Shane BarnhillWednesday,6 February 2013

The Snap:

If I could only follow ten people on Twitter, then one of them would most certainly be Anil Dash. Dash is the co-founder and CEO of ThinkUp, as well as an advisor to companies such as Branch, Vox Media and Readability. But those roles aren’t what make Dash so interesting to follow on Twitter and other social channels. Instead, Dash’s smart, funny commentary across an array of topics — such as politics, entrepreneurship, technology and pop culture — challenge readers such as me to think beyond well-worn positions, and reflect upon innate biases.

And in my view, the people whose ideas challenge you to consider new perspectives and think differently are the ones who are most interesting to connect with; thus, I was thrilled when Dash agreed to an interview for TSD. Read on for the transcript of our interview.

The Download:

The Snap Download: Let’s start out with a lighthearted subject: music. I know that you’re a big fan of Prince. What is it about Prince’s music that helps it to stand the test of time?

Anil Dash: There are a lot of aspects of Prince’s career that really connect for me. At a superficial level, he’s a funny and deliberately ridiculous pop entertainer who knows how to put on a great show. At a music level, he’s incredibly talented at nearly every instrument, at many vocal styles, in all kinds of composition, and is a phenomenal producer. And perhaps just as important to me later in his career, he’s a terrific innovator in both technology and in understanding the evolution of the music industry. So there are lots of different parts of his work that resonate and inspire me.Plus, he taught me at a very young age the importance of dressing distinctly and loving yourself so much that everyone else does too.

TSD: What new music are you listening to these days?

Anil Dash: I’ve been really, really impressed by Miguel’s album “Kaleidoscope Dream” and the “Art Dealer Chic” mixtapes that preceded it. Also I love every song on Solangé’s latest. Frank Ocean’s record is still in heavy rotation, as is Beyonce’s last one, though that doesn’t really count as new. I end up listening to “Coexist” by the xx a lot when I’m working these days, and am eagerly awaiting the new Justin Timberlake record.

TSD: Now, let’s turn to politics. You wrote an article for CNN that, in my view, is one of the more thoughtful, rationale pieces that I’ve read concerning gun control. How hopeful are you that politicians will find ways to work together in order to implement substantive gun control policies?

Anil Dash: I actually am extremely optimistic that a good compromise will come together and that we’ll make progress on gun safety. The American public is united on wanting this, and leaders (including the President) are actually generally being pretty pragmatic about both what’s possible and what’s desirable.The system isn’t pretty or efficient, but I think it works better than most people want to believe.

TSD: Other than gun control, which issues do you hope that President Obama chooses to focus on during his 2nd term?

Anil Dash: I’m deeply concerned with our policy on drones and declared combatants. I think we need serious intellectual property law reform. I think it’s wrong that this administration has been more aggressive on deporting immigrants than any past administration, especially since those who favor such policies are never going to give him credit for it anyway.

That being said, there’s been good momentum on issues like marriage equality, and I think we can continue those efforts under this administration. I’m optimistic for further progress around transparency in areas of policy and financing of elections. And if I could wave a magic wand, I’d push for a lot more focus on STEM education and mass transportation.

TSD: Next, let’s turn to the web and technology. You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the history of the web, have been blogging for well over a decade, and have been described as a “blogging pioneer” by The New Yorker. Given your experience, what factors do think help to make a blog great?

Anil Dash: I’ve thought about this a lot, and there are many different kinds of bloggers. Putting aside the professionals who just do it as a job, I think there are a big mass of people who are just passionate about a topic or have something they want to get off their chest, and their blog is the best (or only!) outlet in which to do so. I certainly started there, and maybe am still there after all these years.

The more interesting category to me is those for whom it’s a craft, or an avocation that they keep refining. I was talking about this the other day with my friend Jason Kottke, whose blog kottke.org epitomizes that kind of artistic blogging to me.

For the hear-me-roar bloggers, what makes a blog great is the passion of the voice and sheer expertise or obsession with a particular topic or domain. For the artistic bloggers, the thing that really makes a blog enjoyable is not just the literal subject but the ability to see the entire world through a particular distinct lens. That sense of creating a world and letting others in to inhabit it is a great trait of all my favorite artists in any medium.

TSD: Tell me a little bit about ThinkUp, where you’re the CEO. What problem does ThinkUp solve?

Anil Dash: Well, we’re still very early with ThinkUp, but the core problem we’re trying to tackle is how we make sure all the time we spend on social networks isn’t wasted. Maybe that means you want your presence on Facebook to help your small business. Maybe it means you want your Twitter account to help you grow a big enough audience that you could do a Kickstarter for your band. Maybe you just want to make sure you’re paying enough attention to the right people to help you progress in your career. Whatever the goal, ThinkUp is a super-simple tool that acts as your coach to help get better at using your network. For me it’s a critically important mission, because I am so fearful that we’ll all look back at the years and years we spent paying so much attention to these little streams and feeds, and that we’ll regret them if we’re not encouraged to be our best selves and pursue the most meaningful or rewarding outcomes from that investment.

TSD: You’re actively involved with a lot of technology companies, either as an advisor or board member. How do you choose where to get involved?

Anil Dash: I joke that I pick companies to work with based on who I was talking to on Instant Messenger in 2003. The point is not that I have a closed social network, but that I favor people who’ve been working on the social web for a long time, a decade or more, or who at least understand the values of that era of the web.

There’s also a bias for me towards startups that are trying to empower people that don’t traditionally have power in media and tech. It can be empowering them by giving them a voice, or by helping them express themselves artistically, or helping people learn about the world. But that idea that a company should be built by people who have a real purpose and a set of values that inform their mission is really important to me.

TSD: What type mobile phone do you use? Are you loyal to the brand (either the device manufacturer or the OS), or do you plan on making a switch in the near future?

Anil Dash: I have an iPhone 5, though I’m not partisan to any particular platform. I really liked the Windows 7 Phone that I had before (a Nokia Lumia) but it was missing a few key apps that I needed to use. I used to have an Android Nexus phone before, too, so I’m truly agnostic on this stuff. My main priority is to try to hold on to phones as long as possible because I am a bit troubled by the assumption of disposability that seems to be intrinsic to the smartphone era.

TSD: You mention your son, Malcolm, on both your blog and social channels. What have you learned from parenting him over the past couple of years, and how has fatherhood changed you?

Anil Dash: I can’t even begin to describe how profound a transformation it’s been for me to become a father. I’m not a humble man, but the experience has been the closest thing I’ve felt to being humbled. And it’s the most joyful, terrifying, challenging thing I can imagine. I hadn’t understood that parenthood gives you this first-row seat to witnessing the development of a person’s intellectual capabilities, and that you learn it from someone who’s at least 50% a reflection of you. That bit of a window into how the mind works, and how we are both so fragile and so incredibly resilient acts like a filter that’s colored every other thing I’ve learned in the last two years.

TSD: One more question. You convey a very level-headed, rational personality through your writing and posts on social networks. But something must get under skin. What pisses you off?

Anil Dash: Hah! I’m no saint. I work hard to try to live my values, and to stay compassionate especially when I’m talking publicly because I am privileged to have an unusually large number of people who hear what I say. But there are lots and lots of things that set me off: People who have a lot of priviliege but are unaware of it or deny it, those who embrace pseudoscience or anti-science like homeopathy, dangerously misleading people like Jenny McCarthy, geeks who evaluate technology based on their feelings about a brand rather than an understanding of the industry, the assertion that suburban or rural culture is somehow more “real” or “honest” than city living. I could go on and on!

That challenge for me is not finding things that piss me off. The challenge is to take the energy I get from being pissed off about these things and use it to be effective, instead of merely angry. There’s such a temptation, because of the feedback loop we get from social media, to respond to these important issues by trying to be snarky or clever, but that only gets you the approval of people who already agree with you. And what I’m working really hard to do is to seek less of that and instead seek more agreement or at least conversation with those who are inclined to disagree with me.

I’m not very good at it yet, but I figure I have the rest of my life to practice.

Hat Tips:

Dashes.com, Image Credit: Flickr

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