Transcript of John Gruber and Merlin Mann’s SxSW Interactive 02009 presentation, HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog with Credibility!.
Both Gruber and Mann have written follow-ups — Gruber’s is unsurprisingly the longer of the two, while Mann’s has the audio (and comics!).
Note: There is some language involved, which I have left uncensored.
Before we get started
I was forced to break this transcript into two parts because when I fed the entire thing into Tumblr the text was simply dropped. I apologize for this; I really dislike pagination (and it even comes up in the talk).
Merlin Mann: This is 43folders, and I’m Merlin, and this is my pal John Gruber, from Daring Fireball dot net; how’s it going, John?
John Gruber: Good, how are you, Merlin? Good to be here.
MM: I’m doing extraordinarily well. This is — boy, this is really good for our first take, isn’t it?
JG: Yeah, it’s great. One taken out.
MM: That’s all we need. Well, anyway, you all know John from Daring Fireball. We did a talk about a week-and-a-half ago, at South by Southwest in Austin, and we talked about blogging. Do you remember that?
JG: I do.
MM: Yeah. We talked about trying to do a better job with your blog, and kinda doing your best, and trying to move beyond, like, a quick buck, to seeing kinda longer-term opportunities. Is that roughly what we talked about?
JG: Yeah, I think big picture it was about, maybe, turning yourself around from having your primary goal to be making a bundle of money — which probably isn’t gonna happen anyway, and really leads you the wrong way — and instead turn around, and just think… find your obsession, and follow it.
MM: Yeah. I totally… and, y’know, the response to it’s been really good, which has been kinda exciting, and so… we wanna share that with you today. So, we stole the audio straight off of the site at South by Southwest, so we’re counting on our friend Hugh to run interference with Legal; it runs just about an hour, and we’ll have a couple comments after you listen to it. For our audience’s sake, John, do you remember what the title of our talk was?
JG: Sure, it was very short and punchy. Title was: ‘HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog with Credibility!’
MM: First of all, I cannot believe that somebody let us have this title. John and I do a lot of ambitious things that we’re pretty sure won’t turn out, as you know, and we figured somebody would change that. Don’t you think, kinda?
JG: 100%. It was, might as well have been titled ‘Title to Come’.
MM: Yeah. Yeah, T.K. Gump, yeah. It’s funny, because we pitched this months ago, and as the title implied, we were prepared to come in and provide a Tour de Force middle-aged–white–guy rant about how all of you are doing it wrong. Because… is that a core competency? Is that fair?
JG: It’s pretty much all I do.
MM: Okay. And just to be clear, it’s not, John’s not gonna tell you how it could be a little better — he might get to that toward the end — but he’s mostly just gonna tell you you’re doing it wrong.
Know what’s funny is, so we’re like ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this thing, and we’re gonna be like “Ah, don’t make a shitty site, where you’re just trying to get on Digg. Like, it’s great to be on Digg, but, like, quality, maaaan, we’re great!”’ And then, what, a couple months went by, right?
JG: Right. Well, when we got started it… When we got started the general economic situation was pretty much like a constant series of news articles about ‘Are we in a recession? Is this technically a recession? Y’need 0.9% decrease in growth over ten months, or blah blah blah’, and now, y’know, it’s ‘Are we in a depression?’.
MM: Yeah, it got to be… of course, we hadn’t done anything on this at all, for… let’s just say we, let’s say it was done, what, a month ago, we were all done?
MM: But for a long time we didn’t do anything, and finally, it’s like ‘Can we afford the flight?’. ’Cause, yeah, I’m glad that I can educate you on how you’re doing it wrong, but I don’t know if I have enough money in the bank.
It’s been a weird trip; there’s a time that John and I have lived through, that I think — at least in my own mind — I’ll remember as the golden age of the one-person boutique personal publishing empire. And if you were lucky enough to accidentally land on that gravy train, for lack of a better word, it was pretty, it was kind of an interesting ride.
But… I think the original idea of what we wanna talk about in the end has very little to do with any economic indicators. Fair enough?
JG: Totally correct.
MM: Yeah. It is a different talk. I think there are four assumptions that we wanna toss out, just to frame this, very quickly. We’re not here to tell you what you should make, and we’re not here to tell you how you should make it, or what your ultimate goals should be — but we’re gonna assume four things about everybody in here. Step zero is we’re gonna assume that all of you make things. Right? Like maybe have a job, and you type in Excel, and you’re not a painter, and you don’t have a beret. But we’re going to assume that you make things. We’re gonna assume that you care very much about certain issues or topics, to a point where you’re really verging on obsession. We’re gonna assume that it’s important to you — whether you’re a writer, a photographer, or an interpretive dance choreographer — that you wanna get better at it, and that it’s valuable to you to use a platform like personal publishing to become a better writer, thinker, photographer, whatever. We’re gonna assume that it matters to you to have the credibility and respect of people you admire. And, for the sake of argument — just for fun, to make it worth the flight — we’re gonna assume that you would not mind making a little bit of money, or finding some kind of an opportunity that goes beyond the strictly self-improvement aspects.
JG: And so there’s this quote that I’ve sort of hung this whole thing on, right from the outset, from Walt Disney, and it’s, to me, it’s the thing that made me wanna do this talk. And he said: ‘We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.’ And I think that’s so profound, and to me, it’s not about a subtle difference in strategy; it’s a fundamental, you’re either going this way, or you’re going that way. And so if your interest is making money, and then you decide, ‘All right, I wanna make a boatload of money from a website, how do I do that?’, well then the next fifty-seven minutes or whatever are gonna be useless to you, because that is not what we’re here to say. You can, y’know, you can get up, we won’t mind, go see Zeldman —
MM: Yeah, definitely go see Zeldman. That guy’s smart.
Yeah, cause I mean, I think the one thing I really regret, I think, about that kind of funny title — it’s kinda funny, right? sorta? yeah, it’s a little funny, yeah — the part about that I wanna make sure we don’t misconstrue in the desire to be a smartass is that, like I say, I’m not trying to tell you what you should do, and I’m not trying to judge anything that I just isn’t, that I would say just is not for me. And I think the dirty little secret of what we’re trying to say ultimately is that it shouldn’t matter to me. You shouldn’t care. If I’m not in your target audience, if I’m not the person you wanna reach, we should both be totally cool with you not caring what I think. And that ultimately, the people that I admire — and I think that John admires — it’s not about arrogance, but it is about having the confidence to know what you wanna say, and who you wanna say it to. And whether you wanna talk about having a good run on Twitter, or whether you wanna talk about 135 exciting new ways to launch Firefox, that’s your decision. But we wanna help you do the shit out of that, in a way that’s super-high quality. And I think that’s kind of where we’re heading. Fair enough so far?
JG: Yeah, I think so.
MM: Um… this is a little rant of mine that I’m gonna quickly go through. I have this theory… I dunno if you wanna call this blogging, personal publishing, insert-your-favorite-gerund for putting things on the web that you made. There’s a controlling metaphor for this that means a lot to me, and it’s… I tried to write this down in a way that’s clear, so I’ll read this.
Topic times voice. Or, if you’re a little bit more of a maverick, obsession times voice.
So what does that mean? I think almost all of the best non-fiction that has ever been made comes from the result of somebody who can’t stop thinking about a certain topic — a very specific aspect, in some cases, of a certain topic. And second, they got really good at figuring out what they had to say about it.
And if you have obsession without voice — or topic without voice — what do you have? You have basically a keyword search. You have pointless reblogging. You have — ah, I should say reblogging without curation, right? You guys know what I’m talking about? We all love these sites; we all, we enjoy going places where we’re seeing things that we’ve seen before, about… steampunk. And not a problem with steampunk! Steampunk’s… but, y’know, do it well.
And then, on the other hand, if you have voice without an obsession, you get a lot of, y’know, people commenting on the Thai food that they just had, on Twitter.
And I guess what we’re saying is to figure out where you are, as somebody who wants to get better. We’re assuming you wanna become like a lion of this stuff. And I guess what we’re saying is we wanna help you figure out whatever it is that you wanna do — and whatever outcome you wanna see as a result, how do you use a platform like personal publishing become really great, to really become kind of like the go-to person for whatever topic you’re obsessed with is.
Oh, here’s the line I wrote this morning, even though this was done a month ago. I said, whatever your topic is, try to figure how to be better at it than 80% of everybody else in the world. I… I think that’s very ambitious, but I’m gonna say that’s — and you know what, you probably won’t be. Right?
JG: Right. And I mean, I think that there’s… It’s almost like we need to warn you that there’s a certain inherent douchiness to what we’re doing, as we’re sitting up here and sort of, in some ways, holding ourselves up as the examples that are doing it right. And that’s, y’know, it’s sort of un-humble and not really what you’re supposed to do, and y’know, to be a humble, nice person. But…
MM: We’re trying, right now.
JG: And that’s really the thing; for me —
MM: That’s the 80%, is the trying, really.
JG: — I’ve got this thing, where what I write; I had this idea at the beginning, and I’ve always liked the New Yorker magazine, and it’s, just because it’s so well-written, and they will just take any topic that whoever’s writing about and go into such great length about it, even if it’s just one tiny angle of it, and they’ll just go… y’know, if they need six thousand words for it, it’s six thousand words, and it’s just so well-written.
And that just is like in a nutshell, when I wanna remind myself why I’m doing it at Daring Fireball, is I want to write about these topics I’m obessed with — and I just assume you guys know what those topics are, I don’t have to rehash them — but… if they were gonna be covered in the New Yorker, and if they were gonna pay me to do it, how would that be? How hard would I have to work to do that? And you might be saying ‘John, I like your stuff, that’s why I’m here to see you; I love your site, you really write about some of this UI stuff; and oh, tabs, that thing about the tabs — ’
MM: Tabs, yeah…
JG: ‘ — in Safari, oh, that was great! —’
MM: This is a man who cares about tabs.
JG: ‘— Oh, what was fantastic, but let me tell you something, buddy, that shit is not from the New Yorker.’. But that’s exactly it! I would be the first one to tell you that I’ve never hit that mark, and that’s…
I think it’s so important to have a goal that’s out there that you know is beyond your reach, so that you’re always improving. I do feel, I feel that I am such a better writer now than when I started the site six years ago. I mean, there’s just no doubt in my mind that I’m better at it. And I still feel like I’m nowhere near as good as I wanna be. I can write something and it’ll be the article that, y’know, when I meet people at a place like here, and they’ll remind me, they’ll say ‘I love that thing you wrote a couple weeks ago’, and it’s something that I just think, ‘Oh my God, that is so far short of the idea I set out to write, but thank you so much for saying it’, but that to me is the whole point, is that you’ve gotta have a goal that is so far out of your reach, and… it seems to me that almost everybody else is setting their goal to write…
MM: … write on a very broad topic that a lot of other people cover to a very large audience that they they don’t really care about.
JG: Right, and they’re —
MM: Some, some people; not everybody. But there’s… if everything is what you wanna do, then you’re not really doing a thing. If you wanna make everybody listen to something you have to say about everything all the time, how do they know it’s for them? How do you know that you’ve reached the right person, if you’re trying to please everybody? And, y’know, for me, I’ve got another metric that I use — I like John’s; I mean, I’m not the writer John is, and I aspire to be — I’ll take it in a slightly different direction. Y’knoww, John’s very anal retentive; I don’t know if you follow what John does, but I mean, I don’t know if you know on Twitter, John’s wife, Amy Jane — who you should follow, is the funniest person on Twitter — and she’ll just talk about how he, for like half an hour, he’ll talk about kerning, like on something in a commercial, ’cause he really really really cares about that. And you know what? Almost none of you care about that, and that’s okay with him. But for those of you who also really really really care about kerning, it’s nice to find somebody who’s on the same page.
And if John decided instead that, like, he wanted to suddenly branch off into something that he didn’t really care about because he thought it would get him a lot of pageviews, he’s gonna cut into muscle, by not caring about what you both already care about. And so, for me, I have to be honest, I aspire to different kinds of things; I’m definitely all over the map, and I’m kind of desperately always trying different things to figure out if this is the thing I wanna do, but one thing I do, I think about it differently.
I think about it in terms of, the way I put it is — you guys okay? I think about it in terms, the phrase is, ‘Who do I wanna delight?’. I try to think a lot, less about, like, ‘Is this something that will, y’know, get me this kind of link?’, and more like ‘Is this something that John would think is not a piece of crap?’. ‘Is this something that, like, if Zeldman saw it, or if Dave Gray saw this, like, would Dave be into it?’ Like, if it’s something funny, like, Adam — lonelysandwich — doesn’t think much of anything I do is funny, but I aspire to make Adam Lisagor laugh.
Do you follow me? Can you think about, like, one face behind your monitor that you see when you’re making something? Like, can you tell, like, whether you’ve made something that would make somebody’s day? Or are you just thinking about a big pot of people who will click on your stuff? Because the truth is, once you figure out who those faces are, it gets a lot easier to make something that you’re really really proud of, regardless of what it is that you wanna make.
JG: Even with something as absolutely stupid as jokes you publish on Twitter. It is true. And you do get a certain kind of feed back, like with the Favrd, or ‘fah-vard’ — how do you…
MM: I say ‘f’vard’.
JG: ‘F’vard’? Like… that’s like the elephant, isn’t that the elephant..?
MM: Oh yeah, F’vard, he’s the one with the crown.
JG: Right. But the weird thing about that is it is true. And we cheat — I mean, we are the worst cheaters in the world at Twitter, because we —
MM: We use Wikipedia and a dictionary.
JG: Well, and we wrote, like, scripts to, like, add subscribers and autofollow…
MM: SEO thing…
JG: … ungodly subscriber counts and so of course we get on Favrd for really bad jokes. But to me, I get a thrill when someone who… to me, it doesn’t matter how many people say the joke is funny; but if there’s somebody who I really like who did, oh man, that is the greatest. Even if it’s like…
MM: Oh, totally. Like, if you’re watching Favrd to see who favorited your stuff, like… I mean, it’s nice, I like it when a lot of people like something, but like, when — God, why am I kissing Zeldman’s ass so bad? He’s not even here — but I see his little funny orange icon come up, and I’m like, oh my gosh, Zeldman thought something I did was okay. And yeah, that’s needy; I’ll own that. But I dunno, I think that’s meaningful.
There’s this… I think it’s Stephen King; I know it’s Stephen King, but I think the phrase he uses is ‘ideal reader’. There’s this book of his that most people are sick of me talking about, called On Writing, that I like a lot. There’s two kinds of people: there’s people who groan because you talk about On Writing, and there’s people who’ve read it and go ‘It changed my game.’. Whether you liked Carrie or not. But he uses this phrase ‘ideal reader’, which is, for him that’s often his wife, or the first reader, if you’ve ever heard that phrase. And again, I’m talking about photography, I’m talking about music; whatever you make. Like, who are you making it for? Who’s your ideal reader? Who’s your ideal reader, John?
JG: My ideal reader is like a second version of me. Like, I just imagine — no, I do! I imagine —
MM: You’re gonna go blind.
JG: I, y’know, I’m just up here to lay it all out. I’m gonna be very honest. And it is… it’s totally…
MM: We’re pushing the douche button, but I think that’s gonna be okay.
JG: I mean, but that is why, it’s like someone in my racket who’s doing the whole thing from home, most days I don’t wear pants. ’Cause there’s a lot of touching yourself involved.
MM: Ya gotta find your comfort zone.
JG: But it is. It’s me, in my mind it is that I had the idea to do this thing, the thing that has become Daring Fireball. I started it in 02002, but I had the idea long before that. And it just never seemed quite right, never seemed quite right. And I’m not sure what happened, but at some time in 02002 it seemed like, okay, I’ve gotta actually do it and try it and start it.
But in my mind, there’s, like, another version of me that is still thinking now in 02009 ‘I oughta do that site where I tell everybody how they’re wrong about everything.’. Do my little grey background with the white text because I think it looks better, and not have any crap on the page, and all these ideas. But there’s a version of me that still hasn’t done it, and he’s out there, and he thinks about the same things I think about, and he wishes that people would write about these things in great detail, and that’s who I write for. I just imagine him out there, and he just loves it.
And maybe that’s, like, the worst thing possible, ’cause that’s the thing that’s keeping him from actually doing his own site, because my site is so spot — ‘Oh, I wish I’d said that! Oh, I wish I’d said that!’. And I just keep trying to get that. And I always think too, about, like, is he out there thinking ‘Why hasn’t Gruber written about blank yet?’? Because I know he’s thinking ‘Oh my God. He’s gotta have a story in the works about whatever.’.
MM: You said something that I’ve seen quoted in other places — I dunno where you originally said this. One time we were talking on the phone and you said this, and I was like, y’know…
At a time when it was considered de rigueur to have comments, and I still had comments on my site because I thought I had to have comments on my site, I was like ‘You don’t do comments. What’s the deal with that?’ And you, like, you said — you probably remember what you said — and you said it in this kind of passionate tone, and it was kind of scary — and you were like ‘I wanna own every single pixel on my site, from the top left to the lower right. And if I have somebody come in — even if it’s somebody incredibly smart; even if it’s whoever; even if it’s SeoulBrother comes in and has something to say, like somebody really smart and really funny, like, it’s not my site any more.’.
Well okay, so should you turn off comments? No. That’s not what we’re saying. But we are, I am saying, figure out, if you do decide to own every pixel of what you make — and I’m not saying I do; I’m pretty slack about this stuff — but I think it’s a good pattern, if you’re thinking about this stuff, to figure out how you own every pixel of what you’re making, to the point where you know you’re reaching who you wanna reach. If it’s a broad audience, that’s not a problem. Reach the shit out of a broad audience.
But if you’re sitting there going, like, ‘I really hope Malcolm Gladwell sees this someday’, or ‘I really hope Anne Lamott sees this one day’, or, God love me, ‘I really hope Stephen King sees this and thinks this is smart, ’cause that would mean a lot to me’, then that that gets you thinking in a really different way from ‘I just need to post twelve times a day.’. It’s a very different approach.
JG: I have a good story about that sort of thing, where you finally find out that the people who you hope are reading and enjoying your site are actually reading it.
And this was two years ago at WWDC, the big Mac nerd development conference, and it was the first one after they had announced the iPhone; the iPhone wasn’t even actually out yet, and so you couldn’t actually have an iPhone, but everybody already wanted to program for it at WWDC, ’cause they’d already said that it’s gonna be Cocoa, and Cocoa programmers, as soon as they hear that, they just get a big stiffy, and… all they wanted to do was write iPhone software. And at the big announcement with Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall — the guy who’s in charge of this SDK stuff — they come out, and they, quote, they say ‘We have a really really sweet solution for all you guys who wanna write software for the iPhone.’. And it was: you can write web apps and they’ll run in MobileSafari.
And it was so exactly the — the four thousand people who go to WWDC are the four thousand people out of the six billion on the planet who least wanted to hear that. And, so, the consensus, it was, like… Those announcements go out they’re, like… they’re really for the press, ’cause those things go out and USA Today writes about them and David Pogue writes about them in the New York Times and millions and millions then read what Pogue wrote in the New York Times.
But for the four thousand people in the room? I described it in my coverage of that as a ‘shit sandwich’. They wanted to hear the opposite, and it was set up — the worst part about it that was it was set up as ‘We have a really sweet solution’, and that really, it was, like, electric, I mean, all of a sudden nobody was really thinking that’s what they were gonna say.
So the next day — fast forward twenty-four hours. I’m on the escalators in the Moscone Center; I’m coming down, and right behind me is Phil Schiller, y’know, senior vice president, right underneath Steve Jobs, the guy did the MacWorld keynote, y’know, a couple weeks ago — and I go, I’m gonna introduce myself. I turn around, and I said ‘Hey, Phil, I’m John Gruber.’. He goes ‘Hey, John! It’s so great to finally meet you!’ And he was so happy, he totally recognized me, and then the next thing out of his mouth is: ‘I’ve gotta disagree with you about that “shit sandwich” thing.’. And I… I mean, I was just like absolutely blown away that Phil Schiller, in the twenty-four hours after, like, a huge WWDC keynote, had gone to Daring Fireball and read my site. And then we had, we had a wonderful, it was absolutely phenomenal, like ten minute thing where we talked and, y’know, he told me how I was wrong, and y’know.
MM: Yeah, well, that’s…
JG: But it blew me away, it blew me away. Senior vice president at Apple read my thing about…
MM: That’s giant. For like, anybody, especially if you write stuff, there’s no greater thrill than having somebody that you know and admire go ‘I’m even aware you exist.’. But, like, for them to go ‘I enjoyed that thing you did’, like, somebody said hi outside a minute ago and ‘I like that one thing’, and, like, that made my day. That’s a connection. ’Cause, like, I did a thing, and I do this weird stuff that I can’t explain to my family, and I don’t understand how my daughter eats, but, like, somebody comes up, and goes ‘Hey, truck spank’, or goes, like, ‘Hey, Hipster PDA’, and I’m like, oh, man, that’s… Like, I’m not making this shit up, that’s awesome.
And if I’d gone out there and tried to figure out, like, how to be somebody else that was already that person, right? Like, I really like Cory Doctorow, but we already… There’s this great line, Ira Glass does this wonderful series of videos — Ira Glass from This American Life — and he has this great quote where he says, he says ‘The problem is a lot of people, they go out, and they wanna be’ — that’s my Ira Glass, or maybe it’s my Alex Bloomberg, but um — that’s funny to five people, but I’m glad you got it. That’s… see? duh. He goes ‘The thing is, people go out there, and they’re always trying to emulate the success of other people, right? And so you get on TV, and you try to pretend you’re Ted Koppel. But you know what? They’ve already got a Ted Koppel. They don’t need you.’ So y’know, like, your competition is somebody who had a unique opportunity a long time ago, and now you’re gonna try to, like, trace the shadow of that on a sidewalk and hope it’s a career? Right? It’s… we’ve got our Koppel, now who are you?
JG: And our instincts, I think, serve us wrong; and I, we call it’s like a lizard brain thing. But, like, our instincts tell us that if you want to write something — I mean, and that is part of these assumptions that we’re making, is that if you want to write, and we say write because that’s what we do, but again, it could be photography; it could be, y’know, a series, just making, like, a short film a week; any kind of thing. But obviously the whole reason you’re publishing it is that you do want to find a readership, or watchership — what do you call the people who watch videos? I dunno — listenership for a podcast; but you wanna find an audience. And I mean it’s, y’know, who knows? Who knows what the drive is for that.
But the irony is… the mismatch is that our instincts tell us that if you want to find an audience, you should try to find something that is like the things people are already enjoying.
MM: Right. Like how many of you guys — oh, you’re probably not old enough to remember this. But, like, after Star Wars came out, between like 01978 and 01980, there was, like, an unbelievable crap of movies and TV shows that were just unbelievably bad, because they wanted to cash in on the Star Wars thing. And yeah, they probably made a little bit of dough, but apart from Battlestar Galactica — and that’s the old one; don’t get mad, don’t write letters — but the, but, like, could you name a bunch, I’m sure some of you can; why am I even saying this.
‘So, actually, Space Wars ’79 featured Dan Blocker, who had been on Bonanza. He was the… so…’. But…
Ted Koppel was Ted Koppel because a bunch of Americans got kidnapped, and Americans cared a lot about what happened to them. And so they started this little show, for a half hour, every night. Right?
JG: Right. It started, Nightline started with the Iranian hostage situation. Forty-four Americans in Iran, and they weren’t gonna let ’em go.
MM: The country, like — you don’t remember this, ’cause you’re all, like, twenty, and with the SMS — but, like, America was gripped. This was a country that had not had its ass kicked in a pretty long time, and we were totally gobsmacked by what to do about ‘a bunch of people in the Middle East’ — that’s air quotes, if you’re listening in audio — what are we gonna do with these crazy people who took… America was gripped, right?
JG: Yeah, ’cause I guess it was like a sense of impotence because they’ve got them, and we’re like ‘Give ’em back.’, and they’re like ‘No.’. And that’s it.
MM: That’s it. Sorry.
JG: But, so, what did ABC News have? ABC News had the Peter Jennings show that’s on at 7 or 6:30 or whatever, and it’s a half hour, and they have to cover everything in the world; everything that goes on in Washington, and everything that goes on worldwide, and there’s a bit on sports, and… So, y’know, there’s, like, ninety seconds every night for an update on the Iranian hostage situation.
But it was this thing that people were obsessed about; Ted Koppel was completely obsessed about. And so he was like, ‘All right, why don’t we do a thirty minute show; what time is open? When can I get on?’ And they’re like, ‘Uh, 11:30 ? 12 maybe twelve?’
MM: Against Johnny Carson?
JG: Right. ‘You get on… we got nothing.’ They were showing, like, the million dollar movie at the time. And so they just invented a totally new show: thirty minutes, every night, on the exact same topic every night, which is: everything new about this Iranian hostage situation.
MM: Right. And so, like, today, you go ‘Oh, you know what? I really admire Ted Koppel. I wanna be Ted Koppel.’ Well, you’re gonna need a couple things. The first one is you’re gonna need, like, a red wig, and then second you’re gonna need a time machine.
Because the reason Ted Koppel is Ted Koppel is not so different from the reason Michael Arrington is Michael Arrington or John Gruber is John Gruber. Which is, you cannot recreate the context, the timing, the everything of a moment where something happened, right?
I was saying this last night — who was I saying this to last night; Jim Coudal — I think, y’know, a lot of Americans don’t realize that in 01943, we didn’t know we were gonna win the War. Right? If you’re twenty, you just assume that we always used to win wars. In 01943 — ask your grandparents — it was pretty freaky, man. People didn’t know what was gonna happen.
We lose that, when we just try to, let’s say for example; I dunno, take any example of a site that you admire. And instead of just focusing on the voice, or just focusing on the topic. There’s no way to recreate somebody else’s success, and why would you try? Which is not a way to say I’m… and again, I think you have stuff to say about this, but I would say it’s not, I’m not saying go out and, like, learn from somebody else’s playbook; I am in fact saying go do that. But there’s that [37signals thing] not long ago that you linked to. It was, like, ‘What is it you’re copying?’, y’know? Are you copying the right thing, when you try to repurpose somebody’s theoretical success for what you wanna do?
JG: Right. And so, and… how many people here have heard of the 37signals? Yeah. So it’s, they’ve got the Basecamp, which is their project management app. And they invented Ruby on Rails to power it, and you get all this stuff for free. And then after they got successful, there’s all these other web apps that have come out — and maybe it has nothing to do with project management, it’s not that people have tried to rip it off the app — but they’ll make another app that does something else, but it looks like a 37signals app. It’s just got all these little, like, visual cues that are very very distinct, and it’s theirs, and it’s…
MM: You can move the rows around, and it’s a clean design; y’know, it’s…
JG: And it’s like they’re copying the wrong thing. It’s like, it’s almost like, you see a Honda Accord, and you decide, ‘Oh, that’s a nice car, I’ll make one like that’, and then you just sit there and look at it, and you just end up with, like, a papier-mâché car, and you’re just using wet tissue paper. There’s nothing to it; it’s just hollow. Whereas, the thing that’s worth copying is the attitude that they had at the outset; what made them do it. And project management meant things like Gantt charts, and…
MM: Every project — and I was a project manager — and everything that was out there — no offense against any of the apps, but — it was like, assumed that making software was necessarily like making a bridge, instead of being a little more agile, and just having the stuff you need, y’know. And their approach, it’s the same thing as Google. It would be like saying, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna go create a white page with two buttons, and become the most successful company in the world.
Or, like, and my rant — and I’m sorry, I’m not gonna shut up about this — I’m so tired of every social media douche going ‘Zappo’s is on Twitter!’. And you’re like, ‘Yeah, they’re on Twitter; after putting millions of dollars into customer support.’ It’s like, getting an account on Twitter does not make you Zappo’s. Having the resources behind serving the shit out of your audience makes you Zappo’s. And it doesn’t happen overnight, with a login and an email that you click on a link. So anyway; not to go on a rant.
JG: Have you ever read… ’cause you know, Comcast is on Twitter.
MM: Comcast, they’re in Philadelphia, too, right? Comcast @responses very entertaining.
JG: They’ve built, like, a Death Star; they’ve, there’s a new; it is now the tallest skyscraper in Philadelphia. It is, like, it is, like, the tower of Hell that cable bills built. But if you wanna —
MM: The only difference is they’re destroying the planet more slowly than the Death Star.
JG: If you ever wanna entertain yourself on
search.twitter.com, just type in
@comcast, and read the things that people say to Comcast. Once it became known that Comcast was paying somebody to monitor Twitter for mentions of Comcast, it did not turn Comcast into Zappo’s.
MM: They should just hire Ryan King to just have a bot that writes back and goes ‘Sorry!’. Y’know? That’s really all they need. ‘@whoever just flamed me Sorry!’. ‘Your bandwidth? Your bandwidth has been, uh… Yeah, sorry!’. ‘Why can’t I get torrents?’
It is, it is… Y’know, I have this thing, again, everybody thinks I’m such a dick, because, like, I think social media’s more… I think it’s important enough to take seriously. I think that very much as to do with this. So people think ‘Oh, you’re so down on social media. Why are you such a jerk?’. And I’m like, ‘’Cause social media, when it’s really social media, is not about what you have to say; it’s having a tolerance for what people have to say about you.’ — which is so different from posting about your great run. Social media is when they say ‘You’re a jackass. Stop talking about your run.’ That’s social media. And that’s the conversation.
And I think kind of what we’re saying is, y’know, you do have to be open; there does have to be a certain amount of tolerance that you have for every aspect of this. The biggest tolerance that you’ve gotta have — and I’m as thin-skinned as anybody; I don’t like people saying mean things about me — but, I think what we’re saying, in some ways, is, you need a tolerance — this is gonna sound so unhelpful — you need a tolerance for having no idea where your thing is going. Y’knoww? ’Cause if you have too much of an idea of what it is, like, you may be accidentally making the wrong thing. If you’re not responding to what’s really happening; if you’re just going, like, ‘My goal is this. I’m going to have this thing, and I will have this many followers, and there will be this many comments, and I will have a rich community.’ And instead of going and listening to what people say, and making the thing, and…
It’s a real tightrope walk, because yeah, you do have to be arrogant enough to think that it matters to try at this stuff, and yeah, you do have to be arrogant enough to look at stats and see what kind of material people enjoy, but there’s all kinds of ways… we were talking about this earlier; I was like, ‘All this social media stuff is like a giant set of extremely sharp knives, where, like, they’re just knives, but you can use them for good or ill.’ Like, SEO? SEO’s fantastic, because it gives people URLs that make sense. But it does, y’know… it is bad if you’re trying to fool people into clicking things.
But… I dunno, we should probably move on. How we doing on time? Oh, we’re doing great on time! We should slow it down, that’s terrific.
JG: I think that the big irony is that there’s this old maxim, I dunno, it’s probably… I wish there were some kind of, like, thing where you could just…
MM: Search the web?
JG: Right. That would… I tried to look for —
MM: ‘So, what was that reference that you made in your earlier tweet? What was that?’
JG: So it’s probably, I should probably know who to attribute it to, but maybe it’s not; maybe it’s something that’s been around forever. But there’s a saying that it’s great that we have freedom of the press in this country, but the only people who really have freedom of the press are those who can afford a printing press. And it’s totally true. I mean, it was, y’know. You could not reach — you could say what you wanted, but you could not reach a big crowd unless you had the money to reach them — and a television station costs gazillions of dollars, and printing newspapers, even in the old days, newspapers…
MM: Even in the eighties, just making a zine, just going to Kinko’s and making a zine, and having to, like, pay postage on that? It was extraordinary. And you’d still reach, like, a tiny fraction of people. Like, Maximum R&R, like, what was Maximum R&R’s greatest circulation? Like, y’know, going on newsprint… It’s like, today, everybody owns a little press.
JG: Or look at Boing Boing. It was a zine, and I never even heard of it. But I mean, it was apparently very popular. But —
MM: It was about ukuleles, I think.
JG: Right, something like that. But, I mean, but then the Internet, it literally is the solution to that problem, where everybody can afford their own printing press, and can reach tremendous scale. I mean, a seven-dollar–a–month web hosting account will almost certainly saturate… you will be able to satisfy anybody who could even be vaguely interested in what you will say. It’s unbelievable. I mean, you could go to Tumblr, and Tumblr, what… it’s free, right?
MM: It’s free. Marco ’s here. Shoutout for Marco. Anybody like Tumblr? Anybody like Tumblr? Marco’s here, give him a big hand.
No, it’s totally true. And what’s funny is I started doing this stuff related to this web stuff in the mid-’90s, and I had to hand… I sat there with BBEdit, and Fetch, and had to, like, go… I mean, someday I’m gonna tell you guys about when I ran a giant conference site by outputting flat files out of Filemaker Pro with a script. That’s how you used to publish, if you were me and you didn’t understand Perl and Apache. Like, you had GoLive CyberStudio, y’know?
But, like, so, I think it’s interesting; I still remember, like, the Peter Merholzs of the world, like, having conversations about, well — or Rebecca Blood talking about ‘Is this a blog? Or is that a blog? Like, what’s a blog?’ And I think now, I’m not even sure ‘blog’ is that great of a term anymore, to describe anything, ’cause it can mean, it could mean Gawker, or it could mean something on Blogspot, or it could mean, y’know, some incredibly awful corporate site that’s basically press releases with a permalink. And that’s really different from me going and hand-coding every page. So… it’s important to acknowledge that, like you say, it’s not that we want for tools; if anything — God, people hate me — I mean, one thing that bugs me is, like, if I don’t post on Twitter, I get 7% more followers per day. Because I’m annoying.
JG: I think…
MM: Because words are harder than buttons. Y’knoww? That’s the problem. It’s super-easy to post nowadays…
JG: I think what’s funnier is that you know… you’ve actually looked and studied the statistics.
MM: No, I ran it in Numbers, I ran it in Numbers, ’cause I stopped tooting for several weeks, and it kept going up, like inexplicably. It’s like, what are you following? I’m not here! It’s like, and it wasn’t that funny to begin with. It’s just like…
But I guess what I’m trying to say is… and I’m not trying to play the douche card, and say, like, you’ve gotta be any way. What I’m saying is that the tolerance that I’m encouraging you to have is, first of all, a tolerance that, if there’s something that you’re kind of into doing, that you’re pretty excited about, and think about a lot, y’know…
Oh, so what was it we were talking about earlier? Like, how do you know that you should probably start a blog? Like, people keep telling you to shut up. Right? You’re like, ‘Oh, whatever, Cowboys! I love the Cowboys! The Cowboys!’ Like, y’know what? If you love the Cowboys, like, why don’t you either gay-marry them, or start a blog. Right?
JG: But that’s…
MM: And how do you know? Do you go, ‘Oh, what’s a popular topic? Web 2.0.’. Or do you go, like, ‘I really…’, like, look at, like Perez Hilton. Like, I don’t love Perez Hilton’s site, but you so know Perez Hilton. I’m not a giant TechCrunch reader, but you totally know TechCrunch when you see it, y’know? It’s, like, they’re obsessed with certain things.
JG: Right. I mean… with TechCrunch, and it’s… that’s one of those sites that because it has become so popular, and people talk about it being worth, y’know, $20 million or whatever. So then all the people who, going all the way back to the beginning, and who start with the idea of, ‘Okay, I wanna make a lot of dough on the Internet, with a website, so who should I copy?’. And then they look at TechCrunch, and then they copy the format, they copy the things that he writes about, but the way TechCrunch started was that Mike Arrington who, I agree, he’s a total dick.
MM: I didn’t say that. I did not say that. Hey, easy, easy!
JG: I didn’t —
MM: He’s got parents, be nice.
JG: I didn’t mean it.
MM: You don’t think he’s a dick?
JG: Oh, he’s a…
MM: He’s got some journalism kind of…
JG: No, I meant it, I meant it.
MM: He seems okay. He seems…
JG: No, he’s a dick. He’s a total dick.
MM: Can I point out one thing in passing? A bunch of you — I’m sure people are gonna go toot about this now, or whatever, and John’s gonna have to go get in a fight — but can I just point out why I love John Gruber? One of the reasons is John Gruber so doesn’t care if you agree with him. Right? And like, yeah, whatever, the two of us are dicks, but like, y’know? I so admire people who don’t need me to love them. I have so much affection for somebody who really believes something and their belief and interest in something is way more important than me pretending to like them. I just have so much admiration for that. And to the extent that you can, and in the way that you need to for what you do, I think you have to do that too. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but I think figuring out, it’s, like, okay to have a strong voice about something. Right?
Look at, like, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. I am not persuaded that that many people agree 100% with Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But y’know what you’re getting. It’s like, it’s like watching pro wrestling, right? It’s like, they’re characters, and they have a voice. And personally I don’t find them very, like… I don’t find what they have to say very useful, but I get why people listen to them — or Howard Stern. I’m getting a little off-topic.
But I guess what I’m saying is — we should move on to this next bit — the reason, where I’m going with that tolerance is just this idea of — we should get into the money part. Yeah?
JG: We should. Just one more thing before we go to the money part, is with the Arrington thing, is that Arrington…
MM: ‘So, @everyone? @gruber says @techcrunch is @dick.’
JG: It fits right in with our general thing where you find your obsession —
MM: ‘RT @gruber’…
JG: You find your obsession that no one else is writing about, and then you just pour yourself into it. And then here’s a guy who for, whatever reason, his obsession is venture capital funding for web startups in the Bay Area. Which is a dirty, rotten, disgusting business, and it’s just vile. And so no wonder the site is dirty, rotten, disgusting, and vile — it’s a rotten, disgusting topic. But that’s why —
MM: He’s a lawyer. He’s a lawyer. Like, he knows what forms to fill out to ruin you.
JG: Right, and that…
MM: Like, he’s probably got, he’s probably got like three interns that do nothing but fill out forms to ruin people all day long.
JG: No, I —
MM: He’s got chunks of guys like you in his poop.
JG: I know that that’s why, I know that he’s a lawyer, and I know that that’s why he does that bullshit thing…
MM: He’s mad, like, he’ll… he’ll punch a bitch, I’m pretty sure.
JG: I’m pretty sure I’m faster than Mike Arrington.
MM: You think so? He seems he might be a little logie.
JG: I saw, I met him once, and I kinda, like, sized him up. He’s kinda doughy.
MM: I thought he… I thought, I thought he pretty nice. Like, and we’ve met a couple times… no, I’m being straight up. I don’t enjoy his site that much but I like, he seems like a nice enough guy.
Anyway, what I was gonna say was — ’cause I want, I don’t want, really, I love John’s wife and his son a lot and I think we should move on — is that… that the final, for the end of act two, the final ambiguity that I would like you to think about is ambiguity about how this turns into a way for you to become rich on the Internet.
Because it’s… contrary to what a lot of social media and blogging douches will tell you, it’s not easy. And a lot of people who act like they’re making an assload of money are just full of crap. It’s really… I mean, I’m not saying it’s a hard job, but I am saying do not assume that everybody who has ads on their site is making a killing, regardless of what they say the CPM is.
Because the real opportunities of this stuff — this sounds like bullshit, but I am dead serious — the giant opportunities in this are not short-term gains… I’m giving you an opinion here, which I don’t usually do. But the real long-term gains for you are not pageviews and CPMs; it’s the opportunities that come out of being awesome at what you do. And if you think that’s BS then, like, I can’t help you.
But I swear to God, if you look at the people around who seem like they were born on third base, yeah, it’s good timing; yeah, it’s hard work; but I think a lot of it is they had a tolerance for the ambiguity about where it was gonna go, they had a tolerance for the fact they were not gonna take short-term money that got in the way of what they really wanted to do. And the ancillary revenue streams and opportunities that come up as a result of making extremely-high-quality content…
I mean, has there ever been a better time to make something awesome on the Internet? People don’t have money to buy things anymore. I don’t know if you know this; there’s no money. There’s… if you’re lucky they’re on dialup connections; maybe they’re at Barnes & Noble; somebody wants to look at a computer at the Apple store and they wanna check their Facebook… People don’t have money. And they’re looking; they’re starved for content that speaks to them, that’s not a reality show. I’m gonna stop ranting, but I think that’s important.
JG: But there’s… it’s like those Mastercard commercials, where there’s more than money can buy. And it’s, oh, terribly trite, and so obvious, and not interesting, and we’re all bright, clever people, and so we don’t really think about little canards that aren’t very interesting. But a lot of times they’re very true, they’re totally true; and there are things that money cannot buy that have tremendous value.
And one of them — I mean, you’re practically making a career on it — is that attention, human attention, is valuable and it is limited. There is nothing you can possibly do give one person more attention in a day. You wake up; you have eighteen hours; and then you go to sleep. And in that time, you only have so much attention. It’s a limited resource. You can’t directly buy it. You can’t… there’s no dollar value on it.
MM: Right. And it accretes over time.
JG: But it is incredibly valuable. And so that is the one thing that when you give stuff away in the Internet, it’s like, well then how am I gonna get paid for it? Well, you’re gonna get paid in attention. And I know you cannot pay your rent, I mean, I know…
Continued in pt. 2