speaker notes for Philip Greenspun; revised May 2007

Site Home : Teaching : Short Talks : One Element

What You'll Learn Today


I want to work on Internet applications. The MIT faculty says that nothing interesting or new is happening with the Internet. I do the big Boston-to-Alaska-and-back drive that I always wanted to do.

Worried about being lonely, I emailed friends and family a weekly letter, hoping to get thoughtful responses back. I had cameras with me, but the trip was more about the experience and the writing; the photos were just snapshots for a slideshow upon my return.

Set up the Web site for friends who couldn't attend the slide show, scanning the negs and chromes with Kodak PhotoCD, converting the letters from MSFT Word into HTML. I decided that a Web book could be much more interesting than a printed book since you could gather alternative perspectives from readers in the form of posted comments. Wrote a little software to let people type in a comment and have it added to the pages. Took about three days.


Huge response from the general public, usually in the form of "how did you get that photo of the bear?"

Wrote tutorial articles, which generated more questions than they answered.


Question and answer forum, trying to save myself from having to answer the same question twice. Reader B would answer Reader A's questions; my role reduced to moderation.

Built classified ad system for Hearst Corporation, which owns newspapers around the U.S. Said "let's have everyone in the U.S. in one big database, placing ads that can be for a fixed price or subject to auction; after the sale, Reader A can rate Reader B's credibility in a reputation system." (i.e., every feature of eBay) They said "that's a terrible idea; we would never want to use that." I asked "Can I use it on my site?" The response: "sure".

Taking a lot of ridicule from friends, family, and colleagues about wasting time on my personal Web site. With no ads or other obvious revenue source, what was the point? I responded that I enjoyed teaching and that it didn't cost much to operate.


Packaged up the software behind and gave it away as a free open-source product to other publishers to help them get started, saving them several programmer-years of work. Culminated in the name "ArsDigita Community System" and a company, ArsDigita Corporation, to provide support and service for the free product.


Added a photo sharing service so that people could upload their best work and/or work that they wanted critiqued.


Spun off to a team of business-minded folks with MIT degrees who hoped to turn into a successful dotcom business. They borrowed money from friends and family and spent it paying themselves to think big strategic thoughts. They commercialized the site with ads and charged subscription fees, but revenues were not sufficient to pay their salaries. The site spiraled downwards and then sideways for a few years.


Sold ArsDigita Corporation to some business-minded folks and retired. (Like every other leftover computer nerd from the 1990s, went down to the local flight school and learned to fly airplanes and helicopters.)


Google's entry into the Internet advertising market with contextual ads boosts the value to advertisers and publishers.


I'm on the Board of a company that has no Board meetings, no shareholders meetings, etc. I decide that I need to resign or take it over as CEO and clean it up. Bright side: a lot of readers. Dark side: a lot of debt.


With traffic steady at 60+ million page views per month and 3 million unique visitors per month, spun off all advertising and business decisions to a media company. I wasn't interested in selling ads and therefore I was never going to be good at it. I retain editorial control.
Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2007 Philip Greenspun.