Web Masters Episode #86: Carl Lipo


Carl Lipo:

We created a site called knitting.com or knittingsomething.com, ultimate Frisbee, book report, cookie recipe, and I think roadside reviews. Five different sites, stuff like that. We decided, “Okay, we’re going to pick one of these,” thinking that it might be interesting. Who’s coming to these sites and which one has the most popularity? All of them are actually interesting in the long run, but the one that we got, literally 10 times the response to, was cookie recipe. People at home were like, “I want a cookie recipe on the internet.” They would type in cookie recipe on the IRL and they would get our site. And of course, there were no cookie recipes. We had a site that was just designed to see if people wanted cookie recipes, and we thought, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. We could take cookie recipes, who doesn’t like a cookie recipe, we’ll take cookie recipes and we’ll put them online.”

And it was Tim’s idea to say, “Well, you know what we could do is that people love to share cookie recipes.” Cookie recipes are something … You have your favorite cookies and then in the Christmas you share the different recipes and you share cookies. Everyone loves cookie recipes. So we made it into a form where we would collect that data and produce the content. And the response was unbelievable. People were like, “Yeah, we love to give you cookie recipes.” Cookie recipes are something people love to share and actually did start sharing. And we thought, wow, this is pretty cool. People give us their information, give us their ideas about cookies and then we can take that and reshape it and turn it into something.

And over time, we realized, okay, cookie recipes, what about pie recipes, and we created domains off of a million different recipes. We had bread recipe, Thanksgiving recipe, Christmas recipe, started making this world of recipe sites. And it became clear that like, wow, there’s really no limit to that world, that people want to user-generated content. This is all the beginning of that. People would love to share that information with us and be willing to do that at no cost to us, and then we could use that to sell ads. And that sort of led us into building what ultimately became Allrecipes.com.

Aaron Dinin:

Yes, sharing recipes online, it’s been happening since the earliest days of the internet. Heck, people have been sharing recipes for generations before that as well. And as our guest on this episode of Web Masters discovered early on, the World Wide Web just made sharing recipes even easier. From cookierecipe.com to cakerecipe.com to chickenrecipe.com, it eventually merged into one website for Allrecipes. That site, as you heard, was creatively named Allrecipes.com. We’re going to hear from one of the Allrecipes founders, his name is Carl Lipo. He’s an archeologist and professor of anthropology. But back when he was a graduate student, he and some of his archeologist buddies teamed up to create one of the world’s most popular recipe websites. Are you ready to hear the story? Well, let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Web Masters. You’re listening to the podcast that teaches about entrepreneurship by sharing stories from some of the digital age’s most impactful innovators. My name is Aaron Dinin, and I’m your host. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I teach entrepreneurship, social media, and internet history at Duke University. On this episode, I get to talk with someone a bit like me, a fellow academic who had a stint building tech companies. He is Dr. Carl Lipo, and I think you’re going to be surprised by the thing he’s most famous for, it’s not actually Allrecipes.com. I’ll get to all of that, but first, I want to take a moment to tell you about my sponsor.

Web Masters is being brought to you thanks to the support of our partner and sponsor, Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that specializes in helping people buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses and digital assets, kind of like the website we’re going to be talking about on this episode of Web Masters, a website with lots of traffic, making money off of ads or any other type of profitable internet business, whether it’s an E-commerce store, SAS app, Amazon FBA, domain portfolio, Shopify site. Basically whatever you’ve got, if it’s in an online business that’s making money and you’re thinking of selling it, be sure to talk with Latona’s. Their team of expert brokers is going to be able to help you get your business sold for a great price. Latona’s can also help you buy an internet business if that’s more along the lines of what you’re looking for. To find out what businesses they’re currently helping sell, just head on over to the Latona’s website where you’ll find all of their listings. That website is latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

So I’ve already told you the guest on this episode of Web Masters, Carl Lipo is an archeologist and anthropology professor. So the first question you’re probably wondering is how does someone like that also wind up launching a famous website? To answer that question, we’ll start by traveling back in time a bit to Carl’s childhood. You see, even though Carl went on to become an archeologist, he grew up working with computers.

Carl Lipo:

My dad was a professor of electrical engineering, ultimately at the University of Wisconsin, but actually started in GE. And when he was at GE, he had access to the mainframes that they would do. He was a theoretical electrical engineer. And I remember up in the attic, he would have this, he had this giant teletype, it would connect to the phone line with the super old classic phone, with the dial up and 300 bot or something like that, and he’d be up there typing in stuff. And he showed me Adventure, one of the early games online. Or online, I mean that word, you could connect to the mainframe and run this program Adventure. He upgraded, I think at some point later, before he left Schenectady, it was like a thermal printer with the thermal output that produced this paper roll. And we got the more fancy versions of Zork and then some of the other games. So for me, computers were always kind of part of what I did as a kid growing up.

Over time, he was always connected to the University, so even through middle school and high school, I had access to the dial-ups at the university through his account, and there was always some fun thing you could do there, different kinds of battle games and all text-based adventures and stuff like that, and I loved that. And we had an Apple II and we had the whole sort of sequence of things. Typewriters drove me bananas. The act of having to go back and do correction with the correction tape and type over things. So as soon as I could possibly use one of the early Macs that my dad had and then print things out on laser printers, like it looked professional. Then as I got into college, of course, dial-up and email became something you could do. There really wasn’t the web per se, but there was the internet.

Aaron Dinin:

How did you discover kind of the commercial internet and the web?

Carl Lipo:

I was always a really early adopter in this technology. And then as I ended up in grad school, the World Wide Web was created and the first NCA browser showed up. And I remember it was Mark Madsen, who I ended up living with him in the PhD program at the University of Washington, showing me like, “Hey, check this out, this graphical way of interacting the internet.” So we started playing around with it saying like, “Well, this is cool.” And I remember those lists on the early NCSA days at Illinois Champaign Urbana, where they would list the new websites on a single page and we’d look every day, “Oh, look, there’s a page where you can see the coffee pot in the NCSA lab,” where someone had hooked up a webcam focused on the one coffee pot that they had, so that someone down the hall could check to make sure the coffee was full or not before they went all the way to the hall.

Carl Lipo:

And one by one, these different things would show up and we were sort of mesmerized by like, “Wow, what? This is so cool.” Even though it did nothing, other than it was being amusing, but we sort of just got into seeing that, seeing that sort of emerge. And that became sort of a dimension of our grad student days.

Aaron Dinin:

The roommate Carl is referring to here is Mark Madsen, who’d go on to be one of his Allrecipes co-founders and follow that up with a successful career in tech entrepreneurship. The coffee pot Carl was talking about is I’m assuming the Trojan Room coffee pot, which was a famous coffee machine in the computer laboratory on the campus of the University of Cambridge in England. It was famous because it was the focus of the world’s first webcam. And as we heard about in Web Masters’ episode number seven, it was actually the inspiration for the company that became GeoCities, so that’s a fun, little overlap. As you heard, Carl and his friend Mark were fascinated by these kinds of digital things. They were both studying archeology and in their minds, the two subjects, digital technology and archeology had some natural opportunities for cross-pollination.

Carl Lipo:

I went to undergraduate and I became an anthropologist and then studied archeology and got my bachelor’s degree there, and then went on to get my master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. And that’s where I actually met Mark Madsen. And I ultimately went on for my PhD in archeology. The thing about archeology is that there’s a lot of old tradition in the way you do stuff, but as a graduate student being a sort of a novelty seeker and sort of early adopter, I was looking at new ways to do everything. There’s got to be a better way of doing this stuff because so much of what archeology is the most tedious and boring things you can possibly imagine, right?

You’re counting teeny bits of little things, like there’s better ways of doing this, so we could get the computer to do that, right? Shouldn’t we be able to image these little teeny tanner effects and count those little teeny tiny things and produce those numbers without me sitting tediously looking through the microscope and trying to figure that out? So I was always looking for this edge, and I think Mark Madsen was the same way, and we would encourage each other like, “Whoa, did you see that? There’s this great new image processing paper by this computer science guy that says you can do this object-based identification?” And this is all, of course, early days where no one had computers that could actually do that. But the idea is that you could do this was always sort of startling.

The future, we could have cameras that would go back and forth across the ground and actually identify where artifacts are, and we wouldn’t have to walk back and forth in these hot fields to map artifacts. One of the areas we worked in was in Southeast Missouri, and working in July in cotton fields, going back and forth, looking at the ground, baking your eyeballs as the sun beats down on you and then reflected back off the ground, trying to identify like two millimeter sized lithic chunks, really invites you to think new ways of doing stuff. So we were always looking for alternatives to that kind of grueling work.

Aaron Dinin:

So as a grad student, it sounds like you were trying to figure out how to incorporate new digital technologies into your work. Was that kind of what was happening at the same time you launched Allrecipes?

Carl Lipo:

Technology and in figuring this out using computers became sort of baked into what we did and how we thought about the world. And as graduate students, we were always pushing for different new ideas. So that put us in Seattle in 1990. I think I entered the program in ’89. ’90. And then this is all early days of the web and we’re always pushing the department to go further and try different kinds of technology.

One of our jobs was actually helping faculty transition from DOS to Windows. It was interesting that certain faculty of a certain age, there’s a point at which they couldn’t make the transition from typing commands to clicking on things on screen, the metaphor just wouldn’t work. Like where do you type in the commands on this thing where you’re pointing something at stuff and the representation of where files are as graphical images, they’d lose everything. Everything was on the desktop all over the place. So we were doing it a lot of coaxing faculty and saying, “No, look, this is how you use Windows 3.1, and isn’t this better?” So we were always kind of pushing the department further and we were always looking for new technology.

And that led us to sort of like, “Hey, let’s make a website. We can build a web server.” So we cobbled together all kinds of student computers and tried to do stuff. And we put up one of the early NCSA web servers on some Mac, just ran it locally just to see it like, oh wow, you could code these things and have it appear on different sites, and started to just explore with that and just got familiar with it totally on our own.

Aaron Dinin:

Oh, okay. So the tech thing was kind of on the side, not so much the focus of your graduate work, but a side interest you were occasionally incorporating. So how did you wind up making a business out of the web stuff? Was the recipe site the first thing you did or were you trying other things before that? And what motivated you to build a business that had nothing to do with your studies?

Carl Lipo:

As a grad student, we were dirt poor, spending a lot of time at the free buffet at Ivar’s Clam Bar, so we were also looking for ways of making some extra money, and we thought, could we consult with this? What could we do with this kind of knowledge? What could we create? So we started to just play around with ideas. It turned out there was starting to be a demand for Microsoft. They needed somebody who does web development. And at that point, it really meant HTML for the most part, like the idea of coding HTML by hand was foreign to everyone. We started doing really basic stuff. And then we did CGI programming, doing some basic scripting. So we started getting sort of expertise in just doing that kind of thing for consulting firms.

And it was interesting at the time, Microsoft was hiring people to come in to do some web stuff, but only under the table. The web server that Microsoft had back in those days sat underneath a guy’s desk. And one of the guys we work with told us that Steve Ballmer, MSN was the dial-up service they had, Ballmer would come in and say, “The World Wide Web that’s (beep) there’s nothing to this whole World Wide Web thing. MSN is the future.” And like they gave them the least amount of money you possibly could imagine. And it was literally a computer that you could kick over. The first one is like a little box that said Microsoft, and it did nothing, and they spent no money on it. And they didn’t do a lot for quite a while. They were really sort of late in the game on the internet because they were pushing MSN in this whole dial-up world.

I mean, at the time, they’re trying to compete AOL. But over time we got some consulting with some things they wanted to showcase. Slowly, there are groups in there that were really interested in saying like, “The internet, well, this is a whole different game. We could potentially leverage this and use the SQL server and access things through that.” And we got to work with some of those early developers.

Aaron Dinin:

I loved that story about Steve Ballmer. And to be fair to him, at the time, a closed network like AOL really did seem like the thing that was going to be successful, not the open web.

Carl Lipo:

Yeah. Because these huge corporations owning these giant dial-up systems and their own networks, it seems like well, why wouldn’t all consumers want to go to AOL or MSN or one of the other ones. And then seeing Microsoft try new ones over and over again, different versions of that, and seeing them fail, fail, fail, and the web continue to grow, and how long it took them to really embrace that fully, it was sort of stunning because it was so obvious to anybody who was outside of that circle over there.

Aaron Dinin:

And so it sounds like you and your friends were basically just doing web consulting for a while, for what, only Microsoft or other companies too?

Carl Lipo:

We started working with some other companies. There was a guy, Outdoors Online, that decided he was going to make a website about like all things outdoors. And he was an interesting guy who had these big ideas. I mean, it was sort of this guy in a house, he ended up building Outdoors Online and we developed with no experience whatsoever, no training, the online hunting and fishing licensing for Illinois for some period of years. We had made these scripts that would process credit cards. It was the craziest system because it was a Verisign bot running on a Windows machine. Through some way we were able to, I remember Mark did this, a shared directory. The web server would write a file with the credit card output and then this Verisign thing would read that, do its DOS dial-up, call the credit card company, validate it, write a text file so that then we could reply back to the internet.

And we did all the planning and fishing licenses for Illinois for quite a few years on this. We also did the contract for the National Marines Fisheries, created a system to sell all the bluefin tuna fishing licenses for the East Coast at one point in time. Which was to the detriment of bluefin tuna, which are going extinct, we were facilitating people to get their licenses to do that. Because there really wasn’t anyone who specialized in this or did this, and there was no software. You had to create it yourself out of nothing. So we just sort of did it, saying like, “Well, why not? Let’s see if we can figure this out.” So at that point, we started a company called Emergent Media.

Aaron Dinin:

And could you just clarify who the we was in that group at this point?

Carl Lipo:

It was a combination of myself, Mark Madsen, and Tim Hunt. All three of us were PhD students in archeology at the University of Washington. We had a little financial support from Mike Feffer, also a graduate student, and David Quinn who was an undergraduate at the time finishing his degree in education. And they provided us some funding for the $5,000 server machine, and we put it in a closet, we got enough money to get it. I think we had a T1 access. And we shared an office with Glenn Fleishman, who’s a technology writer now from Seattle.

I should also mention Dan Shepard too. Dan Shepard was doing some computer consultant in Seattle and he joined us having more business expertise than I think any of us did and was part of this founding group doing consulting. We started thinking about, “Well, we could create our own content.” There were companies going IPO at the time in Seattle that were doing just programming development. I remember what was it called, Saltmine. They never made a lot of money. Those were early, early, early days. But people were seeing that there was money in this whole thing, companies were starting. And we started thinking like, well, we could make our own content. That way, we’re not just working for other people. I mean, we were making decent money doing some of the part-time for Microsoft and stuff, but what can we do on our own?

So it was Tim Hunt’s idea. He said, “Hey, here’s what we do, we create a series of websites and test which ones are going to be interesting. Let’s just buy a bunch of domains.” At the time, you could buy any domain you wanted. The LAN rush hadn’t happened. You could buy almost any domain you wanted and you could own it and then put up some website and then let’s see what kind of reaction you got. We also did something that I thought was interesting, we created a demo site of the kinds of things we could do. I don’t know if you know the history of some of these early sites, but there was a guy, Justin, I think Justin …

Aaron Dinin:

It was Justin Hall, Links From the Underground, links.net. We actually did an episode with him. I believe it was episode number 31.

Carl Lipo:

Yeah. We were always like watching his site because he had listed all the cool sites. It was a finite list of cool sites. We wanted to be on there because people noticed. That was a place you could get noticed. So we created a site where we made some fake contests. What was it called, like Win a Date With an Admin. And so people got the vote on who you would get a dinner date with. And we had the image percentage stretch, so the heads would get longer depending on who you voted on. We were trying to use some tools to show like, Ooh, these can make these cool dynamics using really crude HTML and CGI stuff.

We created the Beer Institute thinking like that was … making it funny, so oh, the Beer Institute, a fake company. And then we got a letter from the Beer Institute, cease and desist being the Beer Institute. We were just trying to be funny. And as we got on Justin’s list, our server blew up. It totally broke because the response was crazy. So we were trying to get our name out just to see what we could do. That was sort of fun because you were competing off of just a small world, sort of your success, trying to figure out how to get things that people thought were cool.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So where did the idea for a recipe site finally come from?

Carl Lipo:

So we created these series of sites, and so Tim and Dan were really instrumental in this. We created a site called knitting.com or knittingsomething.com, ultimate Frisbee, book report, cookie recipe, and I think roadside reviews, five different sites, something like that. We decided, okay, we’re going to pick one of these thinking that they might be interesting. Who’s coming to these sites and which one has the most popularity? All of them are actually interested in the long run, but the one that we got, like literally 10 times the response to was cookie recipe. People at home were like, “I want a cookie recipe on the internet,” and they would type in cookie recipe on the Earl and they would get our site. And, of course, there were no cookie recipes.

We had a site that was just designed to see if people wanted cookie recipes and we thought, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. We could take cookie recipes, who doesn’t like a cookie recipe, we’ll take cookie recipes and we’ll put them online.” And it was Tim’s idea to say, “Well what we could do is that people love to share cookie recipes.” Cookie recipes are something … You have your favorite cookies. And then in the Christmas, you share the different recipes and you share your cookies. Everyone loves cookie recipes. So we made it into a forum. We would collect that data and produce the content. And the response was unbelievable. People were like, “Yeah, we love to give you cookie recipes.” Cookie recipes are something people love to share and actually did start sharing. And we thought, wow, this is pretty cool. People give us their information, give us their ideas about cookies, and then we can take that and reshape it and turn it into something.

And over time, we realized, okay, cookie recipes, what about pie recipes? We created domains off of a million different recipes. We had bread recipe, Thanksgiving recipe, Christmas recipe, started making this world of recipe sites. And it became clear that like, wow, there’s really no limit to that world, that people want to user-generated content. This is all beginning of that. People would love to share that information with us and be willing to do that at no cost to us, and then we could use that to sell ads. And that sort of led us into building what ultimately became allrecipes.com. They decided at some point, ’97 or ’98 or something like that, that we’re going to separate out from Emergent Media and be allrecipes.com. And that led us to getting some angel investment and sort of growing that and building sort of a brand around that.

Aaron Dinin:

Wow. I mean, that’s just like a random story of falling into a very weird niche of a company, especially for a bunch of archeology grad students.

Carl Lipo:

It was crazy. I mean, a bunch of grad students with literally no training in any of this stuff, barely any business sense, but just sort of thinking like, hey, let’s see what people are interested in doing and being surprised like, wow, people will do that. People will really give us all their information and all their recipes, and they did. And it’s amazing to see the site now and know how many people have jobs as a result of that. And the impact and people are like, “Oh, I use that all the time.” Like that was hungry grad students coming up with a way of being fed for a while. That’s a bit of the arc there.

Aaron Dinin:

That was fantastic. Thanks for sharing all of that. I guess what I’m wondering is when or how did it occur to you to pull all of these recipe sites together into one big company/website, the one we now know as Allrecipes?

Carl Lipo:

Well, as we bought all these domains, and it still, they weren’t very expensive, but we realized that there was just a bigger marketplace. We couldn’t come up with all the list of all the things to figure out, oh, the pie recipes are here and the cake recipes are there. Even at the time, there was starting to be content around Gourmet Magazine and some of the places that you would typically find recipes in. They had their own content and they would realize that content mattered and putting that up. But we really wanted to market this to recipes for real-life people, right? That these were recipes that people, moms made, dads made for their families and that the audience out there are people who are just like, hey, I need to make some things for a bunch of kids, and I’ve got some chicken and some cheese, like what do I do with that?

We were trying to emphasize that was the point. This is tested by people who are actually doing it. And so we wanted real-world recipes, real things. So we needed to put that all together, to stitch it together. And that was going to, of course, take some investment because we had to rebuild the whole thing to make this database that could capture all these dimensions.

Aaron Dinin:

What were the logistics of that, of going from all these separate recipe sites to one big central site that’s become this sort of hub of recipes for everyone?

Carl Lipo:

Tim Hunt is really absolutely instrumental in that. Ultimately, Tim left the PhD program and just became a full-time Allrecipes person, and then ultimately, started RootMetrics, and then that sold. But see, interestingly as an archeologist, one of the things you do in archeology that often people don’t recognize you have to build classifications. When an archeologist walks across the landscape and finds stuff, the question is, what is that stuff? And the stuff itself doesn’t speak for itself. It’s just a bunch of rocks and broken pieces of junk that someone left at some point in the past. And the question is how do you measure those things in the context of temporal and spatial relations? So archeology is really about mapping the world in terms of time and space. Doing that requires creating mental structures about things that have these sets of attributes are this, and things that have those attributes and comments are that, and they mean these two different things, and one is earlier than the other, or one is related to these people and not these other people. And you’re actually constructing that.

What’s amazing about the early archeologists, the 1930s and people who sort of formalized archeology as we know it today, really created the whole system of thinking about the past in a very explicit way that produces the knowledge we have today. It’s a long story about sort of the metaphysics of archeology, but as an archeologist, Tim had to think about how do we build a classification on recipes? How do we build a structure cognitively in a database that’s going to be able to take these classes of information and parse it in certain ways that we can then produce the products we want to produce, that mean something to the people who want to look for things? And so we built an interesting database that was able to do that and allow it to scale to different countries where measurement units are different, to different proportions, where you want to make a four portion version of that, where these things come in units of ounces or pieces, a range of things.

And so he was really good and he is really good at sort of conceptualizing, taking the archeology conceptualization tool and then applying it to this information world of recipes and turning into something that we could then produce a thing that looked like things that people could understand and then utilize in their lives. So that was a huge investment and effort that he put in to do that, that became sort of the engine behind Allrecipes, and it was archeology.

Aaron Dinin:

I got to tell you, I loved hearing that the concepts of archeology went into making a tech startup successful. This is something I feel like I’m often having to explain to people as well, especially because of my background in English literature. People usually wonder what does literature have to do with being a software engineer, which is what I ultimately became as well as an entrepreneur. And I try to explain that the texts we read in a discipline like English really aren’t as important as the practice of thinking with those texts. They’re like tools to think with and to train your brain. It sounds like something very similar is happening over an archeology. Is that a kind of a fair characterization?

Carl Lipo:

I tell all my students that in archeology, the idea of becoming an academic archeologist these days is really slight. There’s just so few jobs. But doing this kind of critical thinking if you do it well, you can do absolutely anything. My best friends that were in the PhD program did phenomenally well, whether they finished their PhD or not, because they had this really interesting training that allowed them to sort of think of complex problems and figure them out. Whether it was a business world or technology world, those skills are really central. And I try to impart that on my students today because that’s the way to think. Those are really important tools. And that’s what’s important in business is those critical thinking tools.

The content is just the sort of avenue through which the thinking goes through. You’ve got to have some content just to have something to wrestle with, but it really doesn’t matter that much, it’s the thinking part. That’s what I’m emphasizing. In the end, if you don’t know the difference between Parkin Punctuated and Barton Incised pottery, I don’t care. But if you know how those concepts got created and how they get used, then that’s something powerful.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, okay. As you alluded to, a lot of your colleagues and co-founders went on to become successful tech entrepreneurs, but you actually stayed in academia and became a professor. Can I ask why?

Carl Lipo:

That’s a good question. And sometimes I ask myself because Tim did really well financially and Mark Madsen, I mean, everyone did well. He ultimately finished his PhD recently. He left for a long time and sort of kept his foot in the door, but it never went back to academia at all. He sort of got the PhD without having to go through the whole academic world. And I’m sort of the sole one that continued on the academic side. As I was trying to finish my PhD, I started working at Internap, which was a network service provider in Seattle. And I was in the writing phase of my dissertation at point. My advisor had retired and I was trying to finish up. And Internap was a really interesting company to work for. It was really this rapidly growing high-end service provider, ultimately sort of imploded after the big crash.

But one of the things for me, if I’d taken maybe the startup path, it might have been different, but I started of as a way of getting a regular job that then I could also try to finish my dissertation, I found the corporate side just tough. It’s like this could go on forever like this and it became less interesting over time, the challenges weren’t there. At the same time, I was really incredibly lucky as I was finishing my PhD to land a job at California State University Long Beach. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten a job anywhere else. I had a good colleague down there who was like, “Oh, I’d love to get you down there,” and was able to sort of put things together. And it sort of came out of nowhere. Like, hey, you’ve got a job offer at Cal State Long Beach. I was like, how could I turn that down?

I could have stayed in the nonacademic world up in Seattle and found something else, but that came up and I was like, well, that ultimately was what I started out to do. I realized I was incredibly lucky. I couldn’t turn that down to try. And then I got sucked into the whole world of teaching. Conveying this knowledge and the life of an academic has a lot of interesting things to it. You get to do things that my other friends weren’t able to do, at least at the time. Now they can go do whatever they want.

Aaron Dinin:

And would you mind talking about some of your work and travels? I was reading a bit about it as I was researching ahead of this conversation and it seems like you’ve done some really cool and interesting things. How exactly do you describe your work now?

Carl Lipo:

I often say I study the moai of Easter Island. I work in the middle of the Pacific studying the pre-contact past that led to people to make gigantic statues. As a faculty member, one of the cool things is, you’re an archeologist, go do research. So I decided with my colleague at University of Hawaii at the time, let’s go to the craziest place in the world with the craziest archeology and go explore what the heck was going on there. So we went to Easter Island and Rapa Nui, that’s located in the middle of Pacific, and started exploring like, how did that happen? How did this place that’s only 8 by 12 miles across in the middle of the Pacific, 2000 miles from anything else result in having people on it that built gigantic, up to 70-ton statues despite the fact it’s in the middle of nowhere and has very little resources.

And that story just sort of enthralled me in the sense of like, that’s a great question. And going back to it, as a kid, I was interested in technology, but I was also interested in those kinds of weird questions, like why did people in the past do weird things? And the answer universally is because at the point in time they did it, it made a lot of sense. Just from our perspective, those things seem weird. When we understand them in the context of way they did them, they actually make a lot of sense. And that even the statues of Rapa Nui actually made a ton of sense for that population.

Aaron Dinin:

And according to what I’ve been reading your claim to fame beyond Allrecipes, of course, is that you basically answered the question of how the heck they moved those big heads on Easter Island. Is that right? Could you maybe tell us about that? I know it’s not really related to the web, but I’m honestly just kind of curious.

Carl Lipo:

Yeah. So out of that work, it was a question we didn’t want to investigate initially, because everyone always talks about how did they move the statues, and everyone’s got some answer, and it’s, oh, they used rollers, or they used boats, there’s always some answer. And it’s like, well, if your answer is always going to be like, well maybe, then why bother even exploring it, like if you can’t come something up? My colleague Terry Hunt, and I were looking … Again, this is where the archeology comes in. If you describe the world in such a way in which the descriptions have to be that way because something previously had to have happened because of physical constraints, you could actually figure out what must be true in order to get the explanation.

And so we figured that there are actually ways of describing the statues in such a way that the only way we can explain the way they are shaped and formed and broken and distributed on the landscape is the fact they were moved like gigantic refrigerators. They moved in a standing position. And so that became sort of a basis of a conclusion out of a lot of study. And then the basis of sort of doing some experiments and showing like, yes, in fact, that’s exactly how they did it and we can demonstrate that, a very non-technology side. Well, that’s a technology side and stuff, but very non-computer technology side.

Aaron Dinin:

Just want to add that I love you described that kind of stuff in the context of technology because I often get a bit annoyed when people use the word technology as a sort of synonym for basically digital things. I’ll find myself trying to remind them that a pen is a piece of technology, too. Technology isn’t just computers.

Carl Lipo:

The cool thing about that technology of statues is that, of course, people in the past who did this were good at it, like this was their technology. They manipulated the world around them. There’s no reason they’d be dumb at it. That’s just our arrogance about thinking about the past, that people in the past are dumb because they’re not here and we are. Well, no, they were smarter than us in many, many ways. And certainly, [inaudible 00:34:26] the things because they’re good at it, not because they were floundering around or doing things in the least sensible way.

Aaron Dinin:

So let’s build on that idea for a moment if we can. You’re an anthropologist and archeologist. Teleport yourself however many years into the future and look back on the world now, even though we think we’re so smart, we’re going to look like idiots, right? So what are people in the future going to think about all of our computer technology stuff?

Carl Lipo:

I mean the computer stuff, the concerns are, the way it has changed the way in which we interact. I mean, that’s the social media dimension. Unfortunately, it’s decoupled from feedback mechanisms in a physical sense. Like, so take Easter Island, for example. Easter Island has competition, signaling, people interact with each other, but yet we don’t find warfare there. One of the reasons why is you can’t go insult people to their faces and not get punched in the face, right? Because it’s 12 by 10 miles across, like if you do something you’re going to get punched in the face and where are you going to go? There isn’t any other island. Islands are thousands of miles away. On the internet, we’ve created this system by which one, we can punch people in the face virtually and we’re not physically connected to them, right? And so that’s the challenge of these online groups is that they’re built in a way in which you can defect and connect to people, but break up those things through these interactions without any consequences, right, to keep people being civil, right?

The things that used to keep us civil is the fact that you ultimately had to live to your neighbor. You could have the most horrible neighbor next to you, but ultimately, you have to sort of get along with them because you’re physically in the same space, and they can be not nice people, but there is a consequence to them that they have to consider if they have a goat and the goat gets in your yard, are you going to give it back or not? Are you going to eat it, right? That sort of physical requirement forces you to sort of have this negotiation about what you’re willing or able to do. The online world because of the way it’s constructed, just doesn’t have that connection. We haven’t figured out how do we have those consequences.

And what’s happened is because it’s been built by computer scientists who are just saying, hey, let’s see if we can do that. None of them are thinking, what are the consequences of that, have been built into it. So the idea of this thumbs up, thumbs down, by making it binary, it’s able to be weaponized. By sampling enough times you can then parse people out and create communities artificially, where there were none before, and you can keep them separated by the fact that there’s no consequence, that’s the manipulation that’s occurring. So this technology world, the functional part will just get more seamless and more integrated just because that’s what we do and we like to find efficiencies and access more stuff. But I worry about the way in which it’s shaping our communities, how this fragments us and gets used as tools, and really seeing the effects of that. It’s just getting worse. Our future, I think, is going to heavily depend on all this stuff. We’re going to see more of it.

I just hope we can see it in a way that doesn’t force us into disaggregation. Because what’s interesting in that early stuff was bringing those people together. My colleagues and I were sitting around connecting to faculty in other universities, it was about connecting, saying, hey, I shared this interest in this really obscure, tiny bits of rocks found in Missouri. Like, hey, what do you think about that, and being able to get that communication back. And then with the Allrecipes, it was about, “Hey, let’s just share information about cookies and stuff.” But now it’s turned into segregation and breaking down, which I think is the scary part.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, according to Carl Lipo, one of the co-founders of Allrecipes and now professor of anthropology, the problem with the technology like the internet is that there’s a lack of direct consequences for our actions. Gosh, I sure hope that doesn’t mean anyone listening decides to go post a bunch of terrible things about this podcast online. But hopefully, you do go post lots of good things, particularly over on your favorite podcasting app where you can like, rate, review, and do all those wonderful things that help us grow our audience. And while you’re there, don’t forget to subscribe to Web Masters so you get the next episode as soon as it’s released.

In the meantime, I’d like to thank Carl Lipo for taking the time to share his story and the story of helping create Allrecipes. If you’d like to learn more about his current work, you can find him on Twitter. He’s @clipo. Web Masters is on Twitter too @webmasterspod. And I’m on Twitter @aarondinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. Feel free to send us any thoughts or feedback you have about the episode or get other great content about startups, business, and entrepreneurship over on my website. It’s aarondinin.com.

A quick thanks to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs for helping bring together the episode, and a thanks to our sponsor, Latona’s for their support. Don’t forget to check out latonas.com, especially if you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business. And if you’re interested in more Web Masters, well, we’ve got that too. A new episode is coming very soon, so stay tuned. For now, though, it’s time for me to sign off.

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