.: bloggers on blogging --> jason kottke
Bloggers on Blogging, August 2006
Jason Kottke started kottke.org on March 1998. Before kottke.org, he did a variety of personal projects online, including the well-regarded episodic web site 0sil8. He has a BA in Physics from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In February 2005, Jason famously left his job as a Web designer to start blogging full-time, supported by donations from his readers. One year later, he retired the "micropatron" experiment and joined an ad network to support his site. He now blogs and designs websites. He is 32, and lives in New York City with his wife, Meg Hourihan.
What is the first weblog you read?
What about those blogs appealed to you?
Not a whole lot actually. I was a weblog snob back in the day. People had been keeping online diaries and building personal web sites for years; what the hell was so special about these weblogs? The lesson here is don't underestimate the power of marketing and software. Hardcore web designers built web sites, teen girls kept online diaries, but anyone could keep this thing called a weblog, particularly with the software that made it easy to do (Pitas, Blogger, EditThisPage) and a vocal group pushing it as a cool thing to do. But I just didn't get it at first.
But your site is a classic, pre-Blogger, link-based site. If it was just the marketing that got to you, I expect you'd still be maintaining a Web journal, maybe using a blogging tool. At some point you must have changed your mind about what those first bloggers were doing. What value you now see in blogging, and specifically what value do you see in the link-driven blog?
“ Tinkering with the medium of the web was always the attraction for me and weblog structure was another way of doing that. ”
No, not a web journal, more like a site combining attributes from Suck, personal homepages, and Stating the Obvious using a blogging tool. By the time weblogs came along, I was already aware of the value of personal expression online through hypertext (that is, not just words, but words + links) from sites like these and my own experience running 0sil8. Tinkering with the medium of the web was always the attraction for me and weblog structure was another way of doing that, a way that turned out to be particularly compelling for me and lots of other people. The web journal format that kottke.org started off with was ultimately a non-starter for me; the site probably would have petered out within a few months if I hadn't switched to running more of a link-driven site.
Why did you start your weblog?It started as a diary—modeled after sites like Annie's and a bunch of sites on Swanky—a place to write my personal thoughts down on a regular basis. Over the first few months, it evolved into something with more links and commentary, media about media.
What is your site about?
That's a question I don't have a good short answer for yet, even though I've thought about it a lot. Many blogs, including the most visible ones, are vertically focused on things like Web 2.0 (TechCrunch), politics (Instapundit), gadgets (Gizmodo), or celebrity gossip (The Superficial). Kottke.org isn't like that; the only unifying factor is I write about and link to whatever I find interesting. Not that I don't focus mainly on a small groups of topics I'm interested in (technology, photography, food, design, economics, science, etc.) but the day-to-day or week-to-week focus varies widely. Which makes the site an acquired taste; you actually have to read it for a bit to get the gist.
Wait, I just came up with a short answer: kottke.org is a site about the liberal arts. (Ok, that needs some work, but it's in the right ballpark.)
That focus on a variety of subjects was very common when both of us started our weblogs. What do you think is driving the current trend of single-topic blogs? Is it just a current vogue? Is that what people now think a blog needs to be? Or do you think the kind of person who is motivated to start a blog in 2006 is different from the ones who started blogging back in the 90s?
I don't know the answer to that. Maybe advertising has something to do with it; ads work better on vertical sites. Or maybe it's the years of advice by bloggers to would-be bloggers about how to get started kicking in. "Just pick something you're interested in and start writing." It's easier to tell people to pick a topic than to tell them they can write about anything and everything.
How has your site changed over the years?
It used to be more personal. As I've gotten older and the site's readership has increased, I'm less inclined to share my personal life with everyone. Web technology and culture is less of a focus that it used to be; instead of covering what's happening with the Web, I focus on what people on the Web have to say about the world. I also used to participate in an active online social circle that for a variety of reasons (people starting companies, families, or both; the "community" became large and fractured into smaller entities; etc.) isn't that active anymore, which was a huge source of ideas, energy, and inspiration for me and is sorely missed (by me, anyway).
“ Instead of covering whats happening with the Web, I focus on what people on the Web have to say about the world. ”
Do you have a background in writing?
Not really, although I've had to write constantly for the past 15 years, in high school, in college, and on the job. If you want to be successful at anything these days, you need to know how to write.
How often do you update?
10-12 times every weekday. Most of those are links, with a couple of longer posts thrown in. I try to do larger projects every few weeks. There's also the constant tweaking of the design, modification of other parts of the site, and the behind-the-scenes maintenance that takes longer than it should but is necessary and occasionally even enjoyable.
How much traffic do you get?
My stats stopped working properly some months ago, but I'd guess around 600,000-700,000 unique visitors per month.
What is your blog's rank on Technorati?
It's probably in the Top 100 somewhere, but I haven't been to Technorati in several months, so I don't know. [Ed.note: 53.]
Why do you think your site is popular?
Longevity. And people seem to find it interesting. (A short way of say that it's complicated and I have no clue anyway.)
Did you set out to be widely read? What steps did you take to do that?
I set out to be read, but not widely read. The popularity was largely an accident.
Do you make money on your site? How?
Currently I'm a member of The Deck, an advertising network for "creative, Web + design professionals". In practical terms, I run one small advertisement on nearly every page of the site.
You spent a year as a reader-supported blogger. Did taking money directly from your readers in any way affect blogging for you? Does making money from ads?
When the announcement was made about kottke.org becoming a member of The Deck, Adam Greenfield (who is a pal of mine) wrote in the comments of a post on 37signals that he was no longer going to be reading kottke.org or any of the other sites in The Deck, saying:
The moment you slap an ad on your site it changes what that site is. It changes the terms of the dialogue. It just does. Doesn't matter how small the ad is, or how putatively useful: it indicates to me that, rather than being a respected peer with whom you are interested in having a conversation, you now understand me as an eyeball to be monetized.
The problem with Adam's argument in this particular case is that it's been a long time since kottke.org was me having a conversation with a small group of people. Like it or not (and sometimes I really don't), the site is broadcast-level media like the NY Times, Quilter's Monthly, or The Daily Show...few-to-many. The Internet allows for effective two-way communication, but since I don't scale well (a la Linus Torvalds), the amount of information coming from kottke.org's readers that directly influences what I put onto the site is small. (There are other reasons for this as well. There's no reason why kottke.org couldn't be more two-way—Boing Boing does a pretty good job of getting the POV of their readership up on the site—but that's just not what the site is about, for the most part.)
Anyway, my point is that it's unreasonable for a reader of the site to think of my writing on the site as a conversation with a respected peer; it's a broadcast, not a dialogue. Not that I think of readers as eyeballs to be monetized, and if you've read my site long enough you already know that's far from the truth.
For me, the shift from reader-support to advertising has been great. Aside from approving new advertisers once every few weeks, I barely remember the ads are on the site. I feel like I can do and say what I want again, instead of worrying about what I thought the ~1500 people who paid me their hard-earned money wanted to see on the site (a responsibility I took very seriously, even though almost every micropatron I heard from felt like their financial support of kottke.org was no strings attached). If an advertiser doesn't like what I'm writing, I can tell them to fuck off and they can find some other site to advertise on. It's hard to know what 1500 people want—especially if you're hearing from some of them that the site has never been better and from others that can't understand what you're doing with their money. And from a feedback perspective, I got a lot more direct complaints from readers about the micropatron experiment than about the ads.
Comments: Once you had them, now you have them only rarely. Is that a matter of spam, scale, or philosophy? When do you turn them on now?
My inability to scale is probably the biggest reason. With as many comments as I get on posts, it's a tough and time-consuming job to maintain a productive environment for discussion, and I don't consistently have time for that. I'd rather focus my energy on writing and editing the site than on developing a community and only open comments when I feel like the topic has a good chance of generating an interesting or useful conversation.
How much reader email do you get? Are you able to answer it all?
Over the course of a week, I get maybe 100-120 emails from readers, more if a topic I've written about touches a collective nerve. I know people who get more than that, but I've long since passed the point of replying to most of it. It's the same issue as with comments...if I replied to all of my email, there would never be anything new on the website. (Which would eventually take care of the email problem, I guess.)
How has blogging fulltime changed it for you? Is it more fun, less fun? More stressful?
The number of years I've been doing this has changed things more than going full-time. 8 1/2 years is a long time to be doing one thing, even when it's something that you love doing. I've worked pretty much full-time since getting out of college. The difference now is that I'm working for myself on projects of my choosing.
Which tool do you use? Why?
Movable Type because a) I'm too dependent on it to switch to anything else, b) no other existing blog tool is that compelling, and c) I don't have time or the programming skills to write my own blog tool the way I want it to work.
What would your ideal blogging tool do that available tools don't offer?
In his writing and teachings, John Maeda stresses the importance of tools on the outcome of creative work, arguing that the tool often has more to do with the final product than the creator does. MT is a very powerful and flexible piece of software, but it does things a certain way and in order for people to do new things, they need new tools. I'm eager for a new kind of tool to see what kind of effect that would have on the site.
Has your weblog led to any other opportunities?
Yeah, between kottke.org and my previous site 0sil8, I've gotten jobs, job offers, speaking gigs, made lots of friends, and met my wife. So a strong "yes" on this question, I'd say.
How do you choose items to link?
“ As in design and editing, I find the process of blogging is more about what you take away than what you leave. ”
Like the "what's your site about?" question I get all the time, I have no satisfactory answer to this question other than: I link to whatever I find interesting. But that's not strictly true...as in design and editing, I find the process of blogging is more about what you take away than what you leave.
Where do you find interesting links?
I have a list of usual suspects that I visit daily: online news sites, weblogs, and link aggregators like del.icio.us. I get a lot of links via email from readers. The best links, though, almost always come from off the beaten path.
Any surfing secrets?
Lead with your right foot, crouch slightly, arms out for balance, and stand about halfway back on the board. Most of all, have fun!
How long does it take you to write a short link entry? Do you have a formula you use when composing link entries? Do you write and rewrite these entries, or do you usually post the first thing you write?
Writing a short link entry takes almost no time. But I read (not skim) everything I post, and that does take time. Depending on the link, I may do further reading or research, either to add additional links and information or to verify that the original article is accurate. While I'm reading all of that, I'm writing the text for the post in my head, making sure it gives people an authentic sense of the original piece while also being somewhat entertaining. That's the goal, anyway.
How do you handle corrections?
Depends on the extent of the error. Sometimes I'll write a new post with the correction and a link from the original post to the correction. If it's not so bad, I'll strike the offending text and append an update with the correct information. With misspellings, grammar errors, stuff like that, I'll just correct the error without comment.
How do you choose items to write longer articles about?
If I have more than 2-3 sentences to write about something, I'll make it a bigger post. Or if I need to quote an article I'm linking to extensively or want to lend the piece a little more weight than just posting a link.
How long does it take you to write a longer entry? What is your methodology or approach? Do you have a formula you rely on?
Writing the longer entries is usually excruciating but also more rewarding if something actually turns out like I want it to. The process involves numerous rewrites, confronting insecurities, and more abandoned posts than I'd care to mention; I wouldn't recommend it to others.
Updating my site is more satisfying some days than others. Is there a certain type of entry, or a certain kind of day that is most satisfying for you?
Writing is a challenge for me, so I'm particularly happy when anything longer than 1-2 paragraphs turns out well. I've been tinkering with a few programming things behind the scenes and it's nice to take a break from the public side of the site to do that.
How does the possibility that you may be flamed affect your writing?
“ Maintaining calm in the face of criticism can be difficult, especially when the best flames contain real truths, and it's helpful to remember that when you read something...especially when the subject is you and how stupid, wrongheaded, and fucking retarded you are. ”
After more than 10 years of publishing stuff online, I'm more or less fireproof. Which is not to say that when flamed I simply insulate myself with the belief that I'm right and the flamer is wrong (which is a maddenly common approach among bloggers); the key is not to take it personally. Maintaining calm in the face of criticism can be difficult, especially when the best flames contain real truths, and it's helpful to remember that when you read something—an email, weblog post, newspaper editorial, etc.—what the writing says typically has much more to do with its author than with the subject at hand, especially when that subject is you and how stupid, wrongheaded, and fucking retarded you are.
Do you ever write to deliberately provoke a reaction? Any tips on how to do that?
I've probably done this in the past, but don't do it much anymore. Provoking reactions is not that hard; try not provoking someone who disagrees with your point of view, that's the real art.
How has your writing changed since you started blogging?
It's gotten better. I look back at some of my older posts and cringe. That's not to say it's good or anything. I've also lost the ability to write anything longer than 4-5 paragraphs...I just chuckle whenever someone suggests I should write a book.
Before you began blogging, did you consider yourself a writer? Do you now?
No on both counts. I'm much more interested in the editorial/curatorial aspect of blogging than writing. At a party a few years ago, Nick Denton told me that he thought the natural upgrade path for bloggers looking to work in traditional media was not to writer (of books, magazine articles or newspaper pieces) but to editor. That makes a lot of sense to me.
How many hours a day online do you spend online?
Too many, probably 8-10.
How much time each day do you spend on your site?
In some ways, I'm always spending time on the site. Work, play, life, it's all the about the same.
When do you blog?
Depends on the day, but usually 9-5 and then a bit before I go to bed.
How many weblogs do you follow? Do you use an RSS reader? Which one?
I use NewsFire to read about 300 sources a day, most of which are weblogs. I never used a newsreader before I started do the site full-time, but it's so efficient that I almost have to. There are lots of things I still don't like about RSS/Atom as a delivery mechanism, the most significant of which is the equal importance assigned to all items, but it'll work until a better solution comes along.
You are widely admired for your skill in Web design. Tell me what you've done with your site design and programming to enhance the reader experience, and to satisfy your own unique goals.
I've tried to keep the site as simple as possible. Clean design, lots of white space, explanation where it's needed. I spend a lot of time on the little things...the spacing between elements on the site, sizes of elements relative to each other, that sort of thing. So many sites focus too much on colors, brand, how many sidebars to have, and metadata overload and the entries themselves end up being almost unreadable. Which is insane because that's what readers are there to see.
I've also customized Movable Type to display various types of content in different ways. Book posts contain a thumbnail image of the cover, the author's name, and purchase information from Amazon. Movie posts have an associated rating and can be sorted chronologically, by rating, or alphabetically. I'm working (very slowly) on adding a couple more content types to the site.
Have you done anything with your RSS feed to make it more useful, accessible or user-friendly?
Aside from letting people know when a post has comments, providing the full text of posts, and making sure it validates, there's not really much you can do.
Whose writing do you particularly admire?
David Foster Wallace, for both his fiction and nonfiction. Richard Rhodes. George Orwell. James Gleick. Malcolm Gladwell. Steven Johnson. Michael Bierut. Maciej Ceglowski. Dean Allen. (Sadly, all white men. I loved Pride and Prejudice, but I wouldn't say I particularly admire Jane Austen as a writer because hers is not a style I strive to emulate.)
How many hours a day (or week) do you spend on offline media? What is it: books, magazine, television, film....
I try to read one or two books every two weeks. 5-6 magazines a month. I watch a lot of movies, mostly at home on TV. Now that Six Feet Under has ended, I don't have any TV shows I regularly watch. Ideally, I'd like to read more books, but I spend so much time reading online that I'm usually too burned out to read anything else.
How does offline input contribute to your blogging?
Less than it used to. I'll do occasional book and movie reviews, but that's about it.
You and your wife, Meg Hourihan, are both well-known bloggers. How do you manage that? Is it hard to avoid comparing audience size, media inquiries, speaking invitations, and the like?The online versus offline attention issue is an interesting one. My site has always been more popular, but Meg tends to get more speaking gigs, high profile media inquiries, and other opportunities. She's worked hard to develop her speaking skills, pursued speaking gigs, and works her social network effectively. I also think she's got an advantage over me because of Blogger (she co-founded the company that built it). For whatever reason, if you run a blog, you're just a blogger, but if there's a company involved, that makes you an expert. That's obviously over-simplifying the matter, but having that commercial association gets you taken more seriously by the media and conference organizers; just look at Robert Scoble.
Do either of you ever forget to read the other's site? Any repercussions?
I believe a skimming problem currently exists. At dinner, one of us will invariably ask the other, "Did you see such and such a link on my site today?" with a uncomfortable look and a stammered "Which one was that?" as a response. Which is fine...it provides for several opportunities for familial ribbing. On the other hand, if you can't interest your own spouse in what you're writing, maybe you're doing something wrong.
Why do you blog?
Curiosity? Habit? Addiction? Don't want to get a real job? Probably all of the above. Is it a good thing when you can't tell the difference between work, play, an addiction, or a hobby?
How has your weblog changed your life?
In nearly every aspect. I met my wife because of it and now it helps put food on the table.
With regard to blogging, what was your most memorable moment?
After working for 12 hours straight (I have no recollection of stopping to eat lunch), answering dozens of emails, responding to over 300 people on IM, and talking to a few journalists, some friends picked me up for a unrelated steak dinner at Peter Luger. I've never been on speed or anything like that, but I was so high and cranked up from all the activity/stress of the day that it took me more than an hour to calm down at dinner. I was blink-closing iChat windows that were popping up in front of me on the walk to the restaurant.
What are three blogs you think deserve wider recognition, and why?
Goldenfiddle. The celebrity gossip blog for people who don't like celebrity gossip blogs.
Cynical-C. He and I seem to seem to be on the same wavelength.
Pictures I Like For A Variety Of Reasons. Carefully curated funny.
What are your hobbies?
I don't really have any hobbies, unless eating out is considered a hobby. Travel? I am considering getting back into baseball card collecting.
What is the most telling thing about you?
I've had the same haircut for the past 10 years.
Mac or PC?
I have a Powerbook, purchased right before Apple switched over to the MacBook Pros.
Would you read your site?
I hope so. Everything I post is something I'm interested in. Plus, when I'm looking for new weblogs to read, the ones that grab my attention the most are like mine.
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