March 31, 2013

Thoughts on the 10-year Anniversary of Interesting Thing of the Day

Joe Kissell ponders the past and present

Ten years ago, in April 2003, I started a little site I called “Joe Kissell’s Interesting Thing of the Day.” I’d thought up the idea a few years earlier on a trip to Europe, but it wasn’t until I got laid off from my job that I had enough time on my hands to do the Web design, programming, and writing needed to bring the site to life. I didn’t have a business plan, or any other sort of plan, when I created Interesting Thing of the Day. I just thought I’d write a little story every day about something I considered interesting, and somehow or other the site would eventually bring in some money.

That was an exciting time. There were no content management systems with the features I needed, so I taught myself PHP and built the whole site from scratch. I had great fun writing articles that combined personal reflection with well-researched exposition. It was the biggest and most significant thing I’d ever made on my own, and I was proud of it. But I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was getting myself into, and if I had, I might have done something altogether saner.

Keep in mind that 2003 was a long, long time ago in Internet years. Most people had never heard of blogging, the term “podcasting” hadn’t been coined yet, WordPress and Google AdSense were still under development, Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist, and the iPhone was still years away. So, although many of the decisions I made back then seem quaint or even silly today, I didn’t have much of a precedent to build on, and I learned by doing.

At its peak, Interesting Thing of the Day had well over 100,000 regular readers. For a little while—once I figured out how online advertising worked—the site was producing enough income that I had visions of being able to turn it into a full-time job. But most of the time, the work required to run the site was far out of proportion to the reward. I couldn’t sustain the effort needed to keep the site popular, and even in its heyday, it didn’t come close to paying all the bills. So a cycle developed: I’d work hard on the site for a while, get burned out, go on a hiatus, get inspired, refresh the site with new material and design, work hard for several more months or a year, and then get burned out all over again.

Eventually I made the only rational choice, which was to devote my time to what did bring in reliable income—writing books and magazine articles on technical topics. My wife, Morgen, and I moved to France in 2007, and although we published a few more Interesting Thing of the Day articles while there, our hearts weren’t in it. The last new article was written in 2008, and ever since then, the site has been on life support, recycling old articles but clearly showing its age. Even so, lots of people continued to read and enjoy Interesting Thing of the Day. Every time someone wrote to ask when the site would be back up and running with new material, I replied that I wanted very much to resurrect the site yet again, and hoped one day to do so, but couldn’t promise when.

Toward the end of 2012, as we were preparing to move back to the United States, I realized the site’s 10th anniversary was coming up. So I developed an elaborate plan to finally bring it back with all the modern bells and whistles. I thought the ten-year mark would be a great time to relaunch the site and take it in an entirely new direction. It was going to have been great.

Alas, the time needed to revivify Interesting Thing of the Day never materialized. And its current state isn’t great. Many of the over 400 articles on the site are woefully outdated. Lots of links are broken. The design doesn’t work well on mobile devices. The site’s code is a jumble of spaghetti, held together with chewing gum and baling wire. The server crashes every week or two, seemingly just to relieve the tedium.

My best guess is that it would take about four months of full-time work to get to the point where Interesting Thing of the Day could conceivably make a comeback—but I don’t have four extra months, or even four days, nor can I afford to pay someone else for that amount of work. Even if I could, the basic challenge would remain: finding a way to make the site financially self-sustaining over the long run. I wish I could crack that nut, but after ten years, I have my doubts.

Morgen and I have brainstormed endlessly about this problem, and lots of other people have made suggestions too. That idea you’re thinking of right now—the one that starts with the words “Why don’t you just…”? Yeah, we thought about that. I mean, obviously! And you know what? We’re still thinking. Maybe this will be the year the planets align. Maybe a deep-pocketed patron will appear out of the blue. Or maybe the imminent demise of Google Reader will vaporize our remaining readership and that’ll be that. I don’t know, but until I do, I’ll keep hoping, and the site—such as it is—will stick around.

Thank you for reading Interesting Thing of the Day, Extra Special Thanks if you’ve read this whole post, and Mega Thanks to those who have written in to say nice things about the site. The kind and encouraging messages I’ve received from enthusiastic readers over the years have made all the difference in the world, and I deeply appreciate everyone who has taken the time to say they liked something they read here.

More Information about Thoughts on the 10-year Anniversary of Interesting Thing of the Day…

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