Blog Creators on a Tool That Changed the Internet

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The world's most notorious bloggers Images.com-Corbis

In May 1999, Peter Merholz posted a note on Peterme.com. It read a little something like this. “I’ve decided to pronounce the word ‘weblog’ as wee’-blog or blog for short.” Merholz thought it was such a joke, such an insignificant thing, that he added it to the sidebar on his home page. These days we get why that little note—less than 100 characters long—is such a big deal. The impact of blogs has been far-reaching, and the reasons are many. If you want to rant about your loser boyfriend, go ahead. If you want to post your favorite recipes or keep in touch with Grandma, that’s easy enough. If you care to cry foul on a news organization the way bloggers did when CBS and Dan Rather published what turned out to be unverifiable records of George W. Bush’s National Guard service, be the blogosphere’s guest.

This, of course, is not exactly what Meg Hourihan and Evan Williams imagined when they created blogging software in 1999 for their company, Pyra Labs, and named it Blogger. While Blogger was not the first blogging tool, what set it apart was how simple it made creating and updating a personal blog, with the option to have it hosted it on Blogspot.com. The idea became so popular that, roughly a year later, this startup had about 100,000 active accounts to its name. That was an astounding figure because, before Blogger, the only people who really bothered with blogs were generally tech-savvy types living in places like Silicon Valley. Naturally, this shift made tech legends of the Blogger creators and dramatically changed the way the world communicates online.

When Williams and Hourihan met in 1998 at an industry mixer (a.k.a. a bar event), says Hourihan, they quickly recognized they had something in common—they were both in love with the Web. “Ev was the first person who I met that was like, ‘[The Internet] is incredible and I want to build things for it,’ ” she recalls. “And that’s exactly how I felt.” Within months—after a lot of conversations and even an attempt at dating each other that quickly fizzled—the duo decided to start a company. They founded Pyra Labs with a simple mission: to build project-management applications for the Web and sell them to companies. To communicate and maintain their workload, they wrote a Web-log program and used it in the same way that companies now use an intranet.

The first version of their project-management tool was released in the summer of 1999. “After that, we were trying to figure out how to get more users to use our tool, and it turns out that many of our potential customers had blogs,” says Hourihan. So the Pyra team took the Web-log program they had been using for themselves, tweaked it, and hoped that in offering something that was free and easy to play around with, they would get users to appreciate its cool factor and consider Pyra’s other product.

That August they released Blogger, which Williams named based on Peter Merholz’s joke about the word. The buzz was immediate, but the barrier to create a blog was still too high. In those days, to start a blog you would have had to host it on your own Web site. Toward the end of 1999, Pyra Labs launched Blogspot.com to address that problem. By January 2000, it had roughly 2,300 users. To industry insiders that was a mind-blowing figure. That’s because blogging was "essentially a fringe activity, and it wasn’t until they launched Blogspot that it really blew up,” says Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything, which covers the history of blogging.

Then the tech bubble burst, and Pyra Labs’ funding started to dry up. At the beginning of 2001, the working relationship between Williams and Hourihan was also tense because there was no viable business plan for their blogging tool, and that meant no money for their startup. That January, Hourihan quit and everyone else was laid off. Williams managed to keep the company afloat, and it had even started doing well when he got an offer from Google—a deal they announced in February 2003. The specific details of the sale are not public, but the Pyra team was essentially paid in Google pre-IPO stock. By that point, Blogger had more than a million users. The blog experience "was just transformative, and it brought a whole new generation online,” says Hourihan. “The ability to connect people, even if it wasn’t over the most important subject to everyone, was a powerful thing.”

It’s true that to a certain generation, blogging became the virtual soapbox of choice. For some, like Andrew Sullivan or Arianna Huffington, the tool also became a career maker. For others, it’s turned into an employment killer, a relationship ender, or the kind of rumor mill that doesn’t sleep. And although few can claim that personal blogs have made them serious money, Rick Klau, former product manager for Blogger, says their users make millions of dollars per year through Google AdSense and other monetization programs.

At a little over a decade old, Blogger is now part of a top-10 Web property. And while companies like Twitter (another startup brought to the Web by Evan Williams) and Tumblr are considered the new hot thing, Rosenberg believes that’s not actually bad for Blogger, or blogs in general. He argues that the new tools have redefined blogging as a more substantive form. “It’s where you go for the more important stuff, and if you want to post eating habits, that goes on Twitter,” he says. “I look at blogging today and see the default form of most published writing on the Web. [That’s] kind of a big deal.”

To put that into context, consider this: 270,000 words are written each minute on Blogger. That’s 388 million words a day. And if all of Blogger’s posts were combined into books, they would fill about 3.2 million novels. Sure, a bunch of it may be about what someone had for breakfast or someone's pet-rock hobby. Still, it’s not too shabby for a couple of people who churned out an accidental product in the name of love—for the Web, that is.

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