“The site was becoming unmanageable as just a hobby… so I decided I either needed to quit the site or turn it into something I could live off of… The bigger challenge was how to balance taking the site seriously while simultaneously not worrying about it too much.”
By 1998 Jason Kottke had began to transform the landscape of the Internet by simply challenging the idea that blogs had to be ideological, or websites had to be boring via his digital postings: 0sil8. His next site, kottke.org, was one of the first aggregated sites of its kind: content that intrigued the creator, put forth for the public to consume. Much in the way that a riveting conversation with a friend can introduce you to new ideas, events, news, and opinions, kottke is like your buddy who always has something new to say, in a way that’s never off-putting, pretentious, or, God forbid, dull. The Rumpus sat down with the curator of the Internet to get the DL on his HTML.
The Rumpus: Did you keep a diary as a kid or was 0sil8 your first foray into journaling?
Jason Kottke: I was not a diary keeper as a kid. Aside from one or two high school & college essays, the personal web sites I built in the mid 90s were the first instances where I wrote about myself. But that phase didn’t last very long. I mostly ditched writing about myself and started doing 0sil8, which was very much about playing around with Photoshop and HTML. Even kottke.org, which was semi-personal when it started, became quickly focused on stuff I watched/read/listened to than what I was doing and is now almost entirely non-autobiographical.
Rumpus: I’ve read that you didn’t go to school for design or computer science. What did you go for?
Kottke: I went to college not knowing what the hell to major in — I was interested in everything and couldn’t decide — and popped out with a physics degree. My senior honors thesis was on the physical properties of rubidium and cesium borosilicate glasses. I had more fun tinkering with the layout of the thesis than doing the research, which eventually led me to reconsider my career path. However, the varied subject matter that makes up kottke.org on a daily basis is attributable to the to the wide range of interests that I entered college with and the even wider range of subjects I was able to study in college.
Rumpus: Okay, this question is a little selfish. Could you explain HTML to my mom, please?
Kottke: Mom, HTML is what’s called a markup language. You can use it to tell a web browser how to display text and images. For instance, if you want a certain word to show up as bold on the screen, you can just put <b></b> “tags” around the text in question, which tells the browser, “hey, make this bold!” There are also tags for “Yo, put an image here!”, “Dude, this text links to some other page!”, and “You there, make a box to type text into!”
Rumpus: Does kottke.org have trolls?
Kottke: A few, but they aren’t too bad. I don’t feed them and encourage others not to either, so they generally just give up and go elsewhere after awhile. Trolls would likely be more of a problem if I opened up comments on the site more frequently.
Rumpus: Have you ever wanted to just give up editing the site?
Kottke: Every few months, although not for awhile now. The major turning point came back in 2004. The site was becoming unmanageable as just a hobby— I was spending 20-30 hours a week on it in addition to working a full-time job — and was more fun/challenging than what I was doing at work, so I decided I either needed to quit the site or turn it into something I could live off of. It took me 2-3 years to figure out how to do that. And not only financially… the bigger challenge for me was how to balance taking the site seriously while simultaneously not worrying about it too much. Paula Scher talks about that balance in this TED video, great design is serious (not solemn).
Rumpus: What’s been your greatest triumph? It doesn’t have to be related to the Internet or websites or anything. You could have won a game of cricket and that could be the biggest feather in your cap, which would be awesome.
Kottke: I can’t think of any individual events. There are some things that have built up over time — like being able to work for myself — that don’t have a triumphant feeling associated with them but are significant to me nonetheless.
Rumpus: You’re a dad. What’s your favorite children’s book to read?
Kottke: The Dr. Seuss books are always great, especially the tongue twister ones…he and I have equal difficulty reading them.
Kottke: I’m an advisor to a start-up company called Buzzfeed and part of the deal is that I get a desk in their office in Chinatown. I’m here pretty much every weekday from 9-5.
Rumpus: Do you always take a lunch break?
Kottke: Almost always. At good jobs, it’s nice to have lunch with coworkers and chat about something other than work. At bad jobs, it’s essential to escape to a restaurant for an hour with a good book. Today, however, is a rare lunch at my desk.
Rumpus: You recently redesigned the site. I loved what you wrote about it, that you realized that people had become comfortable with the previous, hello!-yellow look and that they’d be irked that you changed it. You also said that you knew that design was a process, which is so fucking true. How did you make the choice to do something that you assumed wouldn’t jive with the majority of your readership?
Kottke: I redesigned the site because I was tired of the old design and to address feedback I’ve gotten over the years. kottke.org was long overdue for a kick in the pants. I knew people wouldn’t like it at first because I didn’t really like it right away either. But I got used to it and was confident that others would too. There’s still some stuff that I’m not comfortable with and as solutions to those issues become apparent through feedback or intuition, I’ll fix them.
kottke.org is different than a lot of other “pro blogs” (yuck) out there because I’m not trying to generate more pageviews or maximize advertising revenue or project a certain image. I’m not trying to “appeal” to a certain “demographic”. In many ways, kottke.org is still a personal web site that reflects the personality and world view of the designer/author/editor rather than that of the reader. The site is more for me than it is anyone else.
Rumpus: Semi-related, how did you come up with the “home of fine hypertext products” line?
Kottke: I thought it sounded a bit olde tymey in a McSweeney-ish sort of way that seemed appropriate for the site.
Rumpus: As a hungry and poor freelance copywriter I have to say that seeing your jobs section always makes me happy. It feels like you’re paying it forward in a way. Where did you get the idea to post openings on your site, and when did that start?
Kottke: I think it started a couple of years ago. I was getting 3-4 emails a week from readers asking if I knew of any good jobs or people to fill jobs and I felt bad that I couldn’t really help them out all that much. When Jason Fried emailed and asked me to include the 37signals Job Board on the site, I thought it was a perfect way to make some money for the site (I get paid for running the job board posting) and to help my readers get jobs or fill jobs. IMO, this is exactly how advertising should work…everyone should get something good out of the deal.
Rumpus: Do you ever get recognized on the street?
Kottke: Sometimes, although I almost always find out about it later via email, blog post, or Twitter. I’m still not sure whether that’s creepier than being approached in real life or not.
Rumpus: What do you do to prevent burnout with the incessant onslaught of information processing and site updating that you’re tethered to?
Kottke: It’s not so much about prevention than it is about learning to live in a constant state of burnout. Life is suffering, right?