Jason Kottke: Master of the Set Up

Photo by swirlspice

I’ve only met Jason Kottke once. A few years ago at SXSW, I said hi, we chatted for a few seconds, and that was that. Although I’m occasionally in his sidebar and he links to Mike Industries every so often, I can’t say I’m a “friend”. In fact, while I’m on the subject, am I the only one who hates when people on the web say “our friends at ____” or “my good friend ____” when they’ve never even spoken to the person(s)?


Jason Kottke is known as one of the most interesting bloggers around and a particularly good “linkblogger”. But what does it mean to be a good linkblogger? For your standard “prolific linkblogger”, it’s simply about unearthing interesting new links on the web. Simple enough, right? Just follow other linkbloggers and regurgitate the good stuff.

What separates good linkbloggers from great linkbloggers is a little more subtle though: it’s all about the setup. And this is where Kottke excels. Take for example this entry from yesterday:

This timelapse video of man trapped in an elevator for 41 hours is difficult to watch. The video accompanies an article in the New Yorker about elevators.

White has the security-camera videotape of his time in the McGraw-Hill elevator. He has watched it twice-it was recorded at forty times regular speed, which makes him look like a bug in a box. The most striking thing to him about the tape is that it includes split-screen footage from three other elevators, on which you can see men intermittently performing maintenance work. Apparently, they never wondered about the one he was in. (Eight McGraw-Hill security guards came and went while he was stranded there; nobody seems to have noticed him on the monitor.)

The end of White’s story is heartbreaking. On the plus side, the article also discusses a favorite social phenomenon of mine, how strangers space themselves in elevators.

If you draw a tight oval around this figure, with a little bit of slack to account for body sway, clothing, and squeamishness, you get an area of 2.3 square feet, the body space that was used to determine the capacity of New York City subway cars and U.S. Army vehicles. Fruin defines an area of three square feet or less as the “touch zone”; seven square feet as the “no-touch zone”; and ten square feet as the “personal-comfort zone.” Edward Hall, who pioneered the study of proxemics, called the smallest range — less than eighteen inches between people — “intimate distance,” the point at which you can sense another person’s odor and temperature. As Fruin wrote, “Involuntary confrontation and contact at this distance is psychologically disturbing for many persons.”

(via waxy)

Let’s look at what makes this a great item:

1. Read the first sentence. This is the first hook. Timelapse videos are generally entertaining, and the “difficult to watch” part is a cue that, yes, you should probably at least try to watch it because it’s dramatic.

2. The setup also mentions the full article in the New Yorker, which is very important, since it provides a lot more information than the video. A straight link to the video is not nearly as interesting as video plus full background story.

3. The first quote from the article is well-selected. It only serves to increase the reader’s curiosity about the incident.

4. “The end of White’s story is heartbreaking.”. This is probably the most genius part of the link. It makes watching the video alone almost pointless. It *requires* the reader to click over to the New Yorker article to find out what actually happened. And this bit of motivation turns out to be quite important because the New Yorker article is written in a very strange style whereby White’s story is sprinkled into the overall piece a few paragraphs at a time. It’s quite a bizarre format, but since Kottke has given me motivation to find out what happened to White, I end up reading a lot more of the New Yorker article than I normally would have.

5. Kottke also parenthetically mentions how the article talks about the social phenomenon of “elevator spacing”, an extra added bonus for those of us who have always had an unnatural interest in such things.

6. And finally, Kottke credits Andy Baio for exposing him to the link… and upon visiting Waxy, Andy in turn credits Nelson Minar… and upon visiting Nelson’s delicious page, Nelson credits Metafilter. The “via chain”. So nice. Yet so often neglected by people (self included).

So in the end, we have a a story/video that most people probably would have either skimmed or missed entirely, but because of the thoughtful setup, both were consumed in their entirety with nervous anticipation. In fact, two other people sent me links over IM to the elevator video this morning and when I asked each if they had read the accompanying New Yorker article, they both answered “Nope… too long”.

Linkbloggers remember: The setup is everything.

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23 Responses:

  1. Ah Kottke, the source of many a “via” links. I think it’s not just the beautiful setup but it feels like I have very similar taste to Kottke. I absolutely loved that elevator article but I’m sure there’s many that just aren’t interested in it — but they’re probably not Kottke readers.

  2. Rob says:

    I can’t wait to see how Jason sets up his link to this post.

  3. Whew! That was a great link. And with your praise of it, I read the entire thing. Productive, possibly not ;-) Entertaining, definitely! The end was unexpected, and yes, heartbreaking to be sure.

    I especially enjoyed the bit about the social aspects of elevators. To that end, I will now read Kottke’s bit about it. This bit of the New Yorker’s article made me chuckle. It is very true.

    “With each additional passenger, the bodies shift, slotting into the open spaces. The goal, of course, is to maintain (but not too conspicuously) maximum distance and to counteract unwanted intimacies—a code familiar (to half the population) from the urinal bank…”

    (ps – Mike, do you allow any sort of HTML or other tags in comments? I wanted to blockquote that section, but didn’t want the tags to show up if it was turned off, so I opted not to)

  4. Great points Mike,

    I had nearly the exact same thought as I read that article yesterday – and what an intriguing article it is. There is no way I would have read an article about elevators without his setup. And if I hadn’t I would have missed a really cool and well written piece and one really disturbing video.

    If you want to know what is going on in pop culture and a little off the beaten path his blog is the one have in your feed reader.

  5. jason says:

    So linkblogging can be defined as “I’m totally going to suck you into wasting time at work!”. Ok seriously, I’d never heard of this story and the video was great. (I probably would have never seen it if it were not for Mike Industries!)

  6. Joe Clark says:

    I dunno. Even someone like me who pays too much attention to too many details finds this rather par for the course.

  7. Don says:

    No it doesn’t bother me when people say “our friends over at ________”. It’s like everyone being introduced in a comedy show is a friend of the MC. So with this I’ll say thanks to my friend over at Mike Industries for an interesting article and then … well it’s peace out for me, good night.

  8. Kendrick says:

    I posted this same article on my blog, of course my setup was different, and now I wish I had used a quote of some kind…

    anyway, heres mine:

    I just read a brilliant piece of writing about the elevator business. Sounds like an awful topic to read about. I mean how interesting can an elevator actually be? Well that’s why the writing of this article in The New Yorker is so brilliant. It’s truly a fascinating look at this usually overlooked part of our lives.

    I love the awkwardness of an elevator ride, the super short chit chat or the incredibly long silences, either way it’s interesting each and every time.


    Looking back on it, I should have mentioned the video… I should have talked more about the guy stuck in the elevator for 41 hours, as that is the thing that got me reading the article… I also should have thanked Thomas Hawk for linking me to the article in the first place…

    anyway, I like your post too in that it talks about a whole other topic while using this interesting article as a catalyst… cool!

  9. Reed says:

    This is exactly why Kottke is the only site I absolutely must visit every single day. Everything that comes through is interesting, but more importantly is what Kottke writes about each link and the connections he draws between different articles.

  10. Rex says:

    I adore me some kottke, but I lean even closer to brevity philosophy — eight words feels like the perfect post. Anytime I expound into multiple sentences, I feel guilty.

    Your friend, -Rex

  11. jonathan says:

    Ya know, I actually linked to the same article (via kottke, of course), but because Jason took the angle he did, and because this is what’s actually more interesting to me (though, the Nicholas White story truly is heartbreaking), I wrote about it from the totally opposite direction:


    In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.

    That’s just one of many fascinating tidbits in a piece in this week’s New Yorker about, you guessed it, elevators. And elevator design. And elevator jargon: destination dispatch, arrival immediate prediction lantern, psychological waiting time, &c.

    Oh, and elevator horror stories—chief among them the story of Nicholas White, who was stuck in an elevator, alone, for forty-one hours (that link takes you to the time-lapse security video of said elevator during said forty-one hours).


    I also included some links to Khoi Vinh’s posts about the New York Times building switching to destination dispatch ’cause they were pretty fascinating as well.

    To me, anything that teaches me how something works is a must read.

  12. shawn says:

    So true – just last night jason’s link to that elevator story kept me up at least an extra hour later than I planned on. I had seen the headline/link somewhere else previously, but didn’t take the bait until jason presented it.

  13. Mike D. says:

    Shawn: That makes me want to change the title of this post to “Jason Kottke: Master Baiter”.

  14. jonathan says:

    This isn’t exactly on topic, but somehow I’ve been provoked to mention it: There’s a little shop in my town that sells fishing supplies called Master Bait & Tackle. True story.

  15. Hop says:

    [That makes me want to change the title of this post to “Jason Kottke: Master Baiter”.]

    Did anyone else wonder if, after 41 hours locked in a small room with NOTHING to do, if he emerged as, um, master of his domain?

  16. …am I the only one who hates when people on the web say “our friends at ____” or “my good friend ____” when they’ve never even spoken to the person(s)?

    How do you feel about the fact that I currently have over 300 “friends” on Newsvine?


  17. Mike D. says:

    Brian: I feel that you are a friend whore. :)

  18. Jared Lyon says:

    I disagree a bit with you, Mike. The setup just indicates to me that the video is time consuming, and on top of that time consumption, I’d have to spend even more time searching through another article to find out what’s “heartbreaking.”

    This all just tells me that it’s not easily consumed, so I skip it. Time better spent on other things.

  19. […] “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit! (also via Kottke, The Master of the Setup) […]

  20. […] It’s people like Jason Kottke that help us decide what is and what isn’t worth reading on the Web.  He’s been publishing his suggested content at Kottke.org  since 1998, and has been doing it professionally, full-time, since 2005.  Since he’s getting pretty good at playing tastemaker for tens of thousands of Internet users, we pulled him into studio to ask him how he feels about playing digital curator. […]

  21. […] Spark has posted an unedited interview with Jason Kottke: It’s people like Jason Kottke that help us decide what is and what isn’t worth reading on the Web.  He’s been publishing his suggested content at Kottke.org since 1998, and has been doing it professionally, full-time, since 2005.  Since he’s getting pretty good at playing tastemaker for tens of thousands of Internet users, we pulled him into studio to ask him how he feels about playing digital curator. […]

  22. […] Spark Interviews Jason Kottke: Jump to Comments Listen to the interview here: It’s people like Jason Kottke that help us decide what is and what isn’t worth reading on the Web.  He’s been publishing his suggested content at Kottke.org since 1998, and has been doing it professionally, full-time, since 2005.  Since he’s getting pretty good at playing tastemaker for tens of thousands of Internet users, we pulled him into studio to ask him how he feels about playing digital curator. […]

  23. […] How to be a good ‘linkblogger‘. […]

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