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So What Do You Do, Anil Dash, Chief Evangelist, Six Apart

Ahead of his Mediabistro Circus appearance next week, the longtime blogger looks into the medium's future.

By David S. Hirschman - May 16, 2008
Anil Dash, one of the main speakers at the Mediabistro Circus next week, has been on the blogging scene more or less since the medium began taking hold in 1999. Now the "chief evangelist" at Six Apart (which created Movable Type, TypePad, and Vox, and owns LiveJournal), Dash spends his time managing communities, blogging, and marketing and developing products for the company. "I basically try to help all our customers interface with the company, and help our staff do their jobs better. By using blogs!" he says, describing his role. He delves into how the blogosphere (and the perception of bloggers) has changed in recent years and what he thinks blogs will be like in the future.
Name: Anil Dash
Position: Chief evangelist, Six Apart
Resume: I started out as a geek, one of those folks who grew up having a little computer at home that I programmed on. That evolved into a consulting company, and then later I ended up working in media, first in the music business and then finally in the journalism and publishing world when I was working at the Village Voice. But almost the entire time, I'd loved the web and the idea of using it as a space for personal expression, and so I started blogging in 1999. By the time my friends were co-founding Six Apart in 2002, it seemed almost inevitable that I'd want to combine my love of the technology industry with my love of media, and building a blogging company was the perfect way to do that.
Birthdate: September 5, 1975
Hometown: Outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Education: "I'm a high school graduate, though I've dabbled in higher education over the years. As the son of immigrants in a family where everybody's got a master's degree or a PhD, I'm not sure they're thrilled I'm the first to not go to college."
Marital status: Happily married to Alaina Browne. (She is, among other things, the general manager of SeriousEats.com)
First Section of the Sunday Times: "Magazine. Big pictures and shiny pages are perfect for my short attention span."
Favorite TV show: "Can I still say The Wire? I know it's over, but they haven't made anything better yet."
Last book read: Probably Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, though Jhumpa Lahiri's latest is the answer that popped to mind.
Guilty pleasure: "I don't believe in guilty pleasures. I think people who apologize for liking popular music or entertaining films are wasting energy inflicting misery on themselves."


You've been a blogger since the beginning of the format. How do you think blogging has changed over the past six of seven years (both in content and format)?
I think blogging has really broadened out into a lot of different niches in the past decade. It used to be common for popular blogs to be about a wide range of topics that would shift over time or from day to day. Today, almost all of the biggest blogs are about a particular topic, and are run by teams of professionals who publish on a set schedule. Similarly, it used to be common to augment or interweave long-form essays with shorter, link-based annotation of other content, but popular sites usually choose one format or the other.

There have been some more fundamental changes, like the introduction of podcasting and rich media like video, or more aggregation and sharing-based services like Tumblr and Vox, but those are still in their nascent stages. Twitter is interesting, but I think a lot of people who think it's really new probably weren't around to see LiveJournal or Blogger back in 1999, when they were similarly simple.

How has your idea of blogging changed over this time -- and what is different in the types of things you blog about.
For me the biggest change has been the role it plays in my career. Now that it's part of my job, I don't share as many aspects of my personal life, at least on my public blog. I am more aware of a readership outside of my own circle of friends, family and coworkers, and that can put some constraints on what I say or do. Conversely, I am also aware of the power of being able to reach outside that circle, and have spent a lot of time thinking about what responsibilities we inherit when we gain that power.

I also actually really love the blogs we publish inside our company to keep tabs on people and projects. We've got offices in San Francisco, New York, Paris and Tokyo, so it'd be impossible to all be on the same page without using this kind of technology, but it also lets us connect at a real human level with our coworkers. I can see the links people post, or the music people are listening to, and then even if it's been a few months since I've visited our office in San Francisco, it's like no time has passed at all when I see people that I've been reading on our internal blogs.

Bloggers -- particularly political bloggers -- were portrayed early on as amateurs musing on minutiae, with the mainstream media often referring to them typing in bathrobes. Today, a large number of mainstream media outlets have their own blogs and have co-opted the form for their own. How has the perception of what bloggers do changed?
It depends on which audience you talk to.

"Actual politicians, whose impression of blogs and bloggers is always somewhat behind the times, still think of bloggers as a bunch of grumpy folks in their bathrobes. Only now, they think the bathrobe bloggers have some power."

That reality of these being professional-level journalists, whether independent or affiliated with an established media brand, isn't yet reflected broadly in public perception. People see scare stories on To Catch A Predator about creepy guys finding out your daughter's home address, and they think "that's blogging!" or they see someone forward a funny cat picture and they think "oh, so that's what a blog is". They might get sent a link to Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo or something, but most regular web users don't even register that those might be blogs, let alone if they're on the Time magazine site. It's just "news."

Who have been some of the people blogging who have helped change this perception?
I think you can't ignore the incredible influence that political blogs have had on the broader political discourse. If it's Talking Points Memo getting a Polk award for Josh Marshall's work on the U.S. Attorney scandal, or Barack Obama on Huffington Post being quoted for his statements about small towns, the milestone moments in the most Internet-focused political campaign ever are all happening on blogs.

There are also the other cultural drivers, from geeky sites like BoingBoing and legal geeks like Larry Lessig helping drive the conversation about intellectual property, or the various gadget blogs taking what was an arcane culture of product reviews into this new era where a Steve Jobs product launch is a religious event. Even the huge number of mom blogs and dad blogs have changed the parenting industry, where the norm has shifted from "how to be a perfect parent" to "here's what it's really like."

"And really, that shift from some unrealistic representation to an honest human account of real life is the impact blogs have had on every medium they've affected."

What are some of the main growth areas in blogging these days? Who is blogging more, and where are your new clients coming from? Is it more businesses or individuals? Are there different types of blogs that are becoming more prevalent?
Every area of blogging is growing rapidly, but some of the early investments we made are really paying off now. What we call "enterprise blogging," or using blogs as business collaboration tools within a company, is just an enormous growth area.

Blogs are a fundamental part of online marketing now, too. It's astounding how quickly that change has happened, but anybody who's concerned about search engine optimization or easy content publishing or maintaining a relationship with a community of customers online knows that the first thing you need to do is get a blog.

And of course, personal blogging is still growing by leaps and bounds. More and more people are realizing they want to have a record of the moments of their lives, especially as the tools get easier and it's simpler to have some privacy controls to choose who you share that blog with.

Our home base, of course, is media companies. From our CEO on down, many of us have worked in the media business and we all love the publishing world. So, with a flagship product called "Movable Type," that's always going to be a business we focus on.

Six Apart recently created a "services" division, as well as Six Apart Media -- tell me a little bit about these, and what market niche you're hoping to fill with them. What are some of the services?
Our Services team does everything from design, development and deployment of sites to helping with strategy, implementation and integration. The primary focus has been the media industry in particular, and from services to software we're helping power everybody from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post, to Time to Radar to Gothamist and more.

The Media team is the counterpart to our services effort, assisting in helping build the business efforts of our publishers, with everything from an advertising platform to services around increasing traffic, improving SEO, and building an audience. The combination of these efforts is basically an evolution of our company to reflect the fact that blogging is about a lot more than just the core technology, and we want to provide every resource we can to publishers who want to succeed in blogging.

Looking ahead with Six Apart, what kinds of new technologies do you think can be added to blogs? How are Web 2.0 concepts being applied to blogs?
Well, we've had great success in inventing many of the technologies that have made Web 2.0 possible, so we think the many different social networks out there are going to thrive and succeed, but we'll all use our own blogs as the place that connects them together. For example, our open source infrastructure was designed to help the privacy features around blogging grow to internet scale, but it's been adopted by companies like Facebook and Craigslist and Wikipedia to help power their rich community features. That's an extremely satisfying way to see our work benefit the whole Web. So you'll start to see blogs develop two-way connections with the social networks out there, whether it's the big names or little niche sites that cater to your particular interests.

What technology over the past few years have you been most excited about?
Mobile devices, certainly, are endlessly fascinating with how quickly they're maturing. We've worked with Nokia for years � you can buy one of their N95 phones and it has our Vox blogging platform built in. We were the first blogging platform on the iPhone, and have announced with Apple that we're doing an upcoming application to connect our TypePad service to the iPhone. In the larger tech industry in general, a lot of us are fans of things like the Nintendo Wii � innovative technology combined with a great experience and something that's just plain fun. There is also some really smart work being done around location and mapping and geodata these days.

In an ideal for blogs, what would you hope will be their effect on society and communications generally? At some point in the future, do you think everyone have a blog of their own?
I hope blogs continue to do what they've always done: Give people a voice and a reach based on their passion and persistence, instead of merely giving the loudest voices to those with the most resources. It's just as important to me that people use blogs to talk to their friends and family and stay connected with causes or issues they care about as it is that blogs tackle the "big" issues and speak to millions of people. Now, we're far from perfect. We've been so idealistic in these early days of blogging that we haven't spent enough time trying to design against destructive behaviors that people can have online when they're anonymous or gathering into mobs. But I am optimistic that we can do better with that in the future.

I do think everyone who has the resources to be online will, in the future, have a blog. That's much more likely as we'll be able to record our actions online, or the content we create in the course of living our lives, and that collected content (which is much easier to make than actually taking the time to sit down and write an essay) will form the bulk of what we share with the world.

What are some of the blogs you read as part of your daily routine -- who do you tune in to every day?
I love the work that the team at Serious Eats does -- my wife's the general manager there, but even if she weren't, getting to read about delicious food is a really satisfying escape. I always say that my friend Jason Kottke's site kottke.org, though extremely popular, is still underrated due to how much time he spends editing and refining his skills as a blogger. I've sort of fallen back in love with dollarshort.org, too. It's the site that Mena Trott started long before she co-created Movable Type or co-founded Six Apart (or became my boss). Dollarshort has always had an incredibly unique voice and beautiful design, and that's pretty inspiring. Jay Smooth's work on Ill Doctrine is hands-down the best video blog on the web, from where I sit. And for fun, I love Overheard in New York and 90s R&B Junkie are always entertaining.


David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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