Without Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, io9 would not exist. These two women—along with early contributors, commenters, and fans—created one of the internet’s most popular news sites, covering both science and fiction. While we’ve certainly changed over the years, we’re happy that Newitz and Anders came by to celebrate io9's tenth anniversary and talk about the “robot monster” they helped create.
Want more? Here’s the full transcript of the interview, with additional questions that didn’t make it into the video.
When did your fandom start?
Annalee Newitz: My fandom started with giant monster movies which I could actually watch on TV as a kid. And my earliest love was Kaiju. I was very Godzilla identified, but then I became very King Ghidorah identified. I call Ghidorah just Ghidorah, because we’re very close so I don’t need to call Ghidorah king. Ghidorah is a three-headed space bird that fights Godzilla with lightning bolts because, obviously, a breath weapon of lightning is pretty great.
When I started playing D&D, when I was a little bit older, I was very happy that they did have the polychromatic dragon that had five breath weapons, one for each head. Those were my early fandoms. I came into it through monsters, and then I quickly started reading science fiction books, which made my parents very sad, because they were English teachers and science fiction was not literature. They kept saying, “Why don’t you read literature? You could read Hemingway.” And I was like, “But I want to read Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin.” And I just continued to be a disobedient child in that way, and made a career out of it.
I know what your early fandom is.
Charlie Jane Anders: Oh, yeah?
Annalee: Talk about it.
CJ: Oh, yeah? When I was a little kid, I was really obsessed with Doctor Who. And I was actually living in England for a few years when I was a little kid, super little, just yay big. And at one point, we went on a road trip. We rented a car and went on a road trip to this place in the middle of nowhere where they had a Doctor Who exhibition where they basically—they had the TARDIS, which is the Doctor’s time-traveling phone booth for policemen. And you go inside, and there is the giant control console with the six sides and the central thing going up and down. And you can touch all the buttons and you can, and I was really, really, really scared because I thought we were going to take off and leave Earth and be gone forever and that...And then, they had a Dalek, and the Dalek was actually talking and saying stuff about how the Daleks were the masters of the universe-
CJ: ... and exterminate and all that. And I ran outside and hid under a car. And I don’t know how long I stayed under that car, but I basically missed the rest of the Doctor Who exhibition because I was hiding under a car because I was so scared that we were going to take off and we were trapped in there with a Dalek.
Doctor Who was just super real to me back then, and still is, actually, in a weird way. And later, I went to conventions. When I was still pretty young, they had Doctor Who conventions and they had Star Trek conventions, and some of the actors would show up, and you could be like, “That’s that guy from that episode.” But getting to see a Dalek up close and personal when I was super young, that was a formative memory for me, for sure. CJ: Nerd culture is awesome.
What do you love about being a fan?
Annalee: The thing I love about being a fan is that I constantly have new awesome things to read and watch. Actually, that’s the curse of being a fan, too, because I have a huge stack of to read books and I have a huge queue of shows that I need to watch. But the joy of being a fan is that you get to share it with everyone, and when I have feelings I can just go on the internet and ask other people about their feelings. Sometimes that takes us to a dark place, but a lot of the time it just becomes a way of us sharing an experience and thinking about what narratives mean for us and what it means that we feel about the future and where we want things to go.
CJ: Yeah. I mean, I think the awesome thing about being a fan, for me, is the conversations that I have with other fans. And pretty much, the thing that always brought me back to fandom over the years was this community and this thing of everybody discussing the same things and having different viewpoints and having different ideas. And when I was really getting into comics, that was a big thing that made me love comics more, was that you could go on the internet and there would be people reviewing the comic books, there’d be people arguing about it, there’d be message boards.
Actually, when we started doing io9, that was a big thing that I really wanted us to capture, was that thing of the debate and the back and forth and the trying to figure out what’s coming next. And just that intense conversation about pop culture. And I felt our comment section on io9 was always where we had some of the best conversations and some of the most interesting exchanges about what does this mean and why do we love this, what’s this about, and stuff.
Annalee: A lot of the fandom in science fiction and fantasy is based around the idea of reading or experiencing escapist stories, stories that take you out of reality and put you in another place, whether that’s a darker place or a happier place. But fandom is actually about taking that escapism and bringing it back into the real world by building a fan community. And I think that’s why, especially now, we’re seeing so many political movements within fandom. And right wing movements, but also left wing movements. Because the act of building that community around shared stories is, in some sense, a political act.
How did io9 come about?
Annalee: io9 came about because I had an IM conversation with Nick Denton [founder of Gawker Media, now Gizmodo Media Group]. And he approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing a science fiction blog. And I, at first, thought that that meant that it would be just pop culture stuff, a Comic-Con type thing. Imagine if you had Comic-Con but as a blog. And he and I tossed some ideas back and forth about that, and he kept saying, “No, I don’t want this to just be pop culture. I want it to be art. I want it to be futurism.” And I was like, “Okay, if we’re going to make something like that, I want it to be science too. I want science to be in there just as much,” in the same way that Omni magazine, which really inspired me, had a mix of science and science fiction.
Charlie was our first hire.
CJ: I mean, I had to compete with some other people. We had a back and forth, and there was a whole process where, for almost six months, we had a secret blog that nobody could read. It was called blogging in the dark, and we were just writing blog posts on a password-protected site that nobody could access except for us and Nick Denton and a few other people. And it was just trying to get the tone, trying to get the feeling of it.
We were living in a world that science fiction had predicted. That meant that science fiction was no longer this niche genre, but that it was the story of the world that we live in—and that that, in turn, meant that talking about science fiction shouldn’t be aimed at a niche audience, it should be aimed at everybody, because everybody loves science fiction now. Which is even more true now than it was 10 years ago.
Annalee: We wanted to have a vision of the future for our readers that wasn’t completely silly but that wasn’t hopeless and dystopian. And again, part of covering science was very important to that because it was about how our stories could actually infect reality in a good way, and that what we dream can come true and that science and science fiction are part of the same project, which is to progressively improve reality for the maximum number of people.
How did the name io9 come about?
CJ: Originally, we were hired to write a blog called Futurista, which sounds a little bit like barista and sounds a little bit like Sandinista. I think it was supposed to be a trendy-sounding name, Futurista. And that was ‘cause it was about futuristic stuff and futurism. It sounds like fashionista, I guess. It sounds like you’re being fashionable and futuristic, and that’s-
Annalee: Trendy futurism.
CJ: Exactly. And that was a cool name. And literally, I think the main problem was we couldn’t get the URL.
Annalee: We gave up on that, and we did go through a bunch of different possible names, and we still couldn’t find anything that sounded cool and original. We wanted something that would be just something that no one had heard before, something that people didn’t have an association with. I turned to my friend, this hacker named Gordon Lyon, who created Nmap, which is a really important software tool. And he, in his spare time, when he’s not doing port scanning, he is a domain name speculator.
He had this domain, io9.com. And we were like, “Well, that sounds techy. It sounds like the name of a moon, and it’s really short so people will remember it, it won’t be difficult,” which, of course, then subsequently after we had bought it and launched it, we discovered that, two things: One, actually io9 is really hard for people to understand, and they couldn’t figure out if it was I letter o number 9, and it was very complex for people. But also, we discovered that the previous owner of io9 had been a porn spam guy and that the domain was in double penalty box at Google...It took us several months before people could even find io9 at all.
What was io9 like in its early days?
Annalee: The site became very popular very quickly, and it was rewarding even though we were starving ourselves and not sleeping and stuff. It felt we were part of something that was growing, and the commenter community was so awesome. And it just felt...I don’t know, it felt like we were onto something. I’d always wanted a blog like io9 to exist. I always wanted a central place for sci-fi news and science news, and it was suddenly, “Yay, it exists!”
CJ: I mean, we made a lot of mistakes the entire time, because we were always trying new stuff and we were always throwing stuff out there. And just sometimes it would blow up in our faces, and we’d be like, “Okay, so that didn’t work,” but-
Annalee: Luckily, only a few million people saw it.
CJ: We were constantly just trying to push the boundaries of what we could do on this site in terms of what essays we could do, what evergreen features we could do, and just weird, “What’s the biggest explosion that’s ever happened in science fiction?” Trying to measure the size of different explosions in fictional stories. Just stuff like that. We were constantly trying to come up with weird new stuff. And the more people we brought onboard, the more weird ideas we had. We added Esther Inglis-Arkell, who would do these insanely geeky, very offbeat, weird science stories.
And then, we’d have Meredith Woerner writing really stream-of-consciousness recaps of TV shows. And that was the thing that was fun about being at Gawker Media, especially at that time, is that there was very much encouragement to experiment and a drive to experiment and push things as far and as many different directions as you could.
Annalee: One of the things I loved was that we were encouraged to be weird and to be extreme, if we wanted to, and to have content that no one else would have. And my background in journalism, I started in alternative media. And to me, that felt like home, someone saying to me, “Yeah, it’s okay to say fuck in a headline. In fact, if you’re not doing that you’re just screwing up.” And I now measure all jobs based on that.
What are your favorite io9 memories?
Annalee: I think one of my favorite moments was, I write a lot about archeology, and I had written this story about the Inca and their lack of an economic system. I mean, they had an economic system, but it wasn’t anything like modern economic systems. It was based on, basically, food taxation. There was no money. And it seems there were no marketplaces in Inca cities, which is super weird, especially if you come at it from either an Asian or European perspective. There’s always a marketplace at the center of a city. And archeologists were like, “What the hell is this?”
I wrote this big story about it, and in the process of writing the story I mentioned the Maya and I referred to the Maya empire which is, by the way, wrong. And I learned this because people started debating it in comments. And then, Charles Mann, who wrote 1491, this amazing best-selling book about the early history of the Americas before Europeans came, he came into comments and was like, “Wow, great article, but you know, actually, the standard way is to refer to it as the Mayan civilization and not the Mayan empire because of these very complex ways that we define empire versus civilization.” And we had this whole conversation. It was just that excitement of feeling our commenters were full of knowledge and there might really be a community of other science nerds out there that I could just chat with and have a really friendly conversation.
One of the things I’m really proud of that we did is, I feel we modeled really good community. And part of that had to do with, from the outset, making sure that our staff was gender balanced, as much as we could... That was key to creating a community where, I think, a lot of women felt they could actually come in and talk about geeky stuff and that they wouldn’t be drowned out, they wouldn’t be explained to. And I’ve had a lot of people who were io9 commenters say to us, “Wow, this is like a surprisingly friendly place.” And it isn’t that people didn’t have fights. People did have huge debates, really intense debates, especially about Batman.
CJ: I mean, the thing I’m proudest of, in retrospect, with io9 in general is that we had this thing where we would try to have appreciation of pop culture and then a really deep, unstinting criticism of the aspects of it that were flawed or problematic or had issues. And we would try to do both, and we wouldn’t make you choose. And I feel a lot of the time, even nowadays, there’s this idea that you can only do one or the other. You can love it or you can criticize it, but you can’t do both. And we would really try to, very consciously, to make a space for both of those things.
One of the examples that comes to mind is the movie Avatar from 2009, where I wrote the review and I think my review was largely upbeat and positive. And then, a couple of days later, Annalee wrote an essay about how Avatar was a white fantasy or a white savior fantasy.
Annalee: My headline was, “When will white people stop making movies like Avatar?” Which, a lot of white people were very upset that I asked that question.
Annalee: I don’t know if they knew that they’d been making those movies, but ... I don’t know.
CJ: ‘Cause it was a Dances with Wolves thing. It was—
Annalee: Yeah, no. It was a white savior movie. Especially now, I don’t think anybody would dispute that. The white dude comes in and dresses up like a blue person and saves the blue people. It’s blue face, straight up.
And then, there was the amazing essay that Charlie wrote about Transformers 2, called, “Michael Bay Finally Made an Art Film.” And she did this Gonzo analysis of the film, pretending that it was great avant-garde art-
CJ: It was.
Annalee: ... and it broke the internet. Yes, it was great avant-garde art. It’s true that it had very little narrative structure, it was full of spectacle and-
CJ: It was full of really-
Annalee: Nonsensical phrases... We did a Comic-Con panel that year. We started doing io9 Comic-Con panels, and when I introduced Charlie, I said, “And she’s the author of the Transformers 2 essay.” And everybody was like, “Yay!” People just have a lot of feelings about Michael Bay.
Where would you like to see io9 in 10 years?
CJ: I mean, I personally want to see io9 become the center of a vast galactic empire, possibly with armies of space squids and flotillas of just flying cyborgs with arms and legs that can shoot out on rockets and spread positive vibrations and geeky conversations wherever they fly out into space. And I think same for geek culture. I think geek culture should have more projectile arms and legs, for sure.
Annalee: I’m really not interested in arm and geek culture.
CJ: Well, it’s positive vibrations.
Annalee: I’m hoping that io9 continues to thrive, or that, at least, io9's progeny continue to thrive. We’ve already taken over all of media. That’s a good start. And I do think that the next phase is probably planetary domination and then, maybe just the inner planets would be fine. Jupiter is the best planet, and that isn’t technically an inner planet. Maybe we could just stretch it out to there. I’m really hoping that geek culture, over the next decade, becomes less distinctively geek culture and more part of just what we think of as pop culture or scientific culture, because I think a lot of the things that we have historically associated with geekiness, like rationality and belief in scientific explanations for reality really needs to be part of just public culture.
I’m really glad that it’s still going. I’m super proud of it. I think the people working on it are fantastic, and it’s been, really, a pleasure to see people who’ve come through io9. And io9 graduates have gone on to do all kinds of really cool stuff. I mean, I’m really proud, and it’s awesome. We created a great robot monster.