Cool Tools at Boing Boing

Starting this week, the user-written cool tool reviews which appear here every weekday will also appear on the Boing Boing blog a few hours later. We are doing this to increase the exposure of Cool Tools to a larger audience. This parallel run will not change either the appearance or frequency of the reviews here. If you are a regular reader of this blog, everything will look the same and you don’t have to do anything.

The one change we do hope we’ll notice is an increase in submissions of suggestions and an increase in the quality of great tools posted. That is really the only reason why we are extending the content in this way. There may be a few Boing Boing readers who previously came here to read Cool Tools but won’t any longer because they can now do that from the comfort of BB. But we are hoping they will stop by here to comment, and to suggest better things. All comments for Cool Tools will run on this site, and not on BB, so you can expect new users in the comments. Be polite. Remember, you can insult tools, but not people. We’ll be policing the comments for civility as always.

But why Boing Boing? Why we are partnering with the Happy Mutants instead of another potential site? Because of our parallel origins.

I started Cool Tools ten years ago. This collection of “tools that really work” began as a special issue of a magazine I used to edit, Whole Earth Review. Whole Earth Review, an outgrowth of Whole Earth Catalogs, was a completely user-supported publication, written mostly by readers, and paid for by readers, without the support, or interference, of advertising. In the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s this user-generated publication reviewed great tools for do-it-yourselfers, but over the years after I left it, it eventually mostly reviewed books. I decided to give the magazine one last go by guest-editing an issue dedicated entirely to cool tools. So on my own I polled my friends and gathered up about a hundred reviews and great recommendations. I used the new-at-that-time tool of InDesign to lay out the pages myself, and after scanning in photographic images (I did not have a digital camera at the time), I prepared 80 pages of the magazine, ready to be printed. (Years earlier when I was editing the magazine it took a crew of 7 to accomplish the same.) The result of my do-it-yourself efforts appeared as the Winter 2000 (#103) issue of Whole Earth Review. I followed up that issue with an email list among my friends, emailing out new cool tools whenever a friend suggested one. The core of that set became the first items posted on this blog, originally named Recomendo, later renamed Cool Tools. Today there are about 2,100 items reviewed on this site.

To keep things interesting in that first issue ten years ago, I mixed in a few longer essays of “cool stuff.” One of the short articles I included was a reported piece by Mark Frauenfelder, called “Blogging.” Mark not only wrote the piece but illustrated it as well:

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In his piece, Mark eagerly introduced this new technology with an ugly name. He explained why blogs were useful, why you might one to start one, and how you would go about it. Mark was frustrated because he had tried to sell his piece on the leading edge to other magazines during a crazy period (1999) when technology magazines were 300 pages fat and desperate for content. Yet they all rejected this piece on blogging — whatever that was — as too “fringe.” To be honest I had never heard of blogs either and in my introduction I wrote that “it is hard to tell whether this is a trivial exploitation [of the web], or profound.” Mark worked with me at Wired, and so I had long ago learned to follow him wherever he goes. I was betting that if Mark found it significant it would be. I wrote in the introduction that Mark “has a great track record for uncovering street uses of technology that later play out huge.” Boy was I right, or rather, was Mark right. Blogs went from fringe to mainstream almost overnight.

Shortly after he wrote this piece, Mark took his own advice and started a blog. He resurrected the idea for a paper magazine he and his wife ran for a few years, but then cancelled, called bOING bOING. They turned the ‘zine into a blog. (I was a fan of the ‘zine bOING bOING and was so impressed by Mark that I hired him for Wired.) Boing Boing the blog quickly transcended the limited success of the paper magazine, and in fact proved that once again Mark has seen the future coming.

So in a kind of lopsided circle, we’ve gone from Whole Earth, to Boing Boing on paper, to Wired, to Cool Tools, to Boing Boing blog, to Cool Tools blog, and now back to Boing Boing and Cool Tools. For all I know Mark Frauenfelder may see something very important going on here, but for me, this is merely a chance to increase the audience for Cool Tools. At its simplest Cool Tools is a venue for fans to rave about their favorite tools, tips, and gadgets (in the broadest sense of utility). We only run — and will only run — great reviews about great stuff (why waste your time on anything else?). The items we run have been used by real folks with real experience, vetted by editors, and presented in an easy-to-digest one item per day. This formula has worked for ten years. I think it can go another ten years. Welcome BoingBoingers!

For Mark’s side of this circular story see his parallel post on Boing Boing.

-- KK