Rob Walker | Essays

Inside the Wild, Wacky, Profitable World of Boing Boing

It's eccentric. It's unprofessional. And it makes money. How four people who do exactly what they want run one of the most popular blogs on the planet.  

Back in 1999,
Mark Frauenfelder wrote an article about new web tools that made it easier to do something called "blogging." His editors at the technology magazine The Industry Standard declined to publish it, concluding that blogging didn't really seem like a very big deal. Turns out it was.

It's certainly been a very good thing for Frauenfelder, who deployed the tools he learned about for his ill-fated article to start posting interesting links and offbeat observations on boingboing.net. In time, three friends who shared a similar appetite for curious information filtered through a nonmainstream worldview — Cory Doctorow, Xeni Jardin, and David Pescovitz — joined him. And by the mid-2000s, Boing Boing had become one of the most-read and linked-to blogs in the world.

We know what happens next: This hobby morphs into a successful business. But Boing Boing's version of that tale is a little different. Frauenfelder and his partners didn't rake in investment capital, recruit a big staff and a hotshot CEO, or otherwise attempt to leverage themselves into a "real" media company. They didn't even rent an office. They continued to treat their site as a side project, even as it became a business with revenue comfortably in the seven figures. Basically, they declined to professionalize. You could say they refused to grow up.

"Boing Boing is a holdover from a time when the best blogs were written by smart people who posted whatever was interesting to them," observes Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed. Sure, there are still many such blogs around, but the blogosphere overall has changed radically, with the dominant players falling into recognizable categories — tech (Gizmodo, Engadget), gossip (TMZ, Gawker), politics (the Huffington Post, Politico) — and generally created by teams of professionals looking for growth and profits. "The new generation of postpersonal blogs," Peretti adds, "are much bigger."

Yet boingboing.net remains among the most popular 10 or 20 blogs around. According to Quantcast data, it gets about 2.5 million unique visitors a month, racking up 9.8 million page views, a traffic increase of around 20% over 2009. It attracts blue-chip advertisers such as American Express and Verizon. It makes a nice living for its founders and a handful of contract employees.

And what really makes it interesting is that it does this with a mix of material that remains as eclectic, strange, and sometimes nonsensical as the obscure personal blog it started out as. Sure, the site offers its take on big, hot-button topics like WikiLeaks or the latest Apple gadgetry. But just as prominent are headlines such as "And now, an important message regarding elves," or "Heavily stapled phone-pole," or, to cite a recent favorite of mine, "Monkey rides a goat" (an animated GIF of exactly that).

How can this mishmash command an audience of millions? Particularly now, when the "postpersonal" blogosphere offers slick, focused, comprehensive takes on any subject you can imagine? Maybe the founders' insistence on keeping the site weird, loose, personal, and fundamentally unprofessional is exactly what keeps the crowd coming back. Boing Boing's longevity hasn't happened despite its refusal to get serious, but because of it.

Even if you don't follow the site, you may have encountered one of its editors elsewhere. Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make Magazine, a quarterly focused on hackerish technology projects. Doctorow, who used to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is now a prolific science-fiction novelist. Jardin pops up on NPR and MSNBC to talk about new technology, politics, and the intersection of the two. Pescovitz is a researcher for the Institute for the Future, a not-for-profit think tank.

It's quite a meeting of the minds — except the minds are pretty spread out. Frauenfelder and Jardin both live in Los Angeles, Pescovitz in San Francisco, and Doctorow in London. The site's managing editor, Rob Beschizza, who also posts frequently and coordinates many of the guest bloggers and other contributors, is in Pittsburgh. Maggie Koerth-Baker, who writes about science, is in Minneapolis. Technically, nobody is "on staff"; the editors are partners, and the other regulars work on extended contracts. Most communication happens electronically; conference calls are only for dealing with urgent problems or opportunities; in-person gatherings happen, at most, once a year.   

If it's hard to imagine starting out to build such a site, well, nobody did, and its history of happenstance helps explain what boingboing.net is today. Long before it was a blog, Boing Boing was a print zine, focused on such fare as weird science, fringe techno-culture, and the emerging concept of cyberpunk. Founded in 1988 by Frauenfelder and his wife, Carla Sinclair, it was part of a boomlet in amateur-made publications. Its circulation peaked at around 17,500. That sounds piddly in today's world, but the basic zine ethos — if you don't like what you're reading, make your own alternative — has a lot in common with the tech-guru rhetoric that greeted, and goosed, the rise of online self-expression.

Among its readers was Pescovitz, then living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Drawn to the strange brew of psychedelic thought and techno-utopianism bubbling in the Bay Area in the early '90s, Pescovitz headed to UC Berkeley, and landed an internship at a then-new magazine called Wired. As it happens, Frauenfelder was working there, and Sinclair was still producing their zine out of a shared office downstairs. The three hit it off. ("I remember they gave me a bottle of vasopressin," Pescovitz recalls, "which was a 'smart drug' that everybody was raving about back then.") He contributed to the zine and to a spin-off illustrated paperback, The Happy Mutant Handbook.

By 1996, the zine had become a web-only publication that took a backseat to other career opportunities. (At one point, Frauenfelder let the boingboing.com domain name expire and had to switch to .net.) Instead of writing for alternative papers for pennies, or zines for nothing, journalists conversant in the formerly fringy computer culture could make real money exploring the same subjects in glossies like Wired and The Industry Standard. And that's where things stood when Frauenfelder researched his piece on the blogging "fad." For a year or so, he used the Blogger software he'd learned about to post short items on boingboing.net, attracting an audience of a few hundred people a day. In January 2001, he got curious about what was then intense speculation about a new creation from inventor Dean Kamen that was later to be the subject of a book called Code Name Ginger. Searching an online patent database for Kamen's name, Frauenfelder found a drawing of what looked like a person riding an old-fashioned push lawn mower (as we now know, this would be the Segway). He posted a link, CNN picked up on it, and boingboing.net racked up 5,000 visits in a day.

That's hardly start-a-business-level traffic, but Frauenfelder was about to go on vacation and, like many a blogger to follow, he didn't want to lose his readership mojo. He asked another Wired contributor, Doctorow, to pinch-hit. Traffic momentum seemed good, so Frauenfelder asked him to stay on. By March, they'd added Pescovitz. Next, they threw in occasional guest bloggers, including, in July 2002, Jardin. That October, she joined "the main Boing Boing team" — which meant, in monetary terms, chipping in to cover hosting costs.

Boing Boing's readership was growing, and blogging in general was beginning to take off. Nick Denton started Gawker.com, the first site in what would quickly become a mini empire, in 2002; that same year, Google bought the company that created Blogger software. By 2004, Boing Boing was a blog powerhouse, and its hosting costs were approaching $1,000 a month. The editors still enjoyed blogging, but it was becoming an expensive hobby. Frauenfelder put in a call to John Battelle.

Battelle had cofounded Wired and, amusingly enough, founded and published The Industry Standard, the very magazine that had declined to print Frauenfelder's blogging article (and had since folded). Battelle was working on a book about Google and on a business plan that involved bringing together advertisers and bloggers. So he and the four editors became partners in a new entity called Happy Mutants (along with Sinclair, who is essentially a silent partner). Battelle asked the editors to come up with a wish list of four potential advertisers. Remember, he says, in those days the very notion of ads on blogs was still controversial, and the Boing Boing crew was "insanely sensitive" to that. They named Google, Apple, O'Reilly Media, and Wired. "I called them and said, 'The most linked-to blog in the world is going to be open to marketers.' " He asked for a three-month minimum commitment, at $3,000 a month, for a rotating spot in a noticeable but nonintrusive ad box. Apple begged off, but the other three agreed. "So all of a sudden, these guys had $27,000 of income for the quarter." Boing Boing was in business. 

Battelle promptly started his new business
, Federated Media, rounding up a network of blogs to match with advertisers. Boing Boing remains a star of its roster. (He also promptly stopped taking any money from Boing Boing, though he remains part owner. The Boing Boing creators are fond of rock-group metaphors and now call Battelle their "band manager.") As for the actual editors, not much has changed. Of course, the site's ad rates, sponsorship options, and overall revenue increased, but basically, they just kept posting whatever they found interesting and pursuing their various careers, even as their Boing Boing draws became their principal source of income.

I meet Pescovitz at a small office he rents in an arts building in San Francisco's Mission District. It's a dark, woody, neat room, with a wall of books and such curiosities as a 3-foot statue of Sasquatch. Under the arrangement the partners have arrived at, administrative duties that simply can't be avoided fall to Pescovitz. Despite this, he seems ambivalent about the metrics of the Boing Boing business. He has only anecdotal thoughts about individual-post traffic and seems interested to hear about the concept of search-optimized headlines. When we talk about the changing blogosphere, he comments, "Some of those sites are way bigger now and always will be. But I don't think of us as competing with them. Maybe we compete with them for ad dollars, I really don't know."

It isn't that Pescovitz doesn't understand what the blog business has become; he just figures that however it works now is anathema to what's made Boing Boing popular in the first place. The editorial policy is just what it's always been: The principals post whatever they want, whenever they feel like it. They don't bother to copyedit in advance, let alone vet or discuss one another's contributions. Material from outsiders tends to flow onto the site through whichever Boing Boinger liked the idea. It's essentially the same personal take on what's interesting as it was 10 years ago. "We've never thought, Who is our demographic and are we reaching our demographic?" Pescovitz says. "I think it would be a mistake for us to do that. Anything that we do, first and foremost, is to please ourselves."

That's not to say it's all trivial. Doctorow regularly pushes an aggressive digital-rights-management agenda, lately slamming what he sees as Apple's needlessly draconian practices. Managing editor Beschizza's recent skewering of the data Wired used to declare that "The Web Is Dead" was picked up by The New York Times. A featured interview with a Mexican student who writes a widely read blog on narco crimes was a tougher look at the subject than you'll find in most traditional media. A Jardin post about an apparent photo manipulation of a Ralph Lauren model drew legal threats (which the fashion company eventually backed away from, admitting responsibility for a Photoshop disaster). A gadget maker stung by a Boing Boing critique sued and eventually had to cough up more than $50,000 to cover the site's legal fees when the case was dismissed. Clearly the site's self-description — "a directory of wonderful things" — doesn't quite cover everything it publishes.

But if Boing Boing doesn't avoid controversy, it also doesn't avoid the supremely quotidian. "What is this thing in the wall?" asks a headline from earlier this year, over an item in which Frauenfelder explains that while visiting friends, he'd noticed an odd niche built into their staircase, the purpose of which was unclear. He posted a picture and asked, "What do you think it is?"

Curious to see how two Boing Boing editors interact in real life, I meet Frauenfelder and Jardin for lunch in West Hollywood. Jardin, with shocking-blond hair, is emotive, expansive, and enthusiastic; Frauenfelder is low-key and matter-of-fact, but quietly self-certain. The most interesting moments are when they ignore me, caught up in some side discussion about recent posts on the site, or stuff they plan to post about. (Jardin: "I sat there looking at that for three hours yesterday!" Frauenfelder: "Yeah!" Jardin: "That was awesome!" Frauenfelder: "It's amazing!") This is more convincing than any direct statement about the degree to which the contributors write for themselves, and one another.

Jardin says it was early in her Boing Boing life, while she was still hustling other jobs, that she realized the blog had become "this low-level hum in my operating system," as she puts it. "Whenever something has a certain set of characteristics — interestingness, weirdness, colorfulness — some magical algorithm, it has to go on Boing Boing." For her, this can mean human-rights issues or the latest hilarious Internet memes. Recently, she became a booster of the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord. Boing Boing is hardly a music site, but it made sense in the sense that Boing Boing doesn't make sense. 

I ask Frauenfelder about the "thing in the wall" post. He laughs and concedes that when he was a freelance writer, plenty of editors turned away his more obscure pitches. "I mean, if it's interesting to me, it's interesting," he says. "And I think there are enough people out there that are interested in the same things I'm interested in. That makes it worth it." (That mundane item attracted 175 comments.) Still, critics of Boing Boing say it tilts into the self-indulgent and owes its readers a more coherent, discriminating editorial style. "Uh-huh. Yeah," Frauenfelder says, sounding patient. "I think it would just kill the pretty large audience we already have. We're serving them by creating the blog that we ourselves want to read. And I'm not interested at all in creating any kind of media that I wouldn't want to consume. That would be, like, deadly."

For the first few years that Boing Boing was a business, blogging was booming and various entities sounded out the founders about investing in an expansion of the Boing Boing brand, or maybe just acquiring it outright. "During the crazy go-go years, maybe 2006, 2007, it seemed like every week there was a new offer," says Jardin. The internal conversation often came down to a simple question: What would you rather be doing? (She answered that question for herself when she turned down an on-air cable-news-network gig that would have required her to drop, or get approval for, her Boing Boing work.)

"It would take an awful lot of money," Frauenfelder says. "Because this is the kind of thing I would do for free anyway — and that we all were doing for free, for years." The assumption, Jardin agrees, often seemed to be that Boing Boing was a lot of labor pointed toward an exit strategy — that it was built to flip. "It feels good," Frauenfelder adds, "to be in a position where we're making nice livings, doing ... anything we want."

Well, almost anything. For all the talk of indifference to growth, Boing Boing did try to expand in ways that proved untenable when its crazy go-go years crashed into the Great Recession. One venture involved "verticals" — sub-blogs about gadgets and video games. This meant signing on new contractors, notably Gizmodo veteran Joel Johnson. Meanwhile, there was a big push into video, which seemed like a fun, and possibly profitable, new way to do what the partners were doing on the blog. The results of these moves were, at best, mixed. The material on the sub-blogs overlapped with Boing Boing proper; the commitment to creating new video content daily quickly turned into a treadmill. The ad market cinched up, and the partners reduced their draws. In 2009, Boing Boing experienced its first decline in annual revenue.

But the partners were able to ride out the recession, partly because they had kept the overhead low and partly because they had never taken on investors who expected massive returns. As Doctorow (who was involved in a venture-funded business during the dotcom bubble) points out, potential investors had a lot of money, but it was never clear how Boing Boing could turn into something big and profitable enough to justify the resulting valuations without making it really horrible.

"I don't know what a liquidity event for Boing Boing would look like," Doctorow continues, "except for a job. If we were acquired by some content giant, if Yahoo or someone bought us out, it's just a job at Yahoo." (This is purely hypothetical, he says.) "If I wanted a job at Yahoo, I'd go look for a job there; they post listings pretty regularly. I'm glad not to have a job. I don't want a job."

The editors essentially concluded that it was time to refocus on what they did best. Johnson left (on friendly terms), but Beschizza, whom he'd hired, has become a linchpin. Jardin still produces video but on a schedule driven by her ideas, out of a converted industrial loft space that doubles as Boing Boing's studio. (She also curates the Boing Boing "channel" available on Virgin America, mixing the site's creations with the work of others that she likes.) Instead of verticals, the partners have added more voices and content to boingboing.net — that same page of reverse-chronological items that Frauenfelder started nearly 11 years ago. Instead of figuring out how to push their brand beyond the plain old blog, they are doing what they can with the form they know best — hence the new contributors, the increasingly ambitious "special features" with higher design standards and more ambitious content, and the ad-sponsored Submitterator feature that makes it possible to view more of the many reader-submitted links that pour into the site. Traffic has gone well beyond the combined numbers of the previous verticals. And according to the founders, revenue for 2010 is on track to hit a new record. 
In conversation, it seemed to me as though the founders would like their revenue to be more diverse and thus less dependent on advertising in general, and perhaps Federated Media in particular. This year, they tinkered with an online store "curated" by the editors and carried out in a partnership with Make Magazine's Makers Market. But the closure of the Makers Market and Boing Boing Bazaar was announced in September. Another retail experiment, something more ambitious than its standard Amazon store, may follow, but for now, Boing Boing's revenue comes overwhelmingly from ads. And whatever money-generating schemes might emerge will surely be tempered by the editors' determination not to let Boing Boing become anything that resembles an actual job.

To some observers, this middle-ground stance is a problem. The blog revolution is over — meaning not that the form is irrelevant, but that it's matured into a mainstream medium. Denton's Gawker empire is famously relentless in exploiting the technology's efficiencies in its pursuit of maximum traffic and revenue. Denton tells me his io9 site, which focuses on science fiction and weird science, was built specifically to compete with Boing Boing — and points out that, according to Quantcast, it already has more readers. "Io9 is like Boing Boing without the complacency," he says.

David Carr, The New York Times media columnist, offers another view. Boing Boing remains relevant and popular — a "sensibility blog on steroids," as he puts it — because its editors remain interesting, and that's precisely because they have other projects and are out in the world doing things. "They're not just people sitting in a room, typing," he says. And if you're competing on sensibility, the real rival these days isn't another blog or media outlet. It's the directories of wonderful things provided to each individual Facebook and Twitter user by friends and followers. Carr is among those who has shifted from checking his blog reader to checking his Twitter stream — but the links there sometimes lead him to Boing Boing.

Boing Boing is "still very respected," observes BuzzFeed's Peretti. Yet he also characterizes it as "retro chic." That could be taken as an insult by some in the future-focused world of online media. But to Douglas Rushkoff, a longtime observer of Internet culture (and a friend of the Boing Boing crew), it's more like a compliment. "In the beginning, Boing Boing and the Internet were kind of the same thing," he says. Early Net enthusiasts were curious, off-kilter, nonmainstream people, which led some to believe the new technology synched up with counterculture ideas. (Pescovitz still quotes Timothy Leary's advice to "find the others" as an apt summation of the web's revolutionary potential.) Rushkoff's latest book, Program or Be Programmed, is partly a call to return to that ethos. "As the Net has gone commercial, Boing Boing in some ways doesn't characterize the Internet anymore," he continues. "It went from being the culture of the Net to the counterculture of the Net."

Which makes it all the more surprising that Boing Boing still has millions of readers. And that says something interesting about what has really made the Internet different from prior media revolutions. In an earlier era, an oddball little counterculture magazine couldn't have ended up turning into a prime-time TV show, but that's roughly the equivalent of what Boing Boing has done: It may be an outlier in an increasingly polished and professional postpersonal blogosphere, but it's an outlier that has found a way to thrive. And that's true even if, on some level, the founders have done it without trying all that hard.

This essay was originally published in Fast Company, December 2010/January 2010 Fast Company. 

Posted in: Technology

Jobs | March 03