One of the promises of the internet was the idea of citizen journalists, or community sites, that would connect us all with the things going on in our communities. As things have developed, there have been places where that’s occured, and one of those place is here in Washington, D.C.. We’re going to talk about PoPville, a very interesting and local site, with its founder, Dan Silverman.
ABERMAN: Dan, thanks for coming in.
SILVERMAN: Thanks for having me.
ABERMAN: PoPville. You know, cool name. How’d you start this business? Where did it come from?
SILVERMAN: It started, like some good businesses start, on a lark. I moved to this neighborhood called Petworth back in early 2003. And this was a time in D.C. when many neighborhoods were changing pretty rapidly as new metro stations were opening, and I moved to this area that I had never heard of, none of my friends at work had ever heard of, and so I said, you know what? I’m going to start a website about Petworth. And then, I used to have this funny answer back when we had answering machines, saying that I was the prince of Petworth, so I said, hey, Prince of Petworth! That’s a good name for a site. So, that’s how the site came, and then it abbreviated to PoP, and then PoPville.
ABERMAN: And, when I go to the site and I look at it, you’ve got this amazingly comprehensive coverage of D.C. on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Is that really the unspoken reality of our town? Is there this deep tapestry of all these neighborhoods?
SILVERMAN: Exactly! Washington, D.C. is misunderstood by people who don’t live in Washington, D.C.; many people try to present it as the Capitol Building, politics, the swamp, if you will, when that is maybe five percent of Washington, when the beauty of Washington is, exactly, the tapestry of the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are constantly changing, and evolving, and there’s good things about the neighborhoods, there’s bad things about the neighborhoods, but it’s like life. So, I wanted to create a site that shows D.C. for, really, what it is. The good and the bad. And so, that’s why, every day, we’re talking about a million different things, that affect people who live in the city, or work in the city.
ABERMAN: I use the word “eclectic,” and you can correct me in a moment—when I look at the site, I look at it from the context of an ordinary media-controlled, or something that’s run in the normal paradigm, with very clear editorial control, very clear messaging. But your site captures, in my mind, the grist of a neighborhood. Really, I was struck by things like, hey, there was rumbling last night in my neighborhood, what’s that about? Or, hey, did anybody see this car accident, or hey, this bar that we all love closing, or there’s something new coming up. It’s an interesting mix. How did that happen?
SILVERMAN: Well, it’s a really good question, and it’s what, today, makes the site so successful. And it’s amazing to me, still, to this day, that any time anything unusual happens, I’ll get ten emails, 15 tweets, all these social media messages, people coming to me, saying, what in the hell is going on? And it’s not because Dan silverman knows exactly what’s going on, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but it’s because I’ve created this super large community, and somebody within that community knows the answer, like, 95 percent of the time.
And so, what I’ve done is that I’ve cultivated this community where I’ve tried to weed out the trolls, and weed out people who poison a community space. And, you know, one can’t be 100 percent successful in that regard, but, I do the best that I can. Anyway, at this point, there’s 300,000 people reading the site every month, and they are religious readers. These are not people that, oh, this viral post went on, and they watched it once, and then forget about it. These folks come on every single day, ten times a day. And so, in the beginning, it just took time. And, what I did was that I focused on what was of interest to me.
That was my whole threshold for what I want going to post about. I talk to competitors, and this, that, and the other, and they say, wow, you post about a panda bear and you’re going to get this many views, and this many clicks. I just say, I love panda bears! I love pets! I’ve had pets my whole life. It’s genuine, and I think the content, if it’s genuine—and people know if it’s genuine or not—if you force it, if you do something just for page views, people will see through that right away, and not even interact. So, to answer your question, I started it based on what I loved, and then other people loved it, and it just resonated.
ABERMAN: Isn’t it a huge responsibility, though, to have a site where you’re accountable for the veracity of everything you write?
SILVERMAN: It’s a tremendous responsibility, and what I decided very early on was that you’re not going to be 100 percent successful, and so, for example, if you post what I call scuttlebutt rumors, and it turns out not to be true, you immediately correct that, and you don’t represent yourself as saying, I’m preaching the gospel right now. I used to work in defense, Homeland Security, consulting, so we always talked about scuttlebutt, just from the old navy guys.
So, I’ve always used “scuttlebutt.” So, I will say, straight away, in a post, this is scuttlebutt. Take it with a grain of salt. I’ve been very lucky in that, well over 75 percent of my scuttlebutt is true. And so, people know, okay, scuttlebutt from Dan Silverman versus scuttlebutt from Joe down the street is very different. But, there is a responsibility, and how do I handle it? You have to correct your errors.
ABERMAN: Do you see yourself as a journalist, a community leader, or something else?
SILVERMAN: Definitely a hybrid. Because, what I do, eclectic, your word, fits it quite nicely. I walk down the street and I see some pretty flowers, and I post, hey, these are pretty flowers, this is pretty stained glass, this is some nice new architecture. Now, a proper journalist, they’ll find out, who’s the architect, what plans were filed, this, that, and the other. What I do is, I look for what’s of interest, and then I throw it out there. I get the community response.
Half of them know what’s going on, they say, oh, that’s a Perkins Eastman building, yadda yadda. So, for me, I kind of think of myself as a facilitator. This guy who’s just there to make a space for people to talk about things that are of interest to me, and to talk about things that are of interest to them, and weed out the nonsense. Sometimes it’s more interesting to some people, sometimes it’s only interesting to me, sometimes it’s interesting to everybody. It’s a mix.
ABERMAN: And you’ve figured out how to make a business out of that.
SILVERMAN: I did! And I was very lucky. So, in September of 2009, I made this my full-time job.
ABERMAN: I will tell you what, Dan, I have loved this conversation, and for somebody who’s been involved as a technology investor for many years, from the beginning of the internet, it’s so terrific to see something actually realized on the promise we all hoped for.
SILVERMAN. Yeah. I consider myself very lucky. I mean, of course there’s a tremendous amount of hard work. People used to joke with me, saying, oh, you’re going to sleep in till noon now, and work a couple hours a day. As you know, I’ve never worked harder, and people who own their own business never work harder, because everything rests on your shoulders. So, I just thrive on it, because I’m a very competitive person. So, it feeds me. People say, how can you do this year after year? I mean, every day, I wake up and I want to be the best. Every day, I wake up, and I want to have the most interesting site in D.C..
ABERMAN: I think you do. Everyone, check out PoPville; Dan Silverman, it was great having you on the show.
SILVERMAN: Thanks very much.