Anil Dash, a technologist, entrepreneur and writer, has been called a “blogging pioneer” by the New Yorker. He is cofounder of Activate, a “next gen” strategy consulting firm for media and tech companies, and CEO of ThinkUp, a startup that makes social networking more meaningful. He was the first employee at early blogging technology company Six Apart, and has been publishing continuously since 1999 at Dashes.com.
Ashok Kondabolu: In your own words, what do you do?
Anil Dash: I do a lot of things with technology, mostly trying to hack big institutions to be more humane.
I remember when we first met, you talked a little bit about growing up in Harrisburg.
That’s true. That happened. I was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It’s like the Sacramento of Pennsylvania. If you’re from California, people are like, are you from San Francisco or LA? If you’re from Pennsylvania, people say, are you from Philly or Pittsburgh? There’s a whole dark place in the state that people forget about.
Yeah, and we’re like, Amish and Hershey Chocolate and all that stuff. That’s where I grew up, that part of the world. It was right between suburban and rural. Town of 3-4,000 people, when I was growing up. I’m glad to have done it. And I haven’t been back there in ten, fifteen years. (Laughs)
Do you still have family there?
No, my folks left too. They actually retired out in California.
Did your parents vote? When you were younger?
You know, they did and I was never aware of it. Like, I knew about it because they closed the school down, they put the voting booth in. We had a day off from school, and I would be with my mom when she was in the booth. I had no idea what lever she pulled. And now, I realize my parents were both state workers. My mom was in a union for twenty, twenty-five years. My dad founded the Hindu temple we went to, so he’s a religious conservative in that sense. He’s from a little farm town in the middle of nowhere in India, so he’s very traditional in that sense. So, conceivably, in the American political spectrum, he should be a religious conservative. If you map it, conservative Hindus are as conservative as anybody in the world. They’re making the same mistakes.
Were there many other Indians growing up around you?
The only other Indian family we had in the country was a cousin out in Long Beach, California. And, we would go and visit her, and there would be Indians everywhere. Like, somebody would stop by the house and they would make dinner, and you’d go to parties and there would be thirty other Indian families, and I was like “Hoooly shit, there’s Indian people in the US!”
Nobody spoke Oriya. Meanwhile my cousin was fluent in the language.
Oriya is the language of Orissa, right? So like Bengali is to Bengal, right?
And yeah, that’s exactly the point. Everybody knows Punjabi, everybody knows Bengali, and [with] Oriya, it’s like, what is that?
I’m Telugu, so it’s similar. Especially with Americans. They’re like, that’s not one of the two things I know!
Exactly, I know! There’s three possible options you’re going to say to me that I’m going to recognize.
It’s like, are you Chinese or Japanese?
I grew up in similar circumstances where there weren’t that many Telugus, so I was like, am I not “Indian” enough? There were so many Punjabi and Gujarati kids. I realized at some point, I worked out all the mid-life crisis-esque issues very young.
Because you identify, but you don’t fully identify. And they had so much infrastructure, that I think it would have also been a lot more pressure. Right? I mean, Punjabi kids had to be perfect Punjabi kids. And we’re like, there’s nobody else like us. I always felt like that is the one thing I would have told ten-year-old me: “It’s cool, it worked out.”
Where did you go to school?
I didn’t, really. After high school, I did my company. I briefly went to the University of Maryland, I went for like six weeks or something; it didn’t stick. I had a scholarship when I was there—I was the worst Indian kid ever. And actually, one of the few things I remember is that they had a computer lab where they literally just had the first web browser. That shit blew my mind. And then, the comic in the student paper was Aaron McGruder. It wasn’t called Boondocks yet.
Wow, that’s crazy. Similar, same character?
Yeah, I think right at the end when I was there, there were two or three strips that he did that were on that vibe. And I was like, this guy is really funny. I would never have remembered it if they hadn’t looked visually similar. It was one of those things that really stuck with me. And that was the entirety of what I took from my college experience.
Then I came to Manhattan and, you know, when you grow up outside the city, and especially if you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, you have this idealized vision of the big city. But also it’s dangerous, it’s other, it’s the most rebellious thing I can do. All those things kind of come together. And I was chasing a girl. It was like, alright, perfect storm, let me come here and do it. I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anybody. I was broke. I didn’t have a job. I came with a car. I just didn’t know anything. (Laughs) This is fifteen years ago, ’97. I remember being on the early Internet then, and going on these sites that were like “what to do in the city” (and city guides weren’t like Yelp; this was early bare-bones shit), and just being like, Oh, this is how it works. I remember that first summer here, learning basic shit like how the street grid works, [how] the avenues go from 1st to 10th. I didn’t know anything, and that’s a great thing; you can be young and stupid and just figure it out.
And you picked New York ’cause it’s…?
Because why go anywhere else? I think that is a very Indian thing, like, “You got a B+, why didn’t you get an A?” It wasn’t, let me go to the second biggest city. That’s not interesting. Or like, San Francisco, man, not even the top ten.
We were talking about how you used to work in the music industry.
So this is actually one of the first jobs I had when I came to New York. Music promo shop—they did short-form videos commercials and stuff. I remember being at the top of the Empire State building, 76th floor. We had Funk Flex up there doing voiceovers for one of those hip-hop compilations. It would be like, “Top 10 Hits of 1999!”