If you don’t like the music on the radio, start a band. If you don’t like the way existing publications are defining your profession, start a magazine.
A List Apart hasn’t always been a magazine, but it has always been an attempt to fill a gap in the web design and development conversation.
Why A List?
We started as a mailing list (kids, ask your parents).
Most mailing lists are live and unedited: Michele posts a note and the whole list instantly receives it; Tom comments on Michele’s note and the whole list instantly receives that. The trouble with such setups is that flame wars can flare up while the moderator is off brushing her teeth. (The glorious exception, now in its eleventh great year, is Steven Champeon’s wonderful Webdesign-l.)
Brian Platz and I designed the A List Apart mailing list differently. Platz and I took turns moderating. Each day, members submitted posts to us. In the afternoon, that day’s moderator would read all submitted posts, detect emerging themes and contrasts, and combine the best submissions into an edited e-mail magazine that was sent to all subscribers that night. In this way, we were able to combine the insights and vigor of a community-written publication with the crisp focus (and freedom from flames) of an edited magazine.
Within a month, our mailing list had 16,000 subscribers. Within six months, we were blissfully exhausted—and broke. A web magazine was the natural next step.
Look back in orange
Why a magazine? Because we didn’t hear the music we wanted on the radio.
Hotwired’s Webmonkey and David Siegel’s High Five were, respectively, the reigning commercial web development and design magazines. Both were excellent, but neither focused on the needs of the hybrid designer who cares about content as well as code, usability as well as design. I was a hybrid. Our mailing list’s readers were hybrids. The future of web design lay with hybrids, I thought. The magazine’s longevity and success would prove that theory.
A List Apart, the magazine “for people who make websites,” launched in late 1998 and immediately staked out the high ground thanks to wonderful writers like Lance Arthur, Steven Champeon, Joe Clark, Glenn Davis, Christopher Schmitt, and Jeff Veen, who contributed to our earliest issues.
The likes of John Allsopp, Dean Allen, Curt Cloninger, J. David Eisenberg, and Erika Meyer followed, with Douglas Bowman, Dan Cederholm, Aaron Gustafson, and Eric Meyer succeeding them.
From Issue 1 (curiously labeled Issue 1.01 because I thought it sounded more “digital” or wired or something) to the present, ALA has been a place where great writers are discovered and where great thinkers share their most important ideas. Today’s ALA author is tomorrow’s important book author and conference speaker. Behold!
The road we traveled
Talent is grand, but focused talent is grander. For most of our first decade, ALA has been the leading journal of standards-based design, introducing foundational concepts and advanced techniques that were initially mocked, feared, and hated, but are now part of every good web designer’s repertoire.
We’ve also worked to advance our profession and help the world understand it.
And we launched a conference.
See ALA producer Erin Lynch’s The ALA Primer: A Guide for New Readers for more historic highlights that still hold up; browse Topics to learn what else we’ve been up to these past ten years; and for dessert, visit zeldman.com to read about how A List Apart is changing.
The music of a tired plumber
Otto Leuning is a father of electronic music.
A reporter once asked Luening to respond to the then-futuristic notion that “A tired plumber, after a hard day’s work, will settle down with his computer to compose music.”
Leuning said, “Yes, but it will be the music of a tired plumber.”
As with electronica, so with the web. Good web content takes talent and process. Some among us believe that “content is free” because “the users can now create the content.” These people fail to realize that the web’s “users” have always been able to create content. More importantly, they miss the distinction between stuff and content. Unmediated content is stuff. It does not create the same value and cannot offer the same experience as great content, well edited.
Here is where I thank Erin Kissane, our editor for eight years (and now a contributing editor) and Krista Stevens, Erin’s most worthy successor (and before that, acquisitions editor, a role now ably helmed by the talented Carolyn Wood).
Our editors can polish rusted flea market finds into genie-spouting magic lamps. When the writing is good (which it almost always is), they make it even better.
We receive many technical articles. Those that pass muster with the editorial team go before technical editors Aaron Gustafson, Eric Meyer, Ethan Marcotte, Daniel Mall, and Andrew Kirkpatrick. Even their names are scary, if you’re the author of a technical article. Our technical reviewers make the judges on Project Runway look like fawning pollyannas. Every article is submitted to the following four-part test:
- Big problems (reasons to reject the article)
- Small problems (probably fixable, but should be definitely nailed before acceptance)
- Stylistic quibbles or differences of opinion that the author might or might not need to rethink before writing
- Unacknowledged debts to prior art or other troubling similarities
As you’ve rightly guessed, most articles get rejected, but the great ones make it through—and that’s the point.
When the technical revisions finally cease, editorial kicks back in.
Erin Lynch and Andrew Fernandez do whatever it takes to deliver the article to your screen, with every kooky code demo and last-minute editorial nit-pick intact.
Jason Santa Maria, who redesigned the magazine in 2005, art-directs every issue, and Kevin Cornell illustrates.
These people are magnificent, and they work their hearts out.
Without you, we’re nothing
Here is where I thank the brilliant people who built our publishing systems before finding fortune (not from us).
- Glenn Davis’s Project Cool hosted the site back when it was a mess of hand-coded HTML (mine), installing ALA as a founding partner in what may have been the first network for web designers. High Five, edited by Christopher Schmitt, was a partner as well. We rocked the 1990s.
- Bruce Livingstone’s Webcore Labs built the first ALA CMS and also hosted the site after Glenn sold Project Cool. Soon afterwards, Bruce sold iStockphoto. Bling bling!
- Brian Alvey built and hosted ALA 3.0 before going on to build and sell Weblogs, Inc. Mazel tov!
- Dan Benjamin (also an important ALA author) built ALA 4.0, one of the first Ruby on Rails applications, and later sold Cork’d. Cheers!
These people were and are terrific. Without them, we wouldn’t be celebrating ten years of ALA.
Check the About page’s middle column to learn about important contributions over the years by Nick Finck, Webchick, Waferbaby, Todd Fahrner, Tantek Çelik, Tanya Rabourn, Fred Gates, Kylie Gusset, Kirk Franklin, David Whalen, Henry Li, Russell Heimlich, Damon Clinkscales, David F. Miller, and the amazing J. David Eisenberg.
Our first ten years were about finding a voice, an audience, and a cause worth fighting for. Please join us for what comes next.