"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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In the spring of 2001, Mena Trott, a Web designer in San Francisco, began a quirky Web log called Dollarshort. This was a time when hundreds of young Web designers in San Francisco were starting their own quirky blogs, and so the historical significance of Trott’s effort might at first seem difficult to appreciate.
“I didn’t win many awards as a kid,” Trott began in her first post, on April 3, 2001. “When I was seven, though, I awarded myself a homemade prize ribbon fashioned out of a raveling brown fabric remnant. And with my little white crayon, what did I scrawl on this ribbon? ‘Winner.’ That’s it. Not ’1st Place’ or ‘Good Job!’ Just ‘Winner.’ I guess I was trying to think of the exact opposite of the word loser, a word easily defined as a kid who has to make himself an award…. Welcome to dollarshort.org.”
Hard though it may be to believe, Mena Trott’s early posts can be seen, in retrospect, as a kind of flashpoint for the blogging frenzy that now consumes so much of the tech-enabled planet. This isn’t because Trott’s was the world’s first Web log or the most popular, but because working on Dollarshort clued Trott in to a desperate problem in the world of blogs — a lack of powerful tools.
Blogger, the preeminent blog-building software of the time, was easy to use but limited in its functionality. Personalization is the soul of blogging; a blogger wants her blog to look different from every other blog out there, and this was difficult to pull off with Blogger and many of the other available tools. If she wanted Dollarshort to look — and to function — like no other site online, Mena Trott saw that she’d need to come up with an altogether new kind of blog-building program.
These are the humble origins of Movable Type, now widely considered to be the world’s most powerful blogging tool, the system that sits at the heart of the Web’s busiest blogs. The software, which Mena Trott designed and built with her husband Ben, a Perl coder extraordinaire, did not start the blogging craze — but MT, as it’s known, beautified blogging and sharpened the idea of what a blog could be, allowing many clever scribes to turn their idle musings into serious online endeavors. Among bloggers, Movable Type is thought of as the tool you turn to when your blog has become the heart and the brains of your operation — which explains why the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean, John Kerry and George W. Bush, a trio that agrees on little, all embraced MT when they decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon.
This, at least, was the sunny reputation that had attached to Movable Type until a few months ago, when Six Apart, the company that Ben and Mena Trott founded to develop and market Movable Type, began, in the words of some in the blogosphere, “going corporate.”
This spring, when Six Apart (the name is a reference to the six-day age difference between Ben and Mena) released its newest version of MT, it announced plans to begin charging the most active users for a license to use the system (previous versions had been offered essentially for free). The news hit bloggers like a thunderclap; many accused the company of forgetting its roots and embracing soulless corporations instead of people.
Six Apart weathered the controversy and, according to its executives, emerged only stronger. Still, the company’s decision to charge customers to use Movable Type is an intriguing one, as it suggests a belief that blogging is, or will soon be, more than just a bastion for hobbyists, more than a place for political punditry and the sort of entertaining stream-of-consciousness musings that Mena Trott offers on her blog. When the folks at Six Apart talk about the promise of blogs and the future of Movable Type, they don’t talk about Instapundit or Talking Points Memo, two popular Movable Type blogs. Instead, they talk about law offices and media companies and software firms, and the benefits these businesses might see when their employees start blogging.
Competing, on the one side, with several deep-pocketed firms willing to give their blog software away for nothing and, on the other, with open-source developers committed to the notion that blogging should be free, Six Apart is building a blogging empire around what seems a crazy idea — that bloggers will pay for fine tools. Blogging may be provoking a revolution in the media and politics, concedes Anil Dash, a blogger and Six Apart vice president, but the revolution needs software — complex, powerful software that professionals can depend on. “And it just makes sense,” Dash says, “to pay for professional-level tools.”
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Perhaps the most difficult thing about starting a new blog is deciding to actually do it — seriously examining whether you are witty and wise and prolific enough to make a difference to anyone else on the Web and, if you aren’t, deciding that perhaps blogging isn’t your thing. But you wouldn’t be the first blogger to skip this step, and for many people the big early hurdle to blogging is choosing the right tool. An aspiring blogger faces a tsunami of blogging applications, many of which are quite well-regarded and easy to use. There are Dave Winer’s Radio UserLand (which powers Salon Blogs), or any number of open-source systems, including WordPress, Blosxom, NewsBruiser, and Scoop, the “collaborative media” tool that powers Daily Kos. The most popular services are Blogger and LiveJournal, which are free to anyone on the Web and don’t require users to download software or to set up (and pay for) domain names and Web hosting services.
Together, they account for millions of users — though it should be noted that LiveJournal and Blogger attract very different kinds of bloggers, and folks on one system would not appreciate being compared with those on the other.
This goes to one of the key difficulties people encounter when choosing the tools to run their blogs: If the entire point of creating a blog is to talk about yourself, or to get people talking about you or the things you care about, then it matters what judgments people have formed about the particular blog tool you use. Traditionally, for instance, LiveJournal has been a place of closely connected teenagers; you could try, if you wanted, to publish your well-researched foreign policy musings on an LJ blog, but chances are not many people are going to take you seriously.
Mena Trott might have been thinking along those lines in the summer of 2001, when she and Ben decided to create their own blogging tool. At the time, there were, as now, dozens of blog-building programs available, but none included all the features that the pair thought bloggers needed to really personalize their sites, to make the Web their own. How do you get someone to pay attention to the well-researched foreign policy musings featured on your blog? Certainly, your musings must be compelling and unique, but often that’s not sufficient. You’ve got to also have a tool that allows you to stretch your site into the kind of thing well-suited to foreign policy, both aesthetically and functionally.
“All of us feel pretty strongly that tools influence content,” says Dash. “If you look at a PowerPoint presentation you know you’re not going to get something particularly profound — you’re going get bullet points shouted at you for 10 minutes. In terms of how people use the Web, the tools inform what you write. This was Mena’s sense of it: ‘What’s going to make someone be inspired?’”
Fortunately, at the time the Trotts were pondering all this, they were laid off from their day jobs at a sinking tech firm. With time on their hands and some money saved, they decided to turn the blogging tool they’d been building for themselves into something bigger, something “to release upon the weblogging masses,” as they wrote in an early post on a blog they created to track the development of the new application. “Hopefully some of our features will make this seem as exciting to you as it does to us. But, really, maybe we’re just excited because it’s our project.”
That was on Sept. 3, 2001. The following week, of course, the unthinkable happened, and for a time Mena and Ben weren’t sure there was a need, anymore, for blogging, let alone another blog tool. On Dollarshort on Sept. 19, in a post titled “Speechless,” Mena wrote: “I’m still here. I just don’t know what to write. I don’t want to write about the attack. I don’t want to write about politics. But I’m not ready to write about my life. Or, the silly little things that used to jump around my mind.” Then, a few days later, the pair came back. “We actually forced ourselves to take a week off in order to deal with the events of the eleventh,” they wrote on the blog tracking Movable Type’s release. “While we did come to the conclusion that most things — including a weblogging content management system — are a bit trivial, we realized that we needed to go back to the metaphorical mines in order to regain some sort of normalcy in our daily routine. But don’t worry, the beta-testing is scheduled to begin today and everything is falling into place.”
Everything began to fall into place quite nicely, in fact. Rather than dampen the popularity of blogging, the terrorist attacks significantly quickened the pace of online discussion, and when bloggers went looking for the best tool to handle their growing sites, many of the most prominent ones began to see the beauty of Movable Type, which the Trotts released publicly in October 2001. In a short time, MT blogs became ubiquitous: Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit runs on MT, as does Joshua Marshall’s blog, and Brad DeLong’s, Lawrence Lessig’s, Jason Kottke’s, and Boing Boing, Gawker, Wonkette, and Gizmodo, to name a few.
What was it about MT that hooked people? “The very first thing that caught my eye was that it was very elegant,” says Dash, who was blogging with Blogger when MT was released. “I said, ‘I want my site to look like that.’ It was elegant all the way through, and the features — really basic stuff, like I wanted comments and categories and titles on my posts. I mean that wasn’t a common thing then, you couldn’t put a title on your post. Really basic stuff like that, and they got all that together in one tool, in a way that worked.”
I met Mena and Ben Trott to talk about their company only once, at BlogOn, an industry conference that brought many blog enthusiasts to UC-Berkeley in mid-July. They were unmistakably ambitious and deeply engaged in the details of their business, which would not normally be a surprising thing to discover about the founders of a successful start-up company, except that everything I’d read about the Trotts, especially everything I’d read about them in the company’s blogs, hadn’t prepared me for it. On the blogs, the couple comes off as a very friendly pair that got into this game simply out of a love of good, clean, powerful software and an abiding belief in the ascendancy of the Web and of blogs. This image of asceticism is not entirely fiction; the Trotts, who managed the company from their own apartment, without any real hint of remuneration, for more than a year, would have to be true believers to devote themselves so completely to what some people are still calling a fad.
Yet it’s also true that Trotts want their company to take off in a big, big way, and they aren’t ashamed to say it. Over the past two years, they’ve worked at a frenzied pace to make a real business out of Six Apart. In 2003, they accepted funding from the Japanese venture capital firm Neoteny, whose CEO, Joi Ito, is a devoted and popular Movable Type blogger. The firm moved out of the Trott’s San Francisco apartment and into an office in San Mateo, Calif. They hired Anil Dash as their first employee, and then, over the following year and a half, they opened a Japanese subsidiary and purchased a European blogging firm, putting the company’s staff at about 40.
Along the way, Six Apart launched TypePad, a “hosted” blog service that combines the power of Movable Type with the ease-of-use of services like Blogger and LiveJournal, in that it doesn’t require users to download any software or pay for a Web hosting service. TypePad has already attracted about a hundred thousand users worldwide — a significant achievement since the system is not free, costing users between $5 and $15 a month to blog. And finally, in a thoughtful, well-reasoned post on the company Web log in mid-July, Mena explained that she’d decided to step down as Six Apart’s CEO and have Barak Berkowitz, a Silicon Valley veteran, take the reins of the firm. Mena is now the company’s president, and Ben is the CTO.
Considering the inexperience of its founders, the firm seemed to handle the transition from tiny to somewhat big pretty well. But while many people online have congratulated Six Apart on its success, its metamorphosis into a blogging powerhouse has not been universally appreciated, and by this year, some of its early fans were becoming annoyed. For one thing, they complained, the company had ignored, for too long, the tool that put it on the map — Movable Type. During much of 2003, while Six Apart focused on expansion and on TypePad, Movable Type languished. In that time, bloggers who depended on the software became furious at its slow pace of improvement, and especially at the system’s increasing vulnerability to so-called comment spam — unsolicited offers for erectile dysfunction pills and the like appearing in the comments section of MT blogs.
What irked people the most, though, was the company’s evolving culture. Throughout its history, the blogging firm run by Ben and Mena Trott had never really acted like much of a company at all; it was just a husband and wife in an apartment, bloggers and coders who were always willing to help out with pressing problems, and who didn’t seem to care much about the bottom line. Suddenly, that attitude seemed to be changing, and MT users were none too pleased about it.
The Trotts, each of whom has a father who’s a lawyer, did not release Movable Type as an open-source application under a license like the GPL, because “we had this fairness thing,” Mena says — they wanted to be compensated, or at the very least credited, for their work. But they decided to grant their users broad powers to access and extend the code that runs the system, in order to allow people to customize each copy of MT as much as possible. Users were barred from redistributing their changes to MT’s code, but later versions of the system did allow them to create separate “plug-ins” to Movable Type, bits of code that could add functionality to MT and that could be distributed (for free or for sale) by third-party developers. This third-party plug-in development in MT is one of the major reasons for the system’s success, Mena and Ben say. Without any input from Six Apart, bloggers and developers have created code that lets bloggers do some pretty cool things in MT — adding your Netflix movie queue to your blog, say, or displaying the weather, or combating the scourge of comment spam.
This arrangement worked out well for the Web, and not so well for the Trotts. In a post that was widely circulated in the spring, Mark Pilgrim, a programmer and free-software devotee who runs a popular tech blog, wrote that with its hack-friendly architecture, Movable Type “hit a certain sweet spot” between free and not free, putting it “light years ahead of the competition.” But of the many thousands of people using MT, few were willing to donate to support its continued growth; while MT blogs prospered, the Trotts were making an average of less than 40 cents for every copy of the software that people downloaded, which in the company’s early days was enough to pay the bills, but nothing more.
“We were at this point where you’re never going to lose any money, but you’re not going to earn any either,” Mena says. Considering all the third-party developers and the many people who work as full-time Movable Type consultants, “there’s probably more people making a living on Movable Type outside of Six Apart than inside,” Dash says.
The biggest problem, Ben and Mena say, were Web hosting services who were providing one copy of Movable Type to hundreds of users. “We were seeing installs with over 800 users on there, sometimes more,” Ben says. So on May 13, with the release of the long-awaited version 3.0 of Movable Type, the company announced what it called an improved version of its licensing plan for Movable Type, one that asked different kinds of users of the system for different amounts of money. If you were building three or fewer Web sites and you weren’t interested in tech support, you could use Movable Type for free. But if you wanted to run MT for any more authors or any more Web logs, you’d have to pay more — as much as hundreds of dollars, even if you were using the system for only noncommercial purposes.
It’d be grave understatement to observe that this did not go over well. There were more than 800 TrackBacks — responses on other blogs — to Mena’s post: “Ben and Mena Trott sucker punch the weblogging community”; “Six Apart shoots themselves in the foot”; “Movable Type, explosion en plein vol?”; “As of 4am PDT this morning, Movable Type sucks.”
Mark Pilgrim’s post was one of the most lucid. He’d been a longtime fan of MT, Pilgrim said, and few other weblogging tools could do as much as it could. But switching to the new version would cost him over $500, and he wasn’t willing to spend that much, especially as there was a good-enough open-source alternative called WordPress, and that program would comport with his idea of “Freedom 0″ — the freedom to run an application “for any purpose.” With Movable Type, he wrote, “I do not have the freedom to run the program for any purpose; I only have the limited set of freedoms that Six Apart chooses to bestow upon me, and every new version seems to bestow fewer and fewer freedoms. With Movable Type 2.6, I was allowed to run 11 sites. In 3.0, that right will cost me $535.”
Six Apart was stung by the reaction, and surprised. The company had guessed that most MT users build relatively few sites for noncommercial purposes, and would not be adversely affected by the new licensing plan. This might in fact have been a correct assumption, but there were surely a lot of MT devotees who were upset about the new plan even if it wasn’t going to hurt them personally. After all, this was Six Apart. This was Ben and Mena Trott, the couple whose mythic devotion to the blogosphere was widely praised. Why were they suddenly trying pocket some cash?
The company acted quickly to fix things. It made its licenses clearer and reduced some prices, allowing noncommercial users, for instance, to run as many MT sites as they want for $100. Dash says that MT sign-ups have increased since the new plan went into effect, and that the extra resources the company was able to devote to the product greatly improved it — a new version, 3.1, is set to launch in a matter of weeks.
Still, many people left MT for other tools, especially WordPress, which many bloggers say is easier to install than MT and, despite lacking some features, offers some enhancements. The application, an open-source project that was spun off, or “forked,” from an earlier weblogging tool called B2, is run by Matthew Mullenweg, a programmer who lives in Houston. Mullenweg, who emphasized that he has great respect and admiration for the Trotts and considers his rivalry with them to be exceedingly friendly, estimated the number of WordPress blogs at 15,000 — a fraction of MT’s user base, “but WordPress is only a year old,” Mullenweg said. He said that in addition to Pilgrim, other high-profile bloggers had switched to WordPress, not only because it’s open source but also because it handles comment spam in a more hassle-free manner, and because, unlike MT, it loads pages “dynamically,” meaning that bloggers don’t have to wait several minutes to “rebuild” their site after making a change.
One of the high-profile bloggers Mullenweg pointed to is Molly E. Holzschlag, a Web designer and an author of tech books who blogs at Molly.com. Holzschlag literally wrote the book on Movable Type: “Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours,” coauthored with Porter Glendinning. But to Holzschlag’s dismay, her book was released in the same week that Six Apart suddenly announced its new version and licensing plan. “I was really rather disappointed that despite a good relationship with Anil Dash and what I’d hoped would be a positive thing for MT itself, no one at Six Apart communicated these changes to us, which severely compromised our ability to make sure the book was as up-to-date as possible,” Holzschlag wrote on her blog.
In an interview, Holzschlag said she harbored no ill-feeling toward Six Apart, and though she’d switched her own blog over to WordPress, she was still recommending Movable Type to her Web design clients. “I think Movable Type is a really good product for certain applications,” she said. “I think they’re moving towards enterprise-level software rather than the ‘publishing for the people’ concept they started with. They had presented themselves as publishing for the people, but when it came down to it they saw they had a profitable product and they made a natural switch.”
If you ask Six Apart about this, they don’t really deny it. Who is Movable Type for? Is it for publishing for the people? Not if the people don’t know much about installing a server-based Perl application, Dash says. MT is not an easy program to install and to use, and it’s not supposed to be easy. “It’s always been for professionals and experts,” he says. “As far as average bloggers go, you could say it’s a ‘pro-sumer’ tool — it’s overkill for people that need overkill.” For people who don’t want overkill, there’s TypePad, Six Apart says — a flexible, beautiful blogging app for the masses.
Indeed, the main interest in Movable Type at the moment is from businesses looking to improve internal communication, Six Apart says. One example many MT devotees cited was at Disney’s cable operation, where technical operators spread around the world, working different shifts, used MT to track what everyone had done at work that day — messages like “I plugged in this cable,” “I replaced that lens,” “I fixed this bulb,” Dash said. Originally, the company had been doing this tracking using paper and a fax machine. Then it purchased a proprietary database system, but that was difficult to maintain and hard to use. One day, one of the employees, a blogger in his spare time, suggested they switch to MT. “They didn’t call it blogging, they just called it a Shiftlog, which is what they’d always called it,” Dash says. But whatever they called it, it worked, greatly improving the efficiency of their operation.
“I think law offices are a great example of where this would work,” Dash says. “Lawyers are used to accounting for their time, but they don’t have a way to articulate what’s been happening. You can say ‘I met with this client,’ but you can’t say, ‘This is a what he had to say, here’s what I did in this Word document.’” Blogging fills that void, and because it’s easy to use, people will use it.
“In the old days people would deploy Lotus Notes and Exchange to do these things, but nobody would use it — everybody would just use e-mail,” Dash says.
Everybody still uses e-mail, but e-mail has its own problems — it’s clogged, and you might send a note to people who don’t want it, and forget to send it to people who do want it. With blogs “people who care about it can find it,” says Dash. “And maybe they don’t care about it for six months, but it just sits there until you find it. At Six Apart, we’re growing so fast that new people coming in often wonder about our history. ‘Why was this decision made?’ I’ve seen new people come to us and go all the way back in our blog to September 2002. ‘Oh, I see where the name TypePad came from.’ That kind of thing has incredible value.”
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)