The evolution of MetaFilter: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Matt Haughey, the founder of MetaFilter, the collection of sites and communities that Paul describes as “one of the real success stories of the web.” The conversation covers Matt’s early career at Pyra Labs, the accessibility of digital technologies, his current job as a writer for Slack, and how if you spend enough time publishing online, you’ll inevitably attract the attention of two groups — trolls and lawyers.
Paul Ford: All right, Rich, we’re back. We’re gonna have our energy level up. This is Paul Ford!
Rich Ziade: This is Rich Ziade.
Paul: And we’re at the Track Changes podcast studio, recording the Track Changes podcast of the Postlight agency that builds apps and mobile websites. Is my energy up enough?
Rich: It is, it’s excellent. It’s also worth noting, we can also provide strategic guidance. I’m trying to give it a public, like a PBS vibe to it?
Paul: It’s so hard to pitch this company.
Rich: It’s hard to pitch it. Well, you can do the infomercial. I’ll do the sort of dignified, you know, PBS Newshour.
Rich: Let’s share information about…
Paul: You be dignified…anyway, this is the Track Changes podcast. I’m Paul Ford. This is Rich Ziade.
Rich: This is Rich Ziade, and this is Paul Ford, and it’s weird to meet someone who’s been chattering in your ear for seven years.
Paul: I wouldn’t say “chattering in your ear” is how we want to go in on this.
Rich: It’s just, it’s a very strange thing. I feel like, you know, we were talking about this in a previous podcast: you get to know the person, and you’re like, oh, how’s his ankle doing?
Rich: Because he talked about it on Twitter, or whatever it may be. And I’ve known Matt through this chattering for probably five to six, seven years. And I probably know 15 people that you know. Matt Haughey is here. This is a very strange way to introduce the guy. A very self-centered way, actually. Big fan of him, as a human being, but also what he’s achieved in his life, to date. And it’s just great to meet the person that I’ve just been sort of observing, weirdly, outside his bedroom window, for the last six years.
Paul: I think, um…
Rich: Paul, I want you to take a shot at introducing Matt, because that was awful. [laughter]
Paul: Matt Haughey, it’s great to have you here in the studio.
Rich: It really is.
Matt Haughey: It’s really fun to be here.
Paul: So what brings you to our fair city?
Matt: I am here to see Hamilton tonight.
Paul: Are you excited?
Matt: Very, yeah.
Paul: I haven’t seen it yet.
Matt: I have a pirate copy of some video I can show you.
Paul: I’m a little scared of anything that popular. I have a little problem with it. And it’s, it’s my problem, not Hamilton’s problem.
Rich: You have an ant-mainstream, the masses love it issue.
Paul: I do.
Rich: That’s a personal thing.
Matt: I came around to it the same way, everyone wouldn’t shut up about it, and I put off for a month or two listening to the soundtrack, and I sat down and was like, “Oh, this is something.”
Paul: This is the thing — I know if I listened to it, I’ll get like five minutes in and be like, “This is an exceptionally good entertainment product.”
Matt: And it goes for two and a half hours.
Matt: Like, solid.
Paul: [sigh] I’m just not there yet. I’ll get there.
Paul: Once it’s over.
Rich: Did you break the bank to get those tickets?
Matt: Anyone can get ’em, they’re not hard if you break the bank.
Rich: If you break the bank.
Paul: Well, you know, you work at Slack now. [laughter] So you can break the bank a little bit.
Matt: That’s right.
Paul: So we should — let’s give a little background for the listener who unlike Rich and me isn’t completely, intimately familiar with Matt Haughey’s entire career. Because it’s one of those careers that…you end up ambiently knowing, and sort of following, if you’re in a certain internet cohort. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because Matt Haughey is the guy who created and founded a website, which is not really the right way to call it, a large web community called MetaFilter.
And you may not know MetaFilter, but you have definitely felt the influence of it, in the media and in the culture of Q&As on websites, like the Ask Me Anything on Reddit, or the website Quora. Like, MetaFilter is a mostly textual, deeply pioneering, heavily moderated web community. That you founded around…
Paul: Hooo. So we were all little pups —
Paul: And, so you just one day, you’re like, I want to make some…I want to make a community…we didn’t even have words for what it was back then, did we?
Matt: Like, weblogs had just started, and there was this, like, web design list that sort of spun off, like, Jesse James Garrett started a blogger list in, like, 1998.
Matt: And it was, like, 12 people, so it’s like, CamWorld, Kottke, I don’t know who was still alive back then. And then, for some reason, I was telling him I was working on something, and he was like, “Oh, I’ll throw you on this list.” And so I had no website, everyone else did, and then I sort of hung out on it, and…you know, there was like 12 blogs, I’m like, “Well we covered the single white web designer demographic pretty well,” [laughter] like I don’t want to just make a blog, yet another blog, so I was like, “What if I could get four or five people to, like, blog with me.”
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Matt: And, like, maybe we could comment on each other’s stuff, but like, that was sort of made weblog comments —
Rich: Did the tool exist?
Rich: To do this?
Rich: So you had an idea…
Rich: And you knew this was going to take some building. So you weren’t just picking up whatever was being used back then.
Rich: Movable Type, or…
Matt: No! 1998, 1999.
Rich: Oh, 1998, OK.
Matt: Everyone’s a web designer! This is, like, when TV was made by the guys who could run cameras.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Right, there was one, there was one software blogging package called Grey Matter.
Matt: But that was still like 2000 or something —
Paul: You had to go find that in, like, a zip file —
Matt: Like LiveJournal —
Rich: Can we talk about Dave Winer’s Manila? [laughter]
Paul: No. Not right now. We can’t talk about that right —
Paul: No. No.
Rich: Manila. Sort of —
Paul: That is —
Rich: It was sort of a product inside of a product —
Paul: That is a subject for, like, an entire show.
Matt: So. So I had to make my own software, my own CMS.
Matt: Which is how every great project starts. I need to make a CMS. Paul knows this. [laughter]
Paul: Most of my projects start that way…
Matt: Paul says that every morning. So yeah, I learned, I went to this intense ColdFusion three-day, like, eight-hour day seminar.
Rich: Wow. With the mission —
Matt: Well, it was — I was working at UCLA as a web designer, and I pitched it to my boss, like, “I’ll make better websites.”
Matt: “…for the department.”
Paul: Oh, because you were making, like, pages.
Matt: So it was like, let’s make a database and, uh, and then once you, you know, this is how database websites work, once you make one page, you can make 10,000. So, uh, with MetaFilter, I was just like, oh, we could have 10,000 users. We could have 100,000 threads. Like, wow, this is great.
Paul: These were inconceivable numbers at that point.
Matt: Yeah. It was like a year later, after I launched it, I remember walking into my friend’s office at UCLA with my hands above in the air, because we had 100 visitors in one day.
Matt: Like, that’s not commenting, just visiting, and I was stoked.
Paul: That was the —
Rich: That’s a lot of people!
Paul: That was the scope of the medium back then.
Rich: I mean, that’s a — if you threw a party and 100 people showed up, that’s a big party.
Paul: Well, what we were all comparing it to, we weren’t comparing ourselves to NBC, we were comparing ourselves to zines that you photocopied at Kinkos.
Paul: Or, like, handouts at, in church fliers. That was the metric. And so, you get 100 people in a day, you just saved yourself $1,000 in photocopying costs.
Paul: So you start MetaFilter. Get 100 people in a day. The years go on…
Matt: Yeah, and then I catch the eye of a young Evan Williams, and Meg Hourihan, who’d been running Pyra, and Blogger. And they were, like, “Eh…yeah. I don’t know.” Maybe at South By Southwest 2000 I spoke on the first weblogs panel. Ben Brown was there, he cried. Let me see what else happened. [laughter] And then ran into Meg after and they were both, like, “Yeah, hey, you want to kind of come work,” and I was like, you know, like a really crappy programmer, because I was using ColdFusion, but…
Paul: Aw! But ColdFusion’s still a real language.
Matt: Yeah. It still runs MetaFilter. [laughter]
Rich: It’s a gateway drug.
Rich: ColdFusion gets you going. You’re like, wait a minute, there’s like seven conventions that make up programming? That’s it?
Matt: Yeah. Four things.
Rich: Conditionals. Loops. That’s it! That’s it. That’s all it is?
Paul: You can start building your community.
Matt: Looks like HTML. So —
Rich: It looks like — it was friendly looking.
Matt: So yeah, so I ended up at Blogger and Pyra and moved to San Francisco and did that for a year…that’s…
Rich: Where were you prior to that, geographically?
Matt: Grew up in LA and ended up at UCLA, as a web designer.
Rich: Got it.
Matt: Although I have, like, an aquatic chemistry degree, and like, I worked for one month in an environmental consulting firm, and was like, this is terrible.
Matt: I like the web. It’s 1997. I remember my co-workers going, I don’t know if this web thing’s gonna…like, will people get their news and weather from a computer? Like, I don’t know…
Paul: It’s crazy.
Matt: People gotta drink water. You should stick with this.
Rich: I love the people who took the — I have a law degree, and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t look away, and I just said, all right, I can’t do it.
Paul: You fell into it through, what, Windows macros.
Rich: I was writing scripts — I was working on this, I don’t want to talk about myself here, but I was working at a business litigation firm where they were just churning out lawsuits against people who hadn’t paid their oil bills, like businesses that hadn’t paid their oil bills. And they put this pile in front of me, and they said, we need to file lawsuits for all these people, and it would be like 80 lawsuits that had to go out. They were usually between $1,000 and $5,000 claims. Just to work out, to get the money back.
And I wasn’t doing anything that had anything to do with my law degree. So I wrote a script, I was like, wait, do you have these in a spreadsheet, and they said, yeah sure. It was like, wait, you have them in a spreadsheet? I’m going to bang these lawsuits out for you in a day. And I was so pumped that I — I wanted excited about the case precedent that I researched in the law library, I was pumped about the script that I wrote to get these lawsuits out. And the lawyers were like, who is this guy? And he’s obviously not a good lawyer [laughter] because that’s not what he does. And then I knew. I quit, and I never looked back.
Matt: So you made, like, a lawsuit template, like in Word, with like, OLE connections to the…
Rich: It was just Reg X, just pumping them into — because the legal, it wasn’t just mail merge, because there was, there was minutiae in there, so you needed some logic around if certain counties had to be in certain courthouses, and it was just the little, like, light logic in there. It was garbage, but I didn’t feel like doing this by hand, like, what do you have me here for, as a law student. Just go get, you know, an intern to just punch these in?
Matt: This is why I quit, like, this environmental consulting firm. I was writing environmental impact reports mostly on cellphone poles going up in Southern California. So, like, that ten foot by ten foot piece of land, you have to kind of mitigate what it looks like, what kind of pollution might be introduced, which is almost zero. I was sitting there going, a trained monkey could do this. Like, I could train a monkey to make copies to deliver to the city…
Matt: To, like, write this report, which is just a bunch of copies.
Rich: It just wasn’t scratching the itch —
Rich: And you got antsy, and….
Paul: I mean that’s the — we talk a lot on this show about how people do their jobs. We’re in this industry that right now feels very inaccessible to a lot of people, and most of the people that I know started by going, like, a computer could do this. Like, how did you miss this idea?
Paul: And then they went ahead and did it, because they were kind of stubborn, mulish people, like we all are, and then 20 years later, they’re still in this ridiculous business.
Paul: So you go and you’re in the hot-white center of probably at that point what didn’t even necessarily feel like a hot-white center at Pyra Labs.
Matt: I started on April 1, 2000, which also happens to be, I think, the Monday the stock market crashed.
Paul: Aw yeah. [laughter]
Matt: Which was, like, the start of the end of the start-up world.
Rich: You moved.
Rich: Did you move to San Francisco?
Matt: Yep. Yeah.
Rich: All right. So he’s…
Matt: All in.
Rich: Moving truck, he’s all in, he’s calling the phone company to set up.
Paul: There’s this really obvious bubble right then, like Pets.com and stuff like that, and everyone —
Paul: Yeah. This is all ridiculous.
Matt: Right —
Paul: You were right there.
Matt: And I’m telling family I’m going to a start-up in San Francisco. Well, it doesn’t make any money, but it’s gonna be great. Yeah, the weird part was knowing in my heart that, like, Blogger was gonna enable the planet to communicate.
Matt: Like I had that, and I knew that was our end goal, and like, yes, Pets.com was happening. Everything was happening around me, and the garbage pile was flying through the skies, and like, you know, people were being fired every day on the same street I was on, but I knew, I was like, this Blogger thing is the greatest idea imaginable.
Rich: And it — I forget the tagline for Blogger, but Pyra went through a rough patch, right? I mean, they went through a really —
Rich: Didn’t they, like, pare down to, like, nothing…?
Matt: Yeah, so they formed in, like, mid-1998 to just be consulting, and then it was like, they basically built Asana in 1999. That was the Pyra app, and it had, like, projects and leaders and one part was you could comment, and it was basically a blogging engine.
Rich: Uh huh.
Matt: And then Ev and PB, who was with me on this trip, basically said, oh, why don’t we just rip that part out for personal blogs.
Paul: Who’s PB?
Matt: Paul Bausch.
Matt: The inventor of the permalink.
Paul: Oh! Someone had to invent the permalink.
Matt: Yeah, and he did it.
Paul: It was Paul Bausch.
Matt: It’s always him. [laughter] It will always be him. Yeah, so August ‘99….
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Matt: In one weekend, they ripped out the code, when Meg was gone, she didn’t want them to — we shouldn’t pivot, or whatever, waste time on side projects. So they make Blogger and launch it in August ’99, and then I joined in the spring of 2000 — by January 2001, it was like all the money ran out.
Rich: Right. I kind of remember —
Matt: Like they had $300,000 in funding, you know, so it ran for a year…
Rich: I remember reading a blog post about this, like, listen…
Matt: And Ev asked for donations to keep servers up.
Matt: It was sort of like —
Rich: I remember this.
Matt: Him by himself, 24 hours — I have to, like, give him credit. At the time, I was like, bitter and ahhhh, you know.
Rich: Had you left?
Matt: Yeah, well everyone had to be fired or walked.
Rich: Got it.
Paul: You were furloughed.
Matt: Yeah. So, you know, I was really angry with them, but like, he stuck it out. I mean, he just worked 20 hours a day and —
Rich: That’s incredible.
Matt: Slept on the floor, and kept this thing, and I was like, I want the dream to stay alive, I want people in Afghanistan to be able to blog for the first time…and then, you know, they finally introduced revenue in I think the end of that year, and Blogspot became a — I remember driving to Fry’s to buy a $200 HP desktop on sale that could be Blogspot. Like, that was…in one day we made Blogspot.
Matt: It was crazy back then.
Matt: So yeah —
Paul: So that was the server?
Paul: Like, you went to Fry’s to just buy some machine that —
Matt: Yeah, and it held 2 or 300 sites on an Apache single instance, and then…
Matt: Like wildcard domains.
Paul: You had internet in the room, too —
Paul: So like —
Matt: Oh, that was, yeah, that was the other thing, like, ISP was in our building, so it was free T3 connections for everybody.
Paul: Oooh. That’s good.
Matt: So I had to drive MetaFilter up in my car, and like put it under my desk and let it run.
Paul: I remember a lot of this. Like, you’d go over to…any web agency worth its salt, back in the old days, would have a rack, like you’d walk in, and often it was like, right when you’d walk in, they’d be like, “Oh yeah, there’s our servers.”
Paul: They were very proud of that.
Matt: Yeah, our, what, our CVS? Is that what the early code repository, was like, in a physical box —
Paul: Right, right.
Matt: In the office. And like, one of our coders was in the midwest, and he had to, like, tunnel in just to get the code each night.
Paul: So you were the cloud.
Matt: [laughter] Yeah.
Paul: So then, and one day, Pyra Labs is like, look, it’s just not working. I’m gonna try to do this myself. I’ll see you guys later.
Matt: Yeah, I worked shortly for a few months at this Kleiner Perkins terrible start-up, and then at Ajax in the year 2000, and did nothing with it, spun their wheels, and, like, we had apps where everything in the page was moving around, and live updating in 2001. And these are all great, but too-early early ideas, you know?
Matt: I did that for a few months, and then I ended up at Creative Commons for three years after that. And that was like, Lawrence Lessig told Cory Doctorow, “You can’t get a freakin’ web designer to even apply for this job. What the hell?” And he was like, “Why don’t you just hire that Matt Haughey guy, God damn, he’d take it in a second.” [laughter]
Rich: That’s so funny. It’s literally —
Paul: He’s like an animal!
Rich: It’s the same 33 people.
Paul: Yeah, that’s the problem. I mean we’re gonna run out, at a certain point, on this podcast. We’ll just have to stop it. [laughter] So MetaFilter’s kind of humming in the background the whole time?
Matt: Yeah, and I mean —
Paul: Did it stay at Pyra after you left Pyra?
Matt: It did.
Paul: All right, so this is another reason that you —
Matt: Because they had the building bandwidth.
Paul: So you had to forgive for another reason.
Matt: I was, yeah, begging for, you know…”You’re an asshole, but I, you know, wanna keep my finger on the edge. Can I just leave that there?” [laughter]
Paul: See, bandwidth can heal a lot of wounds.
Matt: Yeah, and then so, at one point he got rid of the office, because he didn’t want the rent. It was just him. And then I had a conundrum. And then it was a friend who worked for Sports Illustrated and had his own T1 in New York, or in Boston, I can’t remember where it went first. It just sat in a friend’s closet for the next three years.
Paul: Would it go down for a day or two?
Matt: Yeah, uh, I actually put up a temporary, literally this thing’s on a plane.
Matt: Like, the server will be back, I’m Fed-Exing it to New York City tonight. [laughter] Like, people have, I, I should go look, there are screenshots of it, because yeah.
Rich: That’s awesome.
Paul: That is, that is actually…we, we probably overdo nostalgia on this program, but that is for real.
Rich: That’s great.
Paul: “This website is currently on a plane and inaccessible.”
Matt: And then friends of this guy who hosted it would stay, it was in his guest room, and they would always say, “Hey, here’s a picture of your server,” like, while they’re sleeping on the futon.
Paul: No kidding.
Matt: They’d see the server there.
Rich: That’s amazing.
Matt: “That’s MetaFilter, right there, I can touch it!”
Paul: Oh lord. So MetaFilter’s sort of continually running. There’s a point where it became your job, right?
Matt: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: When was that?
Matt: Like 2005…so, it was weird, because I’d give talks at web conferences, and they’d be like, “Tell us about your success,” and I’m like, “Well, you start this dumb side project in a dead language and then you run it for six years and then kind of you make a few hundred bucks?”
Matt: Like it takes six years to make any money. Like, so web advertising came out in 2003, Google launches AdSense, you know, and I actually made more money off PVRBlog just, you know, a single-topic blog about TiVos and stuff.
Paul: So you started this TiVo-related blog.
Matt: Yeah, I —
Paul: In 2006 or so.
Paul: Oh, OK.
Matt: And it was, like, the day AdSense came out…
Matt: So I put it on there, and it was like, I was always emailing friends technical advice, so I was like, let’s make a blog about this dumb little subject.
Paul: And because people had so many PVR questions…
Paul: Is that “personal video”…what was it?
Matt: Yeah, I accidentally bought, I wanted to by DVRBlog, and I…
Matt: Mistyped it, late one night.
Matt: Yeah, so I was like, Personal Video Recorder, I think it was? [laughter] Which seemed grander, but it was really just DVR News. But like the first day I made $100 bucks. It was more money than I’ve ever made on the internet in one day. [laughter] And I was like, “This is unbelievable — 100 American dollars.”
Paul: Just comin’ right your way.
Matt: So like, that was doing pretty well, and it was like, by 2005, MetaFilter’s traffic is skyrocketing, but it’s about everything, so you can’t sell advertising to everybody about everything, everything’s terrible remnant one —
Paul: And this was also, there was an era there where like, people were getting $30,000 checks from Google, before everything got sort of triaged and arbitraged to death.
Matt: Yeah, I would say 2007 was probably the golden age, or 2008
Paul: And there was this moment where it was like, advertising is the model for the internet, it’s the only thing that truly works, and you can make millions of dollars as long as Google continues to write this check, this is an endless balloon going up to the stratosphere.
Matt: That will never stop, yeah. And so MetaFilter had tons of traffic, it was about anything on earth, and then suddenly, AdSense started working great on AskMetaFilter, when someone said, like, “What’s, like a good hammer I should buy for home construction,” of course you’re gonna get three ads for home construction.
Paul: So you start — so that’s the thing, we should point out to people, MetaFilter is a family of sites.
Paul: They often get known by the color that they are, so there’s the blue, which is the old-school, like, ‘here’s a cool link I found on the internet.’ And then there’s green, which is AskMetaFilter, which is general Q&A, and was kind of a…I mean, there were other Q&A things on the internet, but this was like a tag-structured way to find information —
Rich: It was quality.
Rich: Often it was, “Which air conditioner should I buy?”
Paul: And it was, you helped a lot of people get divorced.
Matt: We had no idea — hahaha. We had no idea, at the time — it was sort of like, you know, a thread would come up on MetaFilter about photography, and someone would be, like, “Hey, I’m looking for a new pocket camera.” And then like, photography nerds would drop all this knowledge, and I’d be like, man, there’s something here. We are all smart nerds with hobbies, if we could just get our hobbies —
Paul: Who’d love to talk about it.
Rich: They were just looking for a forum, to just…say what they know.
Matt: All there was was Google Answers, which was that weird dollar-per-question thing?
Matt: You know, with humans and like…
Paul: Oh, that was terrible.
Matt: It survived for two or three years and they got rid of it. So I was like —
Paul: It never made sense. You know, people misunderstood human motivation with that. They were like, we need to pay people to answer questions, and that’s not the internet. The internet is, I will come and answer the question before you ask it.
Rich: Show you what I’m capable of.
Matt: Yeah. Just to show off. So yeah, AskMetaFilter, I had no idea what I was getting into, but, I just, yeah, it worked out really, really well.
Paul: You know there was one precedent for it that just popped into my head, I haven’t thought about this in forever: photo.net.
Matt: Oh, Scott Heffernan’s thing?
Paul: No — Phil Greenspun.
Matt: Phil Greenspun. Yeah.
Paul: This was a site in like…
Matt: That’s right.
Paul: Probably 1999, and it was a lot, it was just all about camera equipment.
Matt: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And that pattern emerged there. It wasn’t really Q&A, but it was like…
Matt: It was the tail end of AnyPage, there were comments, basically —
Matt: And you’d just jump into discussion there, about whatever he was reviewing up above.
Paul: But also because digital photography was so expensive, and people who were into digital photography tended to be, like, internet users. Like, there was a real alignment. So it was just this one…
Matt: Yeah, his book inspired me to do the whole ColdFusion thing.
Paul: That’s true. Phil Greenspun —
Matt: What’s that Tcl crap? But he wrote, like, a philosophical book about, about dead-based websites, but like, without abstracting the code.
Paul: Phil Greenspun’s a really interesting guy. He was an MIT guy, and then he started a company called, I believe, ArsDigita.
Matt: That’s right. And made a content management system.
Paul: They made a content management system with Tcl/TK, the language, and it was like, AOL webserver, and then some other database. It was like —
Matt: Oh, Oracle.
Paul: Oracle, yeah, it was, like, completely different from everything everyone else was using.
Matt: And then he sold it to a Fortune 500 companies, made a lot of money, raised a lot of funds.
Paul: He also had, like, a one-year program in computer science that they funded, and it was like, he did all these, like, seminars and hack days and had a big website called photo.net. Like, he was this really — and he had a book, I think it was called Philip and Alex’s Guide to the…
Matt: Yeah, with is dog.
Paul: His dog was named Alex, it was like a giant, fluffy dog.
Paul: Samoyed, yeah. And it was all pictures of him and his Samoyed, and then it would teach you how to make webpages in Tcl/TK.
Rich: Huh. I didn’t know anything about this.
Matt: Yeah, it tells you, like, the entire world of programming is just four things, which is just like, put stuff in a database, take stuff out of a database, display it on a page however you want…
Matt: Well, that’s three things — that’s it! That’s the entire, the entirety — and so I could go to any language, and just be like, how do I put crap in a database? How do I read it out of a database? How do I format it on the page? And like, that’s ColdFusion, PHP, I sort of picked up just doing that.
Paul: OK, so that book was one of the things that got you going?
Matt: Yeah, that, I wrapped my head around it, read it, and went, oh, I should, yeah, this is amaz — this is within everyone’s grasp. I did not know it was so easy. Which like, I don’t want to learn how dynamic arrays work in blah language. It’s just, like, he really broke it down to like, anyone could do this —
Rich: Made it accessible.
Matt: It was great. And it was philosophical, there was like, hardly any code in the book, it was just like, go look it up, go look up syntax later.
Paul: I think, I mean, that’s one of the things — when you learn that it’s OK that things break and that you’re just gonna fix it, and if you keep, like, some backups, you’re gonna get through it, those, those are really important lessons early on, because you just, everyone else will tell you, if you say, how often should I back up, people will tell you, like, at least five times per second. [laughter]
Rich: You know what’s funny is, the motivations here that come out of this community, and when I say community, I mean people who are interested in creating communities, publishing content, whether it be me talking about my life on a blog, technology was sort of like, this thing that we were, there was such a strong motivation to continue to lower the barrier, and to make it accessible, because the goal wasn’t, I majored in comp-sci, I’m really into complicated fractals, it’s just not…
Paul: It was to increase participation.
Rich: It was to increase participation, but also, it was, it was this strange sort of other set of motivations, and inspirations, and technology was just sort of sitting here, it was like, wait a minute, can I touch this, or am I gonna get electrocuted.
Rich: So you just sort of looked for ways to just fiddle, just fiddle around just enough so you could go do that thing, you know, and go after something much bigger, and technology was just sort of a means to it.
Rich: But what comes out of it, ultimately, is it actually shaped the path for technology, such that the tools we use today are byproducts of this curious, weird affair we had with it, for the last 20 years.
Rich: 15 years, or whatever it may be. Which I love. Like, I don’t think about Oracle databases. They were just sort of this thing that was over here that was handling the banks, and it just, I wasn’t gonna use that. That just was too far away.
Paul; No, I mean, I was involved, sometimes, sometimes you’d be…affiliated with projects that would involve that stuff, but in general, all the stuff we used was kind of free or incredibly cheap, and you’d go buy a $200 server at the store…
Paul: And then figure it out from there.
Matt: I think it’s that the early internet came out of the academic world, so like, all the early bloggers, like, were grad students or were just coming out of college, and they had free webspace. Like I came from the academic scientific community, which was like, what do I need to know to get my work done, and then how do I tell everybody about it. But that was an important aspect, was I would write, this is how you do it, Philip Greenspun was nice enough to write a book and tell everybody how to do it, and like, I constantly wrote, you know, the day I made $100 bucks on PVRBlog, I wrote a blog post and said, like, “This is amazing! There’s money to be made if you write about a subject you’re passionate about.” Which like, unfortunately started, like, spam blogs, too.
But yeah, I think all the early internet, like, you know, ‘99–2005 internet people are like, they have an academic bent, because there’s no money, so it’s like, well I discovered this great thing and made this great thing, I just want to tell the world so they can do it, too, so we can all have great things.
Rich: And there’s also this aspiration that’s beyond making money, I mean, I think, for an Ev WIlliams to sit 22 hours a day just making sure Pyra stayed up, I think he was thinking, this is gonna change the freakin’ world. This isn’t about —
Paul: I think it’s also, like —
Rich: The paycheck.
Paul: It has to be right.
Paul: Like, there’s just a very fundamental human force.
Matt: Yeah. We knew, like, we’re helping the world publish, we’re like, dropping all the barriers to zero. You fill out a form and you can start blogging. And somebody’s gonna realize this is Nobel Prize-winning greatness here, for the world.
Matt: And so, like, yeah, let’s just keep it going.
Rich: Yeah. Sort of this patched-together set of motivations, you know? It’s not, it wasn’t, oh, this is the ten-year plan to get to the moon. It was just, sort of, us…fumbling along…
Paul: I’m not emotionally ready for internet people to win Nobel Prizes. [laughter] I’m not. I can’t handle that. I can’t handle it.
Matt: I don’t think it’s gonna happen.
Paul: I can’t handle the tweets.
Matt: I overstepped, yeah. Yeah there’s no — why did I say that?
Paul: I’m just thinking about what that looks like.
Matt: Anil said a lot of times, when’s the first MacArthur Genius Grant gonna go to someone we know? The inventor of RSS, or the inventor of podcasts or something like that. Like, one of us —
Paul: As someone will tell you, that’s the same person. [laughter]
Matt: God damnit. Circle back. Let’s move on.
Paul: Wait a minute, wait a minute. So: you hired a bunch of people to work with you, to help you moderate MetaFilter, because a) people had to pay, like, $5 buck to get on.
Matt: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Not just anyone could come in and post.
Matt: Yeah, we purposely made a barrier. Before I would just turn sign-ups off if I ever got press, because, like, 500 people would come from a New York Times link and it would just be a nightmare, like, the first day anyone’s in a new community, just, blah blah blah, like, it was a nightmare. So I’d constantly turn off sign-ups, and I liked having the sign-ups turned off, because I could manage the community of people I knew. So —
Rich: The quality went up.
Matt: Yeah, I went for like, two years without letting anyone sign up. Like, people had to email me and send me a sob story. And then, and then I noticed someone was selling on one eBay, and it went for like $125, and I was like, I need to arbitrage this shit. Like —
Paul: Yeah. Yeah.
Matt: This can’t happen.
Paul: That’s not cool.
Matt: So if I make it $5 and anyone can have it, there’ll be no black market.
Matt: So I did that not knowing that, like, I don’t know, 20 people a day might do it, and like the first day, I put a down payment on a car. [laughter]
Rich: That’s awesome.
Matt: The first, I think, 2,500 people signed up in the first day.
Paul: So there was all this latent demand.
Matt: Yeah. It was kind of a hoppin’ site back then. It was like, sort of like, the Reddit.
Paul: Yeah. There wasn’t, there wasn’t anything else quite like it.
Matt: Yeah. I sort of patterned it off Slashdot, when it started to become a community, it was like, well that stuff’s a little too nerdy for me, I wish it was a little more about pop culture.
Paul: So then you hired moderators.
Matt: Yeah, I don’t know, I…you know, I though, I saw Slashdot do the karma model, where like, they did the early Reddit, where you’re voting up and down stuff, and then they had, like, meta moderation — it was just a nightmare, and people just trying to get points. They, you know —
Paul: Yeah —
Matt: So I was like —
Paul: People start to game it.
Matt: I was like, forget this. I don’t want to write anti-gaming software for the rest of my life. I’ll just, yeah, Jessamyn was really nice.
Paul: Jessamyn West.
Matt: Jessamyn West, who should —
Paul: Noted for librarian.net.
Matt: Should be a guest on this program.
Paul: If we could get her down here, I’d love to talk to her. So she’s…she’s, she could get the Nobel Prize. I’d be OK with that one.
Matt: Yeah, totally. Or a Genius Grant. So like, I brought her, she was sort of the best member of the site, and it was like, I would get people volunteering to, you know, you’re on the West Coast, at two in the morning some spammer shows up and does some ruckus, and you know, I’m in Europe, or I’m in the East Coast, I could see this before you wake up. There would be problems every time I woke up. I’d go to sleep at midnight with the laptop, open it up a seven in the morning and know there’s problems.
Paul: Because —
Rich: But you’re loving it at this point, or you’re just feeling like, I gotta keep going?
Matt: It was like 2003 or ‘4, felt like drudgery, and like, a little bit of money came in, so it was a little easier.
Paul: Money’s very soothing.
Paul: I’m not even being ironic.
Matt: No! Like in 2003, I sort of had a stalker who got my wife fired from a tenure-track university job.
Matt: Who made my life a living hell, like, I was researching restraining orders, like —
Rich: Oh my gosh.
Matt: And I was, like, I’m not rich, and I’m not famous, and I’m being treated like — this sucks. I was ready to quit the internet in like 2003.
Paul: Right, that’s the thing, people — there were griefers very active back then. Now they have all decided to focus their energy mostly on women who play video games.
Matt: That’s right. For some reason.
Paul: But back then they were just, like, they would hate anybody. I would get death threats, I mean, you had someone actively ruin your life, I had people come outside my house, like it’s…any time you exert what they see as any power, like, they just see your world that they’ve stumbled into as their zone to exert total power, and you’re like, hey, actually there’s other people here, and they’re like [sci-fi villain voice], “THAT IS UNACCEPTABLE.” And then, then you’re like, in the basement, and they’re wearing, they’re wearing, like, their mom’s skin.
Matt: And then, like, money comes in the picture and you’re like, well…uh….it’s not so bad. If I can pay my mortgage and I get a lawsuit threat once every three — now I don’t even care about lawsuit threats.
Matt: They’re so normal. Which is really weird, I never thought I’d get to this place.
Paul: That is another subtext to the internet, that like, if you have anything successful and you publish any kind of content and it hangs around for a while, people will invoke lawyers to try to get you to remove that content.
Matt: Yeah. There’s an AskMetaFilter thread from like five years ago, someone going, ugh, my sister’s going to this real-estate seminar at the hotel by the airport, taught by this guy. Has anyone ever — like, this seems like bullshit. I should tell her it’s a scam, right? And like, people did some searching, and there’s three or four answers going, this seems like a scam. And someone linked to some article where like, Better Business Bureau said this guy had, like, 100 complaints. And so years later, apparently that’s, like, the third result for his name. [laughter]
Rich: Oh no.
Matt: So he, like, just sends some angry notes to me, in email, and I just keep ignoring him, and he sends FedEx envelopes to my PO Box.
Paul: And then the lawyer.
Matt: And then he sends a, a lawyer sends a fake facsimile of a case, like, here’s what —
Matt: Here’s what a case would look like if we started it in Arizona where I live.
Rich: Was it served, or did you just get it mailed to you?
Matt: No, they literally doctored up, like, here’s what would happen if we continued.
Rich: Oh God.
Matt: Then I contacted a lawyer friend, and they were like, “Statute of limitations in Arizona is one year.”
Matt: Like, on libel and slander. Also, it’s all true. These are people who said they went to his seminar and it sucked.
Rich: There’s no libel or slander.
Matt: So that sort of went away when the lawyer pointed out —
Paul: The first time you get, like, a lawyer coming after you, though, for anything, you’re like, oh, this is it, it’s all over, I lost it.
Matt: Dude, your stomach drops, you don’t eat for two days or sleep.
Rich: Yeah, it’s awful.
Matt: And you go, my children are gonna go hungry.
Paul: See this is one of the reasons it’s nice to be in a partnership with someone who has a law degree. It’s very, like, it weighed into starting this company, because it’s so useful to just, like, have somebody who is in no way intimidated or afraid, and just is like, well this is a set of consequences if we do this, you know.
Rich: Yeah. Most overtures from lawyers are less about procedural, actual stuff, and more about intimidation.
Matt: Yeah, it was all threats and intimidation.
Rich: To get you to do something.
Matt: Working at Creative Commons made me comfortable running a big content site with a myriad of DMCA and copyright problems, because I was surrounded by Harvard lawyers and Lessig and I could ask anyone at the FF to help me at any time, call in a favor. That made me a lot — I got to, I can read contracts and user agreements now and understand what’s going on.
Paul: Honestly, it’s — I get asked sometimes what makes a good editor, and one of the first things I say is a keen understanding of liability, and everyone’s like, “NO! No, c’mon, it’s about sentences.” I’m like, the actual job…
Paul: The actual job is, is being aware of, like, incoming risks.
Paul: Because a really good, screwed-up piece of media can cost you millions of dollars.
Rich: Yeah. We’re running out of time, and I definitely want to talk about Slack.
Paul: Yeah. So MetaFilter runs and runs and runs, and is actually one of the real success stories of the web. It has some definite ebbs and flows. Google kicks your legs out from under you at one point. But you get it to an OK place.
Matt: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And this is a couple years ago, and you went, maybe it’s time for something new.
Matt: Yeah. It was, it was the result of the Google of, like I woke up — I knew that some day this would end. Everyone had told me this will happen. And then it just happened, and I was making half as much money. And, like, luckily we had a lot of profit, so we could still pay paychecks for a while, and then we started to tighten our belts a little. But like, tightening your belt and watching the dollars go up and down 2% every day was just stressing me out to no end, so you know, I just thought…yeah, I was, like, super depressed and, like, stressed out, working you know, 80 hours a week. I was —
Paul: And you’d run this social club for 14 years.
Paul: Right? Yeah, OK.
Matt: And at one point I had, like, I think up to eight employees, and like, I was not working, like, basically for maybe a year there. Like, I was just seeing movies and going on 100-mile bike rides every day, and like, checking in on the site. And so I went back to, like, the Ev Williams, late at night, million hours a day, watching the site, and it was just stressing me out to no end.
Paul: And you have….you have a kid?
Paul: And you had a health issue too, I remember, it was pretty serious.
Matt: Yeah, I had a tumor at the base of my brain, that made me rethink things, a couple years before, but that’s mostly OK now.
Paul: But you’re just, you’re at a point in life where you’re like, you know what, I really, you don’t have 80 hours a week.
Matt: Yeah, I was like, I can’t sustain this. I’m gonna kill myself if I have to keep doing this. So at one point, a very large community made aspirations to hire me as their head of community, and just buy the site. A couple…and there was a time where they said, well why don’t you just let it run, and just come work for us, and we’ll pay you lots of money, and I was like, how does that work, and they were like, “Just hire someone, dumbass.” [laughter] And I was like, oh, yeah! If I take my paycheck out of it, I could cover two jobs or something. Yeah…yeah, OK. And then at the same time, I emailed Stewart Butterfield, and said, like, I really love Slack, and I really love everything about it.
Paul: Early days for Slack, before it was a $480 billion company.
Matt: Yeah, there was maybe 50 employees when I emailed and said, “Hey, if there’s any, anything ever comes up,” and he said, “Yeah, I’ll think of something.” And I thought it would be community leader, or some stupid thing that I was good at, and he was like, you should be a writer here, and I was like, what are you talk — I’ve never worked as a writer in my life. And he’s like, you’ve been blogging for 20 years, you’ve written books. [laughter]
Paul: Yeah, you’ve just had —
Matt: You can do this. It’s in you.
Paul: You’ve been thinking of yourself as community leader.
Matt: Yeah. And also suicidal community leader, who’s just getting, felt downtrodden. Like, GamerGate happens. That was the last straw. I was like, ugh, like it just made the internet suck.
Paul: What happened with MetaFilter with GamerGate? I missed all that.
Matt: You know, there wasn’t much. It’s not Reddit.
Paul: Yeah, I was watching Gawker implode.
Matt: Yeah, Gawker and Reddit just sort of, implode, with you know, I don’t know, 10% of their audience is pro-GamerGate, and that’s enough to just ruin the place.
Matt: MetaFilter’s probably like, five guys who actually, ‘wait wait wait, let’s see the merit to these argu — ’ and like, just fighting those —
Paul: Maybe women shouldn’t play video games. OK, so that’s all going on, and you’re just like, I need to not be doing this.
Matt: And it was because, like, I could just hire someone and leave and go do something else. That’s a possibility I never thought about for 14 years. So did that, everything worked out, Stewart was like, hey come be a writer, and I showed up the next Monday. One or our part-timers could work full time at MetaFilter, and it was like, the easiest transition of my life.
Paul: And you’re working remotely. Slack’s in California but you’re in Portland, Oregon.
Matt: And as a writer, that’s, like, awesome, because now there’s three or four other writers, and nobody’s ever at their desk. They go somewhere else to write.
Rich: What does writer mean?
Paul: Yeah, what do you —
Rich: It’s an enterprise software —
Paul: What do you do every day?
Rich: Yeah, like give us some context —
Matt: Every day it’s like, I guess it’s in the marketing group. You’re gonna have like an editorial group, so it’s like every blog post about every feature and every daily newsletter-y kind of thing.
Paul: OK, so you get up, you log into HipChat. [laughter]
Matt: So you write blog posts, tweets — you have no idea how much work goes into tweets.
Paul: Oh, I know [laughter] what goes into tweets —
Matt: It’s embarrassing how much — I’m like the emoji picker guy, the expert at Slack. Like, I was doing UI copy for a while, just like anywhere with words, any email that goes out from us should have a tone —
Rich: OK, so you actually touch the product as well.
Matt: There’s a big — now we have UI writers, that was the hardest job in the world — but now we have people dedicated to it. But Slack has a tone, like, a very strong, it’s like Stewart’s comedic, smart-alec kind of tone, and he brought on Anna Pickard, who was, like, a writer on Glitch, even, so she knew that, how to write.
Paul: Glitch was the game that Stewart Butterfield made before he made Slack.
Paul: Just like Flickr was the…
Matt: The thing that came out of Game Neverending.
Paul: The website that he and Caterina Fake made after they made the Game Neverending.
Matt: If you wanna build a successful start-up, you’ve gotta make a game first, that fails.
Paul: It’s like when I need to write an article or something longer, I create a CMS.
Matt: Yeah. [laughter]
Paul: And never launch it. OK, so you’re, so it’s coming, and they’re like, hey, Matt, can you…write us a thing?
Matt: Yeah, like something’s launching on Monday, and I had to write a post about it on the plane here.
Paul: What’s launching?
Matt: Oh! When will this come out?
Paul: Not for a couple weeks.
Matt: Oh great! The calls is coming out of beta, it’ll be public. So you can make —
Paul: Oh, we can make phone calls from Slack?
Matt: So voice is being added to Slack everywhere.
Paul: So you’re, like, writing the instructions and the information and…
Rich: Well, an introduction —
Matt: Yeah, it’s pretty obvious how a phone works. You just say, well, now we’ve got voice. Like, press a button, start a voice call, you know what to do with the rest.
Matt: I tried to, like, pitch, well, you know you could have standing meetings at Tuesday at one o’cock, you just leave the voice chat open, maybe that’s a thing people do, like, we ended up cutting it all.
Paul: So basically, just, your job is to keep things simple.
Matt: Yup. It is lots and lots of editing. Yeah.
Paul: Using words to keep things simple.
Matt: Yeah, I think I was happy with writing, but editing is hard. Editing is when you feel like a garbage heap who doesn’t know how to do…like, you feel like a goat in a human body. [laughter] But like, while I love to get up and go to the library and just bang out 1,000-word pieces all day long, and then the editing is the worst, where I just go, I’m so disappointed. Sometimes Stewart touches them and he red-lines half of it and I’ll be like, I’m such a disappointment. [laughter]
Paul: I always thought that Slack has the best internal blog title, though, which is, “Several People Are Typing.”
Paul: That’s actually an excellent name for a blog.
Rich: That is an excellent name.
Matt: Then we overdid it, because “Several People Are Coding” is the engineering blog, and we went from that —
Rich: They killed it —
Paul: But what are you gonna do?
Rich: The brand personality of Slack has been in — I feel like I’ve met someone three years ago, and I got to know them over times.
Paul: Yeah, and it’s the same person today.
Rich: And it’s the same person, and they’ve done a killer job.
Matt: Yeah, it’s gonna get better, Slackbot’s gonna get more helpful.
Paul: Are you writing bots? Are you writing bot copy.
Matt: No, I wish. I did a little bit early, but now our UI writers do that. Like, that’s the hardest — like, write a thousand words about this new feature’s the easiest thing in the world. Write a tweet announcing it’s a little a harder.
Matt: What should we say on this button? You have a maximum of two words and it’s due by the end of the day, it’s the hardest job —
Paul: That’s the stress.
Matt: I ever…
Matt: Like when you only have two words, and you’ve gotta pick ’em, and they’ve gotta work in any language.
Paul: People are gonna have opinions.
Rich: Paul, should we tell Matt that we use Flowdock at Postlight?
Matt: I still wanna see it.
Paul: Yeah, I’m gonna say —
Rich: There was a passionate debate.
Matt: No, no, I understand.
Paul: So Flowdock is a Slack competitor, and it allows for threaded conversations.
Matt: It has replies.
Paul: Yeah. And look, here’s the thing —
Rich: What’d you say?
Matt: It has replies. I don’t know what this looks like, but that’s what everyone tells me, they do replies really — I tried to get replies working in MetaFilter.
Paul: I’m gonna let you come to our office and watch people use Flowdock.
Rich: Yeah. Look, there’s a lot of garbage in Flowdock. Slack is way more polished.
Paul: You’re gonna see the UX and you’re gonna be like, “What?”
Matt: I’ve seen HipChat and I can’t believe.
Paul: But. But. We’re not allowed to talk about it at the office, because at one point Flowdock was mostly being used to talk about Slack.
Paul: And it was a major productivity drain. It was incredibly risky.
Rich: Yeah. But you should come witness how it works. Threading, I mean, is the reason everybody wants to —
Matt: Yeah, and I tried to do threading on MetaFilter for 15 years and I never found a design I liked.
Rich: It’s a very trick problem.
Matt: Yeah, and so I don’t know what the right, I mean, we’re experimenting at Slack for almost a year on it, and like, I mean, we’re getting close, but yeah. I’m curious about Flowdock.
Paul: Let’s — come on by and we’ll show you. Well, I like this episode because there’s a sort of like, it ends on this very chill note. You’re just like, MetaFilter, still going.
Matt: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: It is still going. It’s worth noting.
Matt: Yeah. There’s like, six people I left behind, and they’re all doing a great job, and I told them, hey, call me on the red phone once every three months, when we get a lawsuit. Otherwise I don’t want to hear from you. And it’s worked out exactly to that level.
Paul: The site’s still great, I mean, the content and the quality of the site is still great. People —
Rich: Its quality, i mean, you look at the, the rise of YouTube comments, which just makes me want to shower after about a minute or two, and I feel like MetaFilter just continues to represent something else. Which is great.
Paul: And then you hit an inflection point after 10, 15 years of having a successful start-up — not an 80x multiple start-up…
Paul: But one that paid your bills.
Paul: No, I know, but it really was. [laughter]
Rich: Don’t call it a start-up.
Paul: It’s been here for years.
Matt: It was a small business — I was running a shoe store.
Matt: A shoe store selling shoes.
Paul: You’re a happy cobbler.
Paul: And then you’re like, you know what, I’m gonna go do a thing over here with some nice people.
Rich: It was a food truck.
Paul: This is a good outcome.
Rich: It’s a really good food truck.
Paul: I like outcomes like this. I like, it’s good for people out in the, out in the world of Track Changes to hear that, like, you can pace a little bit. You can take a breath.
Matt: It’s OK to quit things, I think is something we never talk about.
Paul: Yeah, it really is.
Rich: Great point.
Matt: I got a master’s degree, I went to college for, like, freakin’ seven, eight years, and then I quit it a month into my first job, to go do the web, and then I quit my job to go to Pyra, and like, drop everything and go to San Francisco in the middle of start-up blitz, and then quit my job to do my own thing in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, and then quit that, to go to Slack.
Rich: That’s great.
Paul: That’s a great message for everyone. [laughter]
Matt: Know when to quit.
Rich: It’s a very difficult thing.
Paul: Just quit.
Paul: Just quit. So I think one of the things we’re gonna, one of the things we’re gonna have to quit — I’m gonna do this in a very, like, cheesy way — one of the things we’re gonna have to quit, Rich, is this podcast!
Paul: For the day. Matt Haughey came on our show. We’ve been, we’re big Matt Haughey fans. Thank you.
Matt: You’re welcome.
Rich: Very big fans. Thanks, Matt. This was great.
Paul: And you want to set up a Slack channel?
Matt: For what?
Paul: Just for, you know, just for —
Matt: I’ve got, like, 15. I’m good.
Paul: Awwwwww. All right, well, we’ll go back and talk on Slack amongst ourselves. Rich, this has been Track Changes.
Rich: It sure has.
Paul: If you want to review it on iTunes, you can. If you want to send us an email with any question at all, firstname.lastname@example.org. Postlight, your happy agency that builds you your apps and your mobile things right here in New York City. Rich, I’m gonna see you soon.
Rich: See you soon, Paul.