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The Legacy of Eve Andersson

By adamba in Culture
Tue May 29, 2001 at 12:12:21 PM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

My name is Adam, and I used to have a thing with a girl called Eve.

It was the summer of 1995, and I was working at a Big Software Corporation, which we shall call BSC. I was working on a web browser for a soon-to-be-canceled interactive television project, which gave me the privilege of direct Internet access from my office, a rarity in those days at BSC. While cruising around the still-nascent World Wide Web, I discovered the website of a Caltech grad student named Eve Andersson. Eve claimed at times to be a native of the planet Gragel in the solar system Boobaloo, but at other times she appeared to be a normal female, obsessed with the number pi and judged by her collective readers to be quite attractive (if you could look past the green skin and antennae).

Why am I telling you this? Because Eve's site, with its first-person, unedited musings, was a very early version of what today would be called a weblog, or blog.

Like most great relationships, ours got sticky in a hurry. I never met Eve in person (a fact that remains true today). This may have had something to do with my being married (another fact that remains true today, possibly not by coincidence). But I got to know her sort-of well through her web pages, which featured puzzles, stories, links to other websites, and an ongoing, semi-regular diary she dubbed the E-Files. I, along with other readers, returned to her site on at least a daily basis, hoping for some new nugget of wisdom, or failing that, an addition to the list she kept of pi (to five decimal places) in as many different languages as possible.

Nowadays blogs are sprouting up everywhere and generating no shortage of hype. Consider this recent article, which states, "While no one is really sure where this is all heading, my hunch is that blogging represents Ground Zero of the personal Webcasting revolution. Weblogging will drive a powerful new form of amateur journalism as millions of Net users -- young people especially -- take on the role of columnist, reporter, analyst and publisher while fashioning their own personal broadcasting networks. It won't happen overnight, and we're now seeing only version 1.0, but just wait a few years when broadband and multimedia arrive in a big way."

Some of the most vocal proponents of blogs are the crew of business writers mentioned in that article. They constitute, for better or worse, the business blog royalty of the moment.

As such, they are apt to make oracular pronouncements about the import of blogs. Consider this from Paul Andrews, a certified member of the club (as evidenced by the fact that he links to all the others, and they all link to him): "We do not yet even know the models that will determine future journalism on the Internet. If history is any example, they will consist of concepts we have not even thought of yet."

Let me just throw out a crazy idea: the models that determine future journalism on the Internet are going to be a whole lot like the models that determined past journalism not on the Internet.

If your blog happens to be one of the most read and linked-to ones around, it is naturally tempting to think that blogs are going to change the world. Any fad that has elevated you to its center is going to look might nice from your perspective, and it is easy to rationalize why things will continue indefinitely.

But the sad truth is that for both the remembered past, and the foreseeable future, there are two kinds of information out there: information that has been "selected" (for lack of a better word), and information that hasn't.

Selected information means that somebody other than the generator of the information has made an assessment of it and decided that it is worth publicizing it. Often this involves some cost on the part of the selector, but that isn't required. Most information you get nowadays is selected in this way. Television shows, newspapers, magazines, books, and radio are all full of selected information.

There are exceptions: public access shows on television, self-published books, etc. And these are great: the fact that information is selected also means that its distribution is controlled by a few, and that is a bad thing in general.

The means of control have previously been financial, because there was usually too much cost involved in starting up a magazine or a radio station for everyone to do it. Now the Internet has arrived and suddenly the cost barrier to entry has essentially disappeared. Anyone really can put information on the Web and it is easy to access as CNN's website. This is great stuff and an unalloyed good.

But it doesn't mean that all these websites are going to attract the readership of CNN's site. If you look at outlets for unselected information, you discover that in order to retain a following, they need to start selecting their information. Anyone can put on a public access show, but the ones that people actually watch regularly are the ones where they begin to establish trust that the originator of the show is going to give them something worthwhile to watch every week. Some people who start out self-publishing their own book turn into a small press, but they won't succeed unless their readers can trust them to publish books that they consider worth reading.

Those are the unusual cases. Most public access shows have essentially zero viewers. Most self-published books fade away quickly.

So let's get back to Eve Andersson for a second. I read her site, as opposed to the dozens or whatever others that existed back then, because I found it interesting. When she linked to a site, I usually liked it. When she wrote a story about herself, I enjoyed reading it. She was doing a good job of selecting information for me, and I rewarded her by sticking to her site.

Back then you had to be able to write pure HTML to put up a site like that. With modern blogging has come authoring tools that free you from that restriction. So is this the huge breakthrough that we've been waiting for since 1993? Of course not. The basic facts remain unchanged: information in a blog is non-selected information, non-selected information has always been around, and it is never going to replace selected information. You can put out all the non-selected information you want, by whatever means you want, and most of it will be ignored. And if you care about sustainable business models, you sure as heck aren't going to build one with non-selected information.

That doesn't mean that some blogs won't gather a loyal following. But the ones that do will be ones that only post information selectively, so that they gather the trust of their audience that the time investment is worth it. A blog that posts Polish haiku one day and fly-fishing secrets the next isn't going to get much traction. A successful blog does not mean that non-selected information is suddenly breaking free: it just means that one more source of selected information has been certified as trustworthy by the general public.

Consider a personal example of mine. After leaving the aforementioned BSC, I wrote a book about my time there. I was unable to find a publisher, so I published it with a print-on-demand publisher. Print-on-demand publishers don't do advance print runs: they print single books when they are ordered. As a result, they have few up-front costs, which allow most of them to have few editorial standards and leads to them being equated (correctly) with self-publishing. Almost all major book reviewers and bookstores have a policy of ignoring self-published books, and my book was duly ignored.

Still I had received some favorable comments from my few readers, and I figured some of the business bloggers would be interested in at least mentioning my book on their blog.

So I fired off a few emails, to no avail. One blogger in particular, who I will call Bob the Blogger, studiously ignored my emails about my book while at the same time responding to other emails I sent.

From reading his blog, I gathered that Bob was somewhat obsessed with BSC. He had also mentioned on his blog that he had read another book that someone had written about BSC, for purposes of providing a cover blurb. Writing blurbs is not a paying gig: all you get is the acknowledgement that someone considers you worthy of providing a blurb. This other book was being published by a well-known publisher, so being asked to blurb it was a good sign that Bob had "arrived" and was respected by the traditional publishing industry. Bob spoke highly of this other book, although he was not going to reveal the title until it was published.

So, Bob was happy to blurb a book from a big publisher, and wouldn't even acknowledge the existence my book about the same company. Now, how does this indicate that information is suddenly going to flow from a million new sources? Easy: it doesn't. Bob, like most people, likes his information to be selected for him, and had no use for my non-selected book. Which is of course his privilege. But remember that Bob's blog, like any blog, is self-published also. Through years of work, it has gained respect and he is now considered a reliable selecter of information, enough that traditional publishers are asking for his imprimatur on their books. The system works great for Bob, but that doesn't mean it is going to work great for most people.

In fact Bob is somewhat of an exception among the business bloggers. Most of them got their respectability through traditional media, and are now carrying that over into blogging. Bob is like the Kevin Martin of blogging, a beacon of hope that it is possible to gain acclaim almost purely through blogging, rather than through traditional media. He is the rare exception, however, not the rule.

When Eve was writing her proto-blog, she didn't spend any time talking about how cool it was and how it was going to revolutionize anything. She just wrote what she wrote, and we all read it. I miss her.

- adam

P.S. To my surprise, I discovered that Eve's site is still around, and Eve is also still around, having co-founded an open-source enterprise software company.

P.P.S. Obscure reference explained: Kevin Martin is a curler from Alberta. Most "professional" curlers need other jobs to pay the rent (many are golf pros for some reason). Martin, however, runs a curling supply store and is therefore one of the few curlers to earn a living from it.


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Related Links
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o still around [2]
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o curler
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o Also by adamba

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The Legacy of Eve Andersson | 18 comments (9 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
I met Eve too... (4.00 / 2) (#2)
by fury on Sun May 27, 2001 at 01:50:28 AM EST

I met Eve in 1997 at a webfolk party in SoMa. She was drunk off her ass, but could still recite Pi as far as anyone cared for her to (not that anyone could refute it after 8 or 9 digits).

She made a real impression and I had an instant crush. I haven't talked to her since (boy was she a cutie) but I have looked her up online a couple times. Her page at Caltech is horribly out of date.

She inspired me to try to memorize pi myself, and I'm happy to have met her.

I can't think of anyone I've met at a party who's left such an impression.

Wherever you are Eve, here's to you!

Kevin Fox - fury.com

lucky you (5.00 / 1) (#17)
by BlueOregon on Wed May 30, 2001 at 01:59:17 AM EST

I didn't have the 'honor', so to speak of actually meeting Eve in person; I just went to school down the road from her in SoCal; back when "Ask Eve" was updated frequently, I visited her site on a regular basis. And, I guess to correct the poster of the story: CalTech was undergrad, Berkeley for the Masters (if I'm not mistaken).

I hadn't read about the aD problems, though, until someone posted a link here ... that's a crying shame. aD was one of those companies I would have wanted to work for (if I were looking for a programming job).

It was nice to see an EA story on K5. I know PG has posted to /. on occasion in the past (seems to be him); can't imagine either PG or EA having a K5 account though. Of course, I could be off my rocker.


[ Parent ]

selecting books to read and review (4.00 / 3) (#3)
by danny on Sun May 27, 2001 at 02:04:44 AM EST

As a book reviewer, I'd like to be able to say that I considered all offers of review copies equally. But the truth is that something published by Cambridge University Press or Harvill or some other publisher I recognise has a head-start - it's often quite hard to evaluate a book's quality from publicity materials (I find it particularly difficult with fiction), and the endorsement of a major publisher is one of the more reliable indicators.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

More Information About EA (4.00 / 4) (#5)
by jamesarcher on Sun May 27, 2001 at 03:30:37 AM EST

"Air Castle"

"Sexy Suzy"

Eve Asks

1995 Washington Post article

1995 Business Week article

And for anyone swooning over her, just know that at last notice (she seems to have disappeared from the web for a while) she was living with Philip Greenspun. Sorry, boys.

Another Net Personality (4.00 / 4) (#10)
by Luke Francl on Sun May 27, 2001 at 02:34:06 PM EST

Amusingly enough, Eve's dating another net.personality from back in the day: Philip Greenspun (author of Travels with Samantha). They both mentioned in a Business Week article about the web back in 1995, and now they're living together. Hah!

Also, Philip and Eve are being sued by the ventrue capitalists who financed ArsDigita. You can read Philip's side of the story, or the actual court docket (thanks to Gaun Yang).

To keep this remotely on-topic, I'd like to mention that I too came across Eve's pi pages in the mid-90s (my high school friends and I were obsessed with pi). I never really learned anything else about her though.

I agree with you. I don't think "blogs" are such a new development. I had a "News" page long before blogs were cool, and so did everyone else I knew. However, collaborative journalism (a la Kuro5hin) will be really cool when it develops a little more fully.

Shame about Eve's company... (4.00 / 3) (#12)
by iffy on Mon May 28, 2001 at 09:55:24 AM EST

Philip Greenspun probably needs no into to this crowd... one of the first bloggers, actually, with the photo.net site. Originator of many great gags such as the Bill Gates personal wealth calculator. Also published a great travelog early on about tripping around the country with a Mac and a camera after his dog died. Wrote a book called Database-backed Websites and published a very candid story-behind-the-book about how editors are professional nags, etc. The "dead trees" version, he always called it. Well, enough bio for the already adequately self-promoting Philip G. -iffy p.s. hey, it's my first kuro-five-hin post, so go easy on my sloppy writing... writing this using lynx on a firewall that I was up all night getting to work with evil pppoe (lousy sbc doesn't even support synchronous ppp, my poor arm-based linux appliance is gasping for air) hence no sleep and no returning to previous lines in textarea editing (better see if links will build ;)
Iconoclasm today is tomorrow's found wisdom.
OT: suggestion (none / 0) (#13)
by xriso on Mon May 28, 2001 at 07:40:29 PM EST

One very useful thing I find (if your lynx supports it) is Ctrl-X e. This pops up vim for me, so I can edit in comfort. It probably just runs $EDITOR, tho.
*** Quits: xriso:#kuro5hin (Forever)
[ Parent ]
OT: Hi henry! :-) (none / 0) (#16)
by rusty on Tue May 29, 2001 at 11:17:10 PM EST

Hmm... PPPOE firewall? ARM-based linux? Hey, I know that guy!

Glad to see you. Now where's your "Hello world" diary entry? :-)

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

interesting follow-up... (4.00 / 2) (#18)
by adamba on Thu May 31, 2001 at 04:05:42 PM EST

I pointed out this story to JD Lasica, whose blog I linked to in it. He very nicely linked to it in a later edition of his blog.

Then I figured, hey why not, and asked if he would make my name be a link to the website for my book (since people's names when they appear in other blogs are often links to their own blogs).

He never answered that mail at all. That is, he acted exactly like Bob the Blogger did. Thus proving the point of the original story (which is, for those who care, not that Eve Andersson was a babe, but rather that blogs are far too self-absorbed. Eve was just a hook to draw people in).

It is interesting that in the world of blogs, if you spend half an hour a day self-publishing a blog, it is considered a breakthrough in communication and eminently link-worthy. But if you spend a year working on a book that you then self-publish, it's not worth mentioning.

- adam

The Legacy of Eve Andersson | 18 comments (9 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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