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July 13th, 2011 RUTH BROWN | Cover Story
 

The Blogfather

MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey put the blog in blogosphere. Now he looks to the future.

lede_matthaughey_3736IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
     
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Thirty-five miles from Portland is the home of one of Oregon’s hottest tech properties. It’s a long way from the “Silicon Forest” of local startups. It’s an even longer way from those who work in Silicon Valley, their offices bustling with Razor scooters and wunderkinds having mad, Red Bull-fueled coding parties.

Instead, this company operates out of a single room in a suburban house in McMinnville. The 38-year-old CEO, Matt Haughey, fits neither the stereotype of the reclusive computer nerd nor the geek-chic startup whiz. Tall and lanky, with a relaxed demeanor that betrays his California roots, he talks little about himself. Sporting a slightly goofy grin, he enthuses about other people, ideas and “interesting stuff.” 

“Interesting stuff” is Haughey’s trade. It started in 1999, when he posted a link on his blog to a website where people were posting pictures of their cats. It sounds like nothing in 2011, but in 1999, this was pretty monumental. Then a 26-year-old Web designer living in California, Haughey had to code all the software so he could “blog” in the first place. He had to design the front page, and find enough people who knew what a blog was to read it and join in. To do that, he had to create blog comments. In the first year, about 12 others signed up to his project—which he called “MetaFilter.”

Today, MetaFilter is one of the most active blogging communities on the Web, and has shaped much of the way blogs work. It has amassed more than 50,000 registered members from all over the world and now receives 25 million page views a month. More people visit MetaFilter each month than visit MSNBC.com, according to Quantcast.com. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has called it “the ultimate group blog.” Members congregate to share links, news and discussion, or answer each other’s questions in the more recently created Ask MetaFilter, which is now the most popular section of the site. Collectively, they have uncovered online scams and documented major world events in real time.

Yet MetaFilter is a throwback, defying the trends that have helped other social sites boom. Its design is virtually unchanged since 1999. Members are consulted on everything. There is no interactivity with social media. There are no images, videos or complicated voting systems. It is carefully curated and moderated and proudly low tech. Haughey has no intention to take the business public, sell it, or even to grow it any bigger than it already is.

In 2003, he moved from the Bay Area to McMinnville with his wife, an associate professor at Linfield College, and he seems to relish the relaxed, small-town Oregon life he has adopted, where he can divide his time between working on the site, riding his bike and visiting Portland.

While little has changed at MetaFilter, the blogosphere outside has been radically evolving. The ease of Facebook and Twitter has lured the masses from their time-consuming blogs, while many of the best bloggers are now being paid to write for newspapers or online media sites. Many blogs now base their content and writing more on generating hits, links and retweets than they do on quality. And in an ominous moment in Web history, Google has announced it will integrate Blogger.com—one of the first and most important blogging sites, for which Haughey was one of the original developers—with its new Facebook competitor, Google Plus. 

Given all this, can a simple, community-driven site continue to thrive for another 12 years in this brave new world where blogging can be a billion-dollar business?

WW chatted with Haughey about MetaFilter and the future of the blogosphere.



WW: How did MetaFilter come about?

Matt Haughey: I was a Web designer at UCLA. Blogs had just started in ’97, ’98. At the time, people were making like 10, 12 posts a day; they were just making random posts of things they found on the Internet, like “Here’s a Lego museum in Texas.”

There was no software for blogs. So I built [some] blog software, and once you build your own completely from the ground up, you can make one author or 10,000 authors. I can’t find 10 things a day, but maybe four or five people could find two or three things, and together we’d have a decent blog. 

And then I made comments. I’d only seen one other site with comments, so I sort of had to invent how blog comments work. I just thought those four or five authors might want to talk to each other. I thought long and hard about how the comments were going to look and be displayed. I always wanted names at the bottom, so that you didn’t prejudice what someone was going to say. I noticed that early systems like [tech blog] Slashdot just put, “Bob says this,” and you’d go, “Fuck Bob—he’s that libertarian psycho! I don’t want to hear a word he says!” So I put them at the bottom so you can be gently surprised.


How many users and hits do you get now?

Fifty or 60,000 [registered members who pay a $5 fee]. It’s like 25 million page views a month. Ninety percent of people are [unregistered readers] just finding the site from searches.


You haven’t really encouraged registered members, though—it’s almost like the anti-Facebook. You’ve actually inhibited growth and made barriers to becoming a member.

I [originally] had a full-time job and ran it in my free time, and I’d have to check on it every hour. So it was a hassle, and I just shut off sign-ups if I ever got any press. It was kind of nice to have it shut off for a week; there was no stress in my life, so I thought I’d just keep it shut off. Then there was this point where people were trying to sell their account on eBay, and someone sold an account for like $120, and I thought that was ridiculous, so I thought, “I’ll make them $5 and get rid of that.”


You have created an almost troll-free comment section.

Yeah, but we also now have three full-time moderators and a whole back-end system so people can report objectionable stuff, and we monitor that and try to remove anything that sucks. It’s probably something on the order of half a percent of everything—maybe 10 or 20 things we have to delete a day out of 3,000, but we do our best. 

That’s still pretty remarkable, though—most news sites get almost entirely trolling or abusive comments. What is it about the Internet that turns people into assholes?

I think the anonymity; they think they can get away with it. Anonymous speech—like whistle-blowing—definitely has a role in society, but any time you introduce anonymity people can freely be assholes. Like, I grew up in L.A., and when you’re in a car in L.A. with 8 million other people, you’re totally anonymous; people drive horribly. And then you move up to Oregon, and everyone’s waving at each other and people drive much nicer. I see that online—it’s like, whatever level of anonymity you allow, is how much garbage you’re going to get. 

A lot of news sites have open name fields—that always kills me, they don’t even force you to sign up for an account. We have rules where you can only have one account per email, so it’s a real pain in the butt to be a serial troll. But newspapers have their arms tied, thinking this is letters-to-the-editor stuff, with hundreds of years of tradition, like, “We have to respect our readers.” But they’re not respecting you guys.

MATT HAUGHEY
Credits: chrisryanphoto.com

Your community has spilled out into the real world too, right?

The first meet-up was in 2002—there was a story on the Seattle earthquake, and there were 30 or 40 people in Seattle like, “My wall was shaking.” People were like, “Hey, there’s 30 or 40 of us, why don’t we go to a bar in Seattle?” So 15 people showed up after that, and they became friends, and then we started putting tools on the site for people to organize meet-ups. We’re doing 300 or so a year, so every weekend, there’s five to 10 meet-ups somewhere in the world.

The second one we ever threw was in New York, and my friend Neil Anil was there and Elizabeth Spiers was there. And then Nick Denton came in and saw a picture of me on the wall and was like, “Why is Matt on the wall?” And then I introduced him to Neil, Anil and Neil introduced him to Elizabeth Spiers, and that became Gawker [with Denton as founder and Spiers as its first editor] six months later. 

The site still basically looks like it did in 1999, but in the meantime, all those Web 2.0 sites like Digg and Reddit have popped up. Do you ever worry MetaFilter will look old-fashioned?

It’s tough; people don’t want anything changed ever. We have a thousand or so hyper-fans who hate everything. Every tiny little change we make, we test out with everyone who works behind the scenes, then we talk about what we’re going to say to everyone, how we’re going to present it to them. There’s a culture [former Harper’s editor] Paul Ford wrote about called the “Why wasn’t I consulted?’ culture: WWIC. And [MetaFilter] is the ultimate example. We have an entire subsite talking about the site. So everyone is consulted on everything, and everyone has an opinion on everything.


It seems like the blogosphere—at least with independent blogs—is actually shrinking since Facebook and Twitter showed up.

Yeah, like I have an interesting thought in the morning and think, “Can I whittle this down to one sentence? I can!” then “tap tap tap, done.” I feel bad because Twitter is so ephemeral. All the people I know who were blogging in 1995, all have blogs where the last post was six months ago. I have a friend who says if you don’t blog it, it didn’t happen. Twitter’s too ephemeral. But it kills blogs dead.


It was just reported that Google will be integrating Blogger.com into its new Facebook competitor, Google Plus. As one of the original Blogger programmers, do you think that’s a positive thing for the blogging world, or is there a danger of things becoming too homogenized or monopolized?

The name “Blogger” is kind of generic, but then they’re going to call it “Google Blogs,” which is even more generic!. Some people have said they’re trying to brand Google so you don’t just think of them as search. It seems strange to me—I don’t understand how it integrates into Plus. I’ve been playing with it, and it’s just like Facebook—it doesn’t really have anything to do with blogging.

Yeah, I was bummed. I was bummed to see a top-10 site on the Web change its name from one that has been around for 12 years now. It’s surprising. MetaFilter is two weeks older than Blogger, but you’ll never see “Google presents MetaFilter” or something. I can’t really see an upside to what they’re doing—it just seems silly.


Where do you see blogs in 10 years’ time?

In a really weird space, because of Twitter and Facebook. There’s definitely been a decline in the last year or two, but I sort of see a resurgence of people who want to be serious writers be like, “Why am I dicking around with writing things in single sentences?” So I think serious blogs might come back, but I don’t think raw numbers of people blogging will ever get up again. Because Twitter and Facebook are so much easier.

It’s funny: [Twitter co-founder] Evan Williams, who I worked with on Blogger.com, was very into making ideas as simple as possible. We started with a byzantine project management app, which grew to huge groups working on massive projects for months, and one part of it was, every project had a blog, and then we were just like, “Why don’t we just spin this off as a thing?” And then that became Blogger. And then, “Blogging’s so hard, why don’t you just make that a sentence?” It’s a logical progression, but then what happens to culture? It’s kind of a bummer. 


Where will MetaFilter be in 10 years?

I don’t know. I’m thinking about it right now. I just looked at our stats and, like, 12 percent of all our traffic’s on mobile devices. I thought it would have been 2 percent. I think by 2020, every phone’s going to be a smart phone—probably a third of the time I’m online is on my phone—so I think that will be the new dawn…. 

But it’s people clicking on ads that pay the bills, and mobile ads don’t work as well. Ask MetaFilter won’t go away—I think it has a magic number of just-right size.


Can that make further growth a problem?

Yeah, I think once we get to 100,000 it could start to get too big. I’m OK with how big it is today. It is a lifestyle business for me—I’m just running this thing and I have a few employees and we’re all happy. What’s better than that?


What about writing certain things to get hits—search engine optimization and link-baiting and such?

I hate that stuff, because I’m an old-school Web person and I can’t stand people gaming search engines. I know Jonah Peretti a bit, who co-founded The Huffington Post. He’s very smart, he’s an awesome dude, but he was sort of led down a bad path without noticing it. They A/B test everything: They have two headlines for everything, and they have coordinated systems to pick the one which gets the most clicks, and it’s so horrible. It’s just crass.


Was it hard leaving the Bay Area and that real center of tech?

It was kind of a bummer. As ridiculous as Silicon Valley is—ridiculous riches and people throwing money at any idea—at least it’s a sense of optimism, techno-futurism. It’s fun to be around. It’s kind of infectious. 


But MetaFilter isn’t really part of that tech scene, either, because, as you say, it is a lifestyle business and not a startup. I know you’ve been a bit of a critic of startups in the past.

I’m OK with this lifestyle business. It’s a put-down for a lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley. I think it’s the best thing in the world. You don’t have to kill yourself. I’ve been at startups where we worked 16 hours a day and didn’t get anything out of it. It’s stupid. Geeks who know how to program and make things should be able to make a small thing that runs forever and make $100,000 a year and live off that. I mean, what is wrong with that? It’s an awesome goal. 

I never got that message anywhere in the tech community. Like, what is wrong with making a decent living in doing something you love forever? And then people put that down as a “lifestyle business.” Or ask, “How are you going to change the world or make the next Facebook?” 

It’s like nobody sings unless they want to be Britney Spears. That’s stupid—we should all sing in bars three nights a week if we like it and get paid as professional musicians. Who says you have to be a superstar? I hate the whole “rock-star programmer” thing where you have to make the next Facebook. 

It’s very Portland to do sustainable things that are here for a long time. You can do sustainable things and not have to slash and burn and sell.


Golden Threads

We asked Haughey to nominate his five most notable MetaFilter threads.


1. Seattle Earthquake thread
This sort of happened live on the site before blogs really covered news, and it was a big deal that MetaFilter “beat” CNN and MSNBC with some news. It also led to the first meet-up, which has spawned thousands of meet-ups since: metatalk.metafilter.com/523/Seattle-Meetup.

2. 9/11 thread
The planes hitting the building took place almost live on the site, which now serves as a historical document of everyone’s emotions on that exact morning.

3. Russian Girls thread
Last summer, a friend noticed two Russian students he taught previously were coming to America for summer jobs, but the details kept changing and sounded shady, and he was worried they might be caught up in a sex-trafficking ring. A bunch of members of the site in NYC pulled through and met up with the girls, explained what was going on, and housed them for weeks before raising enough money to send them home.


4. Is it “beep beep” or “meep meep”?
A user wonders if the Road Runner in cartoons says “meep meep” or “beep beep,” and eventually, after a bunch of speculation, a friend of Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc chimes in with the ultimate answer.

5. Tracking down an address from 1939
A member asks how to track down where his grandfather lived in Vienna, Austria, in 1939 before having to flee to the U.S. to escape capture by the Nazis. Luckily, a researcher at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., not only found the address in the museum’s document archive but also found his immigration papers and gave them to the family. The member got to visit the site where his grandfather lived several months later on a European trip.


Founder’s First 5

Matt Haughey follows 200 or 300 blogs. Here’s what he says about five favorites:
  • Not Martha (notmartha.org)—her site’s just like cool design stuff and home projects and crafty stuff.
  • Plastolux (plastolux.com) is just like architecture porn—amazing photography and rich people houses.
  • Jason Kottke’s site (kottke.org) is just one of the oldest blogs there is, and he’s like a one-man New Yorker on everything interesting in the world.
  • Daring Fireball (daringfireball.net) is mostly for Mac nerds—anything you want to know about the design of Macintosh computers and iPhones and stuff. It’s one pundit’s take on everything.
  • Andy Baio (waxy.org) is actually from Portland—he’s an old friend and he just runs a cool site. I guess I would call it journalism—interviews with video-game creators and anything he thinks is interesting. He puts a lot of work into the bigger pieces on his site, but he posts four or five links a day of really cool stuff in between the major stuff he does.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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