Interviews

Exclusive conversations about infographics and data-vizualization

Talking with... Jason Oberholtzer

The co-founder of I Love Charts shares the secrets behind the site's success and more.

July 17, 2012  |  CATEGORIES: Interviews

Jason Oberholtzer, co-founder of I Love Charts

(photo: Jason Oberholtzer)

When you think about data visualization, ‘funny’ is probably not the first adjective that comes to your mind. It’s a serious field, right? Well, indeed it is. But there’s no way something goes ‘big’ in the Internet without a bit of humor attached. It simply doesn’t happen.

And, you know, infographics are big. However, they don’t have to be complex to spread like wildfire through the internet. Sometimes, a simple chart will do the trick. And if gets featured on I Love Charts, then chances are it’s going viral.

Major media players like The Huffington Post, CBS News, The Guardian, New York Observer, Buzzfeed and many others, they’ve all agreed: I Love Charts is one of those must-follow blogs – no matter who you are, where you live or what you do. Just follow it. Period.

We’ve met Jason Oberholtzer a couple of years ago, when we started to take the fist steps on Tumblr, and he was kind enough to talk with us about the secrets behind I Love Charts success.

Visual Loop (VL) – To start, Jason, could you tell us how I Love Charts (ILC) was born, and why have you chose Tumblr as a blogging platform?

Jason Oberholtzer (JO) – Cody Westphal and I had created personal Tumblrs when we graduated from Hamilton College in 2008. The purpose of these blogs was to keep in touch with our friends, as we all moved into the real world and all that junk, and in September 2009 the two of us found ourselves in various states of unemployment or underemployment in the middle of the Great Recession. Naturally, we whined about it on our Tumblrs. We started posting charts on our dire financial situation, trying to outdo each other, and at a certain point I joked that we should start a spin-off Tumblr for our pursuit. The next day, I woke up and Cody had created the blog.

The blog was a natural growth for how we were using Tumblr anyway, so why would we put it anywhere else? Tumblr is the perfect format to share visual information of any sort.

VL – Contrary to the majority of blogs around the subject of data visualization, you managed to create a very successful ‘digital environment’ for humorous, sarcastic and provocative content. In your opinion, what else was important to distinguish ILC from the rest?

The secret is that we don’t take data visualization that seriously, but we respect it. We are far more interested in ideas and people and jokes and stories than in the hard data, so we have gravitated to data with cool stories to tell, whether that be people sharing their daily experiences or data around issues we care about. We’ve let the content of the blog evolve with our interests and with what our audience seems interested in, so we are always pursuing a story rather than dry data. We like the Tumblr community a lot more than we like charts for their own sake and this is our way of being a part of that community.

The secret is that we don’t take data visualization that seriously, but we respect it.

VL – How long did it take you guys to understand that you were on something big? Was there any particular moment when that happened?

It felt different when we started getting attention outside of Tumblr. About a year after we started the blog, we started getting linked to often by outside sources and in the winter of 2010 we started getting a lot of really nice mainstream press. That’s when it no longer felt like us hanging out with the Tumblr kids doing our weird thing in the corner. I think that was happening all across Tumblr at that time though; the media seemed interested in what we all were doing, so the culture started to change. I won’t lie, I miss those early days. Not that I would trade any of the opportunities I’ve had or where this blog is now, but there was something really special about the first year. We tried a bunch of weird stuff and it really had the feeling of bunch of nerds stuck in detention goofing off.

VL – Analysing the content submitted to ILC, have you been able to detect any kinds of patterns, when it comes to the most popular topics, types of visualization, etc?

I try not to think that way. If it’s interesting to me, hopefully it will be for other people. There are subjects I know play well that I avoid because they bore me. We could get twice the amount of notes if I only cared about getting notes, but our blog would suck.

VL – But what do you think about this whole infographic euphoria we’re living in?

It makes sense. Data plays well on the Internet. It’s the same as any culture; there are those who contribute and those who try to capitalize. There are varieties of interests and approaches. I like it. I get to read and pass on data all day because there are so many people sharing data with me. So yeah, some infographics are horrible, but so are some people.

Data plays well on the Internet. It’s the same as any culture; there are those who contribute and those who try to capitalize. There are varieties of interests and approaches.

VL – After ILC became famous, we started seeing several articles from you in places like Forbes. Did you have to learn more about data visualization for those specific contributions?

I do have a Forbes.com column now and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to make that a value add to what I share. Forbes has been amazing to work with and they give me all the space and support I need to experiment with different styles of writing and different article ideas. More than data visualization study, I had to study how to be a better writer. I like to do a lot of tinkering and I’m never happy with something until it’s a product I find valuable. So, I’m not sure if this is really an answer, but yes I had to learn a bit more about data visualization, but a lot more of my time is spent trying to find some fundamental nature of that column and the other projects I’ve worked on that gives them a reason to exist.

VL – And now, a book, which is already getting great reviews. Can you share with us how that idea came to be, and if this is something we’ll see more in the future?

We were approached by a literary agent in early 2011 who said he could sell our blog as a book idea. We heard him out, gave him a shot and he found us some deals from which to choose. We chose Sourcebooks and started work on the book that summer.

Coming to the structure of the book as it exists now was a much more difficult process. Our agreement was to make a coffee table book, but we soon realized we were not interested in making that kind of book. Like I said above, if I don’t see why something should exist, I don’t really care about it, so we tried to find a way to give our book value. We went through a few different iterations and settled on the book’s current structure: essays supported by charts, forming a book with the broad premise of which is “why do we chart?” We decided to focus on the stories behind the charts that had been sent to us by our Tumblr followers throughout the years. We found some themes, started writing and the book started coming together.

I’m not sure about the future of I Love Charts books. If we get a good idea, we will pursue it. If not, we won’t make another book.

We went through a few different iterations and settled on the book’s current structure: essays supported by charts, forming a book the broad premise of which is “why do we chart?”

VL – Jason, any final thoughts?

Lauryn Hill, if you read this, please put out a new album. We miss you.

VL – Let’s hope she does!! Thank you so much for your time, Jason!

Thank you!

 

We wish Jason, Cody and the whole I Love Charts community the very best , and may they continue to amuse us for a long, long time. You can keep up with Jason’s updates at his Forbes column and, of course, on his Tumblr.

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