STYLE & CULTURE
Behold, the wizard of blogs
(LA Times article by Gina Piccalo, 4/10/05)
Xeni JARDIN arrives fashionably late, her platinum curls bobbing above the crowd as she sheds a floor-length faux fur to reveal a white silk, backless gown that so effectively evokes Marilyn Monroe, it nearly stops cocktail chatter cold. And that’s saying something, because there are some big brains in this room who aren’t easily distracted, among them a lead scientist of the recent Mars missions and the inventor of the Palm Pilot.
Jardin herself is no slouch. Her glamorous mien belies what her colleagues say is true brilliance. She’s a self-taught Internet code writer who can hold her own among the “alpha geeks” and speaks fragments of five indigenous languages, including three ancient Mayan tongues. Jardin’s so well-versed in fine art that she once traveled the world as an art guide to wealthy tourists. As a co-editor of one of the Web’s most popular blogs, BoingBoing.net, Jardin is the cyberpunk babe who ferrets out odd blips of pop culture to amuse the more than 240,000 weekday visitors to the site. On this night in San Francisco, she’s accompanying NBC News Iraq correspondent Kevin Sites, who’s among a half-dozen people being honored by Wired magazine for, in his case, maintaining a “war blog” that Jardin launched for him. But it isn’t Jardin’s work with Sites that draws people to her throughout the night with slightly star-struck expressions and earnest praise. It is the aura of the future that she projects.
Jardin is a very specific sort of rising star, the type born of the 21st century whose celebrity is fluid and self-made — she’s a journalist, a blogger, a TV personality, an artist and an entrepreneur. She is, at once, a member of the media and a media darling, who translates light-speed cultural shifts as they happen and looks great doing it. Jardin is the child of artists who revels in the Internet’s infinite reach, but fights ambivalence about its impermanent legacy. She wears Gucci and drives a convertible Mercedes, but sees herself as an outsider.
“I want to see how far I can push it,” Jardin says, “before they realize I’m a nerd.”
Jardin is a contributing writer for Wired and occasional contributor to Playboy and Popular Science. Her “Xeni Tech” reports air regularly on National Public Radio’s weekday show “Day to Day,” and her articulate delivery and telegenic look land her frequent “geek guest” appearances on ABC’s “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings, CNN International, Fox News and the Fine Living Network.
In January, Fortune magazine featured Jardin’s blond coif and expressive face on its cover, declaring, “There’s no escaping the blog.” In February, she was cast as the tech expert on E! Entertainment Network’s new “office makeover” pilot, “Very Casual Fridays.” In March, Boing Boing earned two of the top Bloggies, the Oscars of the blog world, for the second consecutive year, winning blog of the year and best group blog. Today, producers are hounding the Boing Boing crew to create a TV show with Jardin as the likely host.
“All the roles are being blurred,” says Wired magazine’s Executive Editor Bob Cohn. “Xeni represents the blurring.”
Beyond her most recent accomplishments, however, Jardin is a mystery to all but a small group of intimates. It’s as if she materialized in the late 1990s, just as the world woke up to the Internet. She’s often cryptic when asked specifics about her background. For some friends, that evasiveness is part of her allure.
“I imagine she was a child of secret agents in Eastern Europe,” quips Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of BoingBoing.net and Jardin’s colleague for nearly three years.
Xeni Jardin, pronounced SHEH-nee zhar-DAN, isn’t her given name. Jardin doesn’t reveal that, she says, because she wants to avoid dangerous people from her past. “Xeni” comes from “Xeniflores,” a word with origins in Guatemala’s native culture. Jardin means “garden” in Spanish and French.
It was a nickname that stuck during her travels through Mexico and Guatemala with her mentor, Dr. Munir Xochipillicueponi Quetzalkanbalam, a writer, performer, director, composer, entrepreneur and Mayan expert whom Jardin considers her adoptive father.
From here, the tale gets complicated and painful, she says. Still, Jardin agrees to recount it for the record for the first time. Ultimately, everyone wants to be understood, she says. Everyone wants to tell their story.
Teen years adrift
Jardin, 32, was born in Richmond, Va., the older of two children. Her father’s homemade birth announcement read, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” a sense of displacement that followed Jardin throughout her early life.
Jardin’s father, Glenn B. Hamm, taught art education at Virginia Commonwealth University and mesmerized his young daughter with his indefatigable imagination. But according to Jardin, he was also a manic, obsessive and sometimes physically abusive man. His paintings and antique machines often consumed so much of the family’s modest budget that Jardin has memories of eating spoiled leftovers and wearing shoes until they literally fell apart.
When Jardin was 8 or 9, Hamm developed Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died a few weeks after Jardin’s 10th birthday, leaving her mother, Monica, to raise Jardin and her younger brother, Carl, alone.
The death devastated Jardin, who soon adopted a punk persona, piercing her nose, dyeing her hair, hanging out with an older crowd, smoking, drinking and doing drugs. A few years later, Jardin left home for good. She was 14.
She spent the next 2 1/2 years couch surfing, squatting in Richmond’s old buildings and living with older friends in a dilapidated house. A loose community of artists, musicians and teachers helped, sharing meals and occasionally opening their homes to her. But Jardin says she felt incredibly alone. She remembers waking one morning in an abandoned warehouse as a rat scurried across her face. “That was the moment where I thought, ‘How did things go so wrong?’ ”
Through it all, Jardin stayed in school. She immersed herself in Richmond’s punk scene, writing music reviews for local punk zines and creating promotional fliers for bands. She also compiled a substantial art portfolio and eventually earned a scholarship that funded a year at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Jardin met Quetzalkanbalam, whom she refers to as “Dr. Munir,” soon after. He had established a community theater and arts-centered mentoring program in the Bay Area. (Quetzalkanbalam declined to be interviewed for this story.) Jardin followed some friends there and began performing in Quetzalkanbalam’s plays. Over time, their relationship felt like family.
“He turned into her surrogate father,” says Jardin’s mother, Monica Rumsey. Quetzalkanbalam offered to help support Jardin if she stayed sober and got a job. “Part of what he did for me was provide that kind of tough love,” says Jardin. “Broadly, he taught me self-worth. He taught me to believe that I could do things that were out of reach.”
Over the years, Jardin says, Quetzalkanbalam taught her “how to craft stories, how to deliver on-camera and on-radio; he taught me voice, acting.” She traveled with him, acquiring her new name, and eventually studied journalism at San Diego State University in the mid-1990s and completed a Microsoft computer science program. Jardin was aware of the Internet, but not immediately enamored by it.
“The Internet just seemed like a quiet, internal world, where shy people, who were afraid of the outdoors, spent too much time,” she writes in an e-mail. “… It didn’t seem really alive and crazy until sound and image and text combined — that’s when it became irresistible.”
After several years as a Web developer in L.A. and San Diego, Jardin got swept up in the tech boom in the late 1990s. She started freelancing for several tech publications, including the New York-focused Silicon Alley Reporter and the L.A.-centered Digital Coast Reporter. Within months, she was recruited by the publisher, Jason McCabe Calacanis, to coordinate trendy, star-studded, industry events in both cities for his company Rising Tide Studios. “We were the zeitgeist of the time,” says Calacanis. “Nobody did the dot-com era better than us.” There, she mingled with a high-profile crowd, celebrities in science, sports, journalism and government, and built an enviable Rolodex.
Just before the terrorist attacks of 2001, Jardin left Rising Tide to pursue journalism. Within two years, she was blogging on BoingBoing.net and contributing regularly to NPR on the intersection of technology and culture. In the years since, she has reported on the blogs in tsunami disaster areas, Hollywood’s battle against Web pirates and the first commercial space flight.
Today, Jardin shares a Los Feliz home with Mar Doré, whom she met with Quetzalkanbalam in San Francisco and now considers her adoptive sister. They’re partners in the online furniture company Ambìence Doré.
Over time, Jardin has become an adept “geek-speak” translator, an amiable guide through the labyrinthine blog world, where a person’s identity or sense of humor or idea of the world is often communicated with a series of Web links that act as a kind of shortcut to camaraderie.
That talent was readily apparent at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology (E-Tech) conference last month in San Diego, an annual gathering of “alpha geeks, innovators and developers,” as billed in the event program. Here, newspapers are “dinosaur blogs,” fast-moving ideas are “memes” and those unfamiliar with http scalability, character encoding or collaborative atom hacking might find themselves studying the sugar packets on the coffee caddy as vigorous chatter moves around them. That’s where Jardin comes in, using her ear for language, her ability to empathize and her curiosity about culture to bridge the two worlds.
“The task of making the abstract concrete, and bringing foreign things into focus seems like a worthwhile task,” says Jardin. “It is a task that involves an endless amount of discovery and play…. Simply knowing a subject isn’t as valuable to the world as knowing how to make that subject accessible to others. So, this is what I try to do.”
Jardin acknowledges that she’s grown dependent on the energy and the immediacy of the Internet. It is, she says, her “home.” But the very aspects of the Web that fuel Jardin also trouble her as she contemplates its legacy.
“I’m spoiled in the sense that this medium provides what was only 10 years ago an unimaginably broad, instant reach,” she writes in an e-mail. “But, then, my dad’s paintings are still here, after his death. They endure. I don’t know that anyone will really care much about a blog or an archived NPR radio segment 10 years from now. The speed that makes this medium so magical is also what makes it fragile, weak, fleeting. So, I wonder if what I’m doing has the same value. Or if people will remember anything I did after I’m gone.”
Building the e-team
Boing BOING started in 1988 in San Francisco as a self-published magazine that Frauenfelder and his wife, writer Carla Sinclair, created to cover emerging technology, geek culture and other oddities. In 1995, Sinclair and Frauenfelder, then the editor in chief of Wired Online, launched a Boing Boing website. In January 2000, BoingBoing.net debuted as a blog.
Initially, Frauenfelder was the only blogger, but when he went on vacation, he recruited Boing Boing fan Cory Doctorow, who then ran his own start-up, to fill in for him. Doctorow stayed and a few months later, Boing Boing zine writer David Pescovitz joined him. After Frauenfelder met Jardin in mid-2002, he invited her to blog as well and the team was complete.
With four co-editors, the posts were more frequent and varied and readers flocked to the site. It became, as described by fan Jason Schultz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “the perfect 30-second escape from work.”
Since February 2004, the online readership has jumped tenfold. “It astounds me that there are so many people in the world who seem to have this bizarre collection of interests,” says Pescovitz, now a freelance journalist and media producer living in San Francisco. “It’s shocking.”
The site, which describes itself as “a directory of wonderful things,” houses all manner of cultural ephemera — a link to porn star Ron Jeremy’s new cellphone “groantones” and the latest in translucent tombstones — oddities in nature — “Large catfish attempts to swallow small basketball” — and tech news that is ignored or misunderstood by MSM (mainstream media).
“In the beginning, it was strictly for fun,” Jardin says of blogging. “But once it sort of gets under your skin, your day becomes incomplete without it.”
Boing Boing’s arty, hip, tech-savvy intellectualism is not especially unique among blogs. But the site’s posts are often more plentiful, more contagious and consequently, more widely read. Readers from all over the globe flood the e-mail in-boxes of Jardin and her co-editors with URLs and ideas, hoping to prompt a post. (Each contributor is credited.) Sifting through them requires several hours each day.
Consequently, Jardin lives online and often answers e-mail instantly, from anywhere. When she’s not researching her own items, she’s checking the competition on blog-centric search engines such as Technorati.com, Blogdex.net, Daypop.com, Feedster.com and Popdex.com. That’s because, she says, those who stay “plugged in” get first pick of the best stories.
Jardin’s pieces often prove to be memes with a longer shelf life. A story on the copyright dispute between Sony and Beatallica, a Milwaukee band that performs Beatles songs Metallica-style, led Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich to defend the tribute band. And when the Korean Friendship Assn. launched a Flash film on its website beckoning vacationers to North Korea, Jardin posted a link to the site. Within an hour, the KFA blocked access to that Flash file and in its place was a note chastising the “inconsiderate people” — many of whom were undoubtedly Boing Boing fans — for overloading their system.
“Blogs are like a combination of those early fanzines and volunteer punk rock fliers and a big international party and a phone line where the international calls are always free,” Jardin writes in an e-mail. “You can’t beat that.”
Putting a public face on it
At sunset in San Diego, the Boing Boing crew prepares for its first-ever “band photo.” Photographer Bart Nagel has chosen a spot near the trolley tracks so speed — in the form of a passing San Diego Trolley — is the backdrop. Frauenfelder, wearing large Buddy Holly-style frames and a kind smile, stands off to one side. Behind him is Pescovitz, fresh from a stint in Paris, wearing all black and quipping about the group’s image. “Are we the Clash or Depeche Mode?” he asks.
To Pescovitz’s left is Doctorow, who wears a blazer busy with patches and, under his sunglasses, a skull-and-crossbones eye patch that he later tucks into his pocket. The group’s manager, writer and blogger John Battelle, is nearby leaning into his cellphone. In the center is Jardin with a stance and an ensemble straight out of “The Matrix.” She wears a bare-shouldered, snug-fitting black top, black satin pants and black patent leather ankle boots with spike heels and white racing stripes. She has an expert pose for every digitally captured image.
“Make love to the camera,” says Pescovitz.
“Make blog to the camera,” corrects Jardin.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The plugged-in blur that is her career
What she’s doing now….
• Co-editor on the popular blog BoingBoing.net
• Contributing writer at Wired magazine and occasional contributor to Playboy and Popular Science
• Tech culture correspondent for National Public Radio’s “Day to Day”
• Tech culture commentator on ABC’s “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings, CNN International and Fox News
• Tech expert on E! Entertainment Network’s pilot “Very Casual Fridays”
And in the past:
• Vice president of conferences for Rising Tide Studios
• Web developer for an L.A. law firm and Silicon Valley start-up