Results tagged “alainabrowne”

Where Tumblr Came From

May 20, 2013

Seven years ago, my wife Alaina Browne and I were living happily in San Francisco when she went off to NYC to visit with our friends and attend a party. By the time she flew back, we were on a path that not only led to our return to New York City, but to getting a front-row seat to the birth of what would become Tumblr. Along the way, I've had the chance to see Tumblr from the perspective of a user, a competitor and a fan. Since so much of the conversation today is about the dollar amount of their sale, and the speculation about their future with Yahoo, I thought it'd be nice to look back at a few distinct moments in their evolution, as seen by an interested outsider.

Before the Beginning

Alaina had come back excited from visiting New York, telling me about having been introduced to Ed Levine by our friends David Jacobs and Meg Hourihan. Ed wanted to build a food community site called Serious Eats, and had hired two young guys recommended by Fred Seibert to build out the site. I heard secondhand from my friends about the content management system that was being built by Davidville, the consulting company run by David Karp and Marco Arment. David and Marco were building a tool to power Serious Eats, but I didn't know anything about them except that they were really young.

Serious Eats had gotten a launch sponsorship, and as a result needed to get up and running by the holiday season. But by October, all that I'd seen of the publishing tool they were building was a very simple single-column blog that presented photos really nicely, but had no way to show standard banner ads at all. After debating whether the ads that needed to be delivered could be fit into the simple structure of the tool that had been built, the team decided in favor of just launching Serious Eats on off-the-shelf technology because they needed to get running quickly. As David Jacobs described in his post on the Yahoo/Tumblr deal, the team picked Movable Type since they were all very familiar with the software and knew those of us who worked on making that app.

In short, some of the fundamental constraints that shaped Tumblr in its most nascent stages was that publishers weren't yet able to get advertisers to buy native, in-stream ad units, and that traditional ad buys made units that were not easy to integrate into super-simple tumblelogs. Hmm!

Update: I think Marco had some objections to my characterization of this point in the evolution of their work. His tweets on the matter follow:

Given that I made no assertion over how much code was shared between the two companies, and since a simple CMS is usually little more than a nice wrapper around an MVC framework, it seems there's little in dispute here except whether the content management system was a poor fit for being too complicated or for yielding output that was too simple. I'm happy to believe Marco has a better memory of the project than I do, since he worked on it and I barely even visited.

Marco also offered some other snarking at Meg about whether the client or consultant was to blame for an underspecified set of goals for the content management system, but these things are almost always everybody's fault, and that's sort of beside the point which is that the ideas of Tumblr were in tension with conventional blogging of the era.

Tumblelogs Take Off

Meanwhile, David and Marco took that simple publishing system they'd built and kept refining it. They were insistent even in those early days on calling the output "tumblelogs" instead of just "blogs", which I mentally filed away as "those sites like projectionist".


At the time, Tumblelogs had been around for a little while, best known to us old-time bloggers due to Jason Kottke's seminal post on Tumblelogs, which defined the format just as it was about to take off, and featured as its leading light. But in a classic case of geeks looking at a thing from a technical standpoint instead of from a cultural one, many of us who were familiar with blogs already saw tumblelogs as "just a simple blogging template", similar to what we were already doing on Movable Type or WordPress at the time, rather than a fundamentally different medium.

Despite that myopia, there was a lot of momentum around simplified, media-rich blogging at that moment in history. Twitter had launched just a few months earlier in mid-2006, without any of its current photo or video capabilities, but with a super-simple posting experience similar to what made Tumblr so easy to use. Much of the early team behind Movable Type had moved to working on a platform called Vox, which was a simpler blogging tool for sharing media from other services, but included privacy features similar to the Flickr or LiveJournal, which kept it from being as dead-simple to use as Tumblr. WordPress, too, had incorporated a feature called "Asides", based on a popular plugin from Matt Mullenweg, and it made regular posts of photos, quotes and video clips easy to integrate into a more traditional blog.

At a technical level, many of these efforts were descended from a super-geeky concept that folks had been kicking around a few years earlier, called structured blogging. The technical focus of people in the community resulted in it having the super-nerdy name "structured blogging" and yielded a set of poorly-adopted technical specifications rather than a usable experience for normal people. But the fundamental idea behind structured blogging was that people would want to easily post the cool stuff they were finding on other sites and publishing in other media such as photo or video. And Tumblr proved that the idea of this kind of sharing was exactly right, even if the "structured blogging" name and implementation was exactly wrong.

One of the most important justifications for putting "structure" around different kinds of content was so they could be aggregated together into a reader, something like Google Reader, or earlier tools like Bloglines or My Yahoo or Userland Radio. The difference with Tumblr was that David and Marco very early on built in their reader, just like Twitter and LiveJournal had done, making viewing and creating take place in almost the same environment, and forming better connections between users on the site.

Tussling With Tumblr

By the time Tumblr opened up to the public just a few months later, it was clear they'd hit a perfect mix of features to connect with an audience that cared more about expression than technology. Gina Trapani was one of the early, enthusiastic users, and as Marco rightly pointed out in a podcast the other day, part of what made Tumblr so popular early on was that they let people use their own domain name, with a beautiful design, for free. Other free tools were either more complicated, or like WordPress or Blogger, they charged extra to use a domain name and/or constrained the template customization that a user could do.

Since I worked at the time for a company that mostly made its money by selling paid software and support for blogging, I didn't really see Tumblr as a threat so much as an interesting new entrant that offered the best free product for many users. I jokingly made a reference to Tumblr a year later on a promo page for TypePad, which I worked on at the time and after Fred Wilson and Bijan Sabet picked it up, Marco took offense, to my great surprise. In retrospect, it was obvious that Marco would see us as competitors and my joke as disrespect, but at the time I really had thought it was clear I was being playful but respectful because Tumblr had made something cool and I had met, and liked the founders.

Elbow to Elbow

Goodbye, 419

When I say that I knew Marco and David a little bit, it's impossible to overstate how close the NYC tech community was at this point. The office where Tumblr was still based back then was 419 Park Avenue South, and Tumblr shared the space with Serious Eats, Next New Networks (now YouTube Next Lab) and Frederator, Fred Seibert's studio.

When I ran into David around that time a few blocks away at Shake Shack, I excitedly pulled him aside and said "I really think Tumblr is like LiveJournal 2.0", which is another one of those endorsements that probably sounded to him like a slight or an insult or some willfully obscure reference, but to me was about as high a form of praise as I could offer — LiveJournal is and was the most seminal social networking platform that's ever existed, and almost nobody had captured the addictive, expressive environment of its friends list as well as Tumblr's dashboard did.

Part of what I learned in my very-limited interactions with David and Marco in those early days was how disconnected and arrogant my own view of blogging and social software could be. Because Tumblr recapitulated many earlier ideas, albeit in a vastly superior way, I had thought it wasn't really as new as it has turned out to be. And some of this is just generational; My very first impression of meeting the then-20-year-old David and 24-year-old Marco was "Wow, these guys have a really good eye, and are really full of themselves." I still think both those things are true, and that those traits have served them very well.

But there was also a half-generational gap between me and these millennials, a cultural difference I hadn't yet understood or reckoned with. It led me (and many others I know) to underestimate what Tumblr's importance was, and actually retroactively made my analogy to LiveJournal seem more apt than perhaps I'd intended.

What's Next

In the case of LiveJournal, I got to watch first hand as many of the most fundamental parts of social networking and blogging were invented and then mishandled as advertising was introduced. But I never thought those mistakes were intrinsic to this kind of evolution in communities - it just required leadership that understood and truly respected a community.

In the case of Yahoo's acquisition of Tumblr, I mostly don't have a lot to say — my Activate cofounder Michael Wolf is on the board and we've done work that makes me far from objective in this regard, but even if we hadn't, I'd be optimistic about this deal. For me, it's the concepts I wrote about in Stop Publishing Web Pages — we've found a model for user interaction and social connection that really works, and it feels like the more places that's adopted and embraced, the better. Whether that's on Yahoo's homepage or Tumblr's Dashboard, or in some new app on my iPhone, we're reaching a consensus around how we want to connect with each other.

It's been fascinating to watch Tumblr evolve, and as a member of the New York tech community, I am thrilled for the whole team (and its inestimable investors) on the success of the company. As a blogger, it's still a really sweet moment to watch the medium of blogging be validated in this way, since a huge number of dollars is a clear signal even to those who don't understand the artistic and expressive importance of blogging. And as someone who still loves hacking on these kinds of software, it's been tremendously useful to see my own assumptions and preconceptions be challenged by a new generation of young entrepreneurs and creators who take this medium I've watched since its inception, and push it to fascinating and inspiring new forms.

Malcolm Browne Dash

February 18, 2011

Please meet Malcolm Browne Dash. He's my son, born February 9th weighing in at 7 pounds, 2 ounces.

Already getting bigger

The days (and yes, the nights) over this last week or so have been a blur, but one thing that's crystal clear, beside his abiding cuteness, is that this boy is the best thing I've ever been a part of, and this is the happiest I've ever been in my life. My wife Alaina was amazing during the pregnancy and during a long and arduous delivery, and even more so in the days since his birth, as she's recovered while being the center of Malcolm's life around the clock. Malcolm is a smart, bright, phenomenally miscegenated half-Indian, quarter-Chinese, 100% American boy who already seems to be a little bit of a smartass, and I couldn't be more proud.

Extra Ordinary

But of course, all of these mundane details of my boy's life are in some ways profoundly ordinary, and that's perhaps one of the best parts of the whole thing.

Having a kid is truly the most universal experience one can go through; Everybody was born sometime, in some place. We talk about these things with our family and close friends as if they're the most important moments in our lives, and they are. But when a child is born in some other part of the planet, or in some culture that we're not connected to, it's the most boring thing in the world. I felt the same when when I got married, "Though this was the most personal thing I've ever been through, it's one of the few events so universal that almost everyone understands it."

And that's perhaps the part of the whole process of becoming a parent that's been most profound for me. As life-changing, and amazing, and terrifying, and rewarding and emotionally overwhelming as having a child has been for our little family, somebody's doing it again right now, and will do it again a minute from now, or has been doing it a minute ago, every moment. For a million years. The biggest, most impressive, most moving, thing that we can probably ever experience as humans is so ubiquitous that it doesn't even register. I love this!

The Wall Of Parenthood

Perhaps part of the reason this delight in being a parent was a bit of a surprise to me is because parenting, just like marriage, has terrible PR. First, the common descriptions of it in media are essentially either endless complaints ("How do we get our kid to eat her vegetables?!") or endless recitations of privilege ("These childless people won't get out of the way of our double-wide SUV-sized stroller!"). Neither of these are particularly compelling examples of a goal I'd want to aspire to. Second, there's an incredibly opaque wall between parents and the childless, even amongst the childless who are married or in a committed relationship and interested in having kids. I know the old stereotype is that people with kids don't socialize with those who don't have them, but I didn't realize it extended all the way to communications overall, where some fundamental concepts about parenthood are simply never shared with those who aren't in the club.

Perhaps most obviously, many narratives about having children are written from some weird "I've just always dreamed of becoming a mother and realizing my true moon goddessness" perspective that sounds insufferable or ridiculous to someone like me who just likes the idea of becoming a dad. I'm not on some vision quest, I'm just raising a boy and building a family and don't want to screw it up too badly.

And finally, simply becoming a parent can be brutally difficult. Outside of depressing, single-topic infertility websites, there's no regular conversation about how extremely common it is to either encounter painful difficulties or complete inabilities to have children. Worse than the pain of that for those who go through it is the inexplicable and brutal habit that we have in our culture of pretty much enforcing and expecting silence from those going through problems with getting or staying pregnant.

All of these factors add up to make the road to parenthood seem impossible and otherworldly. It's as if it were something that either requires superhuman abilities or is the exclusive province of spoiled jerks. I'm really sincerely hoping that there's a way to just be a regular person who has happy kids, and in the true I-tried-this-for-a-week-so-I'm-an-expert-fashion that the Internet loves, thus far that's been the case.

And What About The Internet?

One of the best things about expecting Malcolm was that it was something I hadn't shared with the Internet. It wasn't a secret; All of my friends and family knew fully well that Alaina was expecting, and that he was a boy. But I've given over a large part of my personal identity to the internet representation of myself, and I've enjoyed having something important and wonderful that wasn't up for discussion on Twitter or Facebook. That's not to say I am not enjoying sharing Malcolm's birth with the world here, but just that having some degree of control over his privacy is really satisfying.

In the days since his birth, the sheer outpouring of support, advice, kind thoughts, and unabashed love for my boy that we've gotten online has made me as proud that he'll be part of my online community as I am that he'll be part of his community here in New York City. If it takes a village to raise him, that village is half in NYC and half online, just as I'd hoped. Plus, it's a kick just to see how man people are willing to follow @malcolmdash on Twitter.

But you know, don't worry. I don't think this will become a parenting blog or anything; It'll just now also be informed by the experience I get from being a father.

Our Good Fortune

I've always known that I'm incredibly fortunate. But having a son has reinforced it in a million ways. My boy is our only child, born in a high-tech skyscraper in one of the wealthiest cities that's ever existed, with excellent prenatal care, readily available vaccines and medicines, ample nutritious food, and top-notch medical attention. As a simple point of contrast, my own father was born one of fourteen of his mother's pregnancies that came to term with essentially no prenatal medical care, no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no modern vaccines and what little public health education and resources were available to an independent princely state under colonial British India. I'm the sole generation separating my father from my son, and all I see every day is the evidence of how my life's privilege has already given my son opportunities that even someone as brilliant as my own father can barely imagine.

And recognizing that I could provide the opportunity for my son to become someone who makes a positive difference in the world was one of the main reasons I was excited to become a parent in the first place. Because honestly, in a world with so many injustices, where so many go without the resources they need, I had misgivings for many years about whether it was even a moral decision to have children at all. Let's face it, most people who have children while living in Manhattan are obnoxious, spoiled brats and make their children even worse examples of those traits. I've never been a person who unquestioningly thought "love, marriage, kids" even though those all ended up being choices I've made in my life.

But commitment, I understand. Doing really hard challenging things, I understand. Trying to let go of my ego enough to focus my energies and attentions and ambitions on someone other than myself, I'm starting to understand. My son has already taught me a little bit of how to be a better husband. Like all newborns, he also offers profound lessons in patience and perspective, at any hour of the day or night.

And those are just the first wonderful and wise things that Malcolm's teaching me. I'm just lucky I get to be one of the first people whom he'll teach in his life. I love you, little man.