This post was written with the help of incredibly cute kittens.
The most surprising thing about the website Written? Kitten! is that it wasn't invented until now. As its developers Alex Bayley and Emily Turner know full well, if there's one thing the Internet loves, it's cute kittens.
The way they've set it up, struggling writers who need an extra incentive get a new picture of a cute kitten via the photo-sharing site Flickr for every 100 words they write. In fact, the 100-word mark is approaching now ... and ... here's the payoff:
Cute, right? Writer's block? What's that? Turner and Bayley (who is better known online and offline by her nickname "Skud"), are roommates who put together the site within an afternoon's time. Both have experience working on open source projects. Written? Kitten! too is designed so that other people can tinker with the code. As such, the following day, the site took off. Even our sister paper, the Village Voice, was captivated by the cuteness of it all.
Because the two women are all the way in Australia, we decided to make a game out of Written? Kitten! and interview them about their brilliant creation via online chat, seeing how many kittens we'd accumulate in the process.
(Note: The conversation has been edited for clarity, concision, and lolspeak. But in the spirit of talking online, we did not edit their responses for capitalization or punctuation. And since we ran the interview through their site, every hundred words there's a kitten.)
Alex Bayley: so emily and i are sitting next to each other in our living room. we're roomies.
SF Weekly: How do you know each other?
Emily Turner: overlapping geek communities
Alex: a mutual friend in france introduced us online when she heard i was moving back to melbourne and looking for somewhere to live
SF Weekly: One of you lived in San Francisco for a while, right?
Alex: it was me. i lived in the mission district from jan 2008 to sep 2011. i worked for a startup called metaweb, and then for google when google bought it. i've recently dropped out of the industry out of frustration/burnout and am currently enjoying the life of the unemployed dotcom thousandaire. next year i'll be studying sound engineering at TAFE (technical college, in australia).
SF Weekly: Are you both in the computer business?
Emily: I'm a webdesigner, so yes. i'm old enough to have taught myself HTML as a teenager :)
SF Weekly: How old is that?
Emily: i'd prefer not to disclose
SF Weekly: Really? Any particular reason why? I can go first...
Alex: because the media often uses women's age and appearance as if it's newsworthy rather than their achievements <-- not disclosing either
SF Weekly: Alright. How did Written? Kitten! come to be?
Emily: This is the first thing we've collaborated on. It really was just something we whipped up in an afternoon, a bit of fun that didn't require a whole lot of planning. Alex was just typing madly away and said to me, "i'm making this awesome thing!" and I got excited and threw ideas at her. then once the back-end was done, she passed it in my direction and I made it look pretty. Once we'd released it upon the world, someone on twitter chimed in with some enhancement suggestions and we whacked it up on github so they could branch the code and make their suggested changes. So mainly it was the two of us, with some subsequent feature enhancements from a contributor
Alex: it seemed like the right time to do it, since NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] is in full swing
SF Weekly: Why kittens?
Alex: dude, the internet is for kittens and/or porn, and written? boobs! doesn't rhyme
SF Weekly: Good point. But was kittens a personal preference, or did you figure a lot of people would use it if you went that route?
Emily: we knew the rest of the internet would appreciate kittens too
Alex: i'm not especially into kittens. but you can actually change the URL and get other things. so people have been doing written? puppy! or written? squid! or written? cake! that was an easter egg we built in from the start. as soon as people started requesting puppies, we leaked it out. (http://writtenkitten.net/?search=puppy). it's just based on Flickr tags
[SF Weekly interrupts this chat to show you our own creation. You're welcome.]
SF Weekly: Are the pictures always tagged "cute" as well?
Alex: nah, if you want cute, you type search=squid,cute. or you could just type cute.
Emily: we chose to use flickr because they allow users to specify if they want to share their photos under a creative commons license
SF Weekly: What happens if people on Flickr catch on to this and start screwing with you by tagging porn as "cute" and "kittens"?
Alex: we go for the most "interesting" photos on flickr based on the tag, and that is pre-filtered by the flickr community. stuff that didn't match probably wouldn't make it through. also, flickr's default is to not show you "restricted" content (i.e. porn)
SF Weekly: Has there been an instance of someone getting a picture that didn't match, or that wasn't really cute at all?
Alex: the best example i heard was someone who was having a lot of writers block and painstakingly wrote 100 words, then got a picture of a sad kitten with a REJECTED stamp over it. at least they were amused by the irony?
SF Weekly: What kind of response has Written? Kitten! received?
Alex: we posted it on sunday afternoon, australian time [November 13]. a few friends looked at it, but it started taking off on monday, US time. we've had about 100k unique visitors so far. we've had a lot of love from that NaNoWriMo community. also from fan fiction writers
SF Weekly: Are the NaNoWriMo participants actually using it to write novels?
Emily: all signs point to yes. we've seen tweets and blog posts and comments around with people saying things like, "I wrote 7K yesterday thanks to this!" Apparently kittens are now being used as a unit of writing, too
Emily: i've seen a few "I wrote 4 kittens yesterday!"
Alex: "i need to write 18 kittens on this essay"
SF Weekly: So if someone writes 20,000 words...
Alex: 200 kittens.
SF Weekly: Are they going to see 200 unique kittens, or will there likely be repeats?
Alex: likely repeats. each kitten is randomly selected from the 100 most interesting cute kitten pics on flickr.
Emily: unless more people upload more kitten pics to flickr... maybe we need a THINK OF THE WRITERS! campaign
SF Weekly: Did you think the site would get this popular?
Alex: yeah, i thought it would go a bit viral. especially because of NaNoWriMo
Emily: and kittens
Alex: btw. you probably don't know about ethan zuckerman's talk at ETech a couple of years ago about kitten pics on the internet as a tool of revolution?
[A telling snippet: "Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats."]
SF Weekly: Of the 100,000 or so unique visitors, are you noticing any patterns?
Alex: everyone loves kittens. in the US, california is by far the most kitten-loving state.
Emily: Australia loves kittens about 2000+ times, USA loves kittens about 81K+ times
SF Weekly: Alex, you said you aren't really a kitten person. Are you, Emily? Are either of you finding that this site is helping your own writing?
Emily: I am enough of a cat person to make up for Alex not being a cat person 10 times over, and i'm familiar already with the practice of rewarding myself with cats for writing. i tend to write a paragraph, get up and go cuddle my cat [Pixel] as a reward. so i kind of have my own written kitten, with extra fluff
Alex: i've sworn off any writing commitments til next year (i'm enjoying unemployed slackerdom) so i'm not using WK for real, just for testing as i work on it.
SF Weekly: What does the future hold for you two, and the kittens?
Alex: we've talked about collaborating on a website for tattoo artists and enthusiasts, where people can upload pics of their tattoos and search for them based on tags
SF Weekly: Nothing on the horizon for kittens?
Emily: i think we're on to a good thing. no need to gild the lily. i think we've happily achieved world domination
Alex: Cute Overlord
SF Weekly: Thank you both for your time!
Alex: give my love to SF.
Emily: thanks, bai