I first got to know today's interviewee personally as he helped me make the transfer over to Moveable Type with Zulkey.com so I could join the second half of the first decade of the twenty-first century. If you're a self-respecting geek, you know him by name, and if not, he is the Vice President at SixApart, the world's leading independent blogging company. He's a a recognized expert on blogs and web technology and thus his face and byline pop up all over the place whenever news stories on blogs are published. I will be including as many links as possible in this interview to provide definitions to help people like my parents, so you seasoned techies, please don't roll your eyes at my most **obvious** links (and bonus points to those of you who are familiar with the use of asterisks as sarcasm.)
The Anil Dash Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions
So, there was a little trouble with Livejournal a few weeks ago and its members went, to put it mildly, apeshit. Why do you think people took it so personally?
I think there's a couple interesting parts -- first, the number of people who were upset, as a total percentage of the millions of registered users on LJ, was actually pretty small. But those who were upset were *very* upset, and understandably so, we screwed up!
But what was interesting was most people kind of got that we were trying to do something good (I don't think anybody said, "no, you shouldn't shut down groups that are encouraging pedophilia") but they were frustrated that we weren't unequivocal in saying that *their* communities or journals were okay, especially those that were wrongly shut down.
What I think you see here is that a lot of communities on LJ are of people who have hobbies or, yes, interests that aren't mainstream. (Which I think all of us who work on LJ or in blogging can relate to.) And when the place you go for that respite, the home for those hobbies, might indicate, even accidentally, that those interests aren't okay, it's easy to get upset.
I have the advantage of knowing this was an honest mistake on our part at Six Apart. But if I had some stuff in my life that wasn't maybe something I share at my day job or with my parents or something, I might be resentful if I were rejected by the online community where I did open up that part of me.
And of course, we'd been trying mightily to not make any of these sorts of changes on LiveJournal without involving the community, and that had been our New Year's Resolution and we'd been doing pretty good until this. We're all bummed we messed that up, but hopefully we
can reset the clock and people won't get any more ugly surprises.
Fortunately, I think it's mostly been resolved and the good part is the community decided in light of the fuss to direct tens of thousands of dollars in donations to a bunch of charities and so some good has come out of it.
What do you think this represents for online communities? It seems, maybe, to me, that people used to keep their membership in these communities a little more secret but now it's somewhat mainstream?
It is interesting, some parts of fandom are much more "out', definitely. I mean, I think a lot of social science research has shown that communities like, say, furries basically couldn't have existed before the Internet. (You weren't going to stop every random passer-by on the sidewalk in your small town and ask them if they were into that sort of thing.) And LiveJournal, being basically the first social site with that combination of community and privacy naturally became the home for it.
I do think we get a stronger backlash because of that when we make a mistake that makes it seem like we're censoring people's communities. I mean, I'm as open-minded as it gets and I've seen everything under the sun when it comes to online communities, but when I saw that there
was slashfic incest porn about the movie "Little Miss Sunshine", it *still* surprised me. (Not that Steve Carrell isn't hot, but you know...) And then I thought about it for a few minutes, and of course it's obvious that there would be.
But it's a recent leap for people to go from "I am kinda into that" to "Being into this sort of thing is part of my identity." Once you've made that statement, for anybody to contradict it is a huge affront, and it's a straightforward path from there towards looking for mainstream affirmation and group identity.
I've noticed that LJ has developed its own vernacular. Do you think different communities have their own lingo or is LJ's special, bb?
I think about this a lot. There's a lot of cross-pollination from similar communities -- LJ is so large that it's hard to think of it as having just *one* lingo. The open source hackers who live on LJ bring over slang from Slashdot. And the music fans bring over their in-jokes. But in each case, I do think they're distinct, and that having such a tight-knit community is a rich environment for new behaviors and words to develop.
How do you handle trolls and flamers and the like?
I have a pretty thick skin for this stuff. I find most people calm down right after their initial flame, and become a bit more thoughtful about what they say once they're less upset. Some people have certain issues or fixations that they'll always obsess about, and once you learn to anticipate those, you can stop from attracting their flames. A very few people will be truly nuts, just going crazy over an extended period of time, and I usually try to engage with them in a
pretty human way, something direct like the phone or IM, and once they see there's a person on the other end, they tend to start trying to figure out how to be productive with their energy.
Of course, sometimes I screw up and am human and make things worse or antagonize people just by being me or by bringing out my inappropriate sense of humor. :) And there are times when people don't even necessarily believe what they're flaming about, they just like trolling for attention, and that's something that can be hard to detect at first.
In all, though, the really tough cases are maybe 1% of what we deal with -- most people who are upset actually have a good point to make, if you can just focus on getting the conversation to move to that point. Some people who've started out as really angry flaming members of the community have become helpful outside advisors, volunteers in our communities, or even been hired as employees.
What are your favorite sites to visit?
It depends on my mood, but these days I am loving SeriousEats.com, which my wife works on. It's delightful to me because it's an online community that's just *happy* and focused around food, which is always fun. I'm enjoying trying to put a little more work into my own blog -- I think I can be a good blogger, so maybe my Movable Type posting screen is one of my favorite sites. :)
Some of my recurrents are sites like Snarkout.org, HipHopMusic.com, Fimoculous, RC3.org, RebeccaBlood.net. I still love Slate and am of course addicted to my friends page on LiveJournal, Vox, and Twitter. I think that's more than enough stimulation. :)
Do you have friends who live life much more offline than you? How do you describe your online friends/activities to them, or you don't, really?
I do have analog friends, though most of my recent friends are people I've met online. The truth is, I think of a lot of my online behaviors in very conservative, offline ways. So it's easy to explain -- my blog is the place where I share my thoughts like a newsletter, my LiveJournal or Vox is more like a private journal that I share with friends. The only thing they are mystified by is the weird faux-fame thing that happens to my friends, or sometimes me, where people act like blog-famous is the same thing as real-famous. Which it ain't.
If you had your picture taken for an article to run in the New York Times today, what would you wear?
A purple shirt.
So what's your typical workday schedule?
Man, I wish I had a typical day. Recently, it's been getting started in the morning working at home by answer a lot of emails, doing a bunch of writing, and dismissing a million blinking IM windows. That's a bit part of my day -- routing people to connect with the right person they're looking for. Then, I'll go to some meetings with companies that are either thinking about blogs and Web 2.0, or I'll talk to customers who are already doing that stuff, and advise them on
what they could be doing next. And in between, I try to squeeze in a bunch of meetings or calls with the rest of our team around really functional product-related things, like new features or new releases. I love that part, but kind of save it for dessert.
However, a lot of the time, my typical day is getting up early to grab a cab to JFK, flying to some random place like Miami or Denver or Chicago, going to a hotel or convention center, and then telling a group of people what blogs are, why they might want one, and how to get started. The next day, I fly back home.
I'm amazed sometimes by how many parts of technology are supposed to simplify our lives but actually involve a lot of time and energy to do so. For instance, I'm sure I could make iTunes work a lot better for me but I just don't feel like going in and tagging my songs and creating playlists and stuff. Some of this is just based on people but what do you think are some of the most flawed systems wherein the 'simplicity' actually involves a lot of complication?
I am not amazed by this -- it's by design. Geeks are awful at designing usable things, and even worst at designing *useful* things. I don't have an example at-hand of things that are complicated; Suffice to say, there are plenty. What strikes me more is that we build these things that only make us miserable! I suppose the Blackberry is supposed to make things simple, or at least convenient, by delivering emails to you. But from what I can tell, it only ever
has the effect of turning its users into zombies.
People who are normally fun, engaging, thoughtful and smart *regularly* interrupt their friends or even their family to pay attention to a little blinking light on their Blackberry. It's astounding and unfortunate.
I always say that we hate most in others that which we fail to see in ourselves, so I must be guilty of this, too, but at least I didn't spend all that money just to get a device whose sole purpose is to tether us to our inboxes.
What's your favorite gadget of late?
Hmm, good question. I think it's still our Nintendo Wii. It's social, tons of fun, and makes you get up off the couch. Plus, they opted out of the graphics-processor/how-many-CPUs arms race in the video gaming world, which I love.
It must take a lot of patience to work with new bloggers and coach them through using their software. I had a million questions when I transferred over to Moveable Type (thanks!) and I think I might be a little more knowledgeable than most beginners. Do you think it takes a patient person by nature to work in your field?
Nah, I'm actually really *impatient*. The fact that it still takes so much effort is basically our fault, and that's what we're always working on fixing. I think some of our newer stuff, like Vox, makes it easier, but there are still miles to go.
The most important thing is to actually have a passion for the work you do. I think if I worked at Microsoft selling Blog Server 2008 I would probably have to have a lot of patience, but I have the luxury of working with people who are my heroes, and of knowing that we're kind of on a mission that's larger than any of us. That makes the frustrating stuff easy to deal with, knowing that we've got this obligation to everyone who's ever cared about blogs.
What parts of your life do you not blog about?
My personal life pretty much doesn't show up on my personal blog anymore. I learned about a lot of that the hard way -- people can be savage when there's no accountability. I do still blog about it, but it's private and readable only by friends and family.
If being geeky is becoming more mainstream, then who are the new geeks?
Eh, I think the superficial parts about geekdom are being appropriate by the mainstream, but I don't see any hipsters here in the East Village who are running out to learn how to code in Ruby on Rails just to pick up chicks. The new geeks are the same as the old geeks, the people who actually live the lifestyle and say their marriage vows in Klingon, instead of just pretending to be geeks.
My boyfriend has a theory that there is another dot-com bubble burst coming down the pike. Do you think it has merit?
Depends what he means by that; There's a presumption there that we're in a dot-com bubble again. The truth is, from a money standpoint, the fixation on Web 2.0 right now is *nothing* like idiocy during the 90s. The bubble just isn't even 1/10 the size, and the investments are a
lot more sane.
That being said, there is an awful lot of attention being paid to very stupid or obvious ideas, and a lot of people creating things with no sense of the history of the tech industry, or even of the Internet. My solution to that is to simply not read about it, and not remark on it, for the most part. A bubble can only be created with all of our consent, and we perpetuate it when we spread the word about ideas that aren't deserving.
I do think anybody who's trying to start a website now will be in for an ugly awakening soon enough if they haven't done their homework. Merely being cool doesn't scale.
What's Twitter and why do you use it? How about Vox? And tell me what a blortal is too. I don't know anything.
Twitter is lightweight blogging that crosses media from HTML to text messages to IM. I use it because I admire how light the messages are (it's a medium where it's okay to say "I'm running out for a bite to eat", because it's aimed at just your friends) and I like the folks who made it. Vox is kind of a multimedia counterpart to the same desire Twitter captures, where you're communicating with family and friends, but it makes it easy to incorporate things like your Flickr
pictures or YouTube videos all in one place, and then make them public or private on a case-by-case basis. I love that because it's a great environment for me to share pictures of my dog with my mom and dad without being annoyed by random strangers on the Internet.
A blortal is a very important thing that will help us all in the future.
What do you do to calm down in real life when something online has gotten you riled up?
Sign off? :) Usually I can go walk the dog or go out to a great meal with my wife (we eat a lot of great food!) and I've forgotten all about whatever drama was going on online. If it's a really big deal and I'm still upset, I'll usually try to create something, like try to write a really good essay or make a little movie or something, and that gets it out of my system.
Sometimes I contemplate giving up the site: when and why do you think sites SHOULD be phased out, and what's the most graceful way to do so?
I think *most* sites have a natural lifespan, and it's silly to pretend otherwise. I might not be the best guy to ask -- I used to have a semi-popular list of daily links that I did for years, and then
I just stopped doing them one day with no warning or advance notice.
I think it's okay to let things peter out, or to just announce one day that you've stopped. The fixation on trying to live forever though a medium as ephemeral as the net seems kind of silly and arbitrary to me. At least today.
Why do you think Mac users tend to be so passionate? I'm wearing Converse All-Stars right now but I don't go around saying "Nikes suck!" or have a Chuck Taylor bumper sticker on my car.
I don't actually know. I just got my first-ever Mac after having been using computers for 26 years or so, and my feeling is... eh, it's a nice computer. I just can't get excited over something as mundane as a laptop that millions of other people use.
To my mind, this goes back to your earlier questions -- it's a matter of identity. People love to have a sense of belonging, to assert their identity as a member of a group that's small but powerful. They resent it if their group's status as non-mainstream is used against them, but
revel in it as a way to bring the membership closer together.
That combination of social factors really is what makes Mac fans so passionate; Put another way, the Mac is the computer for people who want to be passionate about a computer. I am really, really good at using Windows, but I don't have any desire to be invested in the devices I use. I detest that idea of being reverential to consumer electronics. Buying a phone or an MP3 player that you have to put a case on feels like buying a sofa and putting those plastic slipcovers on it -- live a little!
How does it feel to be the 187th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It's an honor and a privilege! My own inexhaustible hubris aside, it's astounding to me that anyone would want to ask me these questions, let alone that some third person might want to read them, but I've really enjoyed getting to think about, and articulate, some of the ideas that
otherwise might have gone unexamined.
More interviews here!