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Wednesday, February 2, 2005

John Battelle Interviewed

John Battelle is the author behind the Searchblog, and he’s now active finishing his upcoming book The Search. I sent him my questions via email.

You were one of the co-founders of Wired. What is your relation with Wired now?

We’re just friends. I still read the magazine and delight in it, and many of my colleagues and friends work there or write for the magazine.

And what is your relation to BoingBoing, that one blog appearing in every top 10 list?

I am the “band manager” – meaning I manage the band’s revenue, expenses, and help with strategy and policy.

Speaking of BoingBoing, I saw the addition of more “saucy ads” to the right side, the kind of ads that might make some wary to open this at work. Are you guys trying out different approaches at the moment to take BoingBoing to a more commercial level, and is the current site not paying off in those terms?

We accept sponsorships from companies that we think are in tune with our audience. Turns out, Suicide Girls and Blowfish are racy, sure, but our audience is younger men, generally, so it works. We’re really happy with the support of our sponsors, we have a wide array, but certainly the eye is drawn to the pretty women. But we have A&E, Turner Networks, Six Apart, O’Reilly, tons of clothing companies, and many others as past or present sponsors.

What made you start your searchblog? Were you surprised by what it did for you?

I started it as a way to catalyze a conversation between myself and what I hoped would be a small but robust community of folks in the search industry, mainly to help me research and ponder the book i am writing. I was stunned when I realized that it got to more than 50K readers.

Does writing your blog ever get in the way of writing your book The Search?

Not really. I find the blog is a great way to test ideas and keep in touch with the core story of the book.

What would you say are the most fundamental differences writing for the two worlds, weblog and book?

What I call web expressed writing. That kind of writing is really a new form of expression – and it’s nuanced in ways that book authoring is not. Of course, book authoring is nuanced in ways web authoring is any case, I write about this on my site.

Dan Gillmor while writing “We the Media” made his book a very open process from the beginning, and published drafts of it and an early version of the introduction on his blog. How do you feel your blog readers helped shape your book, and did you ever ponder publishing full parts of your book on your blog?

Dan was smart enough to get a deal with his publisher which allowed him to do what he did. I have a more traditional publisher and while I think they’d be open to it, as a first time author with a big NY based publisher, I didn’t push the idea. My book is a bit different than Dan’s in a few respects. First, I am reporting on some things which may well be considered “news” – in other words, if I post them on my site as part of a draft, they’d lose the quality publishers love – that of being first with some information or another. I’m not saying Dan’s book does not have anything new, far from it, but I am writing a narrative that is driven by reporting that in many cases has not been done before, and my publisher understandably wanted to save the publication of that for the book itself. Also, in some cases I need to protect sources and information until I feel the book is really finished.

Now, that said, I have often published sketches of stuff on my site that end up as more refined thinking in the book itself. In that respect the blog has been totally invaluable as a conversation of sorts around ideas and stories, and as a communal notepad as the book developed. Anything I say that might seem smart in the book can be traced, I am sure, to the conversations I had with readers through the blog.

Both Cory Doctorow and Dan Gillmor have licensed their books under a Creative Commons “public domain” license in the past. What do you think of this, and would it be viable for you too?

I think it’s great. I wish I had negotiated it into my first book, and hope to do it post facto. I simply was not up to speed on this stuff when I was selling the first book, in early 2003.

Just curious, were you happy about your appearance on “60 Minutes" in terms of what you said coming through? I often find TV shows give stories a much stronger “spin” because they don’t have to fear direct comments like in blogspace, nor do they have the masses of highly specialized recipients (e.g. in our search blogs, we can be sure 70% actually are search experts). What’s your opinion on that?

I learned a long time ago not to expect much from television experiences in terms of controlling the tack they take. In other words, hope to not look the fool, and be happy if you come off as reasonably intelligent sounding. The medium does not lend itself to expository thinking. So in that respect, yes I was happy. Did I wish they would have picked other “sound bites"? Yes, for sure. But again, I simply can’t second guess what they chose.

In the beginning it looked like your main focus for The Search was the “database of intentions.” Is that still the main focus through-out the book?

It’s moved. The Database of Intentions is a key framing element that I set up in the beginning, and ping throughout, but it’s not much of a narrative driver. You need people, stories, companies to drive narratives, and I use that throughout the bulk of the book. Google has three chapters, Overture one, AltaVista, Yahoo...etc.

When’s the book coming out? Do you already plan your next book?

Galleys should be out in late Spring. I think my publisher is waiting for full publication till after summer. As for the next one, I am noodling some ideas, but so far, no! I have to finish this one first!

Next to search, what do you feel are the most interesting topics in information technology today? Did you ever feel like starting another blog covering one of them?

There are so many it’s hard to say. Yes, I have thought a lot about the future of blogs and stuff I might do next. Expect to hear more once I am finished with the book project!

I’m sure your opinion on Google changed after getting inside access in researching your book. How “inside” was your access to the Googleplex, and what changed most in your opinion of Google?

Well, they told me I’m the only author they are working with, so I guess that’s pretty inside...I’ve been there a lot, but Google still holds its cards pretty close. My opinion is far more nuanced than it was going in – after talking to dozens of staffers, it can’t be anything but.

Where do you think Google will be a decade from now?

Very difficult question, and there are any number of scenarios that are reasonable. Ten years is a very long time. Probably beyond my ability to wager a guess!

Ok, so where do you see Google in 2006?

By 2006 Google could possibly have experienced its first major disappointment, recall Amazon and its bonds issue, or Yahoo and its lack of direction. Given how the company has matured in the past year or so, it will weather it fine, but I’d wager that the company will be just coming out of a mild funk.


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