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Interview with Gina Trapani, Lifehacker Editor
Most people in the blogosphere know, or have heard of Lifehacker. It is one of the most popular blogs online. I enjoy reading it because of what I learn but also because it provides a nice break after hours and hours of coding or writing. Gina is the site lead and when I found out she is from Brooklyn, I just had to chat with her about Lifehacker and why she left Brooklyn for California. Gina was kind enough (thanks Gina!) to take a few minutes to chat with me and below is the transcript.
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Allen: Can you provide a brief background about yourself?
Gina: I’m Gina Trapani, and I’m a freelance programmer and tech writer, living in sunny San Diego, California. I’m the founding editor and site lead of Lifehacker.com, a weblog on software and productivity.
My academic background is a combination of English/Creative Writing and Computer Science. Up until 2 years ago, I was your regular, run-of-the mill code monkey working as a developer for various startups, including the one that publishes Lifehacker. Now I’m a “professional blogger” (I still can’t say that with a straight face), occasional print magazine contributor, speaker and night-time coder.
Allen: Where did the idea for Lifehacker come from?
Gina: Tech journalist Danny O’Brien coined the term “life hack” in a talk at a 2004 conference entitled “Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks.” The idea behind Danny’s presentation was that power users devise secret systems and shortcuts for getting their work done and managing their information. The concept really tickled my fancy, and I wasn’t alone, so it was a perfect premise for a topic-based site. There’s more about the history of the term “life hack” at Wikipedia.
Allen: Can you share some information about your users? RSS, mobile, etc.?
Gina: My readers are some of the smartest and most helpful people out there on the internet. I’ve got lots of numbers I won’t bore you with, except two of interest: in less than two years the site gets over 7 million page views per month, and we’ve got well over 100,000 readers subscribed via RSS. My readers are tech-savvy folks: we’ve got a high number of Mac users compared to the industry average and significantly more readers visit us using the Firefox web browser than Internet Explorer.
Allen: How do you monetize Lifehacker? Do you have funding? What’s Gawker like?
Gina: Being just an editor, Gawker keeps me blissfully shielded from most icky money details, but Lifehacker is an advertising-supported publication. If I were running my own blog, wrangling advertisers and dealing with web server issues would take me away from editorial, so it’s fantastic to have a team of people behind me who just let me write. Gawker is a fun place to work – it’s a motley crew of far-flung creatives who make every day an adventure.
Allen: In another interview earlier this year you mentioned using Bloglines to aggregate the news sources you read. Is this still your choice for your news aggregator?
Gina: Since then I’ve switched from Bloglines to Google Reader, for a variety of reasons, which I wrote about in detail here.
Allen: What tools do you use to create Lifehacker?
Gina: Lifehacker is published using a combination of the blogging system MovableType and the technology behind Kinja (http://kinja.com, which I helped code), plus lots of custom apps like our comments and polls.
I write all my posts within Firefox using the MovableType interface, with some Firefox extensions, bookmarklets and AutoHotkey scripts that help me copy and paste links and markup into a post quickly.
Allen: Who are your competitors?
Gina: Lifehacker is a pretty unique combination of Real Simple, Download.com, Dear Abby, Getting Things Done and eHow all thrown into a big blog blender and whipped together with a heavy does of geek sensibility. I wouldn’t say any of those titles are our direct competitors, but they’re in our range. The site that aligns most closely with our content area is Merlin Mann’s excellent 43 Folders, which is a Mac-focused productivity site.
Allen: What’s next for Lifehacker?
Gina: More timely, useful content that helps folks get their stuff done has been my goal every day since we launched, and will be for as far as I can see. One of the newer developments on the site last year was the introduction of registered user comments. Since then we’ve amassed a rich community of folks on the site. If all goes my way, Gawker will roll out more features that let readers interact with us and each other even more.
Allen: Why the move from Brooklyn to San Diego?
Gina: After living in Brooklyn for 30 years, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity my other half had to relocate to Southern California. I mean, the surf and the burritos alone were reason enough.
Allen: What’s the new Lifehacker book about?
Gina: The new Lifehacker book is a compendium of the best hacks from Lifehacker.com’s archives. It’s my manifesto on how to work smarter and more efficiently in the digital age; it’s my entire bag of tricks laid out one by one with step-by-step instructions. It’s also turned me into a one-woman sales pitch. Hey, you should buy a copy.
Allen: What blogs do you enjoy reading the most?
Gina: Besides the hundreds of fantastic tech blogs I keep up with to write Lifehacker, my favorite sites aren’t the popular titles you might expect – they’re actually my friends’ personal blogs and LiveJournals, with stories from their every day lives, especially back in NYC. The web’s greatest use is maintaining connections between people.
Allen: What has been the biggest mistake you have made since starting Lifehacker?
Gina: I’m a people-pleaser, so the mistake I make over and over again in life and at work is forgetting that I can’t please all the people all the time. I’m in the privileged position of communicating with thousands of readers every day, but I could lose my mind – and my life – trying to answer and act on all the questions, critiques, suggestions and tips that we receive. So, I try to listen, trust my gut, do my best, and hope that I’m pleasing the most people I can with what resources I have.
Allen: What are the top 1-2 things you have learned since starting Lifehacker?
Gina: That people’s generosity when it comes to sharing their experiences and expertise knows no bounds, given the right context and platform; and that honesty and transparency really is the best policy.
Allen: What are the most important things that a startup must have to be successful?
Gina: Having never founded a startup myself, this backseat driver says: a definite vision, a passionate leader, and people who can launch the product, visibly iterate it, and maintain an interesting conversation about it with its market every single day.
Allen: Where do you see the Web and blogs moving in the next year?
Gina: My crystal ball is a bit cloudy, but I think I see companies who are truly innovative and who can launch coming out on top, and others falling away. As for blogs? I see more professional writers blogging, more bloggers becoming professional writers, and a general bar-raising in the content quality area. We’re only just beginning getting human knowledge onto the web.