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Comments Posted 12.01.10 | PERMALINK | PRINT | SINGLE PAGE

Rob Walker

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.   
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Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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