Boing Boing is one of the biggest blogs in the world. It’s an Internet destination for culture and cool, curated by a handful of very with it individuals. The collective is scattered all over the world; however, the founder, the person who started Boing Boing nearly twenty years ago as a zine, is an Angeleno. Mark Frauenfelder is the man behind the Boing, a very kind, smart, soft spoken man with a head of very organized messy hair. He’s the type of person who always has to share and make things, two traits that define him and his work.
Mark is based in Studio City, where he lives with his family in the hills neighboring Laurel Canyon. He grew up in Colorado for the most part, his father’s time in the Coast Guard landing him and his family in various locations from Hawaii back to returning to Colorado. “I basically grew up in Boulder,” he said, noting his father eventually work at IBM as an engineer. “I actually studied engineering in school–I have a degree in mechanical engineering. But, when I got out of school, instead of going to work as an engineer, I was in a band. We moved to London and played there for a while. We didn’t get a record deal or anything like that. But, it was fun. After a while of living in poverty in London, I moved back to the United States, to California, and got a job at Memorex as a disk drive design engineer, designing disk drives. I did that off and on for five years.”
Mark also married to his college sweetheart, Carla, whom he met at school I’m Colorado. The two travelled around, spending time in Japan and other parts of Asia, eventually settling in Los Angeles in 1988–this is when Boing Boing began. “My wife and I came up with the idea for Boing Boing as a zine, a print zine. We started publishing it in 1989,” he said.
The two weren’t in Los Angeles for long, as they kept popping in and out of the city, coming back to it like a chorus. Here, they started publishing Boing Boing as a magazine. “[Boing Boing] led me to other things like design jobs” Mark added, “I designed some of Billy Idol’s album covers and video covers and stuff like that. I got a job at Wired Magazine in 1993 so we moved to San Francisco for a year and a half. But, we liked LA so much that we moved back and I commuted between LA and SF for a few years.”
It wasn’t until 1995 that they came back to Los Angeles. They essentially committed to the city full time, abandoning the hassle of a SoCal/NorCal commute, save for “a short jaunt when [they] lived for five months on an island in the South Pacific in 2003.”
But, why Los Angeles? Mark had been all around the world and, despite us all knowing the joys of the city, he is someone constantly pulled in different directions. “My wife grew up here,” he said. “In fact, she grew up in Studio City, where we are now. Her family is here–her sister even lives up the street. The times that I visited LA, I just thought it was great. I thought the excitement and music and restaurants and the fact that its so big that there’s always something new around every corner, all the undiscovered neighborhoods, hiking, and stuff like that made us come back. No matter how many times we leave, we end up back here. We finally learned our lesson, though: we’re not going to leave.”
“I think LA had a lot to offer culturally,” Mark said. “There were other zines out around the time Boing Boing started. There was a zine called Ben Is Dead, which I really liked, and we knew the folks who did that. A lot of the people that we were interested in writing about lived in Los Angeles, people who were working as cartoonists and filmmakers. It was good access to those folks. And, compared to Colorado, it was much closer to a lot of interesting things.”
Even for a print zine, technology was very much a part of Boing Boing from the start as Mark was using e-mail in the early nineties for interviews: it almost didn’t mater where he and Carla lived, hence why they moved so much. “I think I got my first e-mail account in 1988, 1989 from a service called The Well. It wasn’t even really the Internet. You had dial-up and a modem and a bulletin board system: that was it.”
“This allowed me to be able to work from home and do the kinds of things that I like,” he said of technology surrounding communication. “I tend to have a hard time concentrating in an office environment because I am so easily distracted. If I’m here, at home, and it’s quiet, communication comes in the form of e-mail: it’s easy for me to deal with that because I can handle it at my own pace. That was just the perfect thing for me. Without e-mail and the Internet, I would not be this happy.”
This also plays into the infrastructure of Boing Boing, too. There were two periods of the magazine: the zine days and the Internet days. “Around 1991 or 1992, we had enough circulation and subscribers to the zine where we were able to squeak by and make a very low but survivable living from the magazine. We moved into a very tiny apartment here, just one room the size of this bedroom with a little kitchen and everything. I did supplement our income with a bit of design work and I eventually took the job editing Wired, which meant Carla took over the magazine.”
Boing Boing had a transformation when it went online, too. It first hit the Internet in 1995; however, in 2000, it turned into a blog and became a bigger production. “I invited other friends who were also journalists to contribute with me. There were about four of us and, as it became more popular, we had to pay for the bandwidth costs out of pocket. Every month I would send an e-mail to Cory and Xeni and David saying that they had to send $250 to pay for the bandwidth, which was a thousand dollars a month. I could see that it was growing and, in six months, it bumped to two thousand a month, making us have to pay $500 a month. I called a friend of mine, John Battelle, who had started some magazines and who had hired me at Wired, asking if he could sell advertising on Boing Boing to help pay for the bandwidth costs. He said, ‘Sure, I can do that…but you’re probably going to make more money than the bandwidth costs. I’m not interested in just selling two thousand dollars work of ads a month: I want to sell much more than that.’”
“We all decided then that we wanted to make it a profit making enterprise. Luckily, it took off right away. Since then, it’s basically been the main source of income for all of us. We have other people working with us, like a managing editor, moderator, system administrator, a software developer, and even a science editor. It’s turned into about ten people, basically, between half and full time.”
And, the whole team is scattered all around: Mark and Xeni are the only ones in Los Angeles, David is in Sam Francisco, Cory is in London, our managing editor Rob is in Pittsburgh, and they have people in Minneapolis, Palm Springs, and Muir Beach, which is where they hold their annual Boing Boing strategy and planning meeting.
Boing Boing has obviously changed a lot over the years, reshaping how it presents itself and even what it’s presenting. On a personal level, Mark’s work has changed a lot as well, him getting to the root of what interests him. “I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately,” he says to the question of how his work has changed over the years. “I guess I tend to have interests: I become obsessed with something for a year to eighteen months and then kind of move on. But, there are certain things that have lasted for a really long time, that I really like, like comic book illustrations, science fiction, 1970s era punk music–those kinds of things have held a long term fascination or passion for me, which are what I’ve continued to really focus on, these things with lasting appeal. I’m trying to concentrate less on things that come in phases because I won’t get that much out of them. Sticking with something longer term is more interesting to me now.”
An example he gave of a phase was ukeleles, an instrument he had a momentary fascination with. Even though he has moved on from the subject, many of his readers have not. “People will still send things like, ‘Oh, here’s a cool ukelele that I am manufacturing.’ and it just doesn’t interest me as much anymore. I feel kind of bad that people have an expectation that I’ll be excited about it: it’s just not as interesting to me anymore. As opposed to skateboarding, which I’ve liked since I was twelve years old. When I was younger, I was into electronics and I’m actually getting back into that now through electronic musical instruments. It’s great to revisit these things I’ve always liked but pushed out for short term interests.”
Electronics are very obviously a lifelong fascination for Mark, from his ties to the computer, design, and web worlds to building basic electronic gadgets and toys as a hobby. He showed us a series of devices born out of this obsession, from a signal cued cymbal playing monkey to scare his cat off of objects to a tiny touch-based instrument he made with his daughter called “The Friendstrument.” Mark is a very hands on guy, which very obviously is why Boing Boing is so great. Moreover, it’s made him into a pretty cool dad as he showed several toys and objects, from a skateboard to small clay faces, that he’s made with and for his daughters. “It’s good for me to remember what the things are that are most rewarding and fulfilling,” he says with a smile.
His life now is very unexpected to him. “There wasn’t such a thing as the web or blogging when I was first getting started. Digital communication was just in its infancy!” he says. He could see himself being a magazine editor again, though. “I could have seen being a magazine editor at Esquire or Details or something like that. That would have been fine–but I like this better.” Even if an opportunity like that arose, he likely wouldn’t take it as he’d have to go into an office every day.
In any event, editing Boing Boing and MAKE–a magazine dedicated to people who make amazing things–keeps him busy enough. And, he has no reason to change things or ever leave California, especially considering the lifestyle of a California editor is much more appealing. “It’s more laid back here,” he says. “It’s a style of living, where you can be inside and outside. I have a little treehouse platform where I read manuscripts and comics. It’s great. In New York, I guess you could go to Central Park. But, here, we have deer in our backyard and hawks and stuff.”
“I think I’ll always be involved in some media,” he says. “Who knows what Boing Boing will evolve into. But, I kind of imagine that it might not be too different than it is now. I’d like to do a lot more in the way of original content, though. One thing we’re thinking about is hiring more people on staff to write articles. That’s something we want to do more and I could see it growing that way. I’d also love to get more involved in doing video and podcasting.”
He takes a beat. “I see myself continuing to make Boing Boing into an even better experience for its audience,” he says with a smile.
For more on Mark, be sure to give him a Follow on Twitter, check out his artwork, and take a peek at MAKE, too. For more on Boing Boing, check out their website, give them a follow on Twitter, and Like them on Facebook.