April 17, 2008
The second in a series of clusterflock interviews, Jason Kottke, of course, runs kottke.org and has been instrumental in shaping contemporary blog culture. I had the pleasure of guest blogging at kottke.org a few weeks ago, and the experience prompted me to want to know more about the person behind the site, the process of creating what kottke.org has become, and the pressures associated with running it. The interview was conducted by instant message and edited from there.
I wanted to start by finding out how you got to this point, what the process of creating kottke.org was.
Well, I’d been putting stuff online since early 1995. First, a personal site, then a site called 0sil8, which was a series of experiments in design, writing, etc. Pushing the limits of HTML. kottke.org started as an online diary for me because I wanted something I could update continually, not just once a month or every two months. I drew my initial inspiration for the site from the online diaries of the time…not so much from other weblogs. The process was very gradual. No planning, really. I almost never plan anything out…I just head towards things that hold my interest.
Did you perceive a future for what you were doing? An audience? Or was it simply a process of exploration?
I didn’t think it would last that long. I’m really surprised I’m still doing it 10 years later. As for an audience, I had a small one (by today’s standards) built up for 0sil8; I knew at least some of them would be interested in my daily scribblings.
Can you tell me more about 0sil8….
You can take a look at some of the better episodes here.
Updates to the site were in the form of episodes. Each was a self-contained thing. I used them as an excuse to play around with design and HTML and the web. 0sil8 was also how I got my first job doing web design — it was my portfolio. I had never done web design professionally and hadn’t gone to school for design or computer science, so I needed to show people that I knew what I was doing. The solution to that was to learn how to do things with HTML that few people knew how to do.
Can you talk about how you perceived the opportunities the internet provided at that point?
I wasn’t really consciously aware of any opportunities…it was more simple than that. I saw the web and fell in love with it. I had to homestead in that new frontier. So I dropped out of grad school after one semester and tried to learn everything about web building that I could.
Did you consciously have expectations for where it would lead / what you would do with it, or was it simply, as you stated at the beginning, something you followed without a plan?
I just jumped in without thinking. It just seemed so obvious to me that this was the place to be. It was a good guess.
Who were some of the people you were reading online? What did you like about what they were writing?
Oh, let’s see. Michael Sippey’s Stating the Obvious. Suck. Hotwired. Greg Knauss’ Entirely Other Day. I liked the idea of Suck more than reading it. Sippey took what Suck was doing and made it a lot more straightforward, which really resonated with me. It was clear without being snarky or bombastic or trollish. It was like hearing one side of a casual conversation about a topic I was interested in.
Did you adapt these things to your use at kottke.org? How did you shape those influences?
I guess I have. Unconsciously probably, but that’s definitely been an influence. Design was an influence as well. I write/blog like I design, with an eye toward simplicity, clarity, and a bit of humor.
How do you perceive yourself, then? As a writer, a designer, a developer, a blogger?
I usually go with “editor” these days. But I wear all those hats from time to time…there’s no neat all encompassing word for it. I think more and more people are running into this issue. “What do you do?” for many people doesn’t have a neat answer anymore.
I think ‘editor’ is a good way to think about it. What’s your process, then, how do you go about your day at the site?
I read a lot. 99% of it doesn’t make the site, 1% does. Most of the stuff I read comes to me through a newsreader. I follow roughly 300 sites a day.
Jesus! Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the influx? What’s your process for dealing with that?
Very overwhelmed. At this point, I’m probably just used to it. I get the sense sometimes that reading/skimming so much information every day is not good for my brain. Sometimes I can’t remember any details from what I’ve read the previous day. Don’t know if that’s all the input or something related to getting older.
Does that bother you? Do you ever feel trapped by what you’ve created?
Sometimes. Especially when I’m in a bad mood. But most of the time I feel incredibly lucky that I’m able to do what I’m doing for a living.
Good. I wondered when I guest blogged if you felt at the mercy of the site or if you felt energized by it. I hoped it was the latter. Tell us a little about your relationship with your readers. How vocal are they? How harsh?
Energized might be too strong a word. The readers — the best are fantastic. People send incredibly thoughtful emails…I like hearing from people who are engaged with the site. Other times, it’s not so fun running a visible site. Some people are determined to deliberately misunderstand much of what they encounter in life. Sometimes I have a hard time realizing that that’s their problem, not mine.
You point to a lot of articles that deal with process, excellence, mastery — what’s the connection for you?
There’s this mystique about expertise, that you can’t tell someone how to do certain things…like Christopher Alexander’s Quality Without a Name. I really enjoy reading attempts to prove otherwise. That and accounts of the battle with the self. One of my favorite topics is free throw shooting. Easiest thing to do in the world of sports but players who get paid millions to do it can’t for some reason. That’s fascinating.
Is there a relationship with that and the process you employ for culling and weeding the information you post at kottke.org?
I’m trying to master that process, definitely. The struggle right now is how to do that without thinking about it too much, so it’s natural and not stuffy. kottke.org is feeling more dry than I would like it to these days. My defense against that has always been to use snap judgements when deciding what to post….it either feels right immediately or it doesn’t. I hope that helps maintain the quality of the site.
So what is your life like outside of the site? Do you have other interests? Other jobs? Where do you see yourself going?
The site takes a surprising amount of time to do. That and a nine-month-old son takes up most of my time. Editing kottke.org is a strange profession because it encompasses so many of my interests in one package. In a way, the site is my hobby as well. Which is great but also creates certain boundary issues, particularly when the site and I aren’t getting along so well.
So, what does your future hold, as much as you are capable of discerning that?
I’m not sure. I’ve been feeling lately that kottke.org needs to scale in some way that doesn’t involve me sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. But I don’t know how to do that. digg.kottke.org is probably not the right answer, but beyond that — maybe I’ll go work for a letterpress shop, who knows?
Actually, that sounds like a great idea.