Thursday, January 6th, 2011
Five years ago, on January 6, 2006, I launched SMITH Magazine with Tim Barkow, a guy I met on the first day of college. We got along well because we both liked New Wave rock and making media. We had tons of ideas; he was better at the behind-the-scenes, backend building of stuff. I was better at inspiring the troops and talking the ear off of anyone who would listen about what we were up to.
We worked on all kinds of stuff together, including, years later, launching this magazine. After years of trying to get fancy publishers behind it, or raising money from people who had it, we just did it on our own. We had no budget, staff, or business plan. What we did have was a strong belief in these six ideas:
• Everyone has a story, and everyone should have a place to tell it.
• We all have stories, but most of us aren’t asked to tell them, or made to feel that our story is interesting.
• Technology’s rapid changes meant it was and would continue to be easier for anyone and everyone to make media.
• SMITH would be a place where content would come from what we called “the chicken’s-eye view,” the perspective of the little guy making sense of the world from the ground up. We wanted to hear from the soldier not the general; the unpublished writer not the world-famous bestselling one.
• Our vibe would be inspirational, populist, forward thinking, and most of all, participatory.
• We would make, encourage, and enable better media, not simply more media.
I learned a lot of what became the core beliefs of SMITH from my grandfather, a small-town pharmacist who everyone called “Smitty,” and who knew and talked to everyone. You couldn’t walk down his beloved Atlantic City boardwalk without him running into an old pal of the past 70 years, or a new one of the past 7 days. But when you really listened, it turned out Smitty didn’t actually talk that much about himself.
What’s more, I realized that despite my job as a journalist—someone, of course, who’s supposed to ask a lot of questions—I really didn’t know the details of his story. The broad strokes, sure, but I never heard the nitty-gritty life story of this man I so admired. That was an epic fail on my part. When I asked him to tell me the story of his life, my grandfather said, “Oh, my story, who would care about that?” So I tricked him. I told him I wanted to test my new video camera—”could you just tell one story about coming over from Russia when you were three?” And then the man didn’t stop talking for hours. And so came my “aha! moment”: Everyone has a story, you just have to remember to ask.
We’ve been asking people to tell their story for five years now, and more than 100,000 of you have done so in this amazing community, as well as on SMITH Teens, sharing more than 400,000 stories, in six words and more. I’m so grateful for all of you, for my largely volunteer team, and for the publishers who have helped us put out four Six-Word Memoir books (and now a version in Japanese), two graphic novels, and this fall The Moment: An Instant Your Life Changed.
Here’s a post I wrote the day we launched, January 6, 2006, which was National Smith Day—a day I didn’t create but certainly can get behind (as can the good people of this senior center in Maryland). Below is a video talk I gave about the birth of SMITH and the wild growth of the Six-Word Memoir project (so masterfully co-piloted by Rachel Fershleiser) at a technology and innovation conference called PopTech. As Six-Word Memoirist Nick Flynn wrote, “Many hands have kept me afloat.” Those six words are indeed the story of SMITH as we begin our sixth year.