Interview with Suzanne Stefanac (Dispatches from Blogistan: a Travel Guide for the Modern Blogger)
Perlmutter: Tell me how you came to write a book on blogs?
Stefanac: My trajectory here mirrors a lot of what went on in the computer industry. Once the Web started to take hold, its tentacles went very deep here. I had been writing for computer magazine for years, and so when the Web first started up, and Macworld? offered me the head of MacWorld online, the magazine didn’t know what to do with it, I think. Nobody knew what to do with any of it yet. I had great hopes for it. It was 1994 and there really weren’t good database and search tools for the Web yet and I thought search was so important.… I felt like there were two great advances in civilization: plumbing and search algorithms.
People were predicting great things, Some of them happened, and a lot of them didn’t. When we launched Macworld online, we had an interesting problem. The entire magazine was in Quark Express files because that’s what went to the printer. The text would very often, in fact, change up until the last second before it was sent to the printer, so it was left in these Quark Express files. It was a nightmare getting them online. We had to figure out not only how to get them out of Quark Express but at the same time maintain all of the categories and headers. There were I think 8 separate sections for the magazine: features, reviews, news, columns, letters to the editor, that kind of thing. We had to somehow make it look good online, and there were no tools yet. So we had to build all our tools. But it worked! No one really expected so many people to log on daily, but they did, and so we actually made money our first year, which was kind of unique. At that point, Macintosh users were much more likely than PC users to go online. Although the numbers were still small, of Mac users over all, they constituted a sizeable segment of the online community. It was a very interesting place to start working on the Web
Perlmutter: Let me ask you a question that’s related to innovation. For a class I teach, I pull out my catQ scanner. They distributed it with Wired, and it was supposed to be a reader that you would have plugged in and you could scanned barcodes on articles and advertising and go directly to the website. And it failed, as far as I can tell. Nobody uses it. I was talking to my students about how sometimes you just don’t know.
Stefanac: You don’t know. It’s like spaghetti. You throw it against the wall and see what sticks.
Perlmutter: There are certain predictive mechanisms like the temperature of spaghetti that help you. In retrospect, it didn’t make sense to mix two media that were very different. Most people weren’t going to read a magazine with their computer right next to them. You don’t tend to read magazines in front of your keyboard. Maybe the technology was too early because now you can put that scanner in your iPod or your cell phone.
Stefanac: Or now you can get that magazine online. I-t was not unlike a lot of things that have happened in the technology realm, where people had a vision and the leap was too far. The technology had not yet caught up to that, and in many cases it never accommodated. People cobbled together solutions that were in keeping with a broader vision but didn’t really have the technology know-how or the whatever resources would be necessary to actualize that plan. I think that in America you have all these settlers who came to America at one point or another,. They kept moving, and some people settled in New York, and some people settled in Chicago, St. Louis or Salt Lake, or even Sacramento, but the people who ended up in San Francisco, I think, are the kind of people who would have kept going if there hadn’t been an ocean, and so there’s a kind of a questing mode here and that’s good and bad. People are not always satisfied with what is here. Just the number of failed companies that happened here in the last 10 years is testimony that people are willing to jump in and give it a shot. And sometimes even an informed shot or a shot that doesn’t seem so dumb at the time, but it just didn’t pan out. Yet people are jumping back in again. There’s a weird kind of resilience here. And I think that was good for technology because there wasn’t a way to know which of those would catch on. I think the scanner that wired distributed, nobody really thought that was going to be the future especially, if you knew very much about it at all, you knew that the text would all be digitized at the source in the not-so-distant future. But a lot of the other things that came up, some of them were great ideas. They just didn’t happen; they’ll never happen, or it’ll be 20 more years before they happen.
Perlmutter: Your book is going to be an physical paper product, yes? An old-fashioned book. I finished mine one day before my deadline. I said okay, well here’s my draft of my book. But now I have a folder already in my explorer browser of 96 interesting things that have come up since I’ve finished the typed book. The typed book will not appear on a shelf for at least nine months. It seems like two media that don’t really belong together. I’ve noticed that Sony just came out with yet another attempt at a book reader, and this is something I’ve been paying attention to for many years. I’ve had very interesting test subjects because every semester I have three hundred 18 year olds that I survey about their media use. I’m not hip as a person, but I do get it straight from the source what is cool to 18somethings. I will ask how many of you could conceive of sitting down and reading Harry Potter or a textbook for this course or any book that you’re interested in on a computer screen or on a laptop or a PDA. I think maybe one or two people say yes. Yet they still like to read books as books and to read web pages as web pages. You just wonder, I guess one day they’ll have the technology that the screen will be a piece of paper. You won’t be able to tell the difference between pieces of paper and a computer screen.
Stefanac: I think that’s the key. I mean, I think that when we all started getting heavily into computers the screens were all CRTs, and even though you couldn’t see the flicker, there was in fact a flicker going on, and your eyes could perceive that.It really isn’t a pleasant experience when you’re staring at black lines against white or whatever the print color is. There was no way in the world that people would read extensively in that environment. Once we got to LCD screens, it changed. For me personally, for instance, I started reading all my newspapers online, and I didn’t think about it until a little bit later and I realized that it was exactly parallel with the time I starting to use laptops almost exclusively. And I went, oh but of course it’s much easier on the eye. I’ve seen even newer technology and I think there will be a lot more people willing to read online, as you say. Some of them even have flexible screens like paper. I’m not so sure this issue will matter in 10 more years. I think as kids grow up in front of screens they aren’t going to care whether or not it’s flexible, although that’s easier to carry around. They’re going to care about what they’re used to.
Perlmutter: From my 18 year olds I collect anecdotes about how, one of the points I make in my book, and I’m sure are self-evident, is that new media are not new to people who grew up using it.
Stefanac: I’m older, and I can’t imagine how they see it. I can observe it, and I can take advantage of whatever knowledge you can learn observing, but I grew up with books.
Perlmutter: To them, an iPod is not new media. In fact, in popular culture we still classify things such as e-mail or text messaging or going on-line as new media–juxtaposed to, say, the printing press. I’ll give you two funny stories. A student once told me that she was in her uncle’s attic, and she found a lot of those “big black cds.” And another one said that she couldn’t study for the test because the screen on her book was broken. She’d split coffee on her textbook. They use the language of what they’re used to, so sure that makes sense. When was the last time an 18 year old, unless their father was a collector of old jazz records, would’ve gone to a old record store, or have gone to a record store at all, and see an album.
Stefanac: It’s a quaint artifact. I think about this a lot. I actually have contemplated pitching a book that I would title “Death of the Artifact,” exploring the idea that CDs or books might largely be digitized. I can imagine that people would keep certain kinds of art books, for instance, which really- i think it would take a long time for any other technology to supercede, but I think in general, people are more and more willing to read online- I think blogs are a really good example of what you were talking about earlier where content, the truth or the reality of the moment, changes so quickly that people learn to distrust what they read sometimes in books. I think that will only become more apparent to a lot of people.
Perlmutter: That’s very interesting that you’re talking about this. I’m sure you’ve read Walter Benjamin- “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” so you’re taking that a step further to what happens when all content is digital so there is no original. My actual background is that I’m a political historian of visual culture. I tend to deal with famous images and their influence on public opinion and policy making, and so I’ve started out with this sort of art historical notion that there’s an original something. For example, if I’m talking about the flag raising at Iwo Jima, I can talk about the fact that there is, out there, original negative of the various pictures taken there, and if I wanted to, I’ve never done it, but I can physically go and look at it and study it and understand it. Benjamin was saying, well what happens when nobody encounters the REAL Mona Lisa. I’ve only met one other person in my life who has actually seen the Mona Lisa.
Stefanac: I’ve seen it!
Perlmutter: I’ve met some people, but most everybody when I say, “Have you seen the Mona Lisa?” Yeah- but they haven’t seen the Mona Lisa. They’ve seen the T-shirt. And by the way the Mona Lisa that’s in the Louvre isn’t actually the Mona Lisa, it’s another one that we think is the Mona Lisa. The point is that that’s fascinating–the idea that we’ll have a situation where there will be no originals.
Stefanac: Well I think that one of the things that I’ve encountered repeatedly as I’ve been working on this book is the idea of trust. As people encounter new information, no matter what the vehicle for it, there’s sort of an underlying assumption of trust or not. Now people are questioning newspapers, for instance, in a way that my parents never questioned newspapers. They may have found some local report to be a little off tilt if they knew the actual events, but in general they did trust the media and I think that one of the things that’s happened with a kind of conversational mode that happens with blogs when you have comments and track back and all is that trust is shifting, and people are looking for some kind of surety
Perlmutter: I do believe that whatever cynicism my students have about what they see in their own culture there still is a sort of secular sacredness about books for them. They actually physically go over to the library and pull something off the shelf which they’re in awe of anyway because nothing in their life compares to writing a book. So I still have to tell them that just because it’s in a book, it’s not necessarily the case.
Stefanac: So if you were forced to make a prediction, do you see this changing over time, or do you see it as something intrinsic?
Perlmutter: Well, it’s going to change because of the practical fact that they’re never going to encounter books. They don’t read. I just said I do these little surveys, and one of the questions I’ll have is how many of you have read a book in the last 6 months and I’d say almost the entire class raises their hand, but then I’ll add that the book does not count if it was assigned for a course, and we’re down to 10% there. There are some voracious readers; there are some old-fashioned readers. Usually they’re genre readers. I’ll ask them, they don’t usually tend to read books, they tend to read one author; they read science fiction or something. They’re really focused on a particular genre. So I think of them as a post-literacy- Dr. Johnson, when he defined literacy in the first English-language dictionary, he said literacy was knowledge of Latin and Greek so the definition changes for every generation. My generation’s definition of literacy was actually being able to read and write, that is, The New York Times and books. I can’t apply that to my students anymore because they can’t read and write by that standard.
Stefanac: Right, and now we say things like computer illiteracy, and it means something else all together. I left Macworld because MSNBC was launching and I was invited to be executive producer of an hour long nightly show called The Site. It was on the air for less than a year and a half and not many people saw it because MSNBC didn’t have great penetration at the time. In a way it was a great playground because you had a lot of the resources from NBC and from Microsoft and it was a joint effort with Ziff Davis Publishing, a big technology publisher. They became ZD (?) Publishing afterwards. That was fascinating to really watch the shift from printed artifact to information largely based in electrons. We built a huge website that existed along side the television show and it was in magazine format. Given that it was an hour long and aired nightly, we covered a lot of territory. We looked at how technology affects people’s lives. Education, health, fun, all these categories. We mirrored all these sections on the website. On television, you had the 15 minute segment at most, but in general it was like 3 minutes or 7 minutes, and you had to try and condense an entire history of a certain technology into that time frame, which is what television does. Then we had this unique opportunity on the website to go into greater depth. We would invite comments from the readers; we would do more extensive interviews with the individual who had a brief moment on television. When, after about a year and a half, MSNBC decided that it would be much cheaper for them to do a one-person talk show, we were cancelled.
The thing that was interesting was that for 8 months after the show was cancelled, the website still garnered enough users that we could sell enough advertisements to keep the site running. There was no new content put up there because there were no new programs to match it up against, but a community had grown up around the content and they kept it alive. There were very lively discussion boards and people would use the stories for research. They would find it because it was television-related. That really changed my perspective on all of this. I ended up starting an interactive TV company with a couple of friends right after, and we survived for about 4 years andlike so many companies during the bubble here, we did pretty well. It was called Respond TV. The New York Times said that we were the most important interactive TV infrastructure company out there, but that didn’t save us. We still died, but I think it reflected the idea that you go out and you give it a shot and see what happens.My analogy of the spaghetti sticking on the wall is, as you pointed out, a bit incorrect in that you can predict whether or not the spaghetti will stick for the most part given temperature and how long it cooked. There wasn’t really any way to predict whether these things would work or not, but it takes a lot of people trying and a few things sticking. Then you try new things in some new territory.
Perlmutter: the venture capital metaphor is an “incubator,” and so I always assume that that meant you incubate a chick, and then you throw it out the window and see if it flies. I always tell my students about an obscure TV show from the 1960s which flopped and didn’t go anywhere called Star Trek which at the time got terrible ratings. Its budget was pretty much at the end of its run with like $60,000 a week, which now is Jay-Lo’s hair budget or something like that. And it just failed by every metric at that time because networks then were interested in numbers of eyeballs, gross ratings. If the show had been on later in the 70s when they started paying attention to demographics and psychographics, it would’ve been considered a hit. And the Daily Show, Nightline, Sopranos would’ve been canceled in the 1960s. All of these shows that today are considered hits would’ve been failures by the old model of the sheer mass audience.
Stefanac: Well, I’m assuming you’ve read some of Chris Anderson’s writings on the Long Tail. I’ve been following his blog, and I’m thinking a lot about it. I’m putting a section on it in my book. I find it really fascinating, the way media has been distributed for the last 30 or 40 years. It’s been a very hit-driven economy where a very few examples of any media manage to garner a large amount/number of viewers or readers allowing it to liveand anything past that cut-off point dies. It completely withers. With digital distribution of content, you no longer have to cut off the distribution at that very narrow point, and it allows a lot more niches to survive.
So you have the Long Tail, which allows all these categories. I think we’re just starting to see that with, for instance, music where each record company would decide to back a very few number of artists, and they weren’t necessarily the best artists or the best musicians, but they were the ones that appealed to the lowest common denominator, they were the artists most people would be the most likely to buy. It doesn’t always mean the best or the most interesting and that certainly excludes any art form that isn’t part of the mass think The fact that we’re watching as niche content becomes available encourages me. I think we’ll see richer cultural tapestry as a consequence. I don’t really know how…
Perlmutter: I’m sorry to interrupt, but can I ask a question about what you just said on two levels of response? One is that I see that about using the analogy of the book store- you go and there’s the big book store on sale but if you want something that’s the slightest bit obscure its already off the shelves because its not selling. You know Barnes & Noble. But, that model still dominates industries which are still making money. You and I are coming out with books. The book model still works that way. If Random House is going to pick maybe 20 books a year and say these are going to be our big push books, and everything else is middle list or forget about it. And they’re just going to keep doing that and they will incinerate the books that don’t sell.
Stefanac: Yes and no. I mean if you look at Amazon, they don’t have the shelf space problem. In aggregate, they are selling more niche product than mainstream. This is where the Long Tail is becoming a reality.
Perlmutter: I understand that in the digital model that’s changing, but I’m interested in when the dinosaurs wake up.
Stefanac: People who live where I live get it wrong a lot because everything here is so computer-centric, so I’mhesitant to make a prediction. I will say that I think it’s inevitable. I can’t guess when exactly but for one thing the financial impetus behind it is great. Just in magazine publishing, for instance, and I spent 15 years laboring in that arena,paper cost and mailing have become so expensive that it’s really made that industry struggle.
Perlmutter: Struggle so that magazines which are selling 400/600 thousand copies can’t make money.
Stefanac: Exactly, we’re seeing a great thinning in that arena because of it, and yet the desire for information is as great as ever, and in fact greater than ever. I think it’s one of the reasons that we see these extreme numbers for things like the growth of blogs. It’s funny- before I started this book, I was mildly interested in blogging. It seemed like an interesting phenomenon. I’m much more interested in social networks. That’s absolutely fascinated me, but most of the blogs that I had read, I wasn’t really that intrigued by. It wasn’t something I was going to go back to everyday. There were maybe half a dozen that I was reading regularly. But once I started digging in and really getting to know that world well I see this as a remarkable phenomenon. You just have every variety of human now represented somewhere in that world, and so you have all these types of information, each with a stage- a forum-, and people find it. The search engines allow people to find even obscure information so I think it gives us a window onto how this might evolve. I think we never know exactly since there are always a lot of sharp left turns that are hard to predict, but I think that the digitization of media is inevitable. Just as distribution costs for actual artifacts are so expensive. As for guessing what it will turn into, I just don’t know. I selfishly hope that it doesn’t happen before my book comes out on the one hand but there’s another side of me that says the sooner the better. When I talk to people about my idea about the death of the artifact, the most interesting people become upset. People I would never predict are really emotionally attached to the artifact. The idea that books wouldn’t be there, or even CDs, which is really interesting to me because I could sort of understand it as people shifted from LPs to CDs because you did have a much larger format with vinyl records. The record album cover was much larger. It could actually constitute art. You had the inserts in the albums. All those things disappeared when you went to CD. It’s much harder for me to see where the emotional attachment lies with an actual CD. You just don’t have the same opportunity for art, for instance.
Perlmutter: I share that because I have this art historical background. I believe in the secular sacred. I just got a job at another university. I’m going to be moving in the summer. I had a moving company do estimates, and the lady said well you have 17,000 lbs of books. I inherited a lot of books. I love books. I read a book a day as president Teddy Roosevelt recommended. But I have 17,000 lbs of books, and I’m thinking–my God. My wife suggested the possibility of maybe limiting it. I just can’t. I’ve gotten rid of every book I don’t want: that made six. I want all of the rest. Which child should I leave behind?
Stefanac: I had a similar situation a few years ago when I had to move rather suddenly. It was just across town, but I lived in a place that was oversized, and I moved into a smaller place. I was going to put all my books and CDs in storage, but as I thought about it, I realized that I had held on to so many of them because I thought either that I might want ones as a reference text or that I wouldn’t be able to find it again in the future.But when it came down to would I put them all in boxes in storage that seemed a little crazy, and I pulled out maybe a hundred books to keep but I had many, many books. I got rid of all of them. I gave them to a friend who was really broke, a young guy, and told him to sell them. It was kind of liberating and I did it because I felt that for the first time (a) from a research standpoint, the books were much less useful to me because, as we discussed earlier, the information changes so quickly that I could in fact find more accurate data online than was contained in those books, and (b) I can go to Amazon or one of the online bookstores and find pretty much any book I want, often for pennies if I just wanta used version of a novel that I want to reread, for instance, and have it delivered within a day to my home. It just seemed that the importance of the books themselves had sort of dissolved and that whatever sort of emotional attachment I’d had to them had disappeared. I had no regrets.
Perlmutter: I’m both appalled and admiring. I’m not sure which one.
Stefanac: I did the same thing with my CDs. I burned everything at a really high bit rate and got rid of almost all my CDs. I have the same amount of information as I ever had. I have access to just as much information.
Perlmutter: It would be interesting for your book to ask what kind of culture would we have if everything is updateed all the time. A story. Part of my resistance to digitization comes from being a historian who’s worked a lot in archives. I have a friend who’s at the military history office in the Pentagon. He told me that during the Vietnam War, they took all the intelligence intercepts from listening in on North Vietnam and turns them into, something that really freaks out my students, those IBM punch cards. I’m old enough to remember helping record data into those punch cards. The scholar told me that all the information that was transferred to IBM punch cards. The office only has one machine left that could read those punch cards. The guy who was in charge of repairing that machine retired. So at some point, nobody will ever be able to read that information. It will be completely lost forever. I have this worry, and maybe because I’ve seen–through books–civilizations rise and fall that I’d like there to be books somewhere. Actually, I recommend clay tablets. Burn them and they get harder.
Stefanac: I think that’s not a bad idea, but at the same time I did an article in the late 80s or early 90s for Macworld on how secure CDs were as a storage medium. I interviewed a lot of individuals who oversee archives, and I also interviewed people deeply involved in the technology to see where it was going and what was and was not secure.It was interesting because from a pure technology standpoint at that time, and I think its not so different now, the CDs themselves are only modestly secure, they only have a shelf life of so long. They do deteriorate, and when we burn them ourselves, they are much more prone to deterioration over time. Some people say they won’t last more than five or ten years. I think that might be true. For instance, there were a number of government archive people who had all decided that they would take things like information from those punch cards and for a while there were still machines around that could read those. They would take that data and then put them on CDs that use gold as the metal layer
Perlmutter: This is interesting because I just bought about $300 worth of gold CDs from Delkin to back up my family pictures and then I bought their gold DVDs to back up my family video. They’re advertising the 300 year CD and the 100 year DVD, so I’m interested to see whether they’re telling the truth or not.
Stefanac: I think they are. The caveat here is that the research I did on this was quite a while ago. But I think some of these things don’t change, and one of the things that doesn’t change is that gold is an element that isn’t subject to oxidization.
Perlmutter: I have a very good friend here who’s a nuclear physicist, and he poopoo’d gold because he told me gold has a much lower melting point than silver.
S: If things are so hot that your CDs are melting, a lot more is going on than just some mild oxidation!… When I back up, I don’t just back up on CDs or another hard drive here at home. I always make sure I have data off site, as well. I think your most important photos, you would do well to record twice on these gold CDs and make sure they’re in two very different places because things happen. I think that overall, the redundancy that digitization allows ensures us a great deal more surety that that data will be around than for instance the library of Alexandria. Once it burned, it was gone.
Perlmutter: What I want is a DVD that if it catches fire it hardens.
Stefanac: What I want is my data repeated hundreds of times all over.
Perlmutter: You’ve written a book. That book is going to be in thousands of people’s homes and libraries. It’s very unlikely that the last copy of that book will ever disappear.
Stefanac: Some people think it’s pretty ironic that I’m even writing a book now because of the views I have, and it’s true. I still read books, but mostly I read books because I can’t find them online. I would read it online because I think about things like Russian novels. Russian novels are so rich and so interwoven- the storylines and all those characters with all those alternate names and nicknames. If you set it down for a couple of days and you pick it up again, you start reading and you go, wait a minute, which character is he and which nickname is he associated with. If you were online you could do an instant look up. You could click on the guy’s name and be say, oh yeah, that guy.
I think that there is value to reading really great literature online. Some people have asked me, do I think that the novel is dead? Do I think that the narrative is dead? And I don’t. I think that for hundreds of thousands of years our forbearers sat around fires and told each other stories. I think there’s an innate human desire to submit to a narrative storyline, and I don’t think that’s ever going away. I’ve worked with a lot in interactive media and for a while it was very trendy to talk about alternate storylines or alternate endings, and I always thought that was interesting. It’s sort of a parallel to game-like environments, but I never felt like it would compete with the pure narrative because, first of all, there are so few individuals who are able to do it very well. There haven’t been many Shakespeares. How can someone hope to write seven story lines that are equally compelling? I think that isn’t really realistic. I don’t think that it endangers narrative.
Perlmutter: Well said, thank you. To be continued!
Originally posted March 29, 2006 at PolicyByBlog