April 17, 2008

clusterflock interviews: Jason Kottke

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.


  1. Sean Salmon on April 17th, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Great interview Deron, well done.

  2. Deron Bauman on April 17th, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    thank you, sir.

  3. Daryl Scroggins on April 17th, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    Great, Deron–you asked all the right questions. I bet guest blogging there helped you to think of some of them!

    I loved this passage in particular:

    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.

    Great wisdom here–as is found in many things (most; hell–all) presented at kottke.

  4. Kari on April 17th, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    kottke.org is a daily reminder that there is thought and care left still, and a kind of goodness that exists in the simple act of doing, well and consistently — and ditto for clusterflock. thank you.

  5. Deron Bauman on April 17th, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Daryl, yes, I loved the comment as well. Participating in clusterflock I’m sure blunts some of the input a blog receives. Jason dealing with it on his own, and on such a large scale, must be tiring.

    Kari, I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  6. Andrew Simone on April 17th, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    This was fantastic, Deron (and Jason). A real pleasure to read. Often I feel when I read Jason’s site that I am sometimes missing out of the implicit questions he is asking. This filled in some gaps.

  7. Deron Bauman on April 18th, 2008 at 9:45 am

    thank you!

  8. Benjamin Doherty on April 19th, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    This is something I don’t quite understand. What’s the difference between “online diaries” and “weblogs” in the sentence below?

    I drew my initial inspiration for the site from the online diaries of the time…not so much from other weblogs.

  9. Deron Bauman on April 19th, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I’m guessing an online diary would be more personal writing and a weblog would be more about pointing things out, even if you are writing about them more than just linking to them.

  10. Sheila Ryan on April 19th, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    What’s the difference between “online diaries” and “weblogs” in the sentence below?

    Damn good question.

    I’m tempted to get smart and reply, “More than a decade.” Deron’s answer is better.

    But I think the quintessential weblog remains robot wisdom. So I’m not sure what to call what we’re doing here at clusterflock — or what other folks are doing elsewhere nowadays.

  11. India on April 19th, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I think of online diaries as a smallish subset of weblogs.

    A different question: Are there online diaries that are not weblogs?

  12. jkottke on April 19th, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Back in the olden times, it was easy to tell a weblog from an online diary. Diaries were more like “here’s what my day was like and how I feel about it” and weblogs were more link based. But what really differentiated them were that 1) almost all diaries were presented chronologically on the page and almost all weblogs were reverse chron, and 2) webloggers called themselves webloggers and diarists called themselves diarists. Now any site that’s updated regularly (or utilizes blogging software) is called a blog — diaries, news sites, discussion forums, etc. — but t’was not always so.

  13. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson » Blog Archive » Kottke on Clusterflock on April 19th, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    […] interview with blogger/editor Jason Kottke over at Clusterflock. The part I can relate to, being a NetNewsWire junkie myself (though not half the blogger Jason […]

  14. John Lampard on April 20th, 2008 at 1:07 am

    I started out writing an “online journal” ten years ago and referred to it as such because the terms “weblog” or “blog” were not in mainstream use (if they’d even been coined by that stage). My online journal became a blog overnight really especially once everyone else started using the word. Interesting to hear there was an actual difference between online diaries and weblogs though.

  15. Joe Clark on April 20th, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    I wish you hadn’t seemed so gobsmacked that mighty Jason Kottke reads 300 RSS feeds a day. That’s what RSS is for. Quite a few people read quadruple that many feeds.

    I get the impression you think 300 is a huge number because Kottke quoted it. It wouldn’t seem huge coming from somebody you’d never heard of. I guess reading 300 feeds is just another of the endlessly impressive things about Jason Kottke. But, to reiterate, RSS is all about efficiently reading hundreds of sites, and a large OPML file is expected of the general-interest blogger.

  16. Deron Bauman on April 20th, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    how sweet of you to say.

  17. Michael Grant Smith on April 20th, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Reading 1,200 RSS feeds daily is a lot. That’s like…at least five or six per hour, right? The number probably drops dramatically after you have sex with other people besides imaginary ones.

    Who the hell is this Jason Kottke guy?

  18. Sheila Ryan on April 20th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    He’s some dude Deron wants to make out with.

  19. Lori Pickert on April 20th, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    great interview – i really enjoyed this.

  20. Deron Bauman on April 20th, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    thank you, Lori.

  21. For Alek and India : clusterflock on April 20th, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    […] other owl fanciers). Lori Pickert’s comment on Deron’s Kottke interview led me to her Camp Creek […]

  22. Adam on April 20th, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Wow, really enjoyed this interview – great selection of questions and almost all of Jason’s answers would make a great one-line quote to go along with this link (the essence of what Kottke does best?)….Thanks!

  23. gregory on April 21st, 2008 at 10:23 am

    thanks for a compelling interview…

    please do the next one on wood’s lot, http://web.ncf.ca/ek867/wood_s_lot.html … an incredible, long-historied, thoughtful, poetic, excellent blog, a labor of love, and wonderfully consistent year after year in tone and value of conten

    i don’t know how he does it

    weblog, like a ship’s log, a journey through the web, with links…. diary is a, uh, diary