Joe Reiss, creator of the “Spoiler-Free Opinion Summary”

In 1992, Joe Reiss began the Spoiler-Free Opinion Summary, an effort to collect ratings for each week’s episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” from fans on Usenet.

The “S.O.S.” caught on and remained popular for years, moving to the web in 1995. Ultimately, Reiss collected nearly 300,000 individual ratings.

Were you on Usenet in the 1990s? Share your memories in the comments. Want to explore the S.O.S. data right now? It’s still online, with a fun vintage LCARS-style framed HTML interface. Finally, don’t miss my S.O.S. retrospective with comments from writer Jason Snell and former Trek reviewer Tim Lynch.

This interview was conducted by Skype on Sept. 25, 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me how you first got online when you were younger. Did you call BBSes? Did you get plunked straight into Usenet?

I really didn’t get online until college. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, out in the country. Connectivity was crap — and continues to be crap out there to this day. But my dad was a computer scientist, and I went to college to study computer science.

He encouraged me as soon as I got to college to get on the internet: to get email access so we could communicate that way and keep in touch. So I did that as soon as I could.

Then I started exploring and found Usenet and discovered there were a lot of the people out there who liked the same weird stuff I do!

Where did you go to school, and what was your career path after that?

I got my bachelor’s and master’s from The Ohio State University. I then did two years of a doctorate program at Virginia Tech, where I completed the course work but not the dissertation.

As for my career, I’ve been gainfully employed in computer science ever since I left grad school, across a range of different industries. At the moment, that primarily involves developing some pretty elaborate software that runs up in “the cloud.”

When did you start posting in the rec.arts.startrek.* newsgroups?

I’d been lurking for a couple of years before [starting the S.O.S. in 1992], but I might have made a couple small posts here and there.

I wasn’t terribly active, but I certainly had been following Tim Lynch and all the other reviewers, and a lot of the conversations that were going on. [I thought], “This is really cool. I’d love to participate more.” But we got Star Trek late in the week. So by the time I saw [an episode], most of the conversation had already come and gone.

So, that led me to think that there ought to be some way to let people who are in the same boat have a voice, without having to dive into the spoiler pool. [I thought], “Gosh, I really wish this thing existed. But since it doesn’t, maybe I can make it.”

I loved reading the reviews and seeing the discussion. But, I wanted to know what to expect each week, to have some sense of what I was getting into, without having to read the entire plot during the conversation. I was like, “There’s got to be a way to do this.”

My first thought was to come up with a way to compile the primary reviewers’ responses. So we could get a summary of what to expect, and kind of track the shows as they went and see what was good and what wasn’t. It was something I was curious about myself.

I’m like, “Well, nobody else has done it yet. That might be because it’s not going to work. But I’m going to give it a try.” And it ended up being a major learning experience for me.

I was getting my degree in computer science, and I automated the crap out of the SOS. I wrote scripts and learned all sorts of different tools and tricks to help me pull it off and maintain it.

Then a couple years later, in the summer of 94, the year between my bachelors any my masters, I heard about this thing called “the web.” People were talking about it in the department. And since I had the summer off, I was going to learn what the whole thing was about. I came back that fall, and it seemed like the web was everywhere. It had exploded in the span of three months. So it seemed natural to ask, “Why not put the S.O.S. on the web? What’s that going to take?”

I didn’t know. But I figured it out. And the first thing I did after I got out of grad school was web app development.

And what language was that? Was that Perl or something?

The S.O.S. was mostly done in Perl. When I went into industry, it was C and C++ and that kind of stuff. But the S.O.S. was mostly cobbled together in Perl.

How did you store the data? Was it always in a database, or were you just keeping things in text files?

The irony is, it never made it into a database. Early on, the very first few months, I was just doing it all by hand. And as it started growing, I thought, “Okay, people are liking this. I’m getting way more input that I expected. I need to help myself make this happen.” And so I started with text files and Perl chewing through those.

When it became a web app, it got a little bit more sophisticated. I started collecting episode information, such as the air dates and the synopses. They still remained flat files on disks, but they were basically Perl code that Perl could read in real easy.

So they were individual data files rather than an SQL database or something?

For longest time, this was just running on the good graces of the Ohio State, and later, Virginia Tech, while I was working on my graduate work. So I wasn’t in a position to impose and say, “Hey, can we install an SQL server on here for me?”

For the volume I was gettting, flat files always worked perfectly well, and I never really felt the need to push it any further than that.

Did you ever run into hacking or cybersecurity problems with the S.O.S.?

I occasionally would have some spammers come in and post with obviously trolling names and do some jerking around like that. But never had anything major. It was never big enough for anybody really bother, I think.

I wonder if you could talk about the community aspect as the S.O.S. became increasingly popular. Did it help you make new connections with people?

There were always frequent contributors, particularly in the early days when submissions were done via email, before I put the S.O.S. on the web. It would be almost as simple as: “Oh, it’s so-and-so again. They were a regular.” And I recognized them when the email came in every week and there would be some comments about the episode or, you know, “Thanks for the service” or whatever. Occasionally, people would ask a question and I would respond. So there were little things like that.

But I also ended up getting tight with a lot of the big names of rec.arts.startrek.* back in the day: Tim Lynch and D. Joe Creighton, who ran the ST Archive, which had a catalog of every ship mentioned in every episode of Star Trek. Plus a lot of the other reviewers and the heavy participants and posters. We started a little side community via email where we would chat and compare notes and talk out-of-band. It was like a mailing list, and that list continues to this day. There’s far, far less traffic than there was back then, but we’re still all there.

Yeah, Tim Lynch was telling me that he stays in touch with you, and I thought that was a real testament to what kind of community was possible on Usenet, that the same folks would still be communicating 30 years later.

Yeah. It was simultaneously very different from and also similar to what the internet has become. You had your trolls back then, just like today. You had your little cliques and your broader community.

It was everything that the internet is — just less of it. Because it was smaller, there weren’t as many people there. And the barriers to access were much higher. But we were feeling out what this new space was.

A lot of that DNA survived and mutated into various other forms. But the backbones formed way back then and you can still trace the lineage.

In the 1990s, J. Michael Straczynski was known to interact with fans in the Babylon 5 newsgroups. Apparently Tim Lynch was invited to submit a script to The Next Generation. And it was always rumored that people associated with the production of Star Trek might be lurking or reading the newsgroups. Did the S.O.S. ever bring you in touch with anyone involved in making Star Trek?

No, I never talked to anyone from the development or production. I always heard the same kind of rumors: that they were out there and looking, and paying attention to the audience’s feedback and what was being said. I think once or twice there were some that were comments made that suggested they were looking at the S.O.S, that they were paying attention to the numbers. But it was very vague and general, and never anything specific.

I was looking at the vote totals for all the series and it appears 1995 and 1996 were the peak years for S.O.S. ratings submissions. And then, beginning around 1998, things fell off pretty precipitously. Tell me about going through those ups and downs.

Yeah. The ups were just insane. I never expected to be getting hundreds of reviews per week coming in. And I think those peaks corresponded to the peak Star Trek of that era: TNG to DS9 to Voyager. Those were the years where you had two Trek series going all the time. It was Star Trek’s heyday, until the modern renaissance.

This animation shows charts of each Star Trek series’ episode ratings on the Spoiler-Free Opinion Summary.

But the curve also kind of followed my college years. I’m sure part of [the decline] came from the S.O.S. website relocating a couple times. When I had to leave Ohio State go to grad school at Virginia Tech, it got forklifted. When I graduated from Virginia Tech it got moved again to its current home. So I’m guessing there was some loss from chasing it around.

But also everyone was moving to the web. Usenet was becoming less and less relevant and a lot of other more general purpose solutions were being spun up. Solutions that were born and bred for the web, and that, I assume, had dedicated staff to tend to the feeding and care of these things.

And web forums started to come up and take the place of Usenet. When it was just Usenet, that was the place you went if you wanted to talk about [something]. When the web started coming around, it was like the advent of cable. There was so many different places to go, and the community really splintered. … There wasn’t that same go-to place where everybody went to share the their thoughts and ideas.

And so Star Trek was tapering off. Usenet was tapering off. The internet was evolving and changing. And I was heading out into the world to pursue my career. So I didn’t have the time to tend to the care and feeding of the S.O.S.

I probably could have spun it off into other shows, and who knows what it could have ended up being. But that wasn’t the way things went.

You did have one or two other shows in there for while, like “Sliders.” Was there anything else besides “Sliders”?

I think at one point, very briefly, I had “Space, Above and Beyond.” I don’t think it made a full season. It got canceled, and so I pulled it off.

Yeah, I tried going into some other shows, but I never got the same kind of feedback. I had the established reputation on the Star Trek [newsgroups] and the history there. But the Sliders community just didn’t ever seem as interested in it. After I tried it for a season or so, it just wasn’t clicking, so I said “Okay, it wasn’t meant to be.”

I know there was another survey at that time called GEOS, the Global Episode Opinion Survey. I think it was operating out of Australia. I exchanged messages with the propietor for a while. He was inspired by the S.O.S. and decided to do his own thing. But he was going into a lot of different science fiction shows, way beyond Star Trek. He was doing Babylon 5 and Stargate. That was another one born and bred for the web. Started there, designed for there, and as such, better equipped to scale and support that kind of volume than my little homebrew. When I saw that, it was like, “This is growing, this is evolving beyond my humble origins.” I was happy to see other people picking up the torch and running with it.

But you did add the reboot movies, starting in 2009. At what point did you turn off submissions?

I guess I put the the Kelvin timeline movies up because all this was the “great rebirth” of Star Trek. I felt like I ought to be there for it.

But the response was pretty sparse. Not many people seemed to remember. Very few people bothered submitting ratings. So after the last of those movies, I was like, “Well, there’s not much point chasing this anymore.” And I just kind of let it languish.

In the last year, I’m not sure what inspired me, but I went back to the site. And the site was, like, fundamentally broken. My hosting provider had upgraded some software under the covers and everything had just fallen apart. So I put in just enough effort to get it back up to functioning again. And that was the point where I said, “You know, this is woefully out of date. It’s never going to be what it was. Even if I put up all the new Star Trek series, the audience isn’t there. The audience has gone other places. And well they should.” So I decided to just wrap it up in a pretty bow and say my goodbyes. And that’s why I turned off the submissions.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

The biggest thing was the friendships made in the community, and the welcome I got. I’ve always been pretty introverted. Even online, I tended to be a lurker because I’ve always been of the opinion, “What do I have to say that anybody is possibly going to care about?”

The fact that the denizens of rec.arts.startrek.* embraced the S.O.S. the way they did and embraced me and made it what it was for as long as it was, was just an incredible experience. I’m really proud to say I had my 15 minutes of internet fame, even if it was just a small corner of the very early internet.

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