Hover Stories: Mark Frauenfelder from Boing Boing & Make
Mark Frauenfelder is a much-admired journalist, blogger, editor, illustrator and maker. Boing Boing, the zine-turned-blog that he and his wife started in 1988, is now revered as one of the Internet’s go-to sources for articles about Internet, tech and geek culture. He’s also the editor-in-chief of Make, a website and magazine for creative DIYers working on projects ranging from emergency lighting systems to air fresheners.
As Boing Boing fans ourselves, you can imagine our delight when we discovered that boingboing.net is registered with Hover! It was also a pretty good reason to get Mark on the phone and learn more about the person behind one of our favourite sites.
Perhaps most surprising about Mark’s story is that he got to where he is today almost entirely by accident. What started as only a passion project would end up being the launch of a career that would change his life forever.
The Beginning of Boing Boing
In the mid-1980s, Mark was a mechanical engineer who earned his living by designing hard disk drives. Around that time was when people were beginning to produce their own zines, which Mark was particularly fascinated by.
“People were starting to get their hands on affordable desktop publishing software,” Mark explains, “and were making these amazing self-produced magazines — they really were just physical blogs. So my wife and I started one called Boing Boing in 1988.”
Mark and his wife, Carla, began producing Boing Boing based on the subjects that they were most interested in, including cyberpunk science-fiction, underground comic books and consciousness-enhancing technology. When Mark saw that there were people out there who liked the zine, that was enough for him to drop everything to focus full-time on his passion.
“It was enough that I could quit my job as an engineer and live on starvation wages to produce this magazine,” he explains. “I didn’t care that I wasn’t making any money because it was so much more important to me to have fun doing something that was really rewarding and fulfilling.”
Becoming a Journalist
Boing Boing was beginning to attract all kinds of readers as it became more and more popular. In 1993, some people at a new magazine called Wired were among those readers.
“They saw Boing Boing and they really liked it,” Mark recalls, “so they called me up and asked if I could come work for them as an editor and inject some of Boing Boing’s sensibility into the magazine. So we moved from Colorado to San Francisco and that’s really when I became a journalist.”
Mark stayed at Wired for 5 years until 1998, after which he left to pursue other endeavours. He began writing for publications such as New York Times Magazine, Popular Science and many business magazines.
Boing Boing Comes Online
While Mark was busy establishing himself as a journalist at Wired and beyond, Boing Boing was still around and growing considerably in size and scope. After the magazine’s distributor went bankrupt and cost them tens of thousands of dollars, Mark decided to stop the print publication and move the zine entirely online.
“I just thought this was a drag — physical inventory, the printing costs, having to mail things — it’s just so much easier to do it online,” Mark explains. “You have a much larger audience you can reach, people can search for you, you can publish things right away, you can make changes, and fix your mistakes.”
Though there are many positives to the transition, Mark still misses the physicality of the medium that he originally fell in love with.
“I do miss the physicality of zines and how they look neat as physical objects, but the advantages really outweigh the disadvantages.”
Even as Boing Boing’s readership grew considerably with its online version, it would take a while until Mark and the other team members who would eventually come on board decided they should probably start selling ads.
“We were paying for the bandwidth out-of-pocket,” Mark explains, “so we realized we needed to start finding a way to make it so that Boing Boing at least breaks even. So we started selling ads and people were really responsive and advertised on Boing Boing. It must have done well for them because they kept advertising on it.”
With advertising money supporting them, Mark and his friends have been able to keep the website going as what he describes as a lifestyle business. “We’ve never taken investment money or anything, we’re just a private company. It’s been a fantastic and rewarding thing for me for a long time now.”
Having gotten his hands dirty creating a zine many years ago, Mark was always a DIYer — he just didn’t know it. It wasn’t until he was invited by Dale Dougherty to put a prototype together for a do-it-yourself magazine (which would eventually become Make Magazine) when he realized he had something in common with this community.
“When I got to know these people, I found out that it wasn’t that they were necessarily really talented or skilled (although a lot of them were); they were just tenacious and willing to learn from their mistakes. I thought that I’m good at making mistakes, so maybe I can be a maker too.”
Mark enjoys spending his spare time exploring an eclectic range of projects — anything from cigar box guitars to robots made out of coat hangers and portable fan motors to fermenting his own sauerkraut. Mark believes that it’s not just the physical act of making things that’s all the fun, though, but contributing to a community that shares your interest as well.
“DIYers are not satisfied with just making things. They want to make the infrastructure for other people to make really beautiful things.”
Because of the internet, it is now easier than ever to make your own things, which helps explain why the DIY movement has been getting more and more popular as of late.
“Large organizations don’t have an advantage anymore over individuals because individuals can outsource all these things using really inexpensive systems that are out there to help them make really beautiful things and even sell them if they want. It’s a whole new playing field.”
From Boing Boing’s humble beginnings over 25 years ago, Mark never anticipated the success that he would see over the years. He’s managed to build a career doing what he loves doing. His work has even led to amazing experiences like appearing on the Martha Stewart show and twice on the Colbert Report.
Unlike when he got started, the time is now even better for people wanting to pursue their passions. “The tools to produce media have become easier to use and much more sophisticated,” he explains. “Your only barrier to entry now is that you are interesting. If you are, you’ll find an audience.”
Mark’s biggest piece of advice is to find others online that can help you with whatever it is that you’re working on. Chances are you won’t have too hard of a time finding like-minded people out there.
“I think we’re in a really great era right now where if you’re interested in making something, you can go online and do a Google search and immediately see what other people are doing. Then you can also get in touch with those people. More often than not, if you find someone that’s doing something that you’re interested in doing, they’ll be really nice about it and will help you.”
Why He Chose Hover
“I loved the interface,” Mark remembers. “I felt that they understand where I’m coming from and they’re here to make it as painless and helpful as possible for me to register a domain. That clicked through to me immediately. I got that sense that these guys know what they’re doing about customer service and making it a great experience. After that I thought I’m never going to register anywhere else but Hover and I never have.”
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