.: bloggers on blogging --> matt haughey
Bloggers on Blogging, June 2005
Matt Haughey is probably best-known as the creator of Metafilter, the first community weblog . In addition to Metafilter, Matt maintains three other websites: A Whole Lotta Nothing, his personal blog, PVRblog, which is focused on personal video recording devices, and Ten Years of My Life, where he is photographically documenting a decade of his life.
Matt, 32, has a masters in Soil Chemistry from University of California, Riverside and a BS in Environmental Science, and did research on heavy metals in lake ecosystems. Then he "started doing Web stuff and left the field." In the heyday of Pyra Labs, Matt was part of the legendary Blogger team from April 2000 to January 2001. He is the co-author of We Blog (Wiley, 2002) and a contributor to numerous other books on technology. Matt is currently the Creative Director for Creative Commons. He lives near Portland, Oregon, USA.
Because the problems of maintaining a popular community site are different from the general issues involved in blogging, I chose to focus our discussion on PVRblog and A Whole Lotta Nothing. Photo by Rannie Turingan, used with permission.
What is the first weblog you read?
The first one I remember reading daily and wanting to make a site like, was Camworld.
I read Jesse James Garrett's Infosift at jjg.net as well, and Evhead (he was blogging in 1998). I probably read several others but can't recall any that I really glommed onto like Camworld. I would regularly send tips in and squeal with joy when Cam posted them. (Scroll down a couple posts. We were all newbies at one point.)
I'm pretty sure I found weblogs via Steve Champeon's webdesign-L list. It seemed like everyone doing a weblog back then was a working Web designer and/or programmer, so we all hung out on that big list solving each others' daily problems. Part of the list's gift economy was that people would regularly have a personal website URL in their short email sigs. I probably found Camworld from that list, and other blogs from Camworld. I bet a good number of the early bloggers were on that list.
What about those blogs appealed to you?
They were highly entertaining and personal, plus they updated often. I was used to highly entertaining personal websites that only updated once a month.
You obviously were aware of the personal Web before you discovered weblogs. Which of those early personal sites and ezines did you read?
Most of the things I enjoyed were Web design related, as I was learning the craft back then. I read Lance Arthur's Glassdog and Derek Powazek's Fray with the most zeal. These sites were personal works and a ton of effort went into producing them, so they'd update every few weeks and that was fine back then (I would update my personal site maybe once every six months by just redesigning it).
I also loved 0sil8 for the same reasons. I read every High5 that came out and actually used to look forward to coming in on Wednesday mornings at work, knowing there was a new issue of High5 to read. I also found and enjoyed following zeldman.com/upcoming.html back in 1998 when it was mostly just a running log of all the updates he made to the site.
How were weblogs different from those sites?
The most obvious difference was the speed of updates. Instead of 2 times a month, you got 5 a day. And it was the short form that was easy to digest and still interesting if you followed all the links and read all the articles. So it was a mix of personality and efficient writing that pointed to all the wonderful things found online.
Of course, I remember the debates began even back then regarding whether or not this was a good direction to go with personal publishing. Most personal websites that updated had long, thoughtful essays and suddenly a bunch were cropping up with short commentary and links to other stuff.
I think that debate is still continuing but looking back, we were comparing apples and oranges. Just like how there's a Jim Lehrer newshour and a CNN headline news ticker, long personal essays and short blog posts serve different purposes but both have merit.
What catches your attention in a weblog?
Good content first and foremost, whether that's writing or photography.
How many weblogs do you follow? How do you find new ones?
About 60-80 I think, via Bloglines and blo.gs. I find new ones by reading the ones I do and sometimes following people they link to. I've also found blogs on random Google searches for certain topics and ended up subscribing to them.
Why do you use an update tracker (blo.gs) instead of RSS?
I'm sort of a Web designer at heart and like the personality of design people bring to the Web, so while I find RSS readers useful and handy, there's something lacking when everything at Bloglines looks the same. The other day I was reading 50 feeds one after the other, saw someone mention me, and thought the person saying it was someone I read. Turned out it was a different guy named Pete that blogged about the same topics. If I read both websites by both Petes, I would have never gotten mixed up.
So having a custom view of an update tracker performs the main function of RSS, by telling who has updated, but I get to read it on their sites and easily comment directly. The only thing that pulled me into RSS was the small number of sites I love that don't ping the blo.gs update server.
How many hours online do you spend a day?
Pretty much from waking up to going to sleep, with breaks for normal life activities. Realistically, about 12 hours a day.
Email is open the entire time, Web surfing is done when I wake up and after work hours, with checks throughout the day when I reach breaking points in my work.
When do you blog?
I blog all the time, both for work and my personal stuff, but I spend most of my effort after work hours. If I'm going to write a meaty post and do a bunch of editing on it to get it right, I'll wait until later that night to do it. If it's just sharing an interesting link, I'll do it the moment I find it.
Which tool do you use? Why?
I use Movable Type for a few of my blogs because it's powerful and flexible. I use Typepad for PVRblog because it's powerful but really easy. MetaFilter required that I build my own tool, since I wanted something very specific that wasn't available at the time.
Where are your sites hosted?
I lease three dedicated servers. It's necessary for MetaFilter to have two servers to itself, but it's kind of overkill for my personal sites, which is why I share that box with some friends.
How do you choose items to link?
It's hard to describe. I guess there's some unmeasurable quality that makes me think "Hey! I have to write a post about that!" and if it can't meet that test, I don't make a post about it.
What determines which items you link without much commentary, and which you write longer entries about?
There's probably a correlation between how much I care about something and the length of a post, but sometimes it's just how much free time I have to waste writing blog posts.
How long does it take you to write an entry? Do you spend much time editing?
It depends. On my personal blog I don't edit much unless what I'm going to say might be controversial. For PVRblog, the edits are just for grammar, as I don't really do much to rile anyone.
It probably takes a couple minutes to write short entries, longer ones with researched links and lots of text require several edits and can take an hour or so.
Most posts on my personal blog are off the cuff, but I do at least one pass for grammar and spelling. Stuff I've been mulling over I will edit many times before posting and it might be hours before I'm done and make it live.
How do you handle corrections?
I usually just post "UPDATE: foo bar was wrong it should have been bar foo" when necessary.
Do you ever write to deliberately provoke a reaction? Any tips on how to do that?
Heh. Yeah, I took a piss on the "MSM" nonsense a few months back. It was mostly to crack up my friends that read it. I was overly dramatic and posted tongue in cheek, but a lot of people took it seriously. It got a lot of reaction, but creeped me out because I kind of got a glimpse into what op-ed pundits do.
You play fast and loose with facts, appeal to emotion, and be overly dramatic to get a reaction. It's pretty much what Dvorak, Coulter, and a hundred other talking heads do everyday, but I found it distasteful my first time out.
Are you fairly accurate in predicting which of your entries will be widely linked?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know how that came to be or what exactly makes this possible. But I have a pretty good feeling what is going to be widely linked in other blogs when I write something. That MSM post totally blindsided me, but 99% of the time if I have an idea and I think it's a good one, and I write a long thoughtful post about it, I'm pretty sure it'll be linked a hundred times or more.
Do you have a background in writing?
“ I was an absolutely dreadful writer until years of daily email and blogging let me practice to the point at which I finally feel I can write well and express myself. ”
Nope, not at all. In fact, I struggled with every writing and literature course I've taken in school. I nearly failed some of them, and fought hard just to get a C in most. It wasn't until I started writing every day that I actually figured out how to write and read literature.
In fact, if you saw my SAT and GRE scores, you'd wonder if I was a native speaker of English. Seriously, I was an absolutely dreadful writer until years of daily email and blogging let me practice to the point at which I finally feel I can write well and express myself.
Writing everyday improved my ability to communicate significantly. I can feel it when I'm emailing work colleagues, drafting a holiday letter to extended family, or simply talking to others. Writing and reading blogs has really let me hone my communication skills.
Do you do any non-weblog writing?
I've contributed to a few technology books and writing 50k words for a book feels completely different than simply writing a blog post expressing an idea. The long form is quite different.
How has your writing changed since you started blogging?
It's improved generally. Sometimes I feel like I've gotten a bit too defensive from being exposed to places like Slashdot and MetaFilter. I'll want to make a point, but realize I need to plug each and every hole in my argument, on the off chance some dork replies with "but! but! but! what about x?!" When you spend most of your argument defending edge cases, sometimes your original point is lost completely.
Did you set out to be widely read? What steps did you take to become more widely known?
Nope, not at all. I guess to become more widely known it helped that I started in blogs very early, and published daily for six years. Basically, it was simply years and years of practice that helped me out. It helped me figure out how to write better, how to organize my thoughts into posts, how to keep things interesting, and eventually people that liked reading me, found me.
But if that were the case, then all the early bloggers would be well known. RasterWeb! (b. 1997), Now This (b. 1997), and the Bradlands (b. 1998) should have much more traffic than you, and Boingboing, Instapundit, and Gizmodo much less. So, if it's not longevity, what do you think makes a weblog popular?
Well, to be clear I said longevity helps, but it isn't the sole factor in being widely read. It certainly helps though, if you ever look at blog popularity indexes. Often the top 20 or 50 are loaded with blog that are four years old or more.
As to what makes a blog popular it's a mix of things. Most prominently, it's the content. I still read RasterWeb!, but I remember avoiding many "ye olde school blogs" that I didn't find interesting. After content you have to look at the sheer volume of output. Every day, BoingBoing, Gizmodo, and Instapundit shit out gobs and gobs of text from a very wide array of sources that few blogs can match. The last thing has to be a good bit of luck and timing. Every successful widely read blog served a niche well, gained a large audience, and kept on going. Being at the right place at the right time still counts for something.
“ Every successful widely read blog served a niche well, gained a large audience, and kept on going. ”
When did you start A Whole Lotta Nothing?
In February of 2001. I had my blog at haughey.com from November of 1999 up until then, but thought it was weird to have a blog so closely associated with my name and myself and I preferred to have a silly blog somewhere else. My love of self-deprecation led me to title it the way I did.
I also used the site as an opportunity to experiment, so I wrote my own blog CMS when I launched the site with every feature I felt was missing from Blogger. (This was the same week my time at Pyra was up, so I wanted to try something new blog-wise.)
What is its Technorati rank and traffic?
I think the rank is somewhere between 100-200. I don't have hard and fast numbers on traffic as I don't analyze the logs on my server. I would guess that I might have a couple thousand readers.
Why did you start it?
I had MetaFilter already, and I did blog some somewhat personal things there before realizing that didn't scale and I'd rather have some space of my own to vent, post updates about my life, etc.
How would you describe A Whole Lotta Nothing? What is it about?
Just a bunch of fluff that represents whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment.
In the beginning I aimed for it to be personal and journal-like, so I made some rule that I'd have no outside links in posts. The thinking behind it was that outside links = blogging = I should just post to MetaFilter. I think I stuck to that for the first few months but eventually relented.
When did you start PVRblog?
July of 2003. I just wanted a central place to jot down tricks and tips and news about my TiVo for friends.
What is its Technorati rank and traffic?
No clue on the rank, but I think it gets about 150k pageviews a month, according to my Google ad stats.
What about haughey.com. What are you doing with that domain these days?
I recently moved the domain from pointing at one server to another, and I didn't restore the database behind the old wiki site. I'm not really sure what I'll do with it in the future. I'd like to have a nice simple portfolio site, but then I'm not really looking for work so my motivation to do that is fairly low. I might just point the domain at my blog, and add more portfolio/history type stuff to it and combine the two.
How do you juggle so many balls? How do you decide what to devote time to, or even which project to think about?
It's getting harder with the new baby, since I'm spending a good deal of time with her. I'm finally realizing my limits and adjusting priorities as a result.
Usually, I spend time doing whatever I feel passionate about at that moment. I do have to figure out what fits where, so if I'm say, working on a kite camera and I can't wait to fly it, I think about if I should write it up for my personal blog, go look up ten kite cam sites for MetaFilter, or wait for the photos to put on my Ten Years site.
Have you ever burnt out? How did you handle it?
Yeah, several times. Most often it's my personal blog. I don't put a lot of effort into it and only update sporadically, but every once in a while I get awful feedback or something weird happens as a result of a post and I feel like I never want to post again.
I deal with it by taking time off the site that is causing burnout. For my personal blog, that's easy to do and I can skip posting for a week or more. For other projects, taking time off might mean a few hours or taking a weekend day off from the Internet entirely and doing something fun with the family.
Having many projects usually means I keep going even when burnt out on the biggest sites. So I check MetaFilter every day whether I want to or not, but I've been lagging on my Ten Years site, I haven't worked out since the baby arrive so no updates to my Fitlog, and my posting to my personal site is sparse due to work and personal time commitments.
I've noticed one positive side-effect of taking time off from a personal site: eventually I'll start filling my head with ideas for posts. It may only be a day or it may take weeks, but good ideas always come flooding back and I'd say every good post I've ever written was something I mulled over for a few days before I wrote about them. Time off is perfect for that kind of activity.
Is there anything you wish you had time to do with your sites?
I guess like all somewhat serious bloggers, I wish I could quit my day job and do this full time. I'm getting close to someday being able to do this, though it's probably still a ways off.
With extra time I'd put more effort into the stuff I'm doing. Take better photographs, write better, edit more, explore more ideas to research for future posts, etc. Often I feel rushed and I can tell when something goes out too quickly it contains mistakes in grammar and logic that I'd fix if I had the time.
Both of your blogs carry advertising, but as I understand it, PVRblog is the moneymaker. Give us the formula. How can people make money with their blogs?
PVRblog makes ok money, but I guess most comes from MetaFilter actually. People can make money with their blogs if they're in a special situation:
- You have to have loads of traffic
- You have to carve out a niche that makes you the expert on whatever you talk about
- You have to talk about a single thing
- That single thing has to be something companies compete for sales over
- You have to offer a service to your readers (application, membership, features)
- You need a dedicated ad sales person to score deals
You don't have to do all of these, but all the successful blogs I can think of hit almost all of these.
How does your day job affect your weblog?
It colors the topics I'm interested in. I follow the world of technology law pretty closely and stay up to date on various court battles. That comes up from time to time in my blogs, in the topics I cover.
Has blogging affected your worklife in any way?
“ That’s the deep dark secret of blogging I think that everyone tiptoes around... to some extent blogging takes away from your workday. ”
I'd be lying if I said blogging doesn't affect my job. It affects everyone's job when they blog. That's the deep dark secret of blogging I think that everyone tiptoes around... to some extent blogging takes away from your workday. That could be minor, if you read/write blogs only during breaks (but then you don't get time to eat lunch or relax on break if you're blogging), and at the opposite end are people sitting around all day reading blogs and crafting posts instead of working. I suspect most people reading this hover somewhere in between and we've all likely been at either extreme at one time or another.
What are your hobbies?
Bike riding, running, gardening, photography, hiking.
How many hours do you spend on offline media?
Not that much, come to think of it. I watch an hour of TV a day, by plopping down in front of my TiVo during and after dinner and seeing what's worth watching. I see movies occasionally, and listen to music constantly. After years of avoiding them, I finally broke down and started getting a few niche magazines I read shortly after they arrive in the mail and more often in the bathroom for weeks afterwards.
What about books and other offline reading — do you still have the time and desire to read offline?
My desire to read books has never been very great. I've had sporadic times where I loved it but I spent my life being forced to read and it took a long time before I wanted to do it on my own. With life being so busy lately though, actually taking time to read books has gone to zip. I've been enjoying audiobooks during car trips though, and it's how I've "read" the last 5-6 books.
What types of books do you listen to? What are the last 3 you "read"?
Almost all non-fiction. The last three audiobooks I "read" were Freakonomics, Blink, and Assassination Vacation. I have Zinn's Peoples History of the US, Jared Diamond's Collapse, and an audiobook called The Future of Music queued up next.
How does offline input contribute to your blogging? To your other writing?
“ It’s not that I see something on TV and I think I should blog about it, but it’s mostly that time spent away from the computer allows me to think about things. ”
Offline "input" contributes greatly. Most often not directly — it's not that I see something on TV and I think I should blog about it, but it's mostly that time spent away from the computer allows me to think about things. Or I might be doing something ordinary and stop myself to think about why things work the way they do with the thought in the back of my mind that I want to articulate it for a blog post later. I guess blogging has made me more perceptive about things that way.
You spoke about defending edge cases in your writing. Do you feel your online visibility has made you a target in any way?
I don't know if I'd go that far, but there are times I say something off the top of my head that gets quoted somewhere as the official word from my employer, which can be bad. Usually it's harmless, but I do watch what I say a bit knowing the lines can be blurred between my public personal space and my public professional space.
Has your online visibility ever affected your family?
Yeah, in many good and a few bad ways. I've got a huge assortment of friends I've met online and eventually offline, living all over the world that we visit, and receive gifts from. Most everyone I knew in San Francisco was someone I met online. The other positive aspects of online visibility are all the old friends that track us down online (probably from Google searches) and can keep up with us. When we had the baby in May, there were a number of people that emailed out of the woodwork, folks I haven't talked to in years, who found out online.
In terms of bad things, once in a great while your site might get the attention of someone with real problems that wants to lash out, and depending on how far off balance they are, that can range from stress affecting your family to harassment that extends to your personal life with phone calls and threats and authorities get involved.
Lucky for me, it's almost entirely good things that come out of living your life online.
How has your blogging changed your life?
Blogging has opened many doors for me. Every job I've had since 2000 I got or was aided by my blogging activities. I've met hundreds of people and made dozens my close personal friends. I kind of live in the middle of nowhere now, and I'd say I only have two really close friends within an hour's drive, but I'm never lonely or isolated because my AIM list is filled with fifty people I talk to on a regular basis. I get to speak at conferences and public speaking has always terrified me (I've gotten used to it a bit). Blogging pays for all my hosting (several boxes running hundreds of dollars a month) and covers my house mortgage.
What was your most memorable moment?
It's hard to say, I've had a great run of luck the past few years and gotten to meet a lot of people I've always wanted to meet, I've been mentioned in pretty much every news outlet I ever dreamed of, and I'm happy that I've the chance to balance the need to write, the ability to communicate, and found a way to make it pay for itself without being crass.
I can point to a recent moment that's pretty much the nicest email I've ever gotten that had me walking on clouds for days. There is someone I greatly admire who creates one of my favorite TV shows that I exchanged email with, and it turned out this person loves MetaFilter and Ask MetaFilter to death and said some very nice things about my approach to running it and the results. That reminded me there's a reason to do all this.
Why do you blog?
At its core, I think it's simply to express myself. Through blogging I've found I actually love to write, love to share ideas with any and all, and blogging is perfect for that.
Name three blogs you think deserve wider recognition.
Megan's Not Martha is a long-time favorite. She covers all the coolest craft and cooking things found online, shares tips and recipes for her own projects, and has kept the site interesting for years on end now. I love personal sites that chronicle a person's magnificent obsessions, and Not Martha is a guided journey through Megan's.
There are a lot of amazing photoblogs worthy of mention but it's a tie between my two favorites: Tim's Big Empty and Jose Luis' Experience. Both display fabulous work on par with working professional photographers and though I'm sure both have done paid photography work now, they offer jaw-dropping amazing peeks through their lenses.
Luke Seeman's Decisive Moments is one of my favorites because Luke is a newspaper man and a great writer that takes time and care with his words. I can tell from reading his site that he's thinking about every post for a day or two. He does a great job setting the scene and getting to the heart of moments from his life. It's great stuff.
Mac or PC?
Both! I wrote up a long how-to describing my setup: my desk has both a powerbook and a HP desktop seamlessly connected as one big virtual desktop. It's great because I can run my favorite app on each platform for what it was designed to do (homesite on my PC for coding, ical on my mac for managing my time) and I also get to run any app that comes out and gets some buzz, but happens to be single platform only.
Would you read your sites?
Yeah, I would, definitely. I write about what interests me and I read blogs that follow similar topics, so the stuff I write is right along with the things I read.
 It's easy to make the case that Slashdot was the first community weblog. However, at the time Matt started Metafilter, the Slashdot community didn't see itself that way. It was only after weblogs evolved to include features like commenting that Slashdot came to be widely regarded as a proto-community blog.
Next: Jessamyn West
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