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20 Years Ago Today …

Airlock Alpha first launched Aug. 13, 1998.

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Like many teenagers, one of my first paying jobs ever was in fast-food.

There was a McDonald’s about 10 miles from where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and for me, it was one of the typical rites of passage. Work there for several months, get some paychecks, some experience, and then start with life.

But at one point, I had a chance to see the service pins they give to workers who have been there a long time. Of course, there was one year, and there was five years — that made sense to me if you were on the management track. But then I saw 10 years, and then 20 years. And I was just in awe of this. I mean, I hadn’t yet experienced 20 years of life, so it was almost unfathomable for me to even try to wrap my brain around starting something 20 years ago.

Yet, that’s where we are here. A site, sadly, that is no longer updated. That’s pretty much a shell of what it once was. Yet, on Aug. 13, 1998, I created what would eventually evolve into what you see today. And at our height, we were one of the biggest independent entertainment news sites out there.

Of course, none of that was in my mind when I opened a free account on GeoCities and started this site for the first time. On Aug. 13, and for a few days after that, it was known simply as “Syfyman’s World,” where I was going to write under the moniker “Syfyman.” I had come up with the name because I knew we would be stuck in long lists of links (one of the primary ways of getting noticed back then was getting yourself listed on someone’s heavily traveled links page), and calling it “Sci-Fi World” was simply not going to work.

My first thought was “Psi Phi World,” but someone already had that idea. So I just played around with alternate spellings, until Lynyrd Skynyrd came to mine. I loved that they replaced all the vowels with a “Y,” and thought that would be perfect for me. Yet, ScyFy just didn’t look right. So I dropped the “c” and “SyFy” was born.

For most of our 1990s life, we were “SyFy World,” a page that I would literally update by copying and pasting code from a previous news story and altering it to make a story. I would then have to manually link the story to the front page — a process that could take more than an hour on the programming side itself.

But I was excited for every visitor we would draw. They measured in the tens in the beginning, but slowly grew to the hundreds. We relocated to a server run by TrekToday founder Christian Sparborth known then as TrekNation, which helped with traffic — considering TrekToday was at its peak at the time. But then we merged with Star Trek Portal, creating a new site, SyFy Portal, in 2000. And the site just exploded from there.

I never imagined my silly little name for a science-fiction website would become part of the vernacular. In 2009, we had just finished celebrating our 10th anniversary, and our traffic was huge. It seemed the sky was the limit. But I got a phone call out of nowhere. Someone wanted to buy our domain name, and with it, the brand. They offered $30,000.

I laughed (literally), and hung up.

A few days later, they called again, this time offering more — $60,000. I started laughing again, and was about to hang up, but the voice on the other end asked me to hold on a second.

“How much would it take for you to sell?”

I just randomly came up with a number. “$250,000.”

And two days later, that was the offer. And I really didn’t know who I had sold the name to. It was a shell company, we knew that, and the lawyer that did the final paperwork did have NBC Universal as a client — but that was one of several.

Still, on March 16, 2009, I learned with the rest of the world who had bought the name. It was NBC Universal, and they were renaming SciFi Channel as Syfy (with a small “F”). I was shocked. But I still have the email I sent to my boss in my day job (I spent nearly all the time I worked on this site doing a “day job” working as a newspaper journalist, which I still am today). It was simple: “We found out who bought the Syfy name … in fact, you’ll be seeing it on your television soon.”

It was difficult running an entertainment news website from central Florida. But that’s why my early forays were in spoilers. In fact, up until the end of “Battlestar Galactica” (pre-Syfy), SyFy Portal was a spoiler site that also reported rumors. It was great, and something I could do without having to physically be somewhere.

But then some great writers like Michael Ausiello were getting into the game for TV Guide, and I just couldn’t compete with their contacts. So we changed gears, and started doing straight-up news and rumors. That allowed the networks to work with us officially, and really gave me some great opportunities, like my annual trek to Canada to tour television sets and the like.

It’s funny, I now live in New York City, which is a great place to run an entertainment news site. Yet, Airlock Alpha just sits here. People reach out to me from time to time asking me to bring it back, telling me they miss the kind of coverage we used to do. But I’ll be honest — the online journalism game has changed a lot. Now we have to compete with well-funded operations with paid writers. And then video became more and more popular, and we just didn’t have the resources to compete.

And we still don’t. Believe it or not, Airlock Alpha (and SyFy Portal) was something I did in my spare time, when I wasn’t working a paid job. Sure, there were times we made money, but most of the time we didn’t. And for me, this was a labor of love — helping writers get their start in the world, and doing what I could to keep online journalism growing and thriving.

It’s been a fantastic ride. I still have many friends and acquaintances thanks to Airlock Alpha, and there are times I really wish I had the energy to revive it. But I was 22 when I first hit the “publish” button. Now I’m 42. I’m a newspaper editor in the Bronx for a company I love, for a community I love, and with a staff I put together myself. I don’t get paid much — but then again, I never became a journalist to be rich. I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference.

And I hope over the past 20 years, even though I’ve been inactive for the past couple, that we have made a difference.

Every time I would feel overwhelmed, or upset about something someone was saying, or even when I was in that public relations war with NBC (who wanted to claim they created the “Syfy” name independently), it was always you that re-energized me. I would receive literally hundreds upon hundreds of emails a day from readers, sometimes complaining, but usually very positive, or wanted a question answered. And I did my best to respond to every single person.

I feel that 20 years is a long time on the Internet. I mean, we were online before just about everything you have today. Like Google, Facebook, Twitter, even blogging (I hated when people called our news site a “blog.”) Our search engines were Yahoo and AltaVista. We had no social media (we never even heard of the term). We sent out regular headlines and breaking news through eGroups (later YahooGroups). Our first site was up on GeoCities, which doesn’t even exist anymore. And every time I wanted to update, I had to open up AOL and dial in.

Everything has changed — I’d like to say for the better. But then again, I’m a little sad that Airlock Alpha is not part of this new world. I think we really could make a difference.

There are so many people I want to acknowledge for all the hard work they put into this site — and all their love. But because this already is too long, let me just limit it two people: Bryant Griffin and Shane Churchman. No, they weren’t there with me on Aug. 13, 1998, but they were there very early on. Both came on board around 2001, when my partner from the Star Trek Portal merger, Greg Boubel, found a life outside the internet, and decided to pursue that.

These two men are family to me, even though both are very far away now — Bryant is back in Tampa, and Shane is in San Diego. But Bryant and Shane are extraordinary, super-talented, and they’re not friends to me. They’re family.

Who knows, maybe we’ll resurrect Airlock Alpha. Maybe not. Really, no one knows. Not even me.

But I couldn’t let Aug. 13, 2018 go by without recognizing this milestone. And I didn’t want to let it slip by without once again thanking you.

So, thank you.

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