For this reason, _Superguy_’s complete archives have

been made available for transfer through the information

retrieval protocols known as Gopher and FTP.

Gopher, so called because it allows one to “go fer” files, is

a program developed by the University of Minnesota to allow

searching for and obtaining information through a system of

menus. The information is downloaded to local memory and

displayed on the user’s screen. Gopher features a search

protocol known as Veronica.

FTP, which stands for File Transfer Protocol, is anothermethod of obtaining information. However, this information is

downloaded directly to the user’s disk rather than being

displayed on the user’s screen, and so can be examined later.

FTP’s search protocol is called Archie and is not as

user-friendly as Veronica.

_Superguy_’s archives are stored at a site in Norway,

addressed for Gopher access, or for FTP. The files are arranged in “digest”

form, in chronologically-sorted groups of five to ten story

installments each, and index files are located in the same

directory. Also in this directory is the _History of the

Superguy Altiverse_, a synopsized version of Superguy’s history

to date, and a directory containing _Superguy_ “Trade

Ether-Backs” (TEBs), collections of episodes that, together, make

up an entire story. These TEBs can be quite useful for readers

who wish to understand how _Superguy_ works.

Another _Superguy_ reference source is the _Superguy HomePage_ on the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is an

information storage medium that allows the display, on some

computers, of different fonts of text and graphic images. In

some respects it is similar to Gopher, except that it is not

limited to displaying menus. Certain words in the document are

highlighted, and selecting them with the cursor will lead to

other documents.

The _Superguy Home Page_ contains primarily reference

material pertaining to stories in the _Superguy_ universe.

Included are profiles of some of the major heroes and villains,

authors, and series, as well as the _Superguy Frequently-Asked

Questions List_ (FAQ for short), which is intended to respond to

any questions new readers might have about the _Superguy_

listserv; the _History of the Superguy Altiverse_ file; and links

to the archives on Gopher and to the bit.listserv.superguy

newsgroup. This material also includes pictures (which some

computers are not capable of displaying). The _Home Page_ is agood technological innovation for those people who are able to

use it, but the necessary tools to gain access to the World Wide

Web are not present on all sites, and some users do not even know

what the World Wide Web is.

The availability of these archives and reference materials

enables new readers to learn the history of _Superguy_ up to the

present day, and get a feel for the setting and the characters.

It is a valuable resource, except that the means in which the

files are stored makes referring to them somewhat difficult. The

files are not sorted except chronologically, meaning that all the

different stories are mixed in together, in the order in which

they were sent out. Even with the indexing which is included on

the site, picking out individual episodes can be time-consuming.

Possible ways to fix this problem might include converting

the _Superguy_ archives to a format compatible with WWW, for

inclusion on the _Superguy Home Page_. However, this is actually

impractical, for such conversion requires a great deal of time and effort, and to convert 30 megabytes of text files is a

next-to-impossible task. Even converting a few storylines would

be too great of a task to be attempted lightly.

Another solution might be to collect more storylines into

trade ether-backs. TEBs contain complete stories and eliminate

much of the time involved in searching through the index files.

By making it easier for new readers to read these stories, it

becomes more likely that those readers will be interested enough

to become regular _Superguy_ subscribers. This seems like a more

feasible idea, but whether it will actually happen is uncertain;

many of the authors do not seem to have the time or inclination

to put trade ether-backs together.

Another problem with _Superguy_ is that the Frequently-Asked

Questions list is distributed only twice per year, and is not

currently available from any source save the _Home Page_. This

limited availability tends to defeat the purpose of a

Frequently-Asked Questions list, which is to provide answers toquestions that frequently come up and thus prevent those

questions from being asked of people on the _Superguy_ list.

These questions can hardly be answered by an absent FAQ.

An obvious solution would be to post the FAQ lists more than

twice per year. However, this is not actually feasible, due to

the size of the FAQs. Because of their comprehensive nature,

they are rather large and unwieldy. To post them more often

would be to put an unnecessary strain on net resources.

Another, better possibility would be to create a mini-FAQ

containing pertinent details about _Superguy_ and information on

where to find the FAQ, and send that out more frequently. If the

FAQ were made available via FTP or Gopher, this would also

increase the ease with which people could obtain it. This would

be a somewhat more practical solution to that problem.

A final Internet resource used by _Superguy_ authors is

Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Internet Relay Chat allows Internet

users to “talk” directly with other Internet users, one on one or

in a discussion with twenty people or more, by typing commands

into a keyboard. The ability to communicate within seconds is

quite valuable for plotting and coordinating storylines in which

two or more authors collaborate. Its only real disadvantage is

that messages are sometimes prone to being delayed for several

minutes or cut off entirely. In addition, there is no guarantee

that any particular individual will be on IRC at a given time.

Despite these shortcomings, Internet Relay Chat works

exceedingly well for the purpose to which _Superguy_ authors put

it–story plotting, discussion, or idle chatting among friends.

IRC helps authors make more efficient use of their time.

The _Superguy_ listserver is an organization like many

others. It has its problems as well as its advantages, its

strengths as well as its weaknesses. The ways in which it uses

technology for composition and distribution for the most part

contribute to its success, though the areas of storage and

information have room for improvement. However, this improvementmay not be feasible. It remains to be seen exactly how long

_Superguy_ will continue to exist, but prospects would seem to be

good for _Superguy_ to continue for a long, long time to come.


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