15 Questions for Derek Powazek

A master web designer seeking content and community, Derek Powazek is the creator of The Fray, Kvetch, and the new sfstories.com.
Halcyon w/ Derek Powazek
Derek Powazek, left, with Halcyon Styn. Photo: Drue Miller

Interactivity is a huge aspect of your work. (I'm thinking of Fray and Kvetch in particular.)

Interactivity is a dangerous word. I mean, Furbies are "interactive" and they scare me.
        What originally inspired me about the net (and what still does) is how we can connect with others based on ideas, not locations, or appearance, or anything else. I can simply say: "Once I had a mouse in my apartment and this is what happened" and the next day my inbox will be full of stories from other people with similar experiences. That's the natural ability of the web.
        So it occured to me that having a website and not  inviting that kind of participation would be a waste of bits. It's a kind of interactivity, I suppose. For me, it just seemed like the natural thing to do.

Why personal storytelling? Why not fiction or commentary or some hybrid entertainment form?

Well, I got my degree in photojournalism. That basically meant that I took a lot of journalism writing courses and art photo classes. (Talk about a bipolar education – these two places couldn't have less in common. But that's a whole other story.)
        Anyway, I took most of my classes from this fiery Irishman named Conn Hallinan. His lectures were sermons. In his view, journalists could be (and should be) noble truth-tellers. If they do their job right, democracy works. If they don't, well, take a look around.
        Conn burned into me a love for The Truth. A true story will always mean more to me than a pretty fabrication. That's why I have very little interest in fiction. And commentary? Well, there seems to be enough of that in the world.
        I love stories. Personal stories. And I think the telling of them is a profound experience for the teller and the listener. The teller gains a new ownership of the experience – you have to in order to fully tell it. And the listener sees the world through another person's eyes, if only for a moment. That, in time, engenders a new kind of tolerance for your fellow human beings. And tolerance is something that's in too short supply nowadays.

I admire the way you create a fresh interface for each new story.

Thanks! That's my contribution to The Fray. The look. I love designing the stories.

You're great at pacing a story experience over time. Your layouts are more like film than print.

I think I've been heavily influenced by film (as anyone my age has). I admire filmmakers so much because, when it's done right, I actually feel like I'm one of the characters. I'm in  it. When it's done right, it's far more immersive than anything involving a VR helmet.

How did you select the categories, "criminal," "hope," "work" and "drugs?"

Honestly? Totally randomly.
        Okay. Here's a true story. I was just playing in Photoshop. I'd reserved the fray.com domain a while before and had an inkling of an idea for it, but it was all still in the "what if" stage. So I typed out "fray" in Photoshop and was flipping through different fonts to see what it'd look like. And then I landed on Thornforms, a dingbat font.
        And there were my four sections!
        They just worked! I named them after what I thought they looked like: criminal, hope, work, and drugs. Then I came up with loose taglines for each section. I knew the critical mass of stories in each section would define that section more than any word or pictogram. And now, after two years, each section has its own feel for what kind of stories belong there. And they're each loose enough to contain any story that comes along.

Are you still happy with those categories? Do you ever feel confined?

No - I think if I'd made the definitions any stricter, I might have.

What inspired you to gather reader feedback at the end of every story? (And how did you implement it?)

It just seemed like the Right Thing To Do with the web. Without it, fray might as well have been a paper magazine.
        Originally the posting forums were built on top of Matt Wright's guest book script. About a year ago, my very talented friend Christian Mogensen hacked that script and added some new features (like breaking the posting area into linked pages), but it's still essentially a guestbook.

Is Kvetch the interactive part of The Fray, minus the stories?

Kinda, I suppose.
        I see Kvetch as Fray's obnoxious little sister. It's the other side of the coin: Fray is trying to be deep, meaningful, personal; Kvetch is trying to be light, funny, short.
        Kvetch also came out of the desire to use the web for the things it's good at. People like to complain; it's one of those nasty little things that we all do. So I thought, why not let people do it, but make it safe? Since it's random, nobody can ever bookmark your kvetch. You don't have to leave your name. It's just this little oracle, endlessly spitting out random human complaint. I think it's hysterical.

I love that Etch-a-Sketch-like interface. How did that evolve?

It's the second incarnation of the design. I wanted the design of the site to feel like a place, a tool, a thing. Hence the switches and dials and things. It seems to work pretty well, too; it's all built on a lot of conditional javascript, but it works in all frames-capable browsers.
        (And yes, sorry, but Kvetch is the one site I've ever built without a functional noframes version. The whole essence of the site is the reloading frame; without it, the site doesn't have much of a point.)

I notice you run fake ads in Kvetch. Is that a hint to advertisers?

Heh. I loathe advertising, online or off. But especially online. Do these people think we're apes? Look! We'll put fake scrollbars in this gif to increase clickthroughs! Once we fool them into clicking on our ads, they're sure  to love us!
        Still, I built Kvetch to have ads, and I did it in what I thought would be the least intrusive way. I'd hoped to sell some of that ad space and be able to do things like pay Christian for all his hard work on the programming side. We get over 100,000 adviews a month, after all. But so far, no advertisers have bitten. I think they're scared of the content. (Wimps!)

Your experiments with DHTML and such tend to be pretty understated. Is it safe to say you're more about content than technology?

        And I strongly believe in the idea of a world wide web that's open to everybody. You'll never see "optimized for somebody or other" on a Powazek Production.

How does your photojournalism background affect your work?

Photojournalism gave me an appreciation for blending opposing thought processes. What I mean is, a photograph in the newspaper is there to tell a story about an event - to convey facts - but it's also art. Those are competing goals, and the mix of the two is exhilarating for me.
        That's why I love the web: it blends all sorts of opposing influences: code and design, interface and experience, function and format....

It's one thing to build a sense of community on a website, another to take it to the real world. I gather that's what you're doing with Fray.org and the annual parties. How is it working out?

I LOVE it and I'm trying to do more of it. The Fray organization has proved, to me at least, that these connections that the web creates between people are real, not virtual. The people on the other end of the web have a pulse, too.

The front of Powazek.com has changed a lot recently. From a design gallery to a still photo, then to a tongue-in-cheek-portal, and now to a "typical" user homepage. Are you heading somewhere, or just changing?

Just experimenting. I originally reserved powazek.com and put up a simple homepage because I was tired of people linking my name to Fray. Fray is not me, it was never intended to be. So I wanted to create someplace else that was intended to be me.
        And now that there are actually four official Powazek Productions, I wanted someplace to link them all together. That's what it's doing now. That and keeping track of what I do, for anyone interested in that. Oh yeah, and my portfolio. ;-)

How do you feel about being up for Cool Site of the Year two years in a row, and how can we vote for you?

        I'm trying very hard to be zen about this, but the truth is, I really want to win. If you'd poured yourself into something for two years, I bet you would want to win, too.
        (So vote for fray! www.coolsiteoftheday.com/csoty/ 98design.html )
        But, really, in the end, events like this are not my gauge of success. Every time someone who never thought they'd tell a story online posts to fray, every time someone begins to see the world through another person's eyes because of a story they read, every time someone vents a little in Kvetch and walks away with a smile ... that's how I measure my success. That's what matters to me.


Update: Derek's {fray} won Cool Design of the Year in an otherwise bizarre awards ceremony hosted by Robin "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" Leach.

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