Letter to Gino Lee

Dear Gino,

I’d hoped the news was untrue. Surely it was unbelievable: how could you die? You were only forty-nine. You are only forty-nine–I’ll keep using the present tense. You’re still alive to me.

I have vivid memories of you from over ten years ago. There you are, apparently one of the last smokers in California, cupping a cigarette in your hand, trying to keep the wind tunnel outside the Metrius office on Brannan Street from killing your smoke, your characteristic, urbane, thin-man’s slouch a welcome profile in those garish, clumsy, overconfident, dot-com boom years. I remember your voice, deliberate, drawling, as you think aloud, treating every workday as one big Harvard grad seminar. I love the cultivated, wry tone of your e-mails and chat messages, proof that a keyboard doesn’t enforce simplistic language. Your one-line musing about the impact of the Rapture on the scrapbooking industry makes me laugh to this day.

I was too coarse to appreciate that we should’ve taken all the time in the world to talk, deadlines be damned. I know we disagreed when you seemed to think my staying late at the office was so that we could discuss Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One . I profited from our acquaintance all the same.

From you I’ve learned that so much of our world can be made appealing. Your attitude towards the ugly and poorly designed isn’t snobbish condemnation, but gracious bewilderment: why use bad things? Why make them? You handled fountain pens in a world of dry erase markers.

But I and everybody saddened by this news have to let you go today, arm-in-arm with Miss Thanatogenous. I promise a longer conversation next time.


So long, Vox.com

We were so proud. It was through such a vale of tears that we, the engineering group at Six Apart, traveled to get to that wonderful point at which Vox.com, the world’s niftiest hosted blogging service (prove to me it wasn’t), went live.

All those hours of mandatory overtime. All those foosball games and trips to the office coffeemaker. All that back-and-forth between the Perl dudes, the JavaScript kids, the CSS ladies, and the visual design goddesses. All those fake blog posts made on the testing server (weary of typing “lorem ipsum,” I resorted to scraping content from Hungarian Wikipedia pages, which provided nice long strings to test word-wrap in layouts). All, it seems now, for naught.

Vox.com will go offline on Sept. 30, 2010. It had been withering for years; I know my posts to my own Vox blog dropped off in frequency around 2008. When I did post, most of the comments I received were obvious spam, not filtered by the server (of all the great ideas we put into this product, why not something like Akismet?) What’s left of Vox now seems like one of those grotesque, abandoned amusement parks you’ll see in dystopian sci-fi movies: a brightly colored playground that somehow feels menacing. Are those zombies hiding behind the Ferris wheel?

Vox-er Patty Mitchell captures how this apparently necessary closing is more than releasing a domain name:

The loss is one of community and connection. That was the magic of Vox. The way this platform used to make it so easy to post with different privacy levels and to share our lives as we chose with friends, families and even…gasp!…strangers. The magic was in how trust was built and how sometimes those “strangers” became our real friends over the course of time and circumstances.

Why this? How could such an easy-to-use, attractive, AJAX-charged product not contend successfully with old-style clunkers like Blogspot and WordPress?

Chris Balz, one of Vox’s JavaScript maestros, has this insight:

Vox finds its home with the NPR set and similar demographics. Yet with a shrinking middle class, the audience for these types of ventures is smaller and not as spendy. So “social” went almost wholly to brief “status” messages and not to Vox’s social blogging.

In both Patty’s and Chris’s remarks are hints of what I think the real problem for Vox was. That problem was the rapid expansion of Facebook’s popularity outside its original niche user population of affluent college students. When we were building Vox, the refrain seemed to be, “let’s build a blogging service for grown-ups.” And–I don’t just believe, I know–we succeeded. For a time. For a rather short time…until the Baby Boomers, the Gen Xers, the parents of Millennials all turned to Facebook, despite that service’s apparent disdain for such uncool olds.

I remember two phone conversations I had in August 2005. One was with an engineering manager desperate to hire a front-end dev. The product was unfamiliar but intriguing to me, and I already knew one of the engineers. Everything sounded great except the commute–it would’ve taken me two or even three hours’ travel each way. Sorry, no dice. So I was more enthusiastic about my second phone call, to a recruiter for a blogging software company. I wouldn’t know anybody there, and the product was not fully defined, but the commute was reasonable. I took that project.

Yes, the first conversation was with Facebook, and my second, with Six Apart, about Vox. I’ve asked myself, “What if…?” ever since.