15 Questions for Alexis Massie

Afterdinner.com turned one on 1 April 1998. We asked its creator, Alexis Massie, to share her thoughts....

Alexis Massie, writer, designer, publisher
"A chorus is louder than a single voice."

1. Describe what you do.
I am excessively good at being a "Professional Alex." I'm probably the best there is in that capacity. It's a weird job: part writer, part designer, part publisher, part manager, part evangelist, part reader, part collaborator, part warlord.
          I am Afterdinner's editor in chief and co-founder of Regarding.com and the creator of themonster.net. I design web sites for a living. I publish content as a hobby.
          I am what I do. They are the same.

2. Why afterdinner.com? What is your mission?
Afterdinner was born out of a site called PBoT, a kind of collective home page I'd administrated in 1996. In June, we started with four members. By September, we had fourteen, and the demand was rising. People wanted to be published – they wanted their voices to be heard, and a chorus is, by nature, louder than a single voice.
          I realized pretty quickly that I could just barely maintain 14 homepages in my spare time, but couldn't handle the overload. Afterdinner was established to keep the art – personal expression through narrative – alive, while allowing me to invite any and all contributors, by disbanding the concept of "membership."
          The demand for collaborative sites, it should be noted, is still greater than supply, even now.
          As far as the domain name goes, I was playing with names for days. I'd come up with "visions of life in a post-ideal world" as a sort of summary. Do you have any idea how hard it is to come up with a domain name based on that statement? I mean, really! What are you going to do? Visions.com? Taken. Post-ideal.com? Duh, hyphens are lame. So I was flipping through the thesaurus and decided to look up things synonymous with "after." Hidden somewhere amongst the pages of the Merriam Webster's web site is a page that lists "afterdinner" as a word. It struck me. What the hell? "Afterdinner?" Is a word?
          Several hours later, after viewing scores and scores of words, I stepped away from the computer to take a break and review my options. But the only word I could remember was "afterdinner." That, in and of itself, was good enough for me.
          Since then, "vision of life in a post-ideal world" has gone to its rightful grave, but afterdinner continues strong, with no intent to change.

3. What kind of response have you gotten from the web community so far?
Overwhelmingly positive. The biggest obstacle we have is the demand. People get understandably frustrated when they submit a story and don't hear back for upwards of a month. But when we do finally manage to publish their works, they're generally excited. So far as the audience is concerned, the best testament is our hit count. People enjoy reading, shocking as that may seem, and afterdinner gives them stories that they can relate to, styled in art.

4. Do the responses you get change the work at all?
Nothing effects the work aside from our own standards, because the people who respond aren't necessarily representative of the audience as a whole. Fact of the matter is that the audience is a silent majority. Most people who write are either happy just the way things are, request something related to access (text-only versions, hurry up and finish that archive, etc), or have very specfic concerns about very specific issues. No one writes to say "this writing sucks" or "this site sucks." I'm sure there are people who think that, but I would guess that they probably just don't revisit.

5. Will the site change in Year Two? If so, how?
To be honest, I have a thousand bugs to fix. Generation 2 of Afterdinner launched in January and it's still not finished, though we're in our second issue of the year. I'm just mortified. So, the site needs to be cleaned up from a design/architectural viewpoint. The new format of the four best pieces served separately from the remaining "hors doeuvres" will continue. We'll launch the writer's workshop as soon as the editor assigned to that task manages to find the time to complete it. And we're considering other enhancements on an as-possible basis.

6. What would you say if Geocities or Intel or Microsoft were hungry for content and made an offer to buy afterdinner.com?
I'd say "Fabulous!" That way, I could offer a modest payment to the authors in exchange for their best work, which is something I've always wanted to do. Afterdinner would segue into a commercial site with a minimum of fuss or intrusion. I'm just too lazy to pursue that option myself.
          If the site were truly corrupted in some manner, I'd simply quit and start another web site. Fundamentally, the audience follws the people behind Afterdinner, the writers and editors, not the site itself. Brand loyalty is fabulous, but when people stop liking a product, they go seeking another. Those people like Afterdinner right now. I imagine they'd like it under a different name as well.

7. What other work have you done, and what do you like about it?
I'm a co-founder/co-producer, with Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli, on Regarding.com. It's a neat project. A collaborative site, but with a staff of twelve regular contributers, it focuses on audio. It's all streamed audio. I mean, we allow for text alternatives, but that's secondary. Every month, we present four voices speaking about, crying about, laughing about, or just yelling about one topic. It's been a fun group experience. We get to torture them with topics like "liquid" and push them to try new things. Sometimes it's totally lame, and sometimes it's absolutely brilliant. I like it because it's clean and interesting; no one else is really doing anything like it in the noncommercial arena (am I wrong? let me know!) and because it's rippled down into personal homepages. Now it seems like everyone and their brother is streaming audio clips of themselves, which makes the web a much much more interesting place.
          All I'd like to change is to have the ability to do this full time. I have so many ideas, but a person can't work 40-50 hours a week on the job and be able to accomplish everything they dream about in the hours remaining. But I try.

8. Are you happier collaborating, or happiest doing work that is 100% in your control?
I do my best when I'm working with truly talented people in a supportive capacity. I can promote them, edit them, work with them. I'm told that I'm good at it. More importantly, there aren't enough people willing to play that part in this medium. Sure, I'd love to be the next Fitzgerald. Most people would. But, more likely, I'll have more impact on the world by finding the next Fitzgerald, and I'm content with that.

9. Do you think about your audience, or just do the work?
My audience comes into work on Monday morning and surfs the first two hours of their day away. I know this. Bad audience! Bad!
          I don't think about them much at all, quite deliberately. If I think about them too much, it comes through in the language of the site, and engenders a feeling of entitlement in some, who then commence with demands, which eventually drive me nearly to the point of quitting. In fact, there was a period from November through January 1997 where we did quit. We came back, but only after thinking long and hard and talking about our objectives.
          Most of our audience, of course, quietly consumes or offers helpful suggestions. But some think they own the medium, that the user's experience is the only thing that matters. And that, quite simply, doesn't apply to the project I sacrifice my every non-working hour to, that the writers do for free, that the editors donate their time to. We give them as much as we can spare. We will not tolerate demands for more.

10. Do you worry about people with old browsers, old computers, and so on, or do you just take the high road?
It's a question of priority. I try to make sure it's functional (if not entirely aesthetically pleasant) for Netscape 3.0 and up. That's my design spec when I develop new things. When I use pop-up windows, however, I do allow for a non-popup version, because some people, even those who have browsers that support them, don't like popups. If I can, and when I can, I create a lower version for older browsers. But it's a question of numbers. Generally, the percentage of people in the situation where they can't access the site is not large enough to warrant my concern.

11. What were you doing before you became a web designer? What else have you done in life so far? What did you love or hate about it?
I was a footage researcher in public broadcasting, a radio DJ, and did my stint in retail during college. I was only three years into my career when Mosiac was released in 1994. I've been doing web publishing ever since.
          The problem with all those traditional fields of work is that there's no flexibility. They've defined the various roles of people to the point of mindless ascension. There's no adventure, no frontier. Interactive media is exciting and wonderful simply because there's so much that has yet to be discovered. There is no rigid methodology, and there are innovations and opportunities discovered every day. You can make your own path, create your job description to match your talents, and your success or failure is determined only on your abilities.
          But, to answer your question, I've done nothing else in life. Truly. I have friends and loves (all of which I met online), but other than that, I spend all my time dealing with the Net. Does it shock you that I'm not weeping? Does it mean I'm broken, somehow?

12. Did your education prepare you to do what you do, or did you fall into it?
<laugh> We didn't even have a network when I went to college. The lab was a bunch of standalone computers, and you had to save your documents to a floppy disc to get them printed. That said, I got a double degree in Mass Communication Theory and Literature, and look where I ended up.

13. What would you do if you couldn't do this any more?
I'd read more books. I'd write more, to escape the soul-evaporating monotony of this supposedly priviledged life. I imagine that I'd compromise, because I'd have nothing else to do.

14. What else would you like to do?
I'd like to make a lot of money. It's on my list. I'd like to fall in love and have one of those cute storybook lives where you know that underneath the calm happy exterior lay a seething heart of raging uncontrollable violent passion. I miss that.

15. What advice, if any, would you give to other people who make websites?
If you don't find what you're looking for, then make it yourself. It'll change your life.

Alex's URLS:

Celebrate afterdinner.com's first anniversary.
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