15 Questions for Owen Thomas

We check in with the creator of Ditherati.

Owen Thomas of Ditherati.com, 9k jpeg
Owen Thomas, Writer, Editor, Pedant.

One of Ditherati's themelines is "So many quotes, so little time." How hard do you have to look to find pompous idiocy on the web?

It's everywhere, Jeffrey, simply everywhere.
        The hard part is finding pompous idiocy that deserves further comment. Most people are already parodies of themselves, leaving me very little work to do.

Do the people you quote take notice? Have you gotten nasty letters, legal threats, or fan mail from your subjects?

The day after I ran a quote by Charles Conn, CEO of CitySearch, explaining the last-minute shelving of their IPO, I got a chatty email from a PR person asking if I wouldn't like to interview Mr. Conn "to get the real story first-hand." It was so amazingly clueless – Ditherati is all about hearing the story second-hand, out of context, and snickering about it.

Do you hope that by exposing these people, you'll help raise the bar on web discourse? Are you on a mission, or just having a good time?

I'm on a mission from God. No, it's all for fun, really. I do it for my loyal readers - 1,200 strong and growing.

Are you yourself often quoted?

Very rarely. Rebecca Eisenberg likes to quote me in her wonderful Net Skink column for the San Francisco Examiner, even though I'm a troublesome interview subject. Oh, and Tony Perkins, the editor-in-chief of the Red Herring, once quoted me in his Angler column, to my amusement and discomfit.

Does your work at Red Herring help feed the work at Ditherati? Do your employers mind all the extracurricular activity?

Actually, my work at Ditherati has helped feed the Red Herring magazine. They asked me to supply a sampling of quotes - sans pithy insults - for our special Digital Universe issue.

How did you fall into the web, anyway? What made you want to be part of it?

I was going to sign up to be a graphics art intern at Mother Jones, but by that time – the fall of 1994 – I had discovered the Web, and suggested in my cover letter that it would be interesting to work on their Web site. The original URL was www.mojones.com – I understand that "mojones" means something obscenely scatological in Spanish, so they later changed it to www.motherjones.com.
        Joel Truher, the MIS director there, intercepted my resume and signed me up for a Web internship; I learned HTML, I surfed for days on end, and I was hooked.

Many people write on the web, but not many get paid for it. You seem to have bucked that rule.

You're on crack, Jeffrey – and I mean that in the most loving way. I think you missed my internship at Mother Jones, where I was attempting to live in San Francisco on a "stipend" of $500 a month.
        But to answer your question, I do believe that Web sites should pay writers. I've written for free for publications I believe in, such as Rewired, largely because they let me stretch my thinking and take on grander subjects than my short pieces for Feed and Suck.

Was copy editing at Suck your first web gig? How did you get there, what happened, and why did you leave?

No, I spent a year at Publish magazine as their Webmaster. I went through two bosses there, and they never really did figure out what they wanted to do with the Web site. I started reading Suck obsessively every day, like every disgruntled Web worker out there.

How obsessively?

Every day, I sent them an email enumerating their errors of orthography, fact, and style. I did this for four months. I remember apologizing to them when I took a week's vacation.
        Eventually, Carl listed an opening for a researcher and copyeditor, and passed it along to me and another fellow who was regularly copyediting them, inquiring whether we knew any suitable candidates.
        I thought about it for five minutes, and then wrote Carl back to ask if I could interview for it, "if that wouldn't be too weirdly incestuous." A month later, I was working for Suck.com.
        My favorite project there was Net.moguls. Carl and I worked on trading cards of Internet industry figures. My task was to figure out how much they were worth, which was tricky when their main holdings were equity in a private company. That led to my later career as a reporter on software startups for the Red Herring.

Does the web still move you? If you were offered a good salary at a print pub, would you take it?

Look, it's just writing, okay? The Web has raised the bar for all publications. That's why the Industry Standard is a weekly - it knows that for its chosen audience of Internet junkies, monthly doesn't cut it. (How large that audience will be is another question.)
        It's all media – it's just a question of how much you want to deliver, to what audience, and how much you're willing to spend to get it there.

You seem to know everything. What was your training?

I studied East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago. I took Calculus in 8th grade. I read voraciously. That's about it. There's no secret, I'm afraid.

You seem to know everyone. Are you good enough, and darn it, do people like you?

Or something. Feed that boy some cheese!

What haven't you done that you'd like to do?

Go to Japan and ride every subway line.

What do you believe in? Who do you love?

I believe the children are our future, which is why I'm trying to get 14-year-old girls everywhere to use the catchphrase "feed that boy some cheese."
        As for who I love, well, his name is Greg. And he's a cutiepie. That's right, kids, I'm taken. I appreciate the Teen Beat fan letters, but really, enough!

What do you want on your tombstone?

"Dammit, I asked you to cremate me!"

Owen owns:

© 1995 — 2001 Jeffrey Zeldman Presents        Credits