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Feb. 13, 2018, 11:15 a.m.
Business Models

Last blog standing, “last guy dancing”: How Jason Kottke is thinking about kottke.org at 20

“I am like a vaudevillian. I’m the last guy dancing on the stage, by myself, and everyone else has moved on to movies and television.”

In 2013, Jason Kottke wrote a prediction for Nieman Lab’s year-end roundup: “The blog is dead, long live the blog.” Kottke was then (and still is) owner of one of the longest continuously running blogs on the web: kottke.org, founded in 1998.

“Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice,” he wrote. “Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.”

Kottke.org, however, is decidedly still a blog. It also celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. I spoke with Kottke about the function of the blog today, how becoming a father made him better at his job, the way he talks to young people about his career, and why adding a membership program gave kottke.org new life. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited.

Laura Hazard Owen: If you had to update your 2013 prediction now, what would you say?

Jason Kottke: I would say generally more of the same; I think that was a fairly good prediction on my part, unfortunately. The way I’ve been thinking about it lately is that I am like a vaudevillian. I’m the last guy dancing on the stage, by myself, and everyone else has moved on to movies and television. The Awl and The Hairpin have folded. Gawker’s gone, though it would probably still be around if it hadn’t gotten sued out of existence.

On the other hand, blogging is kind of everywhere. Everyone who’s updating their Facebook pages and tweeting and posting on Instagram and Pinterest is performing a bloggish act.

Owen: Who else is still around besides you?

Kottke: John Gruber. Andy Baio, who does Waxy.org, is still plugging away. Dave Winer is, and he started his blog even before I did. I’m sure there are others. Since Google killed Google Reader, though, I’ve lost interest in RSS, so I’ve lost track of a lot of blogs that I used to read through RSS.

One of the compelling things about blogs, for me, was that you had individual people presenting links and information that were a little view into what that person was interested in, and what was interesting about this person. As blogs got bigger, things like Gawker and Engadget and all those sorts of blogs took off — commercial blogs with teams of people doing it; it wasn’t so much an individual thing anymore. I like the personal curation and filtering, and where you find that these days, for better for worse, is Twitter and Facebook.

Owen: What about email newsletters? What do you think about the TinyLetter trend? If you were thinking about starting a blog now, would you do a newsletter instead?

Kottke: I went and talked to a high school class recently. Someone asked me if I started the site today, did I think it would take off like it did in 1998? I said I don’t think so. When they asked if I would recommend starting a blog, I was like, I don’t know how I feel about that — I don’t know that I would.

I asked them, if there’s stuff you guys want to read online, what do you do? Do you bookmark things, do you see things through Facebook or Twitter? The reason I asked was that if I’m trying to figure out how I can get more people reading my site: As the media landscape changes and people use RSS less, how are they going to keep up with my site? Fewer and fewer people are just going to my homepage. You can see it in the stats over the past five or six years; it’s a steady downward trend.

A lot of them didn’t use Twitter. There was a lot of Snapchat usage, but it was mainly peer-to-peer and a couple of people of people were like: Wait, you can read news on Snapchat? And someone else was like: Oh yeah, you can go here and do that! They were like: Ohhhhh, right. They don’t do that. I got the feeling that if it’s not on Facebook and it’s not on Instagram, and it doesn’t involve their friends, they don’t really care that much.

The email thing is interesting because email is proving remarkably durable in a way that other things haven’t. I guess we’ll see about Facebook, if that lasts as a way for people to express themselves with their family and friends. I don’t know. Ten years ago, I never would have thought that people would still be excited and interested in sending things to people’s inboxes.

Owen: Have you noticed a difference in the way you are reading online? Do you still use Instapaper?

Kottke: I still do use Instapaper — see something and I don’t have time to read it just then, I stick it back in there and look at it later.

I am reading a lot more newsletters in the past six months or so. I mean, it’s basically my job to go online and look for stuff that I can write about. The blog is half publication and half performance art, because when I wake up in the morning I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about. There’s no editorial calendar or anything. I go online and I see what’s there, I pick some stuff, and I do it, and at the end of the day, I’m done. I come up with a publication on the fly as a sort of performance.

With email newsletters, 40 links show up in my inbox at 12:30. I can burn through those 40 links, click click click click click, open like eight tabs, and go through those quickly, read the stuff that looks interesting, and blog the stuff that’s really interesting. That lends itself very well to how my time is chunked up during the day.

Owen: In an interview with The Verge in 2012, you talked about how you realized that at some point around 2007, you’d suddenly gotten much better at blogging. Why do you think you got to that point, and how did you notice? What did it mean to get better at blogging?

Kottke: My son was born more than 10 years ago. I took two months off, basically as paternity leave. When I came back, I noticed that I was a lot more focused and a lot more efficient at working because I knew that when I was on the computer at my desk, that was it — there was, like, no other time to do this. I think that that transition helped me focus my energy a little bit.

I also think it was this transition from doing my site as a hobby, sort of in my spare time, to doing it as a job. Having a kid and having that sort of forced focus time made me think about the whole picture more: Not just: Okay, I’m going to write about these things today, but: How is my technology gonna look in three years? What else should I be doing? Should I start a newsletter, should I have a Twitter account, should I start an Instagram account where I curate stuff? And on the financial side, I was taking it a lot more seriously as a business — and I think that when you’re more focused on the business side, you’re more focused on everything, including the writing and what’s going on with the site. There’s this extra sense of — I don’t want to call it purpose, but there’s this extra sense of something that is propelling me now.

Owen: What percentage of your revenue comes from what these days?

Kottke: For years, the site was supported mostly by advertising and a little bit by [affiliate revenue from] Amazon Associates. That worked well until about three years ago, when the wheels started falling off the Internet advertising wagon. The ad network that I was using, The Deck, wasn’t doing so well; they tried to rejigger, and it didn’t really work, so they folded. My main source of revenue was gone. At the same time, though, I decided to do this membership thing, and that took off right when advertising was going down. Now membership is my main source of revenue. I still have a little bit of advertising on the site, which isn’t bringing in nearly what it was three years ago, and Amazon Associates is still in the mix as well.

Owen: Can you provide any more detail around the membership, like how much money is coming from which payment level?

Kottke: Probably 60 percent of my revenue is from membership, and the rest is from Amazon and ads. I’m trying to decide what is appropriate to share. I should say, the thing I didn’t like about Patreon, which I looked at for membership briefly, is that the information about how much people are paying is public. I wasn’t so comfortable with that. I would say probably 60 percent of my revenue is from membership, and the rest is from Amazon and ads.

Instead of Patreon, I’m using a membership service called Memberful. If you go to my site and sign up for a membership, you never actually go to Memberful’s site — it’s all done with JavaScript overlays and stuff on kottke.org. Whereas if you use Patreon, you go to Patreon.com, you’re in their experience. That’s the other thing I really didn’t like about it; I wanted to keep control over my membership experience. I didn’t want to outsource it to Patreon if in three years they do some sort of Facebook-esque thing and start hosting more and more content on their site so that it becomes more about them and less about the creators. I could just see that happening, and I didn’t want to go anywhere near it.

Owen: What platform are you using for Kottke’s email newsletter Noticing [written by Nieman Lab contributor Tim Carmody]?

Kottke: MailChimp. Which is not great for newsletters, really.

Owen: What do you not like about it?

Kottke: MailChimp very much feels like it is a tool built for marketers who want to send out marketing email, or newsletters that are marketing-oriented, I guess. When you go into MailChimp to do a new issue of a newsletter, you have to do a new campaign and go through and select a template and all that sort of stuff. I want to just do a new issue of this thing that I’ve already got going. But the workflow is not quite there for what I want to do with it.

Owen: How do you think about traffic these days? You said fewer people are coming straight to the site to read it. What about social media referral?

Kottke: I pay very minimal attention to my stats; I’m not one of these people who’s looking at Chartbeat every second. Let me actually look and see: Yeah, like 40 percent of my pageviews are my front page — which is actually a lot of people. So that’s either through a bookmark or going directly to my site, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Twitter is biggest for social, followed by Facebook. I put way more energy into Twitter and also you don’t have to pay Twitter, at this point, to get things seen by people, the way you do with Facebook.

My traffic probably peaked five, six, seven years ago. I’m 44 years old. People who read my site are probably about my age, plus or minus five to eight years. People in that range are getting more advanced in their careers and they don’t have time to screw around online anymore. They’re starting families and businesses. I’m losing those people. I don’t have a marketing department. It’s just me.

There’s no really good way for me to promote the site aside from actually writing the site. One of the students in that class asked me: So, you have advertising on your site, but how do you advertise? I was like, well…I don’t, really. They were like: How do you get new readers? I was like…I don’t? I mean, I don’t know.

Owen: Some of this sounds so melancholy. You know, not just our conversation but the way we think about the Internet in general these days — the way we’ve come to talk about reading stuff online has gotten kind of sad. Do you feel that?

Kottke: Melancholy, I think, is the exact right word. Personally, I think I felt a lot worse about it maybe three, four years ago. I was like, crap, what am I going to do here? I can see where this is going, I can see that more and more people are going to go to Facebook, and to mobile, and to all of these social apps and stuff like that, and there’s going to be less and less of a space in there for blogs like mine. I can’t churn out 60 things a day and play that social game where you use the shotgun approach to spit stuff out there and see what sticks. I’ve got to do four, five, six things that are good, really good. Since then, though, I’ve sort of come to terms with that. I’m like: Okay, if I can just keep going it, just keep doing it, it will work itself out somehow. I don’t know why I think that, but I kind of do.

The membership thing was actually really helpful in that regard, because within a pretty short amount of time, there was a lot of signal that people really appreciate what it is I do, enough that they’re willing to pay for it. It was kind of like, holy shit, we’re all in this together. I knew before that there were people who really into the site and who really like it, and that’s always been great to know and to get that feedback in the inbox and via Twitter and stuff like that. But to actually have those people pony up some dough changed my whole mindset about how I feel about the site.

I never really got sick of the site. I would every once in a while, but since the membership thing happened, I really like sitting down and going to work for my members. It’s not just that it’s my job. It’s like, I want to do this for them because they have been kind enough to support me. You don’t get that feeling about having advertising on your site. It’s not the same.

Owen: What do your kids think of your job? Do they see this as something they might want to do?

Kottke: Every couple weeks, we’ll sit down with the laptop and scroll back through the site and look for videos that I found interesting, and we’ll watch that stuff. It’s something I really like doing with them and they really enjoy it too — they get a little mini version of what I do.

I don’t really think of myself as being a writer; I think that’s a label reserved for people who actually know how to write better than I do. How I think of my job is: I sit down and I’m lucky enough to read about interesting stuff all day, and to try and figure it out enough that I can tell other people about it. You can take that and do it in a number of different jobs: It’s what a teacher does, it’s what a journalist does, it’s widely applicable. When I talk about what I do with my kids, it’s in the context of that. I went to a small liberal arts college and I feel like I’m still kind of in college, in a way. I write about science, art, psychology, photography, and I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time.

Owen: What’s your mission for kottke.org going forward? Do you see changes in the stuff you’re going to be covering?

Kottke: One of the missions of the site has always been that there’s no mission. It dovetails with my personal way of approaching life, which is that I never really have a plan. I’m not a five-year-plan sort of person. I head in a direction that it seems like I should be heading, and it seems to have worked out fairly well. The site is very much like that, I think. I just want to tell people about things that are interesting. Sometimes those things have something to do with what’s going on in our culture, and sometimes they don’t.

I think that it’s been really hard, the last couple of years, to cover anything — I don’t know how to say this in a way that isn’t going to get all weirdly interpreted — it’s been hard to cover anything but things that are serious. Because, you know, a lot of people — I think very rightly — feel that if you’re someone who thinks the world is coming down around all of us, that you should be on a mission to try to fix that. And I think that there are plenty of sites and plenty of media outlets and plenty of people who are oriented in that direction and moving in that direction.

But I don’t think kottke.org is one of those things. I think that the site is much more about things that are a little bit more — I don’t want to say hopeful, but a lot of it is, like, look at this cool thing. Look at what humans can do when they have enough time and energy and whatnot to do them! When you called, I was had just been watching the SpaceX thing. Seeing those two booster rockets land at the same time blew my mind. I was just sitting here, yelling, like, oh my god!

There has to be room in our culture for that type of stuff — that stuff that is inspirational and aspirational — because it provides some sort of hope that we can actually have more of that in our lives, rather than less.

It’s like that quote from John Adams. I have it pulled up here. “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

That’s a really interesting way to think about progress. Not everyone is going to be on that continuum at the same time, but I think the goal should be to get more people moving toward it.

Screenshot of kottke.org in 1999 via the Internet Archive.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2018, 11:15 a.m.
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