Thank You Letter #1: Ben Brown and Uber.nu

Flombaum.com circa 2002, archive.org

At the turn of the second millennium I was a sophomore in an NYC high school. I remember having a handful of interests: movies, fiction, gaming, computers, the internet, programming, and being cool. Trying to merge as many of these into one activity, and after being utterly rejected from my school’s creative writing journal, I decided to start publishing my writing on the web.

In 2000 Wordpress did not exist and Blogger had just come out and offered little in terms of customization. Launching your own website or “Web Log,” only recently coined “Blog,” was no easy feat. I had some experience programming and building websites and decided I would make my own and it would be awesome.

Between Y2K and the Dotcom Bust, people were skeptical of the future of the nascent World Wide Web and Internet. But there I was, spending all my free time learning HTML and CSS and Javascript and ASP and SQL so I could build my own blog engine. Most nights at 2am between 2000 and 2002 you could find me in my parents’ basement, glowing in the light of a CRT monitor, coding, writing, surfing, and chatting.

By now this image is almost mythical. The lone white male teenage hacker destined for fame and fortune through startup riches. At no point did I ever feel that, and still don’t, in fact, I felt quite the opposite. What learning to code and publishing online felt like to me back then was misery, easily the darkest time of my life. Let me explain why.

First, I was totally alone the majority of the time. No one in my school except for like 3 people cared about code or the internet. I had very few friends and the ones I had often were neglected. That sucked.

Second, I was terrified at the risk I was taking. Sure, now there’s Zuckerberg and so many others but at the time Startups were a big question mark and there was no clear or coveted career path for a terrible student and self-taught mediocre hacker to become a professional programmer. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who was paid to write code. The Startup Dream didn’t exist yet and I was risking all of me in the hopes that somehow the skills I was acquiring at the sacrifice of my grades would somehow provide me a life.

Third, I was not cool and considered quite weird. No one cared that I had a blog and thousands of readers. Geek-sheek wasn’t a cultural norm. There was no Seth Cohen in the OC or Big Bang Theory or superhero movies. I had no one to talk about code with and anyone I tried to thought I was an alien. None of my peers used the internet to the extent I did and creating content online, early social media, made you stand out, not fit in. Whenever one of my classmates read my posts or watched my grainy early web videos they were absolutely confused as to why I would make that and what would compel me to share it.

Fourth, it was so hard to learn. CodeAcademy and StackOverflow didn’t exist. To teach myself to code I had to spend time reading programming books in Barnes and Nobles after school. When I needed help I had to ask on IRC which is not the friendliest community for a newb. Documentation was poor and proper web development patterns were just being invented. Computers and servers were expensive and my dialup internet connection was slow. I begged, borrowed, and stole to learn to code. I did whatever it took and it took a lot, more than you can imagine.

I can’t stress this enough, when I was in high school, my programming and personal website were a very big problem to everyone around me; teachers, parents, and friends. Everyone thought I was wasting my time, barking up the wrong tree, and very much putting my future at risk.

So what kept me going? Well, here’s one thing I remember and the subject of this Thank You Letter. Ben Brown, his crew of web friends, and a website called Uber.nu.

As I said, at the time writing my stories and being cool were my goals. Programming for me was a means to an end. I had to code so that I could have an awesome website to publish to with a community of engaged readers that made me feel cool. And I knew I could do that, I knew that was a thing, all because of Ben Brown and Uber.nu.

In 2000 there was a collaborative short fiction site and micro-publisher called Uber.nu. On this site people would publish super weird modern short fiction. There were stories about tackling your mom in your new football gear, vignettes about picking up girls with nerdy humor, self-deprecating rants about the proper way to make mac and cheese, and more just utterly bizarre and weird shit. Their tagline was “Better than you, daily.”

Uber.nu’s design was pristine and minimal, seeking to highlight the content and community at a time when web design included “3D Buttons,” bevels, terrible gifs, dark backgrounds with white text and more design disasters. Think GeoCities. Uber.nu was a centered column of text with beautiful typography. I bet the design of Uber.nu would hold up well to today’s standards.

Even as only a budding early web developer I could tell Uber.nu was well programmed. The site was an early adopter of web-standards and semantic markup. The URLs were clean and easily shareable. The load time was super fast. The domain was from a foreign registrar. The CMS must have been custom. I quickly found that most of the core contributing authors were web developers. I liked that.

The other thing about Uber.nu was that it was social. People had accounts and could comment and discuss the fiction. You could submit your own stories. You would see the same people on the site every week. And you could link to your email and AIM Chat screen-name and meet the authors and readers. And at the center of all this was Ben Brown, the founder of Uber.nu

Ben Brown is the first Internet Rockstar. He made being online in the early days not just a technical feat but something cool and creative and personal. He coded and wrote stories. He worked as a professional programmer but had a startup hustle. He lived in Austin way before it was super cool and told everyone that Austin was going to be super cool. He had all these online friends doing similar cool things, Adam Mathes, Dakota Smith, and more. Everything they made was weird and they gave it away for free. They made hysterical videos for fun. They seemed successful to me. And they were culturally important, hell, they practically invented the Google Bomb.

Seeing Ben Brown and the Uber.nu crew’s early work on the internet meant the world to me. It kept me going. It was the inspiration I needed to believe in myself and a future of my own design. And I had never even met him. We emailed a few times and I trolled him and I think once had something published on Uber.nu but for the most part I was just an admirer. But it was enough, hell, it was more than enough, it made me feel safe about who I wanted to be and that’s everything for a teen.

I finally did meet Ben Brown in real life a few years later, after I dropped out of college, he blogged about coming to NYC with a band I never heard of Ghostland Observatory, that was opening for another band I never heard of, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, at the NYC club the Knitting Factory. I went to that show. I met Ben for a minute and he shook my hand and I tried reminding him who I was and he was super friendly and cordial but that was it. By the way, Ghostland was awesome and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became an indie-rock thing for a few years. Ben has great taste in everything. We’ve met a few times since but we’ve never really hung out or become friends and that’s totally cool and normal, I never needed that or expected that, his existence and work was all I needed.

I don’t think Ben Brown really knows what he meant to me. I hope this letter lets him know. Thank you Ben. I don’t know if you ever intended to inspire me in these ways but you did.

To everyone else reading this I guess this is the take away. Your work can inspire people in ways you can’t predict, intend, or imagine. You don’t need a million followers to be meaningful. You should be you. Create things that are uniquely you. Follow your heart and passions. And most importantly share it with the world. Please share yourself. You never know whose life you might change, whom you might make feel more normal or less alone, or what you might mean to someone you’ve never met. And isn’t that the point?

If I’ve impacted anyone with my work and Flatiron School, Ben Brown just know that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you so take a bow and pat yourself on the back and get back to work.

h/t to Andrea Neustein for turning me onto Uber.nu and being my friend for 17 years.
Ben Brown is still making awesome things on the internet with Howdy.ai and BotKit. That’s about 20 years of creating on the internet. Epic.