This appeared in the issue for Friday, November 25, 2005:
For Rinkworks, surviving the dot-com bust was a lot of fun
By David Brooks
Published: Friday, Nov. 25, 2005
Stop me if you've heard this one: A University of New Hampshire computer major in the mid-1990s decides this new Web thing is a neat conduit for some of his work. In a couple of years his site has so many visitors that he's listening to buyout offers and contemplating a leisurely life supported by online ad revenue. Then the dot-com bubble bursts.
A good story, but a short-lived one, right?
Not to Sam Stoddard of Somersworth.
"The money -- it's not enough to live on, but it is enough to be a significant supplemental income," said Stoddard, 31.
Stoddard's fun-and-games site, Rinkworks (based on his old Usenet nickname) is closing in on its first decade, having survived the shakeout that eliminated most of the individual New Hampshire-based Web sites that had me all agog when Clinton was president.
Right before the bubble burst the advertising revenue was very substantial, and I was thinking, "Gosh, if it continues I can quit my job!" Within two to three months, advertising revenue dropped to maybe 5 percent of what it was, Stoddard recalled in a recent phone interview.
"Since then it has built up, slowly. It's maybe halfway to what it was," he said.
Rinkworks is a rare example of that thinly populated Web space which lies above the strictly personal (blogs, Flikr sites) but below the truly commercial.
Stoddard, who works as a software engineer at Boston-Maine Airways at Pease, may spend 40 hours a week on Rinkworks, pay taxes on it, have advertising contracts and do bookkeeping on its behalf, but he's got no employees, no business plan, and if it became boring he would drop it like an HTML potato.
Rinkworks started because Stoddard wanted to share book reviews. He added other fun stuff because -- well, becausehe's a computer guy. He likes puzzles and jokes and trivia and games and programming, so, like a bazillion other computer guys, he started putting them online; unlike almost a bazillion of them, he stuck with it.
Today Rinkworks has everything from number puzzles called Brain Food, to film reviews, to various online games (including my favorite, those of Everett Kaser) to his own downloadable chat software -- released, of course, under the GNU open source license.
The pleasure of fun
People are most likely to know Rinkworks from the Dialectizer, an amusing bit of software that Stoddard put together years ago to "translate" text in funny ways.
You can see the Gettysburg Address in Elmer Fudd ("Fouw scowe and seven yeaws ago") or Shakespeare's Caesar in Hacker (lAmErs, romans, countrrymden,") or the Marine Corps Hymn in Swedish Chef ("Frum zee hells ooff Muntezooma")
Dialectizer got Stoddard in hot water in two ways.
The first is that he allows entire Web pages to be translated. In 2000, Bank of America decided that this was a violation of their copyright and threatened to sue him -- drawing lots of attention, lots of visits and lots of offers of help from the Slashdot crowd.
Stoddard thought BofA's argument was bogus, but it still made him close the site for a short while, before reopening it with changes that made it easier for Web sites to opt out of being Dialectizer-ized. This placated the men in suits, although it leaves the basic legal question open.
"As far as I know, it has yet to be addressed by the courts," he said, noting that legitimate translation Web sites like Babelfish and Google do the exact same thing. "I sort of wish somebody would sue, so we could find out -- as long as they don't sue me."
Stoddard did not back down on the other Dialectizer controversy, however. It arose from the fact that one of his "languages" is a stereotype of Black American dialect, called Jive. (Hamlet's soliloquy begins "To be o' not t'be, dat be de quesshun.")
Some folks called this racist, but Stoddard held his ground, saying it was legitimate parody that might even help lighten the heavy load placed on race relations in this country. The controversy faded, and Jive is still on his pull-down menu.
Partly as a result of all this, Dialectizer remains the most popular of the dozen or so features on Rinkworks, although its dominance has faded as more items are added.
"I'm always working on a few, as they pop into my head. I'm working on a game right now, to add to the role-players system," he said.
Indeed, this is what keeps Rinkworks going: The pleasure of doing fun stuff.
"That's why I think it's still around -- I do a lot of things I would do anyway and channel it into (Rinkworks). I'd be so burnt out if I were doing anything I didn't want to do," he said. "The only feature I have ever dropped was because I didn't like it."
Which, come to think of it, makes a much better story: UNH major turns his skills into a decade-long hobby that pays some of his bills without becoming a drag.
Dot-com bust -- take that!