How Boing Boing adapted to the social web
By Simon Owens
A question started bugging Mark Frauenfelder in November of 2014: Could you take marijuana onto a plane in a state where it was legal? Would the TSA let you through? Earlier that month, Alaska had joined three other states and the District of Columbia by voting to legalize marijuana use for citizens over the age of 21, but given that the drug was still banned at the federal level there were all sorts of murky legal questions yet to be answered, this being one of them. So Frauenfelder, a co-editor at Boing Boing, once considered the most popular blog on the internet (by the rankings of blog search engine Technorati), approached Caroline Siede, a frequent freelancer for the site, and asked her to tackle the question. “So she did her usual thing and reported the story out, which involved calling Homeland Security and finding out what the deal was,” he told me.
The outcome of that research, a 1,300-word article preluded with a full-width image of a plane superimposed with a marijuana leaf, reported that whether you can carry legal marijuana onto a plane is often up to the discretion of the TSA agent, but in many cases you’ll be fine. While this information certainly was interesting, what I found more interesting as a media journalist was that a decade ago you wouldn’t have found anything like this article on boingboing.net.
For as long as I’ve been reading it, Boing Boing’s tagline has been “a directory of wonderful things,” and for much of its history it was just that: a directory, one that almost always pointed you away to other websites. A 2005 blog post outlining how to send submissions to the site states, “Don’t send in stuff without links. If you saw something cool on TV or received something interesting in email, you need to either find it on the Web or publish it on the Web before suggesting it. Boing Boing publishes links — so if there’s no link, there’s not much chance we’ll link to it.”
But here was a post that, while containing links, resembled less a blog post and more a feature-length article, one specifically designed for others to link to. And it wasn’t a fluke; Frauenfelder told me he has a steady stable of freelancers he turns to to produce original content. “They’ll hit me up with ideas, and I’ll decide whether we should do it,” he said. “Some of our other editors occasionally introduce me to someone they know who has written a book or something and wants to write an essay for us to help get word out about their book.” Boing Boing, he said, publishes at least one of these original articles per day, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. Though it still publishes plenty of short blog posts meant to draw attention to outside content, Boing Boing certainly can no longer be described as merely a directory.
Boing Boing’s origin story is by now well documented. Frauenfelder and his wife Carla Sinclair launched it as a print zine in 1988, and it eventually reached a peak circulation of 17,500 copies before it was abandoned in the mid-90s in favor of a website. According to an article in Fast Company, it was after Frauenfelder pitched a magazine editor on a story about a then-fledgling company called Blogger that he got the idea for the site’s bloggier iteration, which launched in 2000. During that first year posts were authored almost exclusively by Frauenfelder, but he would soon be joined by a coterie of co-editors who are now all partial owners in the site: Cory Doctorow, a Wired contributor turned novelist and digital rights activist; Xeni Jardin, a journalist and NPR correspondent; and David Pescovitz, a researcher at the Institute for the Future (a fourth editor, Rob Beschizza, joined much later).
Its readership quickly grew. In a 2003 interview, Doctorow bragged that Boing Boing was receiving half a million pageviews a month. That number soon rose to several million. Hosting costs ballooned to about $1,000 a month, all paid out of pocket until the blog started accepting advertising in 2004. Within a few years, it was a seven-figure business.
So why was a blog that merely aggregated links, mostly to content pertaining to non-mainstream geek culture, so popular? To answer this question, one must first consider how the internet operated a decade ago. Back then, if you wanted to regularly read a news website or blog, you had basically two options.
The first was that you could subscribe to its RSS feed. RSS was a great tool (I still remember the epiphany I had when I signed up for Bloglines, an early RSS reader, and immediately grasped its utility). You could subscribe to as many blogs as you wanted, and rather than having to constantly reload each one to see if it had been updated, all new posts were delivered directly to your feed. In many cases, you didn’t even have to click away to read the entire post. But as great as RSS was, it had extremely low adoption rates, so much so that bloggers would hold an annual RSS Day to try to raise awareness that the functionality existed.
The second method, and by far the most common, was to simply bookmark the site in your browser. But this quickly became unwieldy once you bookmarked more than a dozen blogs, which meant that, despite the existence of millions of blogs by the mid-2000s, it was incredibly difficult for most of them to build a consistent readership.
Hence the utility of link blogs like Boing Boing. They became a major mode of discovery for more obscure blogs and content. Nearly all of these curation blogs — from Boing Boing to Slashdot to Laughing Squid — had some sort of submission form for artists and writers to submit their content. The lucky few who would get featured on these sites were rewarded with thousands of new readers (I had a blog back then and I would see between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors after receiving a Boing Boing link). Readers were happy because someone else was doing all the hard work of surfacing the best content.
You know what happened next. Facebook debuted its news feed and began allowing media organizations to launch their own pages. Twitter entered the scene with its own high-metabolism feed. Suddenly you could not only easily subscribe to blogs and news sites, but also to the individual authors who wrote for those sites. Where RSS failed to catch on, social media succeeded. Now, anyone could be a curator of content.
At the same time, mainstream news companies, which were starting to get serious about generating web traffic and wanted to attract shares from all these Twitter and Facebook users, began to ramp up their own aggregation. A journalism grad used to cut their teeth by starting at a weekly newspaper and then working their way up. These days, they’re just as likely to snag an entry level gig at a New York media company and spend their days repackaging GIFs and videos first surfaced on Reddit. This is why you’ll see upwards of 60 news sites posting the latest John Oliver rant every Monday. And these new curators weren’t as scrupulous about giving credit as their blogger ancestors.
“Many 22-year-old interns do not care about attribution,” said Scott Beale, the founder of Laughing Squid. “There’s no repercussion for them either. They’ll be at some media organization for six months, give no attribution, and then move on to the next job.” When they do give attribution, he said, it’s usually just a link to wherever they found the content, which often isn’t its original source. “We’ll actually do the research and track down a video or image to the person who created it and give them credit.”
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Laughing Squid, like Boing Boing, established itself as an early curation blog, focusing largely on art and geek culture. And as the independent blogosphere deteriorated and gave rise to social platforms and VC-funded news startups, Beale has tried to resist adopting traffic-boosting strategies that he feels would cheapen his blog posts. “The basic structure of our blog posts is essentially the same” he said. “If you look back at our oldest posts, you’re going to see the same things. Headlines have never been sensational. We don’t insult our readers’ intelligence. We don’t tell readers how to think or what to do. Take a look at the blog posts out there. How many of them use headlines that tell people that something ‘will restore your faith in humanity’? It’s a trick they use. We don’t do it and we never will. These things come and go — and they do all come and go — while we keep doing our thing.”
Boing Boing wasn’t resting on its laurels as this new internet emerged. As the blog entered the late aughts, it began to test out new offerings. It launched a gadgets vertical headed up by former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson. It debuted Boing Boing TV, a daily video show hosted by Xeni Jardin which did things like interview tech execs at the Consumer Electronics Show about the latest gadgets. The editors hosted a regular podcast, called Boing Boing Boing. Many of these projects were either shuttered or rolled back into the main site. “The videos were incredibly time intensive,” said Frauenfelder. “You get bogged down with post production, editing it, going on location. When you compare the number of views we got for a video to the traffic for blog posts and articles which cost us much less time and money, then it became clear that video wasn’t a good investment.”
The editors applied the same cost-benefit analysis to their podcast. “It was hard for us to actually get enough listeners to make it worth doing,” he said. “For a while our listener numbers weren’t being counted properly. We thought we were getting 50,000 to 100,000 listeners per episode, but really it was closer to 8,000 listeners per episode. Podcasting ads pay about $20 per thousand downloads, so making a couple hundred dollars to do a podcast that takes all together eight hours to create isn’t worth it when we could spend those eight hours doing text-based content.”
In 2014, on Boing Boing’s 25th anniversary, Rob Beschizza published a commemorating post on the site. In addition to promising a “renewed focus on original features,” he announced a new homepage design, one that would steer away from the reverse-chronological presentation that was the hallmark of most blogs and place more focus on featuring original content the editors didn’t want buried in the stream. This new Boing Boing, at least on the homepage, looked more like a magazine than what we would traditionally consider a blog. “We had been doing [curation] for so long,” said Frauenfelder. “It can get a little monotonous to do that nonstop, and original content was something that was personally rewarding for us.”
The blog still devotes significant space to shorter items. While the features and the aggregation posts draw about the same amount of traffic overall, Frauenfelder has given up trying to predict when a particular article or post will do well. “We could put a ton of work into a feature article we love and that we think is important, and it will get like 7,000 views. And then we’ll post something silly that’s a one-line joke and link to someone else’s story, and it’ll get 600,000 pageviews.”
One thing I wondered is why successful blogs like Boing Boing and Laughing Squid chose to stay small. Other early blogs like Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gigaom took on VC investment in their efforts to scale. Even Gawker’s Nick Denton, who long resisted outside investment, recently sold a sizable chunk of equity. “Sure we could get investment if we wanted it,” said Beale. “But we see companies destroyed by it too. You give up a lot of control and then there are demands put on you by people who don’t know anything about your company.” He pointed to Gigaom, a tech site that ran out of money and laid off its entire staff last year, as an example of what happens when a media company can’t scale at a rate that would satisfy investors.
Frauenfelder was similarly disdainful of the idea. “We were just paying bandwidth out of pocket before we started selling ads, and then we became profitable right off the bat in 2004,” he said. “We’ve never been interested in getting funding to grow it in a big way like those sites because it’s just not sustainable. There’s no way they’re making enough money from advertising to pay whatever their burn rate is. There’s an obscene amount of money they have to pay for their office space and salaries. We all work in our home offices and spare bedrooms, and everyone makes a living on the advertising income we bring in. I am just looking at these huge companies that rely on a lot of VC money, and they’re unsustainable, artificial things, and they’re going to die off.”
If they do die off, they’ll end up in a graveyard alongside the millions of tiny blogs that have shut down over the past decade as users migrated to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Sure, some will find homes on Medium or Tumblr, but many bloggers these days don’t feel the need to go beyond the 140 characters afforded to them. As for the remaining holdouts, those writers who continue to pen screeds at their own obscure web domains, bloggers like Frauenfelder and Beale will continue to scroll through their feeds looking for the nuggets worth featuring to a larger audience. “At some point I just really realized there aren’t very many independent blogs left,” said Beale. “The more obscure ones that I subscribe to on RSS, they’ll just suddenly announce that they’re stopping and can’t do it anymore.” Meanwhile, Facebook just announced it’s reached 1.59 billion users. The blogosphere is dead, long live the blogosphere.
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As a longtime journalist who’s written for national publications including US News & World Report, The Atlantic…medium.com
Image via Mark Frauenfelder