Harold Check is one of the quiet innovators of blogging, having started publishing his personal site Offhand Remarks ten years ago. In the interim, he’s contributed to dozens of blogs, most recently as part of our own team at Six Apart, shepherding some of our best blogs into existence, such as TypePad Featured Blogs and the TypePad Books blog and podcast series.
This week, as we’re taking a look at the first ten years of blogging culture, we’ve focused on technology pioneers like Dave Winer, individuals like Leslie Harpold who helped set the tone of the early blogging community, and experts like Michael Sippey who had recognized the opportunities around blogging in those early days. Today, we look at Harold’s role in helping see some of the first iterations of the complicated relationship between blogs and the larger media world.
- You first created Offhand Remarks ten years ago — what was the site, and what inspired it?
I was working in the editorial department at Yahoo in 1997. I definitely remember that the landscape was starting to change — websites were moving away from being reference material to being about ongoing observation and even performance. Something was coming together. It seemed like the ability to pump out simple pages quickly, whether by hand or using scripts and templates, was within reach to enough people to make it really interesting.
Like most of the folks in the “surfing department,” as it was then called, I was voraciously consuming the ever-increasing amount of media that the web had to offer. And part of me wanted to process it in real time with something more substantial than email. The culture at Yahoo at that point was: Find something interesting, forward it to a group or your coworkers. Maybe the whole department. Maybe just close friends. And, of course, there was a lot of “Seen it.” Publishing snippets of news or interesting sites to a page seemed like the perfect way to record the information, share with anyone who cared, and then move on. I remember reading Sippey’s Obvious Filter and just thinking this was the perfect medium. close to real-time, curated, yielding both raw information and a point of view.
Taking the tactic that imitation was a minimally acceptable form of flattery, I started my own filter blog and called it “Offhand Remarks.” It lasted for about 4 months in its original form. I realized relatively quickly how taxing that kind of “always on” editorial schedule ultimately is. That’s just one reason I’m in awe of people like Jason Kottke who seem to have found an incredibly high level of output that they’re able to sustain.
Working on Offhand Remarks, even using simple perl cgi’s to iterate the page, it was easy to see that burnout was just a matter of time. I decided to turn my full attention of my other project — Media Nugget of the Day — which was a group site dedicated to sharing one good thing per day. I found that pace, and working with a group rather than on my own, was a lot more sustainable. Of course, that’s all relative. The Media Nugget lasted for about 700 entries, but ultimately even that site ended up in limbo. Someday soon, I hope to revive it, reinvent it, and see it thrive, but only time will tell.
- Paul Bausch (co-creator of Blogger, whom we interviewed a few years ago for this blog) recently said that your site helped influence him to create his first blog. Rogers Cadenhead (well-known Blogger and author of Movable Type Bible Desktop Edition) recently said the same thing. What’s it like to influence others who’ve gone on to find success through blogging?
It’s really nice to hear that people remember Offhand at all, since my tenure as a diligent blogger was so incredibly brief. Of course, it was easy to see that this medium was going to take off — especially as the tools reduced the overhead required. Part of me desperately wishes that I could have stuck it out until innovations like permalinks, comments, and trackbacks ushered in the fully realized conversational era of blogs. I think it would have been great to have made deeper connections with other writers on the actual sites we were running. That said, I’m really lucky that living in the Bay Area and working in tech allowed me opportunity to meet my online heroes — Bausch, Haughey, Kottke, Sippey, the Trotts — and even work with some of them. There are plenty more that I haven’t met, even now, and I still want to. I’m a fanboy myself.
- How come you’ve got HaroldCheck.com and Media Nugget — isn’t one blog enough?
One blog is never enough. There, I said it. Between work and personal life, I contribute to close to a dozen blogs. And there are always a couple more I want to start at any given time. I honestly don’t see how anyone can get everything down in one place. Maybe I’m a bit scattered. I prefer to think of it as enthusiastic and eclectic.
Seriously though, I think dedicating a blog to a specific subject is usually the best approach. It lets you go deeper when you’re not worried about modulating content and keeping everything balanced. I’m a big fan of the blogging networks that have cropped up in the last 5 years: The -ists, Gawker media, Weblogs Inc., Shiny — I think their strategy of creating niches and really exploring them fully is what makes a lot of their blogs really excellent.
I like to think I was around when the first subject-based network was started. In 1997, there were two employees working on Yahoo! Full Coverage (then quaintly called “Current Events” — I pitched the name “Yahoo! News Octopus,” but somehow that didn’t make the cut). It was basically was a set of pages dedicated to both long-running and short-term news stories. Each was created by hand, updated every 15 minutes, published in reverse chronological order, drawn from resources around the world, and archived for permanent reference. When blogs first started to be recognized as a breakout form of media, I remember thinking of those two surfers — and later the entire team of 10 or more — who basically spent all day blogging. I certainly think they were the first people whose entire job was to share links about specific subjects. Yahoo’s mission didn’t call for them to add any personal commentary to the links, so they were filter-bloggers by design, but I know how hard they worked to provide a even-handed, global point of view. Proto-bloggers, I salute you, wherever you are. I bet you’re glad you aren’t still adding stories to the Middle East Conflict page…
- You helped us launch TypePad Featured Blogs, and have overseen a new feature every day for almost a year now, along with countless other blog posts on the dozens of blogs that we maintain as a company — how is it different blogging as part of your career as opposed to as a labor of love?
I’ve been really lucky to be able to work for companies where the needs of the business align really closely to my own passions and interests. And I don’t mean lucky in the sense that it was random. I sought out endeavors that I could support wholly and openly and enthusiastically without having to adopt some kind of pose. Actually, the very best thing about blogging as part of your career is that you have a heightened sense of responsibility to meet deadlines and keep publishing at a regular pace. It’s not just your readers and customers that are counting on you, it’s also your colleagues. I like that pressure. As a fundamentally lazy person, I require that pressure.
- What’s surprised you the most about social media and how it’s evolved over the past 10 years?
It’s interesting to me how fractured the landscape of the social media remains. Of course, I’m very happy that we aren’t all using one small set of applications to tell our stories (WordStar Blogging Edition 4000), but I sometimes worry that some really life-changing modes of communication could be getting lost in the jumble. As someone who likes to think of himself as, still, a voracious consumer of new services and innovative tools, even I find it really tough to maintain a clear view of the emerging trends and ultimately suggest good choices for the people close to me who rely on my curiosity to inform them. Of course, that said, I still love trying to keep up.
The other thing that continues to surprise and delight me are the staggeringly generous personalities that emerge online. This past year, I was incredibly energized by Ze Frank’s The Show. Just watching him encourage and amplify the creativity of his community was awe-inspiring. Yet, while I was watching Ze produce great piece after great piece, I realized that he was exceptional, but not alone. There are a lot of truly creative people putting out their own media right now. To me, 2007 reminds me a lot of 1997, like the tools are making everything easier, the pioneers have blazed a trail, and now it’s time for the rest of us to step up to the mic, or the blog, or the video camera. Take your pick.