Big Think Interview with Anil Dash
Previously an independent technology consultant, and a new media developer for the Village Voice, Dash was the first employee of Six Apart, the makers of Movable Type, TypePad and Vox, and served as its Vice President and Chief Evangelist until moving on to Expert Labs. In 2003, Dash was one of four bloggers featured on the PBS series Media Matters. He is also in demand as a speaker at such events as Northern Voice and the Web 2.0 Conference.
Dash's current role is directing Expert Labs, a non-profit, independent group with a mandate to help policy makers in the U.S. Federal Government utilize the expertise of their fellow citizens.
Dash was born and grew up near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A long-time resident and vocal fan of New York City, he lived in San Francisco for a time but has now returned to New York City.
Question: Are you the founder of blogging?
Anil Dash: No way. Blogging is one of these things where it’s a little bit like asking, “Who’s the first rapper?” or “Who invented rock and roll?” You can always go back to somebody earlier. I’ve been doing it 10 or so years. I started in maybe 1999. There’s clearly people who influenced me who called what they were doing a web blog in ’98, ’97; for me, Peter Merholz who does peterme.com or davewire.com, those were influences. But if you look at the traits of what we consider a blog—a personal voice who uses the internet well, rich with links, edited by a real human with a human voice—those things, I think you go back to the very first webpage. I think if you look at the first thing that Tim Berners Lee posted when he invented the web, or Marc Andreessen at that first page for the first browsers that would later become Mozilla and Netscape. The very birth of the web was really very similar in format and content to what a blog looks like today.
Question: What is the story behind Six Apart?
Anil Dash: Six Apart has been an amazing journey for me. The company’s name comes from our co-founders, Ben and Mena. They are a husband and wife couple whose birthdays are six days apart, and it’s interesting because people always perceive as it being about six degrees of separation or something like that, and what I love is, instead, it’s a real human story of two people who are among my closest friends; they are this great, kind of cute, young married couple with a little girl, the American Dream; they were high school sweethearts, and the whole thing has spun into the biggest blogging company in the world, arguably one of the biggest social media companies in the world. It’s been tremendously influential.
The things we’re known for is creating blogging platforms like Movable Type and TypePad; so, when people go into blogs or have posted, at the bottom it says “Powered by Movable Type.” You could go to barrackobama.com or britneyspears.com, and you see that they are using these tools. There is a lot of pride in thatm and these days the company does a lot more.
We have a very successful services team here in New York that’s helping all the biggest publishers in the world. We have an advertising team that’s helping individual bloggers to become more successful, so maybe they can do more reporting in their free time, or cover their topic a little bit more passionately.
What I think has been amazing is, when I joined Ben and Mena there was 3 of us. I was literally in a spare bedroom; it’s that kind of almost prototypical story of a technology company—you just have a belief beyond all rationality that what you’re doing is important, and back then a lot of people thought blogs were a fad and was going to be like CB radio and go away. They certainly never thought you would go to whitehouse.gov, and the White House website will have a blog. Some small part of the reason why that’s true, or why so much of what we read for fun is from blogs, is because the work Six Apart has done.
It’s been the most gratifying experience of my professional career to have a hand at helping start this thing and to see literally hundreds of people join the company as employees, working like crazy, and [seeing] millions of people work with the tools and the technologies we create, and have it impact their lives. There are very few chances to do something like that; it’s been really exciting.
Question: How have you continued to innovate in such a rapidly changing industry?
Anil Dash: The process of creativity on the web is a little bit different than other media. I think in fine arts it’s something where an artist goes away to their cave, or the writer has writers block, will kind of huddle up in the attic with the typewriter. By necessity, creating things from the web is a social behavior. We call it social software. We are talking about social networks—that means it is intrinsically collaborative and that’s true. You know if you are one person hacking away at the computer in the middle of the night, you are always thinking of what other people want, what other people do, what their behaviors are. There is always a dialogue—you input in what you create, and that might be new.
We have artists that work in film and in TV and they obviously think of an audience, but they aren’t necessarily thinking of it as an iterative process. Very few films go out to theatrical release, come back, get feedback and change what they did in the film for a second release. With software, that happens every single day on the web and it’s a thrill. I love talking to a group of people. I love talking to our customers or users or people that read my blog. That idea of, instead of throwing a sculpture out to you, I am going to throw a lump of clay unto you all and you are going to shape it. I’m going to take it back and respond to that.
Question: Do you ever plan to write a book about your experiences?
Anil Dash: I had a lot of people over the years ask me to write a book and I felt like everybody I know writes a certain kind of book. They know that [they’re] not going to make any kind of money with it. It’s certainly not for that. They want to have it on their resume, and then they will have the chance to go and talk about it and do a book tour. I get frustrated because I think, “Why can’t I do a blog tour?”
You know, over the years I’ve probably written 10 books worth of texts on my blog, and yet it doesn’t open the doors. Nobody ever goes on a late night talk show to talk about the new blog they launched, and I think there’s been a real reckoning where you have to wonder if you want to put your principles into play.
I believe the best way to share an idea right now, to get idea out in the popular culture, is to have a dialogue about it on the web with the people that are most informed about it. I think, 20 years ago, the best way to get an idea out in the culture was to write a lengthy book about it and hope that people talk about the book and share the idea. I think a book is an artifact of a person’s ambition in their career. I think that if you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Chris Anderson you can make some money with it when most people don’t, and so, after a while, it’s saying, “I want a prop up system that says the book is the only way to get an idea in the popular discussion.” Do I want to make sure that the best ideas are happening on the web, which is the medium that I care about and has been most generous to me? You know, the publishing industry has not built my career—the web industry has—so I kind of want to honor where I came from. I think I have a book in me. I have a book’s worth of information to share. Do I have to kill trees to get that idea out there? I hope not.
Question: How has blogging changed since you started ten years ago?
Anil Dash: I think blogging has changed tremendously over the past decade. One, we didn’t really think of it consciously as something that would be quite so pervasive, quite so influential. So early on when I started reading blogs I felt like everybody in the community—a few dozen of us—read every other blog everyday.
That’s really hard to do when the other 100 million or so show up; you think, “Gosh, this is a little bit more than what we can read.” But there was a very, very strong sense of community, and what came from that was the same feeling I have being in this village here in New York, and where I live; saying, “I know who my neighbors are. Maybe I don’t know this person well, but their face is familiar to me”. The same way, their voice is familiar and so your norms for a community that size are really very thoughtful, very, very considerate.
Blogging today may has gotten a reputation as being a free for all [where] people can say anything, do anything. There are a lot of really unkind comments, because as newer sites came along, or newer bloggers came along, they hadn’t quite learned the lessons that you get after 5 years, 10 years of blogging—which are, you really want to make sure you have a human connection between the readers of your site, between you as a blogger and your readers. If you do these things, you can preserve the best elements of it. So, I think we’ve lost a little bit of the personal connection; certainly the biggest blogs have been the ones that define people’s perception to medium, and those are essentially just more broadcast or large-scale publishers like TV, radio and newspapers, where it is hard for them to keep a relationship with their readers.
Question: What is your take on the authenticity issues presented by blogs and new media?
Anil Dash: I think there’s a lot of a conversation where journalists say, “What do we do about the authenticity problem, how do we confront it?” I think the fact that I’m in the journalism world is described as a problem is very telling. The reality is humans are very well wired to evaluate the credibility of the source of their information all the time. We do it night and day. There was this pretense for a long time, when journalism was primarily a mass market endeavor, that you had to defend your credibility at all times and that nobody would know what your bias was if you sufficiently hid it. The thing is, we’ve always known. We’ve always been able to see through that, and so I think step one was acknowledging how much people wanted a real human voice—they will be their own judge as to whether there was a bias there, and what the background was. Then, the question of credibility comes up all the time.
What about if something CNN reads on the air from Twitter isn’t true, then it gets corrected, and that’s okay. As it turns out, a lot of what gets reported gets corrected later. I wish that they got it right the first take every time both in blogs or on TV or in newspapers or whatever, but the reality is we don’t know what something means right away. So the immediate reporting of a fact is only one step to figuring what the truth is, and the analysis that comes later is necessary to do that. If some of those initial facts are fuzzy or incorrect or even lies or deliberate act of deception—that actually happens all the time. I can think of a million political examples where what somebody is saying is actually the opposite of what they’re doing.
Question: Do you think the popularity of blogging has peaked?
Anil Dash: I think a lot of people are asking, “Is blogging over? Has it runs its course? Is this new thing cooler—Facebook or twitter?” You will know blogging has really truly succeeded when it becomes invisible. I think about this a lot with phone calls. I get introduced still at events as, “Oh, he’s a blogger.” and it feels a little bit like being introduced as an e-mailer or a phone caller. These are things we do everyday. You don’t think about them as a conscious act. Its just part of what you do to communicate to the world. We’re still a few years away from everybody realizing that every time they take a phone, a phone camera picture and they post it up somewhere they are acting as a blogger. Everytime you jot down a couple of notes online and show them with your friends or write “Check out this link,” that is blogging. It doesn’t have to go by that name to be that important act of documenting what you think matters to you. That fundamental act of connecting and sharing and building a relationship with someone around the things you share with them, that’s empowering in a way.
When I used to work in television or the music industry, I never could have made the show on my own. I never could have made an album on my own. I never could have made a film on my own. But a blog I can do entirely by myself. I can, I have to create a document of what I’ve done. That impulse will never go away. There will always be somebody that has something to say. This is what I want to do all by myself—get my word out there. The fact that people think that’s possible—I talked to young people, I said, “What can you do with the book?” and they were like “Oh, you can read it. You can put a cover on it. You put it on a shelf.” And I said, “What can you do with the web?” and they said “I can make it. I can create it.” That is the fundamental difference that blogging brought about. As long as that’s true and people feel like this is a place where they can create and express themselves blogging, it is fine whether the name is there or not.
Question: What do you make of claims that today’s blogosphere and social media tools do more to drive people apart than to bring them together?
Anil Dash: People ask a lot about, is the web bringing us together or taking us apart? I think culture has changed the point where shared experiences much less common. As we talk today, it’s very close to the 40th anniversary of landing on the moon, and that was one of the definitive universal experiences around the world. Everybody had that experience whether it was on TV, radio or newspaper. There was a moment we all shared. Those are fewer and fewer.
We place pride in saying it’s more human or personal to call our moms than to chat with them on instant messenger. I don’t know why we feel that way, they’re just different. We go the other extremes as well—a handwritten letter is the most personal. Well, that doesn’t feel personal as a phone call to me, but it is supposed to be valuable because it is permanent. Well, what if she permanently archives her instant messenger conversation? These things are artifacts of our moment in history. We are trained to teach that something new is inhumane and impersonal, technical and sterile, and that everything old is warm and analog and expressive; I don’t feel that way. I have emails that I cherish and I value, and I wish that we create technologies that honor that. I don’t want to throw away all my SMS when I get a new phone. I want to save those somewhere.
If done right, these technologies are designed to help us communicate with people we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, people we didn’t know we had something in common with. They can help us discover a commonality. They have been architectured to create shared experiences very well, so we’re losing a lot of our cultural touchstones—something that everybody knows, a song that everybody knows, the words to a video everybody has seen—but they had done a good job of making all of us say, “Oh I saw is this funny YouTube video” and I pass it along, and that is shared experience as much as millions of people sitting around watching the finale of MASH decades ago, or watching a Superbowl. Done right, these technologies are going to bring us together.
The web is a tool for connections; it is what it is designed to be. I think the fact that a lot of people don’t feel that way has been because the first attempts, and a lot of social networks or social software on the web, have been created by people that are bad in building relationships both personally and as architects of communities. But we can fix that. The first decade of the web was pretty bad at that but we’re getting better at making real connections online, and I think when it reaches its potential the web will bind us together in ways that television never could, that will make a phone or a hand written letter seem as rudimentary as they are.
Question: What is the point of LOL cats?
Anil Dash: The LOL cats are really interesting for a lot of reasons. I love language, and I love the image that people have of the internet being the place where you go to see cat pictures, and from a bunch of different web communities such as 4Chan and some of the other kind of underground web communities, people were captioning cats with a text about what they thought the cat would be saying. That is kind of a funny little shtick: you have a cat and cats are great fodder for the web because, I have a cat, and they are kind of evil in the inside, but they are also kind of helpless. That combination of “really diabolical” but “not able to do anything about it is” really great fodder.
Then, all of the captions followed a pattern of how people were doing the grammar of the speech of these presumable cats talking. I made an observation this is really consistent: this is how language forms. I’m very fortunate, I have a good number of friends that are linguists or help create dictionaries, and they know a lot about etymology and how language develops. I said, “You know, is this something like a pidgin language?” and they were like, “No, this is more of a Creole.” A Creole is what one group of one language uses to adapt their language to another group that would understand them.
This is the language that cats are speaking in hoping that humans will understand them, and so that idea: taking this cat pictures, LOL cats, seriously, I think really strikes a lot of people’s fancy. It might be the most popular thing I’ve ever written. I’m blogging 10 years and I wrote about LOL cats and I can go anywhere in the country, almost anywhere in the world, and if I’m in a group of people who know me professionally, in the first few minutes somebody will bring up LOL cats. If you got to be known for cat pictures on the web—at least it’s the smart take on cat pictures on the web. You know, I love it. I love the web’s culture. I love how inventive people are in coming up with new stuff; they are having fun with it and keep remixing it and I hope that never ends.
Question: Are you trying to bury your prankster history?
Anil Dash: No. So I’ve had some fun over the years online. Usually taking a little obscure element of web culture, a geek culture and taking it to the outsiders that are having some fun with it. I’m not at all embarrassed about it. I like to have fun. I think you have to have a sense of humor, or you can’t take yourself too seriously.
I fear though, one of the things I did at work. There’s an offensive website on the web called goatse. It’s a picture you literally don’t want to look directly, but somebody made a non-offensive t-shirt about it, it was kind of a joke, and one of the classic things we used to do on the web five or ten years ago was we would send somebody a link to this image, and they would click on it before they realize it, and then they would yell at you for doing it.
It was just a harmless prank, a lot like what Rick Rolling became later, although Rick Astley is nowhere near as offensive. So I had a shirt that had this logo for it on it, and when the New York Times wanted to do a story about presenting your reputation online, I wore the shirt for their photo of me for the story. It was one of those things where I knew everybody in the web would get it, and I knew the Times probably wouldn’t.
Maybe, these days, they would—but back then they didn’t, so it was a lot of fun. What I fear is, people look at Wikipedia and the first couple of Google results to decide who you are, and I think some day 50 years from now I’ll die, and so, “What would we put in on guy’s tombstone?” “Well, he wore an offensive t-shirt, he wrote about LOL cats.” There are more substantive to things I’ve done in my career but they tend to be overshadowed by the really fun ones. I think there are worse things to be thought of than as somebody who likes a good joke.
Question: What’s the key to successful blogging?
Anil Dash: The key to successful blogging is some good friends. I remember reading a fellow, John Gruber, who is a friend of mine on Daring Fireball. They were thinking obsessions and passion were two necessary items, and I think a lot of my favorite blogs have those things. Somebody loves something irrationally beyond the point of all sanity, and just wants to own that topic. When somebody has that kind of passion for what they love, it can be interesting to you even if you otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in the topic.
I think that is really fascinating, so some of the single subject blogs that I’ve seen are amazing. I saw one the other day—it was just about album covers from back in the old vinal days. They took record covers, they cover one at a time, and they talked about who the photographer was, who the art director was, what the impact of that album cover was. It can be about a record that I’ve never heard, and maybe even a group I’ve never even heard of, and they can tell a story about this album cover and what it meant to them and why it’s important. That’s mesmerizing to me. I think those are the great, truly great blogs—somebody has a passion beyond all rationality, and is so excited about it that you can’t help but be excited too.
It’s a little bit of a bittersweet thing that the blogs people discover first are essentially news or pop culture or sports which are things that we’ve had in media for years. Those are good, they are fine. I read them and I think they are important, but it’s always that personal blog that is somebody is telling you about their passion, their hobby, their area of expertise, the thing that they know better than anybody else in the world. Those people are the best bloggers in the world to me.
Question: What specific steps can a blogger take to boost his or her traffic?
Anil Dash: A lot of times people think getting your company or your individual ideas visible on the web involves a lot of tricks. There’s a whole industry called search engine optimization or SEO a lot of it is legitimate. People were doing consulting on trying to get information discoverable in the web, and a lot of it is snake oil.
People feel like Google is this angry volcano monster, and maybe if we throw a goat in there it will help. They just have no idea whether what they’re doing has any science behind it at all. And as it turns out, the fundamental principles are really, really easy. If you want to get a message out on the web effectively, frequently update your content—a blog is great for this. I’m biased because I love blogging, but like any kind of system that lets you frequently update your content, it is going to make sure your information is current, that it’s up to date and it’s also going to let people know that you’re committed to communicating with them over time.
Frequently updating content, and is has to be well-written, well-designed, well-presented. Those sound like little things, but the way information looks and how readable and discoverable it is makes a big difference as to whether people want to share it, and all of the search engines or audio systems people use to discover content are built around links. Whether it’s people sharing a link in Facebook or posting a link on their blog, that’s the currency by which people discover things on the web and you earn a link. It’s not the kind of thing where you should be paying somebody to post links to what you do. You earn a link by having something compelling and unique that people feel like they want to share.
The last part is building a relationship. The best way to get a really big site to link to your content or to get somebody who has a lot of reach help amplify your message on the web is to build a relationship with them that is real. Think about what they want, not just when you are asking them to do you a favor and reciprocate, but when they’ve created something that’s worth sharing, share what they do as well.
If you follow these principles of updating frequently, having something that is worth reading, having it be well presented, and build relationships with others that want to amplify your message, you don’t need to worry about any of the tricks for the search engines or anything else—everything flows from there. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been writing a lot lately, I’ve been in the blogs for 10 years, and people have said, “Oh gosh. You get a lot of links and people. You rank first in Google for your name.”
Those things happen because you have built up a reputation and relationships over time that people want to honor by amplifying your message for you.
Question: It is possible to make money from a blog?
Anil Dash: Yeah. I’ve had the privilege to work with a lot of the best bloggers in the world, and they’re all making money one way or another. They have advertising on the side; they use blogging to get speaking gigs or for people to pay for them to consult. It’s not always direct, but every door that I have ever had opened in my entire career happened because of my blog. I could trace back every dollar I’ve ever earned to my blogs, certainly, because I’ve been blogging.
I think you encounter two different people. Those who think that the thing they did to generate social value isn’t necessarily where they get the direct dollars from, and people that have information that is super valuable, and people would pay to subscribe to their blog.
So I think there’s a lot of different paths to it. What you have to think about is total earnings versus total effort, and recognize that they will always correspond one on one. That’s true in the entire economy.
I think you look at Chris Anderson’s writing FREE, the fellows that are writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics; there’s a lot of these ideas that are being covered that are saying you can create a lot of value for it “here”, maybe not get direct compensation for it, and get a lot of reward over “here.” Just make sure you know how that flow happens, but it doesn’t have to be one-to-one exchange, in that where you put in the most effort is where you get the most reward.
Question: What is next the hurdle that new media must face?
Anil Dash: That’s a good one. I think new media is at a crossroads where we are no longer about technology, we are about culture. That means we have to listen to those that create and lead culture. That can be artists, that can be academics, that can be those in government, in politics and in the civic sector; but it is no longer the realm of those that know computer programming and those that know how to use the hardware the best. That moment is over, and technologists are going to be reluctant to let go of that.
Those of us who know technology get very full of ourselves and say “Oh, that means I’m a wizard, I’m an expert.” They talk about technology like it’s magic, but our responsibility now is to building a culture that is supportive of people expressing themselves, that’s inclusive of those that don’t have access to latest technology, who don’t have the resources to spend a lot of time learning it. What we’re faced with now in the world of new media is making sure we are creating environments that everybody can participate in, and making sure that we’re encouraging a culture of inclusion.
Frankly, we haven’t been that good at it. If you go and look around the world of new media right now, they will tell you that everybody has a 500 dollar Smartphone—and I can tell you that’s not everybody you know. Or they’ll tell you, “Oh, everybody knows how to use a web browser. Everybody has email.” And those things are barely even true. They’re common, certainly, and people that want to learn them have at least a way to learn them, but they don’t know the potential of them yet.
I think that the real innovations that are going to happen in new media are going to be about bringing cutting edge, really broad-centered tools, that we have the fanciest trick that you can do in Photoshop, the most advanced video editing tool, and bring it down to a level that anybody can do it and do it within their means, within their resources they have. Those are going to bring about the real revolutions. It is going to be access, not invention, and that is a huge cultural change for Silicon Valley and the whole tech world—to think instead of what’s new, what’s really, truly broadly available. People will unlock that. They’ll figure that secret out hopefully and hopefully soon. I can’t wait to see that happen.
Question: How can new media bring this accessibility to the developing World?
Anil Dash: I think there’s an enormous challenge in using today’s technologies to reach the developing world, to reach rural communities in the U.S. Part of it is it requires cultural change from those developing the technologies. We don’t realize the cultural assumptions we make. When we make what we think are features in software, we’re actually defining culture. There is a million examples for this. One I always point to is, for many years, Facebook had “it’s complicated” as a relationship choice. How you can define your relationship with someone? In most of the rest of the world, certainly any Islamic country, the idea that you will define your relationship with somebody as “it’s complicated” would say a lot about you and that other person that maybe you wouldn’t want to say.
So, software is reflecting a social value that is certainly not universal; it’s not universal within our own culture—there’s a lot of people that would think it’s anathema to build into your application the idea that you might have random hook ups with other people as a form of relationship, and so when you make assumptions like that, you stop a technology from being useful in the developing world even before they’ve looked at what its utility is. Right from the beginning, you’ve said, “This is not for you. This is not your tool to use.” Those are the fundamental issues that have to be addressed, as are we assuming that these tools can be used appropriately.
Then, there is the legislatable issue, the fact that the phone is a primary interface for what we think of as the web or the internet here in the U.S., and for the rest of the world it’s happening on a hand set. I think you have the issues of shared computers. One laptop per child, and things like that—I think it’s much more likely one internet kiosk per village, or one hour slot at an internet café per week. Those are the ways that technology gets used in the rest of the world, if it gets used at all. Thinking about really rapid access for a few minutes a week, because it costs a lot of money to use internet cafés, radically changes what you want an application to be able to do, what you want technology to be able to do.
There is tremendous potential; I think there’s people that have stars in their eyes right now about, “I’m going to use Twitter to deliver crop reports to someone in the developing world and that’s going to improve their ability to go to market.” I think those things are great. I hope they happen, but before we can even think about those things, we have to think about truly respecting and understanding the cultures that are going to be using these technologies, and building for the assumptions and the social constraints that will be using these technologies within.
Question: What specific technologies are being developed to promote accessibility?
Anil Dash: I do think we’re at an inflection point about immediacy. The big triumph for me about blogging was the idea of permanence—what they call the permanent link; if you will look at the bottom of a lot of blogs it used to say permanent link, a permanent link for that information. The idea that I’m going to create information that will live on through time and get more valuable, hopefully, over time, is pretty important. Then, the next step is immediacy. Can I do things in real time?
Twitter has taught a lot of people about this. To a certain degree, Facebook has taught people about this. Or, going back 10 or 15 years ago, instant messaging took off and taught people about immediacy. I think it’s still been fairly constrained. It’s been hard to immediately publish to a large number of people and to immediately share contacts or content for a lot of people, and I think there’s been a challenge as to filtering. If there’s a constant flow of real-time information, how do you not get overwhelmed? I look at CNN and there’s three different things crawling across the screen and two people on the screen yelling at each other and a logo up in the corner; this is what real time means. This is overwhelming. That’s going to be a challenge—to solve the presentation of large amounts of information in real time, but the idea of immediately and easily being able to share with any number of people, that seems really exciting, that seems that it might be, if not the next big thing, then part of the next best thing.
Recorded on: July 17 2009
A conversation with Anil Dash, influential blogger and Chief Evangelist at Six Apart.
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