20 Years Ago Today

One day in the Spring of 1995, just a few months before I finished my undergrad degree a friend in the student computer lab leaned over my machine and said “check this out.” He double-clicked the NCSA Mosaic icon on the desktop and showed me the World Wide Web for the first time.

It wasn’t much to see and I wasn’t impressed. I’d heard so much hype aboutThe Information Superhighway and this was… this was all there was to it? We went through a bunch of random sports news he viewed every day and none of that clicked for me. Sensing my lack of excitement, he continued. We kept looking at random sites until eventually he showed me the David Letterman Top 10 Archive and it just about blew my mind. A college student was posting whatever Top 10 list Dave used on the previous night’s show to a giant long page on their college account. As a comedy nerd I loved Letterman but couldn’t catch every episode of Dave’s show while busy with school, so I found this to be an incredible resource. I was immediately hooked when I realized it was just some kid in some random college publishing whatever they liked and I could find it and enjoy it for free, every day going forward. I was hooked.

A few months later I graduated, but I stayed at the same university to start a Master’s program. I bought my own home computer and spent every spare moment reading the web, while also working in my advisor’s lab analyzing samples. We had a lot of downtime between sample analysis, so I could surf the web while I waited for results. By that Fall, I began a new research project while continuing to devour the web in my free time. Eventually one day I figured it was time for me to be part of this—I wanted build my own web pages instead of just reading them all day. I couched this to my graduate advisor as a way of promoting our work and publications to the greater world. He’d already been dabbling in it and gave me the green light to learn how to publish our research online.


To give you an idea of how long ago this was, I went into a Waldenbooks in a mall to buy a book on HTML. I’d dabbled in Justin Hall’s Publish Yo Self section and other online how-to guides but I knew having everything from soup-to-nuts laid out in a book in front of me would be a better tool to learn from—plus I was a college student used to paying too much for books.

It was Christmas Eve, 1995, and while the store was busy, I scoured the shelves and eventually got my choices down to two books on publishing HTML. One was about writing HTML in Microsoft Word and even then I could tell it sounded like a bad idea. Instead, I grabbed Creating Your Own Netscape Pages by Andy Shafran, which covered all aspects of HTML in plain simple text and the only helper apps mentioned were a text editor called Hotdog and an image editor called Paint Shop Pro. I bought the book.


Being that I was 23 and in college, I didn’t have much money to give gifts while simultaneously being too old to get fun gifts anymore, so I had a fairly boring and uneventful Christmas at home with my parents. That night, I was having trouble getting some sleep. At around 1am, I realized I couldn’t sleepat all, and then an idea hit me like a bolt of lightning. I decided to grab the book I bought a couple days before, and read it. And not just read it, but really read it.

That night I did two unique things I’ve never repeated. I read an entire technology book cover to cover, not skipping a single page or reading anything out of order, and I read it all in one sitting, straight through, overnight.

I sat in front of my computer, opened the book at 1am, and kept reading while occasionally typing things into a text editor. I picked out images and tweaked them in Paint Shop Pro. I learned how font sizes and lists and custom bullets worked, and I wrote down everything I wanted to see on my own page. I typed up a little bio and a list of links to stuff I enjoyed. I found a web page counter and copied the appropriate code to my page. I immediately fell in love with the BLINK and HR tags and I couldn’t get enough of having giant borders on things. I was building a cool page that described what I did and liked to do, and figured the world would be impressed by my eclectic collection of links (kind of like every person in college that used the word eclectic to describe their own music collection, and how impressed everyone was supposed to be by it all).

At 7am on December 26, 1995, as the sun was ready to come up, I was finally finished with both the book and my web page, so I uploaded it to my college web server. I nervously opened up the URL in a browser and much to my surprise it worked, and it looked exactly how I pictured it would (This was one of the very few times something worked the first time). I was stoked. It was incredible—those obscure instructions I wrote down in a text editor actually made that colorful page. Holy shit, I actually made this. I finally went to sleep an hour later.


Tonight in 2015, on the anniversary of that day, I dug through tons of old hard drive backups, and the closest thing I could find was a version of that same first page from roughly 8 months after that night along with most of my personal pages from 1997 right before I bought my own haughey.com domain. The copy of my homepage is linked here:


That morning I knew I’d found something incredible in learning to publish online. While I had finished a couple science degrees and was working on another, I started school as an art major and I really loved how the early Web married art and technology in ways I’d never seen before. For the first time I felt like I was using both sides of my brain simultaneously and I knew building websites would become my thing someday.

A few months later, I considered quitting my Masters program and striking out on my own to build web sites, but instead I stuck it out at school, and finished my thesis and my degree. Unsurprisingly, my first freelance gig post-graduation was building a website for my department and all its faculty, about 50 pages in all over the course of a couple months. My first real full-time job was shortly after, at an environmental engineering firm making copies, pushing pencils, and writing environmental impact reports for cellphone poles being erected all over Southern California. After years of working in a chemistry wet lab analyzing samples, I hated having a desk job doing paperwork and quickly started looking for a web design job instead, which I found at UCLA in December of 1997.


It wasn’t easy to walk away from basically seven years of college education focused on environmental science to instead start working as a web designer. But I felt it in my gut the moment I stepped into the offices of a computer group at UCLA — this was where I belonged and I needed to drop everything to come here. If I didn’t get the job I interviewed for, I would do everything to find another one like it. And it didn’t feel like quitting Science or quitting anything, but instead like moving to a place I was supposed to be all along, opening a new chapter in my life. Thankfully, I got that job and things went well there and at every other job after. Tonight, 20 years later, I can fondly remember that night with the book, and how amazed I was that first time I loaded my very own web page in a browser and it all worked correctly. Ideas from my brain down jotted down into these obscure instructions, which finally rendered on a screen for anyone in the world to see.

Today, I’m glad I got that book and stayed up all night reading it 20 years ago. Here’s to 20, 40, and hopefully 60 more years of doing the exact same thing and feeling similarly amazed by it all.

On Lanyrd, investing, and selling

Lanyrd blew me away from the day it launched. It’s a way to track speakers and attendees of upcoming conferences, but it’s also a social web application. It was the first site/app I used that didn’t require yet another login (it used the then-new Twitter auth). It was the first Twitter-powered app that was instantly useful the moment I connected my accounts. Being a tech nerd that speaks/goes to conferences and follows lots of other tech nerds that speak at/attend conferences, my first post-login screen at Lanyrd was filled with information about dozens of conferences my friends were speaking at & attending that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.

Frankly, I was amazed. I went from hitting the homepage of a new app I’d never heard of to having screens full of useful information about my friends and the industry I work in, in about 30 seconds. I immediately dashed off a message to Simon Willison (one of the co-founders) saying Lanyrd was really impressive and if they ever opened up a round of funding to keep me in mind. Simon and Nat got back to me soon after and there were lots of Skype calls and documents sent to lawyers and in the end I got to become the very first investor in Simon and Nat while also being an early advisor to Lanyrd.

Recently they sent out an email announcing an acquisition by Eventbrite and I was surprised to get the news out of the blue but also happy to hear who was doing the acquiring. If you haven’t used it lately, Eventbrite is a great site for arranging/selling/buying tickets for events. As Eventbrite has grown over the last few years, I’ve realized it plays a larger role in my life. In the beginning, it was just a small events site, like a more formal version of Evite and I would attend local industry events for maybe 20 people. Lately, I’ve used it to pay for $1,000+ conference tickets, woke up early to get tickets for high demand small events that sell out within minutes, while still using it for beer bar meetups for a couple dozen friends. I find the biggest problem with Eventbrite these days is discovery; that unless I happened to catch a single tweet from a friend at 11pm one night announcing an event, I wouldn’t know that event existed.

Usually startup acquisitions are bumpy affairs, where a new owner tacks on a new vision for a product, morphs it into their existing infrastructure and inevitably shuts the old site down. I was happy to hear about an Eventbrite/Lanyrd deal because it’ll be a great addition to both properties. My Lanyrd page will extend from technology conferences to every local event on Eventbrite that friends are throwing and attending. The ginormous list of local events offered to me at Eventbrite will filter into things my friends are organizing and/or attending, through my Lanyrd-powered friends. It’s going to be win-win for both companies.

On Investing

Over the last few years, I’ve put some energy, effort, and money into companies I like and want to see do good in the world. To date, I’ve invested in four things: Kickstarter, Lanyrd, Little Bird, and Original. Mostly, I’m investing in friends, people I’ve known for a while that I believe in and have good ideas that can become big. Part of this also comes from working in the Bay Area during the 2000-era tech boom, and watching my friends build amazing things in the aftermath of the bust. I remember seeing the first Flickr shoebox/chat app and asking Stewart if I could invest a couple thousand bucks I had in savings because I thought this could revolutionize the photography world. There were complicating issues at the time (they’d already taken larger rounds of funding) but I told myself if I ever got a chance to see a new app really early on that I felt had greatness and a great team behind it, I’d do whatever I could to help it along.

So far, it’s been a real waiting game. You see demos from friends, you talk over small friends & family style funding, you exchange lots of paperwork with lawyers, and eventually you help the founders meet other people for larger funding rounds while you often get to help steer the product as an early user/advisor. In four years of investing, this is the first acquisition I’ve been through, so I can see why VC firms place lots of bets on lots of companies, since they probably like to see more action than one sale every four years.

On Selling

I’ve neglected to mention it on my blog or Twitter until now, but last Fall, Paul and I sold Fuelly.com to a guy named Andy that runs a bunch of car sites. He had been following us for years, had run similar sites, and had a much larger community of car enthusiasts that could really push Fuelly to new heights. We quietly announced it on Fuelly recently and Andy has the time/energy (that we didn’t) to tackle loads of new features for the site. They recently bought and integrated a popular iPhone app for Fuelly and the upcoming APIs will accomplish a lot of the ideas we hoped to get to someday.

Not all acquisitions end with horror stories from “our incredible journey“, sometimes a person or company comes along that is doing something similar to what you’re doing and offers to take over and build up all the things you dreamed about, without losing the original purpose for the site and service. I think that’s the case for both Lanyrd and Fuelly today.

Targeted Email Attacks

A MetaFilter member has told some wild stories in the past about the presence of malware attacks at their place of work, and is now compiling them all on a new blog called Targeted Email Attacks.

Screen shot 2011-03-01 at 2.21.14 PM

Before you click away, I want to explain how crazy this story is. The person that runs the blog works at a small non-profit that examines US-Asia policies and it’s in the Washington DC area. In terms of government targets, they’re pretty small potatoes, but if you browse the blog entries know that some group is not only targeting this small NGO by sending them virus-laden attachments but they often impersonate coworkers when attempting to get people to install malicious software (that would likely contain things like keyloggers and various methods of reporting home and giving attackers a way to get into this NGO’s network and download data).

This isn’t your garden variety windows virus junk going out to your entire address book on an infected system, this is straight-up spy-type shit, but the shocking thing to me is that someone is specifically targeting a tiny little non-profit and repeatedly doing some really crazy stuff like sending fake meeting minutes from the blog author’s own boss, and if you get an email like that right after a real meeting at work, I think even I would fall for such a thing.

The crazy part is when you realize it is someone’s (or many someones) job to know everything about a tiny group in Washington and to try again and again to trick them into exploiting their computers. Now imagine if you worked at somewhere like the Pentagon or a larger, more visible NGO that was in charge of lots more data and had lots more employees. I can’t imagine the amount of training required to show people how not to fall for these very believable tricks.

If you thought the world of spying was over when the Cold War ended, it certainly looks like it changed gears a bit and simply moved more to the online world.

This is how Social Media really works


New swings!, originally uploaded by mathowie.

Earlier this month, my wife and I were thinking of what to get our daughter for her upcoming fourth birthday, and upgrading her small plastic swingset that she was out growing was high on our list. I had started scouting around the web trying to find companies that did custom playground stuff that wasn't just huge because we don't have a ton of room in our yard. Everyone thinks bigger is better, but I was looking for smarter, for small spaces.

A few days later I'm reading RSS feeds in Google Reader, which consists mostly of friends and writers I admire. Lilly from Girlhacker posted a great entry about the Obamas getting a swingset playground (March 10th entry) for their kids to have a somewhat normal childhood, and it was the first playset at the White House since the Kennedy family. The post also paints the awesome mental image of an ex-military man on some swings and testing out slides for the Obamas. Lilly does the classic blogging thing that in addition to pointing to the news story she found out about it, she dug up the manufacturer of the swingsets and a few archival photos.

I visited the manufacturer's site, ordered a catalog, and found out I had a local seller. The local seller has a nice big lot where they encourage anyone in Portland to come down and try everything out (yes, including adults, the sets are heavy duty), so we did just that. A few days of figuring out what would fit, and we ordered the set, which got delivered and installed today, just a week after buying it.

I mention this entire story because there are thousands of people all over twitter and blogs that think throwing thousands of dollars at people that describe themselves as a "marketing guru" is the way to increase their company sales. I'm here to say I think that may very well be a waste of money, time, and energy. The Rainbow company makes awesome stuff, has a great website (pretty damn slick all-CSS one at that), and helpful catalog materials (both online and off). They got on my radar when a friend dug up their details for a blog post, in a way no marketing budget could influence.

So maybe instead of getting your company on twitter, paying marketers to mention you are on twitter, and paying people to blog about your company, forget all that and just make awesome stuff that gets people excited about your products, hire people that represent the company well, and when your stuff is so awesome that friends share it with other friends, you may not even need "social media marketing" after all.

The unfortunate mainstreaming of internet douchebaggery

Today someone spammed MetaFilter on behalf of Conde Nast publications, and it pissed me off way more than the average occasional spammy self-promoter on MeFi. We have a strict rule at MeFi (since there's no editorial vetting upfront) that you can't post about your own stuff, you have to make posts to interesting random stuff you found on your own. Unfortunately, that doesn't matter to the douchebags intent on ruining the web for everyone else with search engine gaming, as long as they benefit their clients, so we end up having to delete these keyword-laden posts that feature over the top fake testimonials about sites they "found" when they really worked for them.

What pissed me off today was seeing a normally reputable outfit like Conde Nast stooping to hiring a dodgy firm that employs such lame spammy activities. I know the response from Conde Nast or the spammy SEO company will be the same I've heard a thousand times: "It was one rogue employee" or "We didn't know the firm would employ such tactics." I heard the same thing when the Times (UK) was found spamming social sites earlier this year.

The point that seemed to be lost in the Times story was that a cornerstone of journalism that had been publishing for hundreds of years would stoop to such lame-brained antics. You'd think that someone higher up at a place like that would think maybe getting a couple percent more advertising revenue by ethically shady means wasn't worth jeopardizing the reputation or position of a 223 year old newspaper — that institutions with a long-term vision shouldn't be interested in a quick buck by any means possible.

It's a bummer to see Conde Nast hiring someone to "optimize" search engines for them (where "optimize" means spam the web and generally make social sites and tools less useful for everyone in the hopes they do better for certain key search phrases) but given the way the economy is going and where it is headed, I suspect we'll see a lot more big name outfits and longstanding institutions making these same mistakes and resorting to problematic methods of increasing their bottom line, and frankly it sucks for everyone involved. It sucks for anyone using the web and wanting decent honest search results based on real quality of information (not just the information promoted by self-interested parties). It sucks to see industry leaders with dozens or even hundreds of years of successful business think this is a sensible approach to the web. Finally, it sucks to see some chucklehead get paid to spam websites in ways that are becoming so normal that people think this is something every business should do.

Ads good! No ads better!

If you’ve followed this site for a few years, you probably saw my old essays introducing Google’s Adsense to the blogging public and that time I said ads in RSS were a no-no. Today I wrote an extensive update on the same subject over on my new blog: How ads really work (superfans and noobs). I basically lay out everything I’ve learned from hosting ads for the past five years including some data from my own sites and those of several friends.

Digg revolt

Pretty interesting community story taking place on Digg today (as much as I can gather, after Andre showed me):

  • user makes a post on digg linking to the encryption key that is used to crack HD DVD protection
  • story is pulled, user is banned, then story goes up about banning user (people speculate it’s because HD DVD was an advertiser) update: Ed Felten has a good post about general efforts to take all references to the key off the web
  • Two to three thousand people get annoyed/pissed, and start posting and digging all sorts of stories that mention the encryption key in seemingly innocuous ways.
  • This continues for the rest of the day, with the entire front page of the site filled with stories leaking the crack

It’s always fascinating when a community (or a country, or a religion, or a group of any size) decides to spontaneously revolt, and it’s even more interesting when it happens in such a short period of time in a distributed medium like the internet. There are loads of stories like this on other sites and in multiplayer online games but I’ve never seen it happen on digg before. I’m curious how many people it took to come up with a reaction and the idea to post the key in other ways — I can see a general mob voting mentality would be easy to gather steam once the posts were up since many people wanted a way to vent their frustration — but I wonder if it was just a dozen or two users that started creating the posts that quickly got to the front page. And finally, what was their method of communication? In-site messaging? IM?

Anyway, I’m certainly a late comer to this story but I’d love to see a wrap-up of it several days from now, when all the details can be figured out.

What the hell, old school bloggers?

On some random blog, I found a link to this book “Founders at Work“, a book interviewing the founders of tech companies. The person mentioned Caterina talks about Flickr in it, among big famous 70s and 80s software geniuses so I ordered it thinking it’d be a history book about a bunch of classic Silicon Valley companies with maybe a recent one like Flickr thrown in there.

It just showed up and I can’t believe how many recent companies are in it (del.icio.us, Blogger, Six Apart, 37Signals, etc) but I didn’t hear about this book from any of the long-term bloggers that are part of it. C’mon Ev, Mena, Jason, and others! I read your blogs daily, and would have ordered this book weeks ago if I knew it existed.

Heifer International

I’ve long been a fan of Heifer International and suggested it to others as a charity, but I never read the small print. Philip Greenspun and Michael Stillwell did and both noticed their marketing is fairly misleading — you’re not really buying a water buffalo or a cow, but simply contributing to a general fund that someday may result in animals getting to families. It’s not entirely dishonest but it sure feels like something different than what their site describes when you give money.