Scott Beale on 15 years of Laughing Squid (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Over the last 15 years, Scott Beale has turned Laughing Squid into one of the most important places to find out and see what's going on in tech and interactive culture.

After 15 years of hard work documenting (and hosting) the development of tech culture, there is one person whom many see at the epicenter of tech culture: Scott Beale.

The founder of Laughing Squid, a company that offers Web hosting to the tech stars (and anyone else), a well-read tech culture blog, a Twitter feed with 100,000 followers, an influential events list, and more, Beale calls himself the "primary tentacle" of his operation.

In a 2007 article on SFGate, he was called "the official photographer of Web 2.0," a title that anyone who's seen him toting his camera around at an event like South by Southwest Interactive, Yuri's Night, or Maker Faire, will agree is apt. (CNET has used several of Beale's photographs over the years, with permission).

Yesterday, Laughing Squid turned 15, replete with a brand new logo by Yiying Lu, the creator of Twitter's famous Fail Whale icon. And although Beale hosted celebrations in New York and San Francisco last month, it turns out November 16, 1995, was the day on which his small empire was born. And to anyone who's got one of his instantly recognizable green on black stylized squid stickers on their laptop, bookshelf, binder, or anything else, it's a good thing he's been doing what he's doing.

Thomas Hawk / thomashawk.com

Beale sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview yesterday to talk about 15 years of bringing the word about the tech culture community to its members, about how entrepreneurship has changed since 1995, about Beatles on iTunes, his recent relocation from San Francisco to New York, and much more.

Q: Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it. I hope all's well for you in New York. So, first of all, happy 15th anniversary.
Beale: Thanks!

It was very nice of Apple to save its announcement of The Beatles on iTunes for you.
Beale: Yeah, that was a long time coming.

What's your take on news like that?
Beale: My guess is that it was driven by Steve Jobs himself. I've always considered this to be a personal project of his. It also reminds me of when George Harrison died.

How so?
Beale: It has been awhile, but Apple changed their front page to a tribute to George. They don't do that very often for nonproduct stuff.

Did this news strike you as worthy of so much hype?
Beale: Ha, just look at the backlash on Twitter. To many, it's not news at all. But what people aren't looking at is the big picture. At last this is closure to the whole Apple Records versus Apple Computer thing from long ago, which started in 1978. So yeah, this one can finally be put to bed. Of course, it's not the announcement I was waiting for.

What announcement is that?
Beale: That would be iTunes Cloud and wireless synching of iTunes. Why are we still plugging in our iPhones and iPods? Why do we have giant hard drives for all of our music?

Agreed. I'm dealing with that issue right now. And the same with photos. Well, anyway, let's talk about Laughing Squid. I was reading your old FAQ where you talked about what Laughing Squid is. And you say it's hard to put together an elevator pitch about what Laughing Squid is. Is that still true?
Beale: It's by design. And it works even better now.

How do you mean?
Beale: We are purposefully ambiguous. The original idea was to not be about any one thing, which was one of the reasons for the unique name. We are far away from our film and video production roots.

Definitely. Can you still recognize the original Laughing Squid roots in what you're doing these days?
Beale: Yeah, the basic function has always been there, just in different forms, and that's letting people know about interesting stuff.

Tell me about running Laughing Squid for 15 years. What does it mean to you that you've been working on this project for so many years?
Beale: It means I'm lucky. I've been able to create a company where I can do exactly what I want. I'm like the anti-start-up. People are shocked when I tell them Laughing Squid is 15 years old.

That's funny, given that you spend so much time talking to people doing start-ups.
Beale: Well that's just through osmosis. Especially in San Francisco and New York.

I wanted to ask about the San Francisco and New York thing. What's the difference for you, from a tech culture standpoint, of being in New York now instead of San Francisco?
Beale: Not much at all, except that I start three hours earlier here. But as you know, the tech scene is blowing up here. It reminds me of San Francisco around 2006. It's exactly what needs to happen, for the next phase, going from early adopter to mainstream. More San Francisco companies should have a presence here.

You're saying that San Francisco is like the early adopter community and New York is the mainstream community?
Beale: Well yeah, in San Francisco a lot of the stuff people are doing is made for each other, long before the average person will be interested. In New York City, you have access to media, publishing, etc. Even at social events, you can tell that it's more outward facing.

Interesting. Do you see patterns of behavior in New York following what went on in the Bay Area a few years ago?
Beale: It's different here. Technology will never be the dominant force. It can't be. In San Francisco things became oversaturated.

How much is that forcing you to change the things you focus on?
Beale: Not at all.

How is that possible?
Beale: What have you seen that is different about what I do? Our readership and hosting customers are all over the world.

That's a good point. Laughing Squid does feel the same
Beale: I was joking that if I hadn't said anything about moving, people wouldn't even have known I moved.

Well, tell me a little bit about how you've seen entrepreneurial behaviors change over 15 years?
Beale: It's totally different now. Access is so much better, to developers, venture capital, etc. Also 15 years ago I didn't know the people who made the stuff I use. The barrier to entry is much smaller for people who have a good idea. Communication has improved, with Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc., all of which didn't exist 15 years ago.

And it would seem that people are much more savvy about using media now than they were 15 years ago.
Beale: Everyone was working in a vacuum. Steve Jobs is e-mailing and calling people now. If you mention a company on Twitter, chances are they will see what you say. Even if you are in Antarctica.

It seems that anyone who's anyone in the world of tech culture has a Laughing Squid sticker on their laptops. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?
Beale: I'm honored and lucky to have had Matt Dong gift our logo to us. Word of mouth has always worked best for us, and we don't really advertise. Our approach is more organic. The same is true for our favorite companies.

Well, tell me, what do you see as your personal role in the tech culture community?
Beale: I've never really seen myself as having any kind of specific role. I'm more curious to hear how you see it.

I've felt for years that are few people more at the epicenter of tech culture than you. Like, if you did a Venn diagram of all the different areas of interactive tech/media/culture, you would be at the center.
Beale: Interesting. I guess my approach has been to help the art and tech communities intersect. More and more the lines are blurred.

I think that may be why I have that feeling. I see your place in a number of different areas: technology, Burning Man, Maker Faire, Survival Research Labs, and Dorkbot , to name a few.
Beale: It all goes back to working on and letting people know about interesting things. The thing is that it has happened over a long period of time. And it has evolved a lot along the way. The blog has only been around for 5 of the 15 years.

How important to Laughing Squid has the blog become in those 5 years?
Beale: It's become what people know these days, but then that might change down the road. The trick is being able to adapt. At this point I'm more of a pointer, than a blogger. I leave the in depth analysis to guys like you.

Are you comfortable with that? Or would you rather be sharing more developed thoughts and opinions with your community?
Beale: Well, time is the issue. I come across so much good stuff to share that I'm always way behind. So I try to keep streamlining the process. For instance, lately a lot of stuff has being going on our Tumblr link blog. It mirrors how other people are sharing things. Then again I'm not a writer, so you're not going to see lengthy blog posts from me. Maybe from our guest bloggers if they feel like it.

I wanted to ask you about something you've been fairly sharp about, which is the way that some people inappropriately use photos of yours and other photographers without permission or even attribution. Do you feel like that dynamic has changed much?
Beale: It still happens. In fact, one of my photos was recently used on the cover of a newspaper, and I was never contacted about using the photo. The difference is that I'm not fighting it as much as I used to. Before, there would be a big blog post calling them out, etc. Why not?
Beale: It's a losing battle. Attribution is a lost art. There are few of us left trying to maintain it.

Well, how about this. On your FAQ, you mention that people always want to know what "laughing squid" means, and that you don't have, or won't, offer, an answer. Are you willing to break your silence and tell us what it's about?
Beale: The silence is not intentional. That's because it's not a simple answer. One of these days, I'll do a write up about it, a rare longer blog post on Laughing Squid.

So no preview for us?
Beale: Well, it's what I've said from the beginning. I wanted a unique name that wasn't specific to anything. So it's served well in that regard.

The last question is my standard last question: I like doing interviews on IM because it gives me a perfect transcript and because it allows people to be very thoughtful and articulate with their answers. And, perhaps best of all, it allows multi-tasking. So, tell me what else you've been doing while we've been doing this interview?
Beale: Ha. Well, I've tried to remove most distractions. I've been looking some stuff up. But I closed e-mail, Twitter, etc. I know better than to keep that stuff open during things like this.

Well, fair enough. And thanks so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Beale: Thanks for inviting me to do this.

 

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