VPRO Gids interview with Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing

Here's a translation of the VPRO Gids interview with BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder (the interview is © Jeroen van Bergeijk):

BoingBoing is the world's most popular weblog. According to Technorati - a company that measures the popularity of weblogs - BoingBoing receives over 330,000 visitors daily. BoingBoing calls itself a 'directory of wonderful things', which in practice means a weblog about technology, digital culture, underground comics, science fiction, politics and whatever else interests the editors. Such as, to name but a few, the cock ring of Bush strategist Karl Rove's stepfather or the ten most incomprehensible Bob Dylan interviews. BoingBoing, initially a small-scale zine, is made by four people, former WIRED columnist David Pescovitz, journalist Xeni Jardin, science fiction author Cory Doctorow and founder Mark Frauenfelder. Frauenfelder is an artist and journalist - he worked as a WIRED editor for year. Now, apart from being a BoingBoing editor, he is also the chief editor of the magazine MAKE. He lives and works in Los Angeles, where VPRO Gids looked him up.

-How is BoingBoing actually made?
"We don't have an editor's meeting room or something. All four of us work from home. We see each other rarely. We get hundreds of story suggestions per day via e-mail. I go through all of them. For example, I just now got a tip about the Radioactive Boy Scout. That's an old story about a boy who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard using weak radioactive materials from smoke detectors and clocks. He's been institutionalized, but now he seems to be active again. I write a post about this - Return of the Radioactive Boyscout- in some 5 minutes. I do that 3-5 hours per day: reading suggestions, surfing the Web and writing posts. That's BB in a nutshell."

-How did BoingBoing come about?
"I once started BB as a self-published magazine, a zine. We were interested in topics such as cyberpunk, SF, underground comics, conspiracy theories, basically what BB is still about. The magazine did OK: we had about 18,000 subscribers, but at a certain moment I got too busy with other work and the magazine went into a slump. In 1999 I wrote an article about weblogging for an internet magazine. That article was then rejected, that blogging stuff didn't amount to anything, nonsense for a few freaks. Hahaha. But I was fascinated bu the idea that publishing had become as easy as writing a mome. I though, 'Why not make BB into a blog?' And so I did. I wrote a post every day and got some visitors, not many, but enough to keep it fun. But then in 2001 I had a scoop about a super-secret project by inventor Dean Kamen. I found some drawings online of what later turned out to be this scooter, the Segway. CNN referred to BB and the visitor count skyrocketed.

-BB was then still a one man project. Why did you involve more people?
"Just as BB was beginning to take off as a weblog, I was about to go on holiday for a long time. I found it important that the site should stay intertesing while I was gone. I then asked Cory Doctorow. I blogged one post per day, but when I came back he turned out to have written dozens of posts per day, and the visitor count was phenomenal. We had learned the first rule of blogging. The more you blog, the more people will visit. Within a few weeks, we were at 10,000 visitors per day."

-But how do you go from 10,000 visitors per day to the world's most popular weblog?
"Part of the explanation is that we were one of the first blogs. Time and again it's shown on internet that if you're first, you build up an audience quickly. What's also important is that all four editors of BB are professional journalists. We know what makes a good story, how to write a headline, how to summarize an article. Those are basic skills that every blogger should have, but that are missing all too often. It might seem as if BB is about anything and everything, but there actually is a clear focus. We don't go sports or gossip, you can find enough of that on other sites. We want stories that surprise you, that have a 'wow' factor, that put your idea about how the world works on its head."

-Andrew Keen, author of the controversial book 'The Cult of the Amateur', in which he argues that current internet is destroying our culture, recently called BB "a surreal and completely meaningless collection of miscelleanous knowledge." What do you think of that?
"Hahaha. I liked that quote so much that we spent weeks creating a special "surreal and completely meaningless collection of miscelleanous knowledge" every day. He says: amateurs produce only shit on the internet and feed off mainstream media in such a way, that those old media can no longer exist. I agree that the internet is full of garbage. I believe in Sturgeon's Law. Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction author who once said, "90% of everything is crud." I totally agree. 90% of what you find on internet is crud, but also 90% of old mass media is crud. I see no difference. Keen seems to prefer the old situation in which media were centralized, I find the fact that anyone can set up their own little newspaper of TV station a big advantage. I applaud technology that allows individuals to create things themselves."

-But sometimes those individuals create stuff that doesn't make you happy either. A typical part of every blog is the ability to comment. But on BB, that was not possible for years. Why?
"There are really a lot of huge assholes out there, let that be clear. People who enjoy dispersing a community. When you get more readers, the percentage of those super creepy assholes also increases. And you only need one bastard like that to poison the atmosphere on your blog. We just had too many visitors, too many responses and we didn't have time to keep track of that, nor felt like it. Now we hired someone to moderate the comments. And we also found a beautiful tool to silence the loudmouths: disemvoweling. That means that if someone starts cursing, we leave the comment but remove the vowels. If you try real hard, you can still read what it says, but all the strength has been drained from it. A great way to defuse someone's verbal abuse without actually censoring them."

-Keen fears that print media will be pushed to the sidelines as a result of the popularity of free online media. Don't you worry about that?
"Look, I also enjoy reading the paper at breakfast, but to be honest, I hardly have time for that anymore. And once I'm behind my desk, I won't open a paper anymore. I read everything online. As do millions of other people. I'm the editor of MAKE and that is doing just fine."

-What kind of magazine is that?
"MAKE is about hacking your environment. Adapting existing products in such a way that they meet your demands. How do you turn a shopping trolley into a wheelchair? How do you make a programmable kitten feeder out of a meat grinder and a VCR? How do you make win out of mulberries?"

-Why not publish that magazine online?
"A magazine still gives a much better experience than a computer screen. You browse through the information more easily, the visual experience is better, you can grab it, nothing can beat that. And because you use MAKE when you are making stuff, a magazine is also a much more logical choice: who takes their laptop into their DIY room?"

-MAKE is basically a crafts magazine. That sounds a bit cheesy in an old-fashioned way...
"Making stuff is generally not seen as imporant, but I think it's a universal human need. I think many people get depressed because they consume too much passively and don’t take charge often enough. Knitting, crafts, it may sound boring, but the fact is that it makes people happier. Both in BB and in MAKE, I try to show people that it's become very easy to express yourself, to be creative yourself. Don't just accept what mass media and big corporations are offering you. You can adapt technology and products to your own wishes and desires."

Posted by cronopio at 10:32 PM, January 30, 2008