Today is my last day as site lead at Lifehacker, so I’m taking off my distanced reporter hat to get all mushy, personal, and behind-the-scenes on you. Come in and grab a seat.
(Note: This posts breaks two of our biggest editorial edicts, specifically, the “keep it short and sweet” rule and “it’s not about you” rule. You’ve been warned!)
The idea to do Lifehacker hatched back in late 2004, a riff on the notion of “life hacks” that technologist Danny O’Brien cooked up earlier that year. Starting a web site about life hacks wasn’t an original undertaking; Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders was first. In fact, without Danny and Merlin, Lifehacker would have never happened. I owe both of these guys a huge debt of gratitude for their articulation of a concept that I literally launched a writing career upon.
But back to late 2004.
Throughout November and December, my colleagues at Gawker Media and I designed the personality behind Lifehacker, the person who would become the site’s mascot. It would be a “she,” of course, because I am. The female take on tech would define the voice of the site, but subtly, without any pink “you go girl” crap—just straight talk from someone helpful and knowledgeable but not pandering, someone focused not on the shiny but on the useful, someone brisk and futuristic. We imagined her as a spaceship flight attendant or pilot of sorts. (One of the first sketches of that early conception of our gal is on the right.) Our design team created the final Lifehacker mascot based on this persona. “What colour should the site theme be?” our designers asked. I’d just read a book called Opening the Xbox, which described how Microsoft developed the popular console, including their colour choices. “Green,” I said. “People associate it with technology.”
On January 31st of 2005 the site went public. My starting posts were stiff, mostly because I was nervous and scared. I’d been blogging since 2001, but my personal site got about 10 hits on a big day, and five of those would be from my brother. Having all the eyes that a Gawker blog launch drew on me was terrifying. That day, out of necessity, I started growing the thick skin anyone who has any exposure on the intertubes requires to stay sane. (In the beginning, that growth process didn’t happen as quickly as I needed, and a troll could ruin my weekend. Today, I can chuckle in the face of the worst kind of online name-calling you can imagine.)
For the first eight months of Lifehacker’s existence, there was no way for readers to comment on posts. I pumped out a dozen posts per weekday on my own. I personally responded to every single message in the mounting pile of email that accumulated in our inbox. No matter how many productivity tricks I used, that just didn’t scale. When we finally brought on three more bloggers to join me that fall, Lifehacker shifted from being less of a solo blog and more of a magazine with an editorial staff. We turned on approval-only comments that October, and that’s when the real fun began.
Here’s what Lifehacker looked like back then. (Click to enlarge.)
My initial plan was to try this crazy “pro blogger thing” out for a year and then go back to being a web developer. But I fell in love with the brand, our readership, and my co-bloggers. I was high on that transcendent, effortless momentum that comes with work you love so much it feels like play, and it zipped me past the one, two, and three year marks. Four years and 20,000 posts later, I’m still pinching myself about the opportunities this place opened up for me.
Because of Lifehacker, I’ve published two editions of a best-selling tech book, which has been translated into two languages. I’ve been written about in books and magazines, and I’ve written for magazines and contributed to others’ books. I released a series of Firefox extensions, one of which made it onto Mozilla’s official recommended add-on list. I’ve done radio and newspaper interviews and TV appearance, spoken at conferences around the world, visited the campuses of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, been asked for my autograph, gotten awards, been recognised by some of my idols, met some of the the smartest minds in tech, and built up an online audience of over one million unique daily readers.
For someone with no prior professional writing experience, that’s just nuts. Behold the power of the internet.
It wasn’t always an easy road, though. Along the way I learned many lessons the hard way, like how to handle irate netizens and how to extract the constructive bits out of painful criticism. I learned how much room for improvement there really is for me in the reading and writing department. I got schooled, publicly, by people smarter and more experienced. Those days were rough. There were tears. In my worst moments of self-doubt, I felt like I was in way over my head, that I was a fraud. I learned a whole lot about my strengths, and a whole lot more about my shortcomings. I was always comfortable pushing 1’s and 0’s around, but managing a staff of humans who were spread across the country was a huge challenge. (To all the bloggers, interns, and copy editors who have worked for me: thanks for putting up with my flailings.)
Still, on most days, I was having a ball.
During my tenure as site lead, Lifehacker started at 0 and grew to 33 million pageviews a month. Like most web sites, we measure our performance by our traffic charts. But that’s not the true indicator of Lifehacker’s success. What I’m most proud of at this site is the high level of goodwill and useful knowledge that passes between the people who read and write here. We editors have always tried to be positive and helpful to set an example for readers. It worked. Compare any comment thread at Lifehacker to a similar one at any other tech site, and you’ll see the difference is the knowledge and the generosity of most of the discourse. It’s the conversations that make Lifehacker magical. While lots of web site editorial tears stuff to pieces, my goal with Lifehacker was to help our readers out, make their day a little easier.
We didn’t hit the mark on every post, but we were always trying.
As the years passed, Lifehacker became my online alter ego, my professional identity, my work and my play. I happily gave up time I’d normally spend on creative side projects to the site, because it was my primary outlet for the two things I love most: software and writing. But as our staff and audience grew, the news chase intensified, and management duties piled up. I started writing and coding less and air traffic-controlling, copy-editing, budgeting, doing PR, and assigning stories to my writers more. While that all has been great experience I am lucky to have under my belt, it’s time for me to recalibrate how I’m spending my days. As someone put well, it’s time to mitigate the urgent to focus on the important.
The bottom line is this: for someone who loves making things on the web, spending 100% of the time blogging about what other people are making is simply untenable.
So as of today, Adam is Lifehacker US’s new lead editor. He’s going to do a kickass job. I’m not riding off into the sunset never to be seen again, either. While Adam will be running the show on a daily, I get to go back to making things, noodling with software, and writing about it. After I take a couple of weeks off, I’ll be back here in February publishing a weekly feature series that will detail my latest coding projects, productivity revelations, and favourite life hacks and software tricks. I cannot wait.
But before I start my morph from daily lead editor to weekly feature writer, I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for reading this. Thank you for making Lifehacker such a special place. Thank you for giving me the coolest job on the internet. Thank you for putting up with our growing pains and missteps. I’ve loved reading and writing every word here, and I’ll always feel so lucky to have been part of Lifehacker’s beginnings.
Having your time and attention has always been, and continues to be, a privilege and an honour.
See you next month.