The Writing Life, Loneliness, and Microsoft's Clippy

6 years ago

Since my Siri dream, I have spoken often about the iPhone 4s, not because I actually want an iPhone, but because I like the idea of this voice keeping me company. I love working out of my house, and I am the sort of person who really enjoys being alone. I like to go out to dinner by myself. I like to sit in coffeehouses and read. I dislike shopping, but I do better with shopping excursions when I'm on my own.

But that doesn't mean that it isn't incredibly lonely to spend every day completely alone in your house. I am probably more productive than the average worker since no one swings by my office to ask me a question and ends up standing there for 10 minutes talking about their weekend. As much as that aspect of office working annoys me (I really do like being alone), it is also something I wistfully miss since becoming a full-time writer. I can go hours and hours, day after day, not speaking to anyone except Cozy Jackson.

What I do have open to keep me company is Clippy, the Microsoft Word paperclip office assistant who comments on your document. Clippy doesn't really say much to me as I write (though I do like when he tells me if I'm about to overwrite a file); he just sits in the corner of my document, blinking at me. He's like a little silent pet, and yes, I have had conversations aloud with Clippy, speaking to him as if he is my silent, electronic therapist. Clippy and I have been through two books together, and he is with me for these next two that I am completing simultaneously.

My son recently fell in love with Clippy having found out about him through a programming site. I was working on my new computer as he told me about Clippy, and I opened a Microsoft Word document so we could gaze at him.

But Clippy wasn't there.

I went through every menu, finding the new Microsoft Word exceedingly difficult to use. Finally, I did what any normal person does in 2011 when they can't find something. Instead of hitting Microsoft's help menu, I Googled Clippy.

And discovered that Clippy had been... murdered!

Killed by Microsoft Office executives back in 2003.

The computer I use to write on is old enough that it still has Clippy, but he's missing from my new laptop. And there's no way to download him: I know because I Googled this too. As we read though site after site about Clippy information, I learned my first truth about the little office assistant. While others agreed with me that he is the solution to the loneliness of the writing life, others wrote that they hate Clippy. Hate him? They don't even know him. They couldn't have possibly spent enough time with him because to know Clippy is to love him. Right?

As we panic-Googled our way through Clippy information, we stumbled upon the creator of Clippy, Kevan Atteberry, and my son wrote him a fan letter. By the next morning, he wrote him back and an online friendship formed between the creator (otherwise known as human Clippy) and my computer-obsessed son. My son interviewed him for his 'zine (what, I haven't told you that the twins have their own 'zine? The first issue is coming out this winter), and I leapfrogged over my kids to interview Kevan myself (taking advantage of the fact that my kids need to go to school, and I have unlimited computer time at home).

The early iMacs had a handle, not because the desktops were going to be carried anywhere, but because Steve Jobs wanted the computer to look as though it was alive. Like it could leap off the table (hence the jaunty angle of the screen). Like it is accessible and pick-up-able and friendly. And that's what the Microsoft Paper Clip is for many writers. In the unfriendly and harsh world of constructing paragraphs, the frustrating world of trying to string together the right words in the right order, Clippy is like a little friendly reminder that writing can be fun. That it isn't always banging your head against the wall. That writing can be playful; words can blink at you.

I sat down with Kevan Atteberry online to talk about his creation, Clippy.

Melissa: So how did you get involved with the project to design Clippy? Had you previous worked with Microsoft before that point?

Kevan: I was a contractor for Microsoft working on a product called Microsoft Bob, a graphical interface "OS" meant to make computing easy for the uninitiated. This was back in the early 90s and computers were still new to many. Bob offered a variety of environments for your desktop, outer space, log cabin, suburban home, etc. And you also had a choice of animated characters that would offer suggestions and help. This was the nexus to Clippy. Bob under the project leadership of Melinda French (soon to be Melinda Gates) was hugely promoted when it came out and quickly was retired after horrible reviews and performance making it one of the biggest software disappointments to date. But the animated helper technology, which they had spent years and lots of money developing, was ported over to Micorosft Office team. Where we went through some intense and lengthy testing of about 260 different characters before it was narrowed down to Clippy as the default character. I had about 2 characters in the mix and two of them made it to the first shipment. Clippy with the crowning glory of the default.

Melissa: Was his name always Clippy? Did you ever have a different name for him as you designed him, and was Clippy a name given to you by the powers that be at Microsoft or did you bequeath him with the moniker?

Kevan: He was originally called Clippet - Clippy for short. I think in developing him and through the testing, we just referred to him as "the paperclip." I don't know who came up with the name Clippet. Or Clippy. But it seems rather obvious, apropos.

Melissa: I think that what made Clippy endearing and seem more lifelike was the use of facial expressions. Did you have a model for all of Clippy’s eyerolls and blinks?

Kevan: No actual model. Just my experience in drawing characters for many years. It was somewhat a challenge having just the eyes and the twisting of the wire to convey some particular expression.

Melissa: I have to admit that I didn’t know that such rage existed against Clippy until I went to look up why he wasn’t on my new computer. Can you talk about what you felt and thought about the visceral reactions people had to Clippy?

Kevan: Oh my, yes. The way people feel about Clippy is either black or white. You love him or hate him. No in between. My reaction has almost always been, "whatever - as long as you know who he is and he evokes emotion one or the other, I'm happy." He has opened many doors for me in the past and I am thankful for that. And I know Clippy is a likable fellow, just look at him! What people who hate him despise is his functionality. Which can be intrusive and unintentionally condescending. He can be distracting. But the people who love him, I think, love him despite his functionality. Like maybe a dear pet with bad breath.

Melissa: And at the same time, Clippy has a bit of a cult following. How do people usually react to you when they find out that you designed Clippy?

Kevan: People, whether they hate him or love him, have always seemed surprised and genuinely happy to find out they are meeting Clippy's creator. And the two main responses I get are, 1) "Clippy? No way! I hate that thing!" or, 2) ""Clippy? No way! I LOVE Clippy!" But in each instance it is said with huge smiles and a bit of excitement. I think that even if Clippy irritates or annoys you, there is still some thing kind of cool(?) or interesting(?) about learning he actually has an origin.

Melissa: You’ve done a lot of illustration work – which character keeps you company while you work?

Kevan: I've recently moved my studio home from downtown Seattle and I have yet to have it in complete working order. I have more limited wall space now and less space to hang things. But I do have things out that I love. A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, several pieces with Pogo and his compatriots from Walt Kelly's wonderful strip. Several characters from children's books I've illustrated are represented (Tickle Monster, Boogie Monster, Frankie Stein.) And then there are a few characters from a personal challenge I recently completed. In October I challenged myself to create from scratch, a Monster-a-Day for the whole month. You can see these on Facebook. Several of these I hope go on to have a life of their own in children's books I hope to write. And illustrate.

So even the creator of Clippy has illustrations around to keep him company.

Okay, 'fess up: are you on Team Clippy or Team Anti-Clippy? And what do you keep around to keep you company when you're alone? Picture? Stuffed animal? Favourite music playing in the background?

Photo Credit: Microsoft.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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