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Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first designers, bloggers, and independent publishers on the web, and one of the first web design teachers. In 1998, he co-founded—and from 1999 to[…]

Jeffrey Zeldman was a blogger back when blogging was still just another form of “independent publishing.”

Question: Why did you start blogging?

Jeffrey Zeldman:    So, 1995, worked on my first website for a client with two partners; pretended we knew what we were doing, we didn’t.  There were three million web users and 1.5 million people were looking at our website.  That was half the web.  Nobody has numbers like that now and people have many more millions but then nobody, maybe Google has numbers like that, but it would have any Google somebody like that 50% of the web. 

I was a frustrated musician, frustrated designer, frustrated art director, frustrated novelist, right.  I’d fail at all these different professions. And in the normal scheme of things, you can’t really reach a large audience on your own.  You can tour as a musician but people won’t come to see you if you don’t have a major record deal; or at least when I was doing it, that was the problem. 

If you’re Joan Jett, you go out there anyway, and then she make it and she was awesome. But a lot of us went out there, didn’t make it.  

And then I was a journalist but I was starving. And I’ve written fiction, but I couldn’t get a publisher.  So, I was basically a very frustrated creative person working in advertising and even there, I have a great idea that client won’t buy it. 

I keep honing my persuasion skills to try what you. You can only be as good as your client. Or I had a great client ,and I had a great campaign, and the client bought it, and then the client said, we just want to see what’s the different font and the creative director said, “No, the meeting is over.”

I had no control over my creative product. And I had no control over trying to reach an audience. 

And then in 1995, I made a website and half the web came to see it and I thought, man, that’s it, that’s want I want to do.  So, I started my site immediately and I thought, I have to be entertainer.

I didn’t blog it right away.  At first I was made to think of part of my icons, which is sort of a parity of all the horrible icons that were out there, but that also look kind of Yahoo inspired. The idea was, everyone could use them and all the early forms. People would use them; and it was huge. 

We get an Ad Graveyard, or basically any ad that got killed. That was funny. You could publish there. 

But I started writing a page which I mean, we haven’t figured out information architecture or anything. I said so, I called it Coming The HTML--because I would write about things that were coming to the website soon. 

And I don’t know how many people, but I had a big following right away because there was a lot of stuff on the web.  And the Ad Graveyard was funny; and part of my icons was funny.  So, people came and I also knew how to work Yahoo, how to I get my stuff listed on Yahoo, which remember, back then, that’s where people found web content. It was like, did navigate that from Yahoo and then go, “Oh, advertising, the Ad Graveyard.  That sounds interesting.” 

So, I had followers. And the page where I’m talking about what was coming to the website next.  I started talking about other content and what content on the web should be like, with a tutorial called Ask Doctor Web about how to do web design. Because I thought, man, this scheme, that was so cool and it’s so easy.  Everyone will learn it and everyone will be a web designer.  I was euphoric and I believe that everyone has a creative spark inside of them and everyone was going to do this. 

Eventually, a lot of people did, but it took a generation of blogging tools and even Twitter for people to go, “Okay the barrier's low enough.” I thought HTML was a low barrier, but I just always more motivated. 

But anyway, I started writing about other content on the web, and then what good design was on the web, and what I like and things I thought were cool. Then I realized, wow, this page about what’s coming to our website, that’s kind of a cool thing, I should keep that going. And then I started the magazine and lease the part; and so I started writing about what we were doing there.  I just started doing it. 

At some point, I feel kind of lazy.  At one point, I was blogging prodigiously.  In the late ‘90s; and I was getting like millions of pages because I was like one of the only people writing about web design and I was always writing about web design.   That’s exactly what I hoped would happen. That’s exactly what I wanted to see happen. Now it’s happening. And if you are very motivated writer, and you write about a topic that clicks with some portion of the public.  You can make a living that way, dues, right. 

Her website; she just writes about her family in this wonderful funny way.  30 years ago, she had her women’s column in the newspaper about her funny family or something, right in the moment, indicate and she made a good living. But now she has and have to look for publisher. 

So, to me, blogging all this independent publishing, this is what I used to call it. What was exciting about it was you don’t have a room full of publishers going, “We don’t think people will buy this.”  He just put it out there.

And I think the mistake some people make when they start blogging or start publishing independent content, if they don’t gain traction with it, they don’t get big pay off right away. They stop and that’s a mistake.  If you’re creating something, whether a lot of people are paying attention to it or not.  

So, if you write a blog post and you got one comment on everything you write, take that comments for awhile. Just write.

When I started, there was no way to leave comments. So I just wrote and that made me an expert. The reason I’m sitting here as an expert--because I did stuff first, not because I know what I’m doing. And now I know what I’m doing; but I know what I’m doing with all the stuff that is probably I helped figure out. But I wasn’t an expert and nobody is an expert. Let’s hope that if ever we need surgery, our surgeon will be an expert; or if whoever accused at a crime that our attorney will be an expert.

But on the web, and with design, and with writing; How good are you? And you get good by doing it, so just keep doing it.

Question: How do you evaluate journalistic license?

Jeffrey Zeldman:    I think if a lot of people are coming to your site or reading a magazine or coming to see when you give a talk, and they perceived you as an authority or an expert, even if your are not.

In your heart, you don’t feel like that. You have an obligation to follow what Peter Parkers’ Uncle told him, “You have an obligation to be responsible and do good things.”

I feel like the Web Standards Project in 1998 started because, in part, because Gwen Davis and George Alson and Jeffin and Dory Smith and Kim Bray and I, for whatever reason, and other people will help us. We had followers on the web and here was an opportunity to use whatever power that gave us for something good. Let's standardize the format on the web, so that the web doesn’t vulcanizes, so that people don’t end up making 17 versions of website or losing half of the potential viewers because they don’t have the money for a such and such version. So that was an opportunity to use our power for good and I really believe in that. 

If you just, see the authority things, the perception that other people have, like your authority, whether what you’re doing, or you are the authority. If most of the time you are respectful and you spend most of your time listening. But occasionally when the clients really wrong, or when you feel like something is very important, you just step in and say it straight.

You say, “Here is the research. Here’s why we think that won’t work. Here’s why I would think that will be mistakes.” 

Just say it real straight, it works, people listen. I’ve been very successful with clients because I talk straight to them so what experience; I mean, getting old, it sucks and get help problem always tell us stuff but the perceived authority helps you give good better advice, do better works, sell better work, so that what is good for.

Question: How do you encourage intelligent participation in online communities?

Jeffrey Zeldman:      I’d never understood why some sites encourage brilliant comments and some sites encourage awful comments. There are all kinds of ways of dealing with that. 

Slash Dot, the open source community, Linux community, magazines been online forever. The readers write the content, yeah they call it web 2.0, but Slash has been around since like ‘97, ‘96. But since not everybody is a good writer or not everybody has an intelligent thing to say, that use of system of crima points to raise and lower comments.

Derek Powazek, who created, which was one of the first really beautiful independent content sites, he basically had great writers write stories and illustrators come up with those illustrations for that story, and he art-directed every article in the magazine. To show that you can do art-direction on the web and then he encouraged people to comment. It was intelligent magazine, beautifully art-directed, beautifully written.  As a result, the comments were pretty good. He had not to do much too much policing with a magazine, like a list a part, write or magazine for web developer, it’s been online since 1998.

For the most part, Art Community; they read the magazine a lot, they’re respectful, they’re professional and because it’s a magazine for standards, or where web design professionals and web Information architects and such, most of that discourse is fairly civil even; and it is an international communitvy, but that doesn’t seem to be problem.

We are lucky that a lot of people speak English, write English.  But there are certain things that we published where we know we’re going to get some bad comments.

For instance, anytime we write an article recommending something that a magazine itself doesn’t follow, we know we’re going to get at least two dozen.  I find it ironic, I find I ironic that the author advocated a black background. Well, this website has a white background. And it’s like it’s not that ironic we’re going to redesign the magazine because one of our author’s wrote an article about something.

And the first person who rates, isn’t that ironic. The next push it away, they don’t read each others comments. So, one thing that we’ve done, although we have a comment, went to the top of the article, in the ways it’s designed, we minimize it. It’s there if you know it’s there. But basically we want you to read the whole lot. 

I get something that I learned from Derek Powazek from the way he did Fray. He read the whole Fray piece and then it would say, it didn’t say what do you think like, if the Fray story was about the time I accidentally burned down my parent’s garage. Ah, it will be what childhood things are; you wishing let's say, or what scary things happen in your childhood. By having this nice little focus questions, he would get beautifully focused answer.

So, basically, a philosophy for the most part is with sites where the content is really edited, art directive manicured, again a least the part false.

We have three editors; we have a lead editor, we have four technical editors. We have Illustrator Kevin Cornel and Art Director Jason Santa Maria.  And Christy Steven is our Editor.

Every issue is a work of love and as a result we kind of get pretty good comments. If you got a website where if you got blog where you publish every 20 minutes and you publish kind of reality or controversial things, you’re going to get a lot of damn comments. But maybe you don’t care. Maybe that’s part of the fun for you, or that’s part of the draw.

So, if you’re writing a website about people in Silicon Valley and the lifestyle people. Let's say you blog about that and rumors about who’s getting hired and fired. You're going to get a lot of comments, you're going to get a lot of readers. The comments may not be great; you don’t care. Some kind of communities or self-policing.

There is a Meta filter which is a really old group blog by Matt Haughey created.  It’s been around since 1998/1999, and the community there is so passionate about the site and feels so much like it is their voice that the police themselves and they are pretty good about it. If someone comes in and is making trouble, getting that personality, in other sites you need a moderator.

If you are doing a community sites for the high schools of Chicago, or the high school in New York. You might need a professional moderator to come in once in a while and check. If you’re to going to have discussion stuff out there, you need to make sure that you have community. You don’t want to setup discussion apparatus and then not either feed it the content or have a moderator or something. It takes love and care.

There should be a need for the site. There is a site called Twitter. When everyone first uses it, they can’t figure it out, it seems like the dumbest thing they’ve ever seen and six months later they are addicted to it. Right?

There are some other sites that compete with Twitter, but they can’t get much traction because Twitter already exists and  maybe they did something better than Twitter, or added some features; but it wasn’t the compelling reason. There is a small community but not a great community.

You need to have a reason to exist. And people will feel like a part of something larger than themselves; and then they will play nice. They are some wonderful self-policing websites out there; community sites for with teens, lesbian teens, gay teens discuss their sexual feelings, and their sexual problems with each other, and it is open forum, and you would think that will be spam, that they’re aleady filled with garbage from hate groups.

It’s not, it’s a beautiful website; fully self-policing for the members. And they don’t need karma points or anything else. They just take care of their community.

If you don't build a real community, you don’t have something that works.

Recorded March 23, 2009.