The founder of Pinboard on why understanding fandom is good for business

By Kaitlyn Tiffany

Subscription-based bookmarking site Pinboard is a one-man operation, founded and maintained by former Yahoo engineer and slightly eccentric Silicon Valley figure Maciej Cegłowski. Last week, it managed to acquire its longtime rival, Delicious, for a paltry $35,000, in what appeared on its surface to be a standard story of dog-eat-dog.

But behind every boring story is a smaller, more interesting story. Delicious may be largely lost to the internet, but it leaves behind a valuable lesson on understanding users — specifically those that belong to a massive online subculture.

Delicious’ road to decline was mapped by The Daily Dot, tracing its downfall back to a series of bigger acquisitions. First, the site was bought by Yahoo in 2005, and redesigned in 2009 to make it cleaner and more appealing for Yahoo’s then-huge audience. Making the site’s millions of bookmarks easier to sort through made it more accessible, but it also turned off older users who were accustomed to hiding in the haystack.

“At the time,” Cegłowski told The Verge in a phone call, “I asked [Delicious co-founder] Joshua Schachter’s blessing to do a version of what it used to look like, and spin it off as a product. I tried to target it at people who really cared more about privacy and might not want to share as many of their bookmarks.”

In 2011, after Delicious’ value had plummeted, Yahoo sold the site to YouTube property AVOS, which redesigned it again, rendering it unusable for one of its largest established user bases — fan-fic writers. Slash fic, or fan fiction about romantic relationships between popular characters, is traditionally denoted with the / mark it takes its name from. E.g. Steve Rogers / Bucky Barnes, or Hermione Granger / Harry Potter. The AVOS redesign made it impossible to tag or search for anything with a / in it. A single symbol turned into a huge opportunity for Delicious’ growing rival, Pinboard.

Cegłowski was only positioned to notice this with the help of former Delicious community manager Britta Gustafson. She taught him about fandom, and how fans had once made Delicious’ platform work for them as a way to organize hundreds of thousands of pieces of fan fiction. “As community manager,” Gustafson explained to The Verge in an email, “I heard a lot of friendly and thorough bug reports from fandom users, and I got curious about what they were bookmarking. Learning about it showed me that the fandom community was really interesting, lively, and thoughtful — a whole secret world of women like me who liked internet stuff, feminism, queerness, science fiction. I was just an amused and impressed observer.” Gustafson began participating in fandom herself, and encouraged Cegłowski to embrace the fandom community.

As a token of thanks, Cegłowski has given her control of the now-useless Delicious social media accounts. She posts from them for fun, but notes that the end of Delicious as a fandom community is a bit of a soft spot. As with many corporate redesigns of once-niche products, “[It] hurts to see a thing you built turn into a weird undead zombie.”

To learn more about how and why fandom became central to Pinboard, and what Cegłowski thinks the tech industry can learn from this weird little business story, I spoke to him about his experiences meeting fans, “building a habitat” for them, and being upfront about taking their money.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I saw that you’re going to preserve Delicious as it is but not allow new activity. Why not shut it down?

The biggest reason for me is that I’ve been friends with Joshua [Schachter], the co-founder, and a bunch of the early Delicious people since forever. My roommate when I lived in New York was Peter Gadjokov, who was the other co-founder. This was their beloved project and I didn’t want to see it disappear or be bought by someone who wanted to use it strictly for SEO or marketing stuff. I thought it was really important given the amount of history and the special affection that some people have for this site, that it not end up in a startup graveyard.

I’m an archivist. That’s what Pinboard is for, so the idea that these sites just go offline and take millions and millions of pages of bookmarks with them is one of the things I hate the most. I’m glad to get the chance to preserve something that changed my life in a number of ways.

Pinboard for a while had this competition with Delicious as a main part of its brand — on Twitter, you wrote a lot of jokes about Delicious, lots of taunts aimed at Yahoo or AVOS — now that that’s over, who’s next?

Yeah, it’s really weird for me, because especially at the outset I felt like I was a flea on the elephant. I was trying to suck a few dozen customers away from this enormous Yahoo-funded giant and the idea that I could not just compete with this site, but actually buy it, never entered my mind. So I’m in a bit of a Twilight Zone feeling.

I feel like I won the war so thoroughly that I don’t really know what to do next. I would love to take down Pocket and I would love to take down Diigo. Pocket is losing a lot of money, and Diigo is kind of a strange, weird longterm competitor. Actually, I think there’s room for a lot of different bookmarking sites and I like that there’s competitors, I hope that they stick around.

There’s all these little niche areas in bookmarking that I want to see be occupied by people like me, who are just kind of living from it. There are a lot of ways you can earn a living but there’s not a lot of ways you can make millions. Unfortunately what ends up happening is that people start with a niche, but then they decide they want to grow the business to be like Pinterest and that never seems to work, maybe once in a decade.

I saw that you tweeted something at Flickr, is that another rivalry?

It’s not so much a rivalry, it’s just a regret. There’s this whole generation of startups that got bought at the same time by Yahoo. Upcoming, which Andy Baio was able to buy back and he’s running it again, which is super. And then Delicious, obviously. And then Flickr, which was a pioneer and it was really a beloved website and it still kind of is. If you could have Flickr back the way it used to be and run competently, everybody would be on there right now. I think it would be wonderful if the old Flickr crew could get the site back and run it the way they wanted to.

Yahoo just doesn’t understand anything about the sites they bought years and years ago, so they might as well just give them back to people who know what they’re actually for.

Pinboard has a reputation for being a platform for fandom. Would you say the platform itself also has fans, in the way that like, Tumblr has fans?

There’s been fan-fic written about Pinboard, which I thought was awesome. I think that’s the litmus test. I don’t know if it goes that far, but fans have been really nice to me and they’ve responded in a very friendly way to my overtures so I would say I get along with them. I try to understand their specific needs and uses maybe more than some other sites do.

Pinboard feature request Google Doc.

Since you’re pretty publicly the sole personality behind this site, do you have a lot of personal interactions with users?

For the last six months I’ve been running the Tech Solidarity group, which is a political activist thing. I’ve been having meet ups in different cities, trying to get tech people involved in areas where we can help locally with volunteering and also trying to do some broader political organizing in the tech industry. In the course of those meetings I’ve actually met a lot of Pinboard users and a lot of fandom people who use Pinboard. So that’s been a very funny side effect of this sudden political activism is that I get to meet people who use the site all over the country. Some people I’ve had Twitter relationships with forever, I’ll get to put a face on a Twitter account.

Could you give some specific examples of how you communicate with fans or collaborate with them?

The biggest example was this giant Google Doc they made for me in 2011. That was after yet another [Delicious] redesign that turned off a lot of essential fan features and they ended up just creating a collaborative design document that I could work from. So that was really the most amazing example for me, of cooperation. Whenever I see Pinboard users in fandom, we talk about things they’d like to see on the site or integrations. I really like the fandom community, they’re one of the most friendly groups to support that use Pinboard.

The more fans I can get on the site the better, just from a selfish perspective as someone who has to do customer support.

Pinboard feature request Google Doc.

Fandom, generally speaking, is a little complicated in that people who are really enthusiastic about things also have very strong opinions. Do you ever find it hard to keep up with requests?

I find that people are really understanding about it being just my solo project. So even if I can’t get stuff happening that they want, they’re pretty patient. Hopefully there’s some credibility at this point. They know I’m going to keep the site going without changing it majorly. I’m going to respect the way that people use it now and not try to go for millions of dollars or anything like that.

Pinboard anticipated these complaints that fans had about Delicious. Can you explain a little bit about how you came to know about these things? Were you personally involved in fandom?

No, no, I was a terrible person. I didn’t know anything. I made fun of fans and fan fiction. I was awful and Britta Gustafson, when she was Delicious community manager around 2005, told me all these cool tagging things that fans were doing on Delicious. The tagging system is really freeform, it’s not designed to do the things that fans made it do, but by collaborating they came up with all these inventive things that made it possible to search for fan-fic. I was just amazed by the level of collaboration and inventiveness on their part, so I remembered that. When I started Pinboard I really wanted to get the fandom community onto Pinboard, because I thought it was really cool the way they just built out the site to do their own thing.

When I saw that they were freaking out about the redesign that AVOS was doing, that was kind of the moment. I already knew who they were and how they used the site, I still didn’t realize to what extent they were a subculture of their own with their own lingo. Britta helped me, I learned that. I give her all the credit for broadening my mind about how fandom was using these sites. I’m a really big fan of the open web, of people using the web to create things and not just looking at stuff. So from that perspective I think fandom is one of the most amazing phenomena out there and I’m honored they’re using my site.

When they did that doc for me I was amazed at the level of friendliness and cooperation. I just had never seen anonymous users working together in that kind of spirit, and only later did I learn that fandom is predominantly women. That’s another reason that I’m happy that Pinboard has this subculture using it. When I was back in a frame of mind of being like “Oh, fandom, haha,” [Britta] was like “Well, you know, fandom is an underground training course in feminism for a lot of young women.” You go into it because you’re into the stories, you’re into the writing, but as a side effect you learn a lot of stuff from other women in the community. That stuck with me.

The reason this story is so interesting to me is because I think lots of entertainment brands have already recognized the benefit of having large fanbases but I haven’t seen it as much on the tech side or developer side. Is that something you’ve noticed?

I live in San Francisco, and there’s a really good website that tells you how to build a garden that attracts bees. I didn’t know this, but there’s dozens of species of wild bees, not just the ones we’re used to, but lots of odd-looking little ones. They have these instructions on how to make a bee-friendly garden and if you do all this stuff they’ll show up and make their hives. I’ve thought about Pinboard as trying to create a habitat for different kinds of users and make it useful, and then letting things happen on their own.

What I’ve seen with fandom is that these tech companies really try to co-opt them. They try to lock them into using platforms a certain way. Amazon made this attempt to have people doing fan-fic, basically moving fan-fic onto the Kindle ecosystem, but then they had all these rules. You couldn’t use certain characters in certain ways, they basically tried to rule it with a heavy hand. Fans have been burned a lot by people trying to get money out of them, in those ways and control what they do. Of course, I’m trying to get money out of them but hopefully I’m being transparent about it. I’m really adamant that I don’t understand the ways people use my site and I want to learn from them.