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Interview with Harley Hahn

(November 21, 2002)


Every now and then, I will make a personal appearance, give a speech, or do a book signing. However, I spend most of my working time at home and if you want to talk to me, you need to send me email.

Unfortunately, I have so much work that I am not able to answer all my email as quickly as I would like. I do read everything and (eventually) I do respond, but it can take a long time.

So, when an editor at InfoWorld Magazine asked to participate in an online forum, I agreed, because it would give me a chance to talk to my readers and to answer their questions.

(The following discussion was conducted online at the InfoWorld Web site.)


Introduction by the moderator:

"The publication of Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages, 2003 Edition marks the 10th anniversary of the 'World's Greatest Guide to Everything'.

"When you wrote the original Internet Yellow Pages 10 years ago, the world was a lot different. The Internet was unknown to almost everyone, the Web didn't even exist, and using the Internet was very difficult. Today, the Internet and the Web are part of life — easily accessible to just about everyone."

QUESTION: I'm sure the first edition of your book must contain completely different listings than the current edition. How many listings did the first book contain, how many in this one? What's changed in the meantime?

HARLEY: The very first edition, 10 years ago, had 2,152 items in it (I just did a quick check with the database.) The newest edition (2003) has 3,566. However, the old items were small.

In the newer books, I have written a lot of short essays, so there is a huge amount of new material. Each year, my researchers and I make significant changes to the resources. This year, I also added a brand new section, just for kids, called "The Little Nipper's Internet Clubhouse". (The Little Nipper is my cat. He is sleeping in the sun right now. Here is his Web page if you want to visit:

http://www.harley.com/nipper/

Note from Harley. Since this interview, The Little Nipper has passed away. However, I have a new cat, Little Weedly. He too has his own Web site:

http://www.weedly.com/

The Internet has created brand new forces that we are just starting to understand. The best (and the worst) is yet to come.

I also have a philosophical question for you. Do you believe that the Internet has dramatically improved our lives, beyond making it easier to simply find and publish information?

Yes, beyond measure and beyond our very understanding. However, the Internet has also created brand new forces that are not always good that we are just starting to understand. The best (and the worst) is yet to come. Generally, though, the Internet is a good thing because, generally, people are good.

When you were preparing the Yellow Pages, what was the most useful Web site you found?

Do you mean aside from my site? ;-) It would be the Google search engine. Using that site, I could find whatever I wanted. I could also check Usenet discussion groups and (a new feature) the news.

How have you resisted the urge to take your yellow pages online and make it searchable, clickable, etc? Via the Internet?

Is it purely an economic issue (how do you monetize online content?) or has it been a decision based on other factors to keep your Yellow Pages in print and CD only?

The decision as to whether or not to put the data in the Yellow Pages online is a complex one. It would take a lot of work to keep it up to date (rather than revise it once a year for the book). However, I am about to do that. This year, in the 2003 edition, there is no CD. (However, the book is $5 less expensive.)

My latest project is to bring the Yellow Pages online. It is a huge amount of work, but well worth it. The plan is to have a special content area, which you will be to access for a small fee. When you do, you will be able to read, not only the Yellow Pages, but two other books, online: "Harley Hahn's Internet Advisor" and "Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity". The name of this new feature will be called "The Harley Hahn Experience".

Eventually, there will be more books, but we will start with the three books and a variety of other, interesting content. My experience is that using the Yellow Pages via the Web is a lot more convenient than having to install software from a CD. We have put in a lot of time to get just the right design for it, and I expect that people will like it a lot.

If you are interested, here is an information page:

http://hhe.harley.com/

In your book, you say that you don't accept payments to list a particular Web site and you don't even accept submissions for consideration.

How do you and your staff personally find the sites that you choose for the book? Is it happenstance or luck? Do you simply categorize and list sites as you come across them or do you actively search for sites in particular categories?

For the most part, I decide which topics should be in the book, and we actively search for resources to fit those topics. I have a small number of very good researchers. Every year, as part of the revision process, we also check every Web site personally. When we search for resources (and remember, the book has more than Web sites, it has mailing lists, Usenet discussion groups, and IRC channels), we have a list of criteria that we follow.

For example, I won't put in sites that play music automatically, or sites that are hosted on free Web server facilities (like Geocities; they are too unstable). Basically, our goal is to find the very best resources we can for each topic in the book.

Ten years ago, it seemed that most of the Web sites were personal or at least noncommercial. They may still be the majority, I'm not sure, but it seems that commercial, for-profit Web sites and companies now proliferate? What's your take on the commercialization of the Internet?

The Internet is only partially about money. The Internet is really about communication, people, sharing, and information.

I agree. I think that that, by far, the number of personal and noncommercial sites are in the majority. Remember also, there are a huge number of government and public interest sites. The idea that the Web is dominated by commercial, for- profit sites (and business) is an illusion. In my books, I work hard to avoid purely commercial sites, and to concentrate on the real value that my researchers and I find on the Internet.

I have a saying, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, "The business of the Internet is not business." The Internet is only partially (and not that much) about money. The Internet is really about communication, people, sharing, and information.

Are there any new categories or new Web sites that particularly stand out in this latest edition that have not been in previous editions?

Yes, there is a lot of new material. I make sure this is the case every year. For one reason, I need to keep up on what is happening in the world. Also, my researchers and I need to check out all the existing resources to see if they still meet our criteria. However, I also want to make sure that you get your money's worth when you buy a new book.

This year, there is a lot of new material. I'll tell you three things: There are a large number of interesting question and answer essays that I call "Tidbits". Also, there is a brand new section, just for children and families, called "The Little Nipper's Internet Clubhouse".

And, at the very beginning of the book, is a long personal essay ("I Remember"), looking back on the birth and growth of the Internet, and how things have changed over the years. If you like my personal writing, you will like this essay a lot.

How did you earn the sobriquet of best-selling Internet author of all time? Is it based on the number of books you've sold or the fact that there all, in some way connected to the Internet?

It's both. First, over the years, my books have sold a lot. It varies from one year to the next but, in total, no one has sold more. Most, but not all of my books are connected in some way to the Internet, so that is how I earned the title.

Still, the main idea is not to be competitive. My goal is to explain and to inspire. I am just lucky that people respond to what I have to offer. If you are interested, here is a master list of all my books:

http://www.harley.com/books/master-list.html

More are in the works.

In general, do you find that the quality of content on the net has improved or is it still, mostly junk with a few (at least the 3,500+ listings in your directory) gems to be discovered?

The world is getting better and better all the time. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

It has improved. In general, the world is getting better and better all the time. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

I read a past interview you did, where you said something to the effect that "in 500 years people won't be able to tell the difference between the Internet and God". If I got that right, I'd like to know two things.

1. Did you get any grief over saying that? For example, remember the Beatles being more popular than God?

2. Can you elaborate a bit on what you meant by it?

No, I haven't got any grief, but then John Lennon's remark [that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus] was made at a press conference with the world watching.

My idea is that, within, say, five centuries from now, what we now call the Internet will have grown into a very sophisticated ubiquitous part of life. Generations of people will have grown up, thinking it is normal to be able to connect to the Internet and to other people and to very fast, smart computers, everywhere, whenever they want. Also, by then, the origins of the Internet will have been forgotten. (How much do you know, say, about the origin of TV?)

So, putting it together, people will live with a powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, mysterious force that no one can even remember doing without, that is woven into life so tightly that it has been taken for granted for generations. Couple that with the observation that the idea of "God" has evolved enormously over the last 2,000 years, and you can see what I mean about the Internet and God being indistinguishable. If you want to see what I say about God right now, take a look at:

http://www.harley.com/god/

If you want to see the interview in which I made these comments, look at:

http://www.harley.com/interviews/interview3.html