Random header image... Refresh for more!

The Writing Life, Loneliness, and Microsoft’s Clippy

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.

The Wolvog 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 the computer-obsessed Wolvog.  The Wolvog 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 the Wolvog to interview Kevan myself (taking advantage of the fact that the Wolvog needs 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.


1 Theresa { 12.04.11 at 8:19 am }

I never used clippy much, but I liked him!

2 gingerandlime { 12.04.11 at 9:33 am }

I was always a Clippy-hater. Sorry to admit it, but it’s true! “It looks like you’re writing a letter! Would you like help?” NO, I would NOT like help, you smug little office supply … Even at the time I was aware that my negative reaction was way out of proportion to the minor annoyance that was actually happening. It’s interesting that there are Clippy-lovers and Clippy-haters in the world — I wonder what makes us fall into one camp or the other.

3 JustHeather { 12.04.11 at 9:53 am }

I never really liked Clippy. He just annoyed me, for the very same reasons gingerandlime stated. It was also hard to get him to go away. lol

4 Blanche { 12.04.11 at 10:11 am }

I preferred the Einstein character but I do miss the handy source that didn’t always have to go out to the internet for every answer.

5 pork chop { 12.04.11 at 10:59 am }

Sorry, anti-Clippy. I found that he got in the way and I disabled him the first chance I got.

6 sharah { 12.04.11 at 11:28 am }

My heart jumped off the page when you said you had clippy! I used his companion cat instead of him, and I was SO sad when I lost him in the upgrade to office 07. Count me in the list of people who want them back.

I have so many people in and out of my office that I usually have any time alone completely quiet.

7 slowmamma { 12.04.11 at 12:05 pm }

I think I may be one of the few Clippy neutrals out there.

The alone time question got me thinking, though. I used to LOVE quiet time to myself, which has always been a relative rarity (I grew up in a large family). The irony is that it has become almost nonexistent for me since my son was born and yet I now miss the company of others (besides said 2 year old) much more than I miss being alone. I guess that for me it is a bit of a supply and demand issue.

8 Emily { 12.04.11 at 12:24 pm }

I Loved Clippy! I love all the little toon friends they had and was very upset when they disappeared.

I am alone a lot since I am unemployed. I have a cat but he ignored me a lot of the day. I try to keep music on so it is not so darn quiet. It helps a little, but I am still very lonely.

9 Casey { 12.04.11 at 12:28 pm }

Damn! I didn’t even know that they’d got rid of the Office Assistants. Loved Clippy, but used Rocky (dog) more often. Such a shame that they’re gone.

10 Tigger { 12.04.11 at 1:10 pm }

It really depended on my mood. I used to bring him up and just play with him, then put him away while I worked. More often than not, I used the companion kitty – I heart the kitties. I do miss them from time to time, but wasn’t aware that they had actually been killed. SAD PANDAS! Also, very cool that the creator wrote back to Wolvog, and that you got to interview him!

11 Becky { 12.04.11 at 2:15 pm }

So, not that I’ve ever really stopped to think about it, but apparently I’m anti-Clippy (and I didn’t even realize he had a name). He irritated the crap out of me. No, go away you thing. I’ll let you know if I need help. Please don’t offer!!!!!!! Wow. Apparently I really do fall into team anti-clippy…

12 HereWeGoAJen { 12.04.11 at 2:46 pm }

Love it! And miss Clippy.

Now, I have a toddler assistant to help me write. Clippy was much less likely to tug on my arm.

13 loribeth { 12.04.11 at 4:54 pm }

I vaguely recall Clippy. I can’t imagine the IT guys at work would have left him on our software (too distracting, we’re supposed to be working…!!), so it must have been on the home computer I bought in 2003. If he was there, he didn’t last very long. I’m betting I thought he was cute but would probably become annoying very quickly. ; )

14 Julie { 12.04.11 at 5:04 pm }

I JUST YESTERDAY installed the new versi0n of Office, after Idon’tknowhowmany years of using an outdated edition, and SAME THING! I was astonished not to see Clippy!

He’d been dead for years, and I didn’t even know!

15 a { 12.04.11 at 5:48 pm }

Forget Clippy – I LOVED Microsoft Bob! It was awesome, except for the fact that it sucked up all the available power from my computer. Of course, that was my first computer back in about 1992…and I wasn’t using it for anything important anyway. I didn’t care. I was not as fond of Clippy – he is a bit condescending – but I never hated him enough to turn him off.

16 Kimberly { 12.04.11 at 9:02 pm }

I was a clippy hater in high school, cause it always pointed out my mistakes on projects that I didn’t really want to be working on in the first place. But once I went to university, I grew to like him. He suddenly became more helpful and I didn’t mind the help cause I was suddenly paying for school instead of it being forced upon me.

17 Manapan { 12.05.11 at 1:30 am }

I was in the “Clippy must DIE” camp until I realized that my grandma called me for help way less often when Clippy was there for her. Thank goodness she’s never updated her software!

18 April { 12.05.11 at 9:40 am }

I never really had an opinion on Clippy either way. I’d turn him off if I didn’t need him and keep him on if I did.

19 Justine { 12.05.11 at 10:42 am }

I was a clippy-hater, I confess, because I don’t like being asked if I want help if I’m doing something at which I’m actually pretty proficient. I feel the same way about salespeople in clothing stores and IT helpdesks. 🙂

20 Renee { 12.05.11 at 11:35 am }

You made my day I laughed so hard while I read the story about clippy and how lonely life can get. Truly I can relate. I loved clippy. Yes at first I found him annoying but his persistence of wanting to help me with what I was writing warmed my heart and yes I also carried on convo with him.
Soon clippy and I became friends in a weird kind of way. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I will be following you forever and I am behind got to get your book Life from scratch, read the excerpt and loved it. It makes me happy to know you Melissa S. Ford.

21 Sushigirl { 12.05.11 at 12:02 pm }

Sorry, but I bloody HATE Clippy. Just thinking about him makes me want to punch the screen. I have never loathed a sprite as much as I do that bastard paperclip. I just found him incredibly smug.

22 jjiraffe { 12.05.11 at 3:30 pm }

Kevan the creator seems like he has a great sense of humor about the whole thing. I loved Clippy and am sad he is no longer. I didn’t use him much, but his jaunty insistence always made me smile.

23 Kathy { 12.07.11 at 8:51 am }

I consider myself Clippy neutral too. I thought it was cute, but didn’t use it much. I loved reading your interview with the creator though! So cool to hear all the behind the scenes stuff. I also think it is so adorable that your son reaches out to people like this and that they write back! I wrote a handful of fan letters when I was a kid and never got a reply. As for what surrounds me when I write… It depends. Sometimes I listen to music. Often these days when I am inspired I am typing on my notes app on my iPhone and later will email it to myself. Thanks for a fun and interesting post! I haven’t thought about Clippy in a long time! Who knew?!

24 Kristin { 12.08.11 at 9:29 pm }

I guess I’m an oddity. I thought Clippy was cute but HATED having him up while I worked.

25 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 12.12.11 at 12:37 am }

I never found Clippy useful and always disabled him, but I didn’t have the visceral hatred that so many people seemed to.

My work computer is so old that an eager little dog appears when I search for the file. I’d like him except that he takes 20 minutes to find anything — though it’s the computer’s fault, not the dog’s.

I love that the Wolvog finds the humanity in computing!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author