I still can’t look Peter Rojas in the eye.
In 2004, Rojas left Gizmodo, the blog he had founded at Nick Denton’s Gawker Media, to start Engadget. Denton asked me to step in to blog at Gizmodo while they searched for a full-time replacement. My two-week temporary position turned into a four-week one, then a six-week one, until Denton finally realized that my special brand of cock jokes were as good as Gizmodo deserved and made me the full-time editor.
But I was floundering. Rojas had hired a small team of writers to work at Engadget, while I was running Gizmodo by myself. I planted myself in front of my computer from five in the morning until midnight, breaking only to shovel General Tso Chicken and delivery fajitas down my gullet. I gained thirty pounds. I couldn’t sleep at night, my back contorted with worry. My girlfriend and I barely slept together; she would gently try to coax me into relaxation, but I’d be too preoccupied with conceiving my next linkbait story to register her supplications.
I’d post 30 stories a day. Engadget would post 45. I’d post 45. Engadget would post 60. They were winning.
Rojas — a person who I still don’t know in the least; someone whose sitting down amicably at my table at last year’s SXSW prompted me to spring up, sputter a drunken unintelligible excuse and literally run away — haunted me, a fiendish specter who outwitted me at every move, whose machinations I saw behind every bad turn.
I was fucking nuts.
As CES 2005 rolled around, it was clear that Gizmodo was losing the gadget blog war. Although they never publicly exposed their readership numbers, it was obvious that Engadget was pulling ahead in traffic. And I knew through various channels that they were going to be heading to the Consumer Electronics Show in force, while I was going to be out there by myself.
I was ready to lose, though. Although I had been running Gizmodo for less than a year I was already about to burn out. If I’d had any inkling of the outcome over the next few years — Engadget‘s sale to AOL, the growth of Gizmodo with a proper staff, and eventual irrelevance of any sort of “win” between the two sites — I might have been able to keep my head on straight. But instead I saw the end of my short career in blogging, the first job I’d ever truly loved, about to end.
Susie and I sat in the back of towncar on the way to La Guardia to catch our plane to Vegas. She’d waited patiently by my side over the past few months. I thought perhaps we’d be able to catch an evening or two alone in Las Vegas in between all of the madness of the trade show. We needed it.
As I leaned back into the fake leather seat, my phone rang.
“Hey, Joel? It’s Larry Cohen from Microsoft. I know it’s sort of last second, but would you be interested in interviewing Bill Gates at CES?”It may seem strange now, but four years ago we bloggers were treated as somewhat mythical, dangerous creatures. We were going to kill the old media, the old media kept telling us, despite the fact that most of us were gaining newfound respect for the process of journalism and reporting practiced by the old guard. There was a strange line between bloggers and the rest of the media and a fraternity naturally developed those few of us actually blogging for a living. Every time something happened to one of us all the other bloggers took it as a sign of legitimacy for the entire endeavor.
And I was about to be the first blogger to whom Bill Gates would grant an interview.
In retrospect it isn’t that big of deal. Gates has been interviewed hundreds of times. The only difference was that this time he was about to be interviewed by someone who wasn’t really a journalist, hadn’t put in his dues, and more or less happened to be in the right place at the right time. Others would come to view the interview as a hallmark of blogging’s legitimacy in the world of online journalism, but for me it mostly reinforced the same rule that governs media old and new: whoever has the largest audience gets the most favor.
But fuck it: Bill Gates!
I looked over at Susie, who could tell from the look on my face that the person on the other end of the wireless was blowing my mind. I hung up.
“I think I’m going to interview Bill Gates.” She punched me.
A couple of days later, I met Cohen in the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton. He kept me occupied while we waited for Gates’ to finish a previous interview in his hotel room.
“So what’s up with that Engadget site?” he asked. “They seem to be doing pretty well.” We shared a look that I interpreted as acknowledgement that he may have reached out to the wrong site. Too late now, I thought, but there’s no reason not to be gracious.
“I think they do good work,” I said. “If you like your technology news terminally dry.” Burn! Engadget might have a small team of hardworking, talented reporters out-writing the rest of the industry and transforming the face of technology journalism, but could they insert penis references into thirty posts a day? I and my penis think not.
Cohen got a call on his hulking Windows Mobile smartphone and said it was time. I was nearly sweating through my barbarously ugly Old Navy thermal shirt, the same one my mother would gently ask me about later, questioning if I had enough money for clothing.
Up we went. I was led into a small hotel room. A door connected my room to an adjacent suite. Gates was inside, waiting. Three executives milled around, trying to put me ease. Handing me water, suggesting helpfully that I drink some.
The door opened. Gates was ready.
I lumbered inside. Gates stepped around a couch and smiled, extended his hand. He was small and almost ashen, but seemed lively. He seemed alive. Perhaps after all the jibes and scorn, Bill Gates was not a robot after all. (Speaking to the richest man in the world and discovering him just another guy ended up being a deeply humanizing influence on my worldview. I recommend everyone try it.)
We exchanged pleasantries which have been obliterated from my memory by terror. I sat down on the couch and removed my laptop — my brand new 12-inch PowerBook — and placed it on the coffee table between us. I will not lie and say that it did not seem like a small act of rebellion to record an interview with Bill Gates with my Apple laptop; it also felt like the twerpiest thing I could ever do and I regretted it immediately.
That sudden shame also knocked out a large portion of my snarkiest prepared questions. I literally scratched out “Does Steve Balmer eat babies?” from my notepad, leaving me with precious few questions to ask.
I’d called Xeni an hour before the interview. I felt like this was a huge opportunity, a huge responsibility for all bloggers everywhere, and I was at a loss as to what questions I could ask. Should I try to nail him on DRM? Should I make fun of him? Should I call Microsoft uncool?
Xeni told me, more or less, just to roll with it and that I’d do fine — but asking him about DRM probably wouldn’t hurt.
The beginning of the interview was about blogs and RSS, which seemed important at the time. (Remember, this was four whole years ago, when RSS was an exotic new technology.)
Gates was rocking. I didn’t notice it at first, my mind preoccupied with the ways in which I would nail him and become a hero to thousands of Slashdot readers. But as his mind would warm up to answer a question, he would fade out just a bit and begin a slow but unmistakeable autistic full-torso rock.
I’d never seen Gates do this before in any televised interview. What could it mean? It was something he was obviously aware of if he didn’t do it all the time. Did the fact that he was doing it now mean he was comfortable around me? Uncomfortable around me? Were my questions actually challenging enough that he had to give real consideration to his answers? This was terrifying. Why hadn’t anyone mentioned that Gates was like this before? Should I mention it?
He’d soon answered my question, which meant I was supposed to ask another one. It all seemed so natural. We were having a conversation. I’m having a conversation with the richest man in the world and I’m totally doing fine.
Except I wasn’t.
Bill Gates may be a lot of things, but he isn’t stupid. No matter what you think of Microsoft and the technical and business moves that Gates made to grow it, there’s no denying that the guy is sharp. And while I’d waltzed into the room with my stupid greasy blogger hair and my stupid greasy blogger shirt ready to pin Gates to the wall with some pointed repartee, I realized with a sinking feeling that not only was Gates respectfully taking the interview seriously, he actually cared about his answers. Cared enough to try to prove me wrong.
I was in a battle of minds with the richest man in the world! I wanted to leave the room immediately, but his handlers were blocking every exit. I’d have to stick it out.
Actually, I did okay. I even managed to get in a couple of rhetorical zingers at the end.
The very last question I asked, to which Gates gave a weak (but in retrospect telling) answer, I excised from the transcript: Do you worry about the fact that Microsoft isn’t cool?
Our time was nearly up by the time I’d asked. I could tell from the look on Gates’ face that it wasn’t a question he felt worth answering, and he snapped instantly back into his stock-standard PR spiel. “Oh, I think our products are very cool.” (Or some such. I’ve lost the MP3s of the actual interview.) I’d clearly been referring to Apple. He knew I was talking about Apple. But at the time I had an inkling that Apple’s style would be a factor in the still-ongoing iPod war, but I wasn’t confident enough in my opinion to try to convince Bill Gates that his company just wasn’t cool.
We shook hands, took that dreadful picture*, and I stepped back into the staging area to compose myself. As it happened, Bill and his entourage were leaving their room as I left the one next door, so we shared an awkward elevator ride to the ground floor. He asked me what my favorite device of the show so far had been. I believe I had an answer, but like everything that day, it wasn’t recorded to a device so it’s a all a bit murky.
I do remember the looks on the faces of the people waiting for the elevator when it opened and they recognized Gates inside. I looked at them, looked back at Gates, and said “Talk to you later!” Then I gave those innocent, hapless people the rudest smirk of my life and walked away.
I stayed up all night and typed up the transcript myself. It was a moderately big deal when we published the story — Denton called it our “CES Hail Mary” — but Engadget did such a bang-up job that year that it was clear they were going to be the dominant gadget site for a while. A few months later Gates granted Rojas an interview and my brief claim to fame was over.
I couldn’t have been more relieved.
* I’d wanted to throw the horns, but I chickened out. One of my life’s greatest regrets and one I hope I have a chance to remedy in the future. Maybe this year?