- behind the screen with independent designers, developers and others.
When Elephants Dance was my introduction to Michael Fraase.
What did you do before the Web?
Mostly what I'm still doing.... Writing, doing technology, business, and publishing consulting, causing good trouble, and striving to live as what Ken Kesey defined as a "warrior." My wife and I co-founded ARTS & FARCES in 1979 while I was still in graduate school. We started out as an independent video production company, shooting mostly documentaries and short features. We had to form a business entity in order to work with state agencies on two documentaries for which we were being offered real contracts. We had to have a business name for those contracts and we couldn't think of one. Like most college students at the time, I was having more than my share of recreational chemistry experiences and heard a British comic refer to his circle of friends as the "artsy-fartsy crowd." I scribbled ARTS & FARCES as the production company name on the contract and it stuck.
How did you find the web?
In 1992-1993 I was working on what became the first book about the Internet for non-Unix users (Mac Internet Tour Guide). That book led to my companion books for DOS and Windows 3.1. At the time Gopher was the cutting-edge technology, and although the web existed, a graphical browser for popular computing platforms did not. So, while Gopher warranted an entire chapter, the web got 2 pages. I'd like to say that I saw the potential for the web coming, but I didn't. I thought Gopher was going to be the predominant information-browsing platform. Even though I had written 3 previous books about hypertext, I didn't see the web coming. Until I saw the Mosaic browser. Then I immediately "got it," and quickly wrote a booklet about using Mosaic.
I had written the documentation set for the local regional network (back then there were no commercial ISPs; the regional networks offered connectivity for businesses). Part of the compensation I negotiated was a co-located Sun SPARCstation, so I had a webserver up and running by February 1993. I'm one of the dumbasses who actually bought a license for the Netscape server.
Why are you here?
Like everyone else back then, I had read, and was infatuated with, all the cyberpunk fiction. Then I saw a picture that Kevin Kelly (then editor of the Whole Earth Review) used as his computer's desktop. The picture was of Kevin's face and hands smooshed up against a plate-glass window. The effect was that of someone inside the computer trying to get out. I wanted that experience. I immediately grokked the idea of a place that didn't exist in real space but that was a definable place nonetheless. It was like North Dakota. Miles and miles of nothing but open space in every direction and potential. Now that the dot-com explosion has come and gone, maybe we can get back to sustainably settling this infinitely vast place.
Methods of production
What do you use to create your sites?
We started out using BBEdit on Macs to generate static pages, just like everybody else. Then we migrated to the commonly used visual tools--like GoLive and Dreamweaver--as they became available. But we were still generating static pages. Simple things like updating the copyright notice on hundreds of pages became a major undertaking. Changing the appearance of pages was very difficult, and consistency among page types was virtually impossible. For most of these reasons, my clients started needing database driven websites so we started doing a bunch of those. But our own site was still static pages and it was painful to keep extending an architecture to fit what we were writing about.
We migrated to Zope at version 2.2. It's a wonderful platform and we still use it for a lot of things. In November 2001 I wrote two essays about my experience dealing with spam and spammers that got slashdotted. Zope fell over within seconds. Not only could it not handle the load, it apparently didn't know what to do with so many requests. I immediately went to the community for suggestions, and the best I got was "run a caching server in front of it." Good advice, but unworkable in the middle of the bitstorm of being slashdotted. The worst I got--and it was the vast majority--was "run it on a real OS." The OS was handling the load just fine; it was Zope that was folding like a cheap suit.
I needed a product with real support.
Currently we're using UserLand Frontier for almost all of our publicly accessible websites. I really like the approach UserLand takes to ongoing development. New features and fixes generally occur on a much faster cycle than anything I've seen elsewhere. And the updates are transparent and automatic.
I received our Frontier license from UserLand gratis, and it remains to be seen if I'll bite when the US$900 license renewal rolls around in November.
I'm not satisfied with how Frontier fits into our workflow. What we need are tools that are built around the tools that writers use to produce their work. Unfortunately, for most that means Microsoft Word. The workflow should be smooth and integrated. Instead we have this awful process that requires writing and editing in Word, saving to Microsoft's illusion of HTML, using Dreamweaver to strip Microsoft of all its illusions, and finally cutting-and-pasting the standards-compliant HTML into Frontier which promptly renders it non-compliant once again. For now, Frontier is the best tool for the job, but I'm actively looking for something better.
About the Web
What do you see as the greatest strengths of the web?
Openness, vastness, and its uncontrollable nature. The barriers to publishing rich, interesting, discoverable content are quickly being dismantled. Big, mainstream media companies have got to understand that their role as the only tastemakers and gatekeepers is over. Google is replacing them. To survive they will have to realize that their core competence is distribution, not control. Brand is nothing; reputation is everything, and the mainstream media companies--with a very few exceptions--have squandered theirs.
Let's look at a tomato as an analogy.
You can go to the local chain supermarket and buy a corporate-grown, mainstream tomato. These tomatoes are manufactured--you can't really say they're "grown"--to be perfectly red, perfectly round, and withstand a drop from 10 feet. Thick skinned, they don't really taste like tomatoes, nor do they smell like one, but they look like they could certainly play one on TV. When you bite or cut into it, there are no juices. You have no idea about where the tomato was manufactured, by whom, or the manufacturing conditions. You're not even really sure it's a tomato. The only way to tell for sure is that comes complete with a tomato label.
Or you can go to your local farmers market and buy a locally-grown tomato. It's ripe, rich, thin-skinned, fragile, and luscious. When you bite into it the juices run down your chin and by God you know that's a real tomato. It's not perfectly round, nor is it flawless. The woman that sells it to you can tell you everything about that particular tomato, because it was hand-crafted with love in a sustainable manner. She knows where and how it was grown because she did it herself.
It's the same with media. You can have that finely finished--but unsustainable--manufactured product with no juices or, thanks to the inherent strengths of the web, you can have the sustainable hand-crafted rich ripeness that dribbles down your chin.
What do you see as the greatest dangers?
The probably never-ending attempt by those threatened by it to try to control it. The marketeers and big mainstream media interests who see the web as just another medium to be branded and sold in one corner and the political weasels in the other corner who are scared shitless of anything with which the populace can use to have unfettered conversation and open discussion.
What would you say to folks who want to work the web?
C'mon in, the water's fine. But leave your carpetbag at home. Just bring value and what you love.