Evan Williams, The Man Behind Digital Publishing

“Simplicity is powerful.”
– E. Williams

Evan Williams What a lucky duck. Evan Williams, I mean. He was at the front of two digital publishing revolutions: blogging and microblogging (and almost at podcasting).

The way he developed his businesses and products is fascinating, for entrepreneurs, product managers, and 21st century writers alike. Here are some highlights that I consider particularly notable. Much of what I’ve gathered is secondary research from various articles, interviews, Wikipedia, and the great book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

In 1999, Evan Williams co-founded the company Pyra Labs. Their aim was to create online project management software.

During this time, the term weblog (remember that?) arose as a log (a “web log”) of a person’s activities, much like a journal. Many website owners began publishing weblogs, though it was a relatively cumbersome process that required technical knowledge. A few, like Williams, decided to write a simple script that allowed themselves to publish their thoughts without having to FTP or SSH into their servers and write HTML each time.

Then Williams had a shot of insight. He integrated that simple script into Pyra as an internal feature called Stuff. Later, it was launched as Blogger. Although it wasn’t an overnight success, this simple script eventually grew much faster than the project management software of Pyra.

For you younger readers, it may be hard to believe that blogging once wasn’t commonplace. But there was a time where pundits and journalists wrestled with its value. “Why would anyone blog?” they asked. And more importantly, “Why would anyone read a stranger’s blog?”

For writers, this opened up a whole new field of opportunities. Here was an easy way to publish your stories, your thoughts, and even your photos to the whole wide world. No technical knowledge needed; anyone could do it. The transformation was incredible.

Then, despite raising half a million dollars, Pyra ran out of money in January 2001. All of its employees left. Williams remained to keep Blogger running, striking life-sustaining deals and developing Blogger Pro, until Google (GOOG) purchased them in February 2003.

At the heels of the blogging phenomenon was podcasting, the publishing of audio content. People could now publish their writings or photos on a blog, or words as a podcast. A whole new class of publishers arose as a result.

Seeing the next digital publishing trend, Williams left Google to co-found Odeo in 2005, a podcast publishing and aggregation platform. It was like Blogger, but for audio.

Podcasting didn’t take off as vibrantly as blogging, but it’s still a strong phenomenon. There is definitely a niche of consumers who enjoy creating and listening to podcasts.

During one fateful brainstorming session at Odeo, Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of an SMS group messaging service. A prototype was built soon thereafter, then publicly released as Twitter on July 2006. Another new publishing platform.

Williams and team spun off Twitter as a separate company in July 2007. As of this post, it appears they’ve raised around $160M. $5M of that came from a series A round, perhaps buoyed by Williams’ track record.

You can imagine the immediate reactions to such a service, however. “Why would anyone tweet?” Pundits and journalists asked. “Why would anyone read a stranger’s tweets?” I wonder if Williams appreciated the irony and enjoyed it as deja vu all over again.

Although many use Twitter as a marketing vehicle (as they do with blogs and podcasts too), countless others see it as a publishing platform. It’s even known officially as microblogging in the industry.

That’s how I primarily use it too. Within its 140-character constraint is the ability to create a whole new class of art. Whether it be haiku, imagery, short stories, or even novels, there’s a lot of creative potential in Twitter as a publishing platform for 21st century writers.

Being a writer has never been more exciting. New technologies keep on revolutionizing the field and enabling new classes of creators and artists. It is easier than ever to publish a story, a thought, a song, a photo, a video, or any piece of art to millions of people around the world.

Sure, there are still questions of quality (how do I know if this artist is worth following?) and discovery (how can my art be seen?), but the tools are there. The means of publishing are there. Anyone can use them.

I sometimes wonder if the next company that revolutionizes the digital publishing world will be another Williams company. I’m not an EV fanboy, but I envy how he’s been at the forefront of two digital publishing revolutions so far. Being someone who loves this field, I gotta say: What a lucky duck.

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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