In the golden summer of 1997, small-time ISP entrepreneur Drew Curtis bought fark.com when he noticed all of the good four-letter domains were being snapped up.
Until early 1999, fark.com featured a picture of a very brave squirrel and nothing else. Which, as Curtis notes, "some would argue this is better than what we have now." He briefly considered building a database of Indian curry recipes ("I like to cook, mostly because my wife can't"), but decided to go with Plan B, a site mocking the media (and occasionally Floridians) for their stupidity. Fark, he decided, should be the word for "what fills space when mass media runs out of news." Since then, Fark.com has become the go-to "news" site for the bored at work and sick at heart.
Stepping back from the day-to-day inanity/insanity of the news cycle, Curtis tries to figure out guiding principles behind why networks think it's a good idea to give airtime to 9/11 truthers ("Equal Time for Nut Jobs") or why every issue of Cosmo has exactly the same headlines ("Seasonal garbage") in his new book It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News (Gotham).
He spoke with reason on Friday about media fearmongering, dick jokes, corrupt Kentucky politicians, Matt Drudge, and why "having a few beers and doing anything on the Internet is a bad idea."
reason: How does Fark.com work?
Drew Curtis, founder of Fark.com: We get about 2,000 submissions a day, with repeat URLs filtered out. I find the ones with the taglines that make me laugh and post 'em up.
Q: Do you personally approve every link that goes up on the site?
A: There are three other guys that will pick the links when I'm not around. I'm pretty extroverted, so I have to get out of the house in the evenings. I play soccer pretty much every single night and have a few beers. And I've learned the hard way that having a few beers and doing anything on the Internet is a bad idea.
Q: Your model relies on contributions of hundreds, if not thousands, of submitters of stories and headlines. Do you consider yourself part of the social networking/crowdsourcing/Web 2.0 world?
A: People are excited about this whole social networking thing but they haven't given any consideration to why they're excited about it. Because these things generate page views and therefore have value to advertisers, people mistakenly assume that there's an inherent value in the actual site. The problem with it is that if you have the masses involved in something, everything devolves into racism and dick jokes.
Q: So you don't believe in the much-vaunted wisdom of crowds? You're not Web 2.0?
A: We are and we're not. I tell people we're Web 3.0. We've accidentally stumbled on the next step in the evolution of social networking, which I call "editing." It's a novel concept.
I think that's where things are heading. It's fine to say "we want the crowd to pick the news," but when they're picking Viagra and porn, you obviously can't have that. The logical conclusion is that at some point you have to bring a little editing into the equation. That's what we've been doing all along. If most social networking sites are a social democracy, then Fark is a benevolent dictatorship.
Q: Speaking of democracy, how do you vote?
A: I tend to vote for people who are going to do stupid things and make me laugh. That's why I miss Clinton, because he was funny. He was always good for a good joke. As opposed to Bush, who is doing stupid things that are not making me laugh.
My problem with politicians in general is that I don't have a lot of respect for them. I did some lobbying back in 2000 of the government of Kentucky over some telecom issues and it was really interesting to see the power of big money when it's brought to bear and what it does to the political process.
Q: What were you lobbying for?
A: We got them to overturn [a rule change favorable to Bell South] in committee with Bell South lobbyists sitting there not realizing what we had just done. The following day this bus shows up and drops off 15 lobbyists for Bell South, including 3 former governors. We lost that one big time.
Two years later, we were going to go back to fight something else. We were going to visit a state senator who had helped us out. He kept on canceling the meeting so we finally just went over there. He pulled us into his office and closed the door and said "Guys, I can't talk to you. I got into some big trouble with this Bell South stuff. They flew me out to Atlanta to talk to the president and gave me a stern talking to. I can't have conversations with you guys. I apologize, sorry about your luck." And then he opened up the door and showed us out.
Q: Are politicians victims of corporations? Of media? Or of their own stupidity?
A: I think it's just the way it is. I used to say that if I was going to write a book it would be Things Are Bad, But They've Never Been Better. I like reading history and if you go back 100 years and look at how things ran then, it's even worse. Railroad companies had line items for bribes in Congress. Literally, they put them in their spreadsheet. The audacity that those guys had back then—we're nowhere near as bad as that today. I think it's just a part of the process, but I don't particularly like it.
Q: Why can't the media stick to serious issues?
A: What I've noticed is that the stuff that tends to stick in people's heads are not issues. I've been taking informal polls when I do book talks. I ask people "What do you think the most common thing everybody in this room knows about John Edwards is?" And the first guy always gets it: It's that he has a $200 haircut. That's the stuff that we all know. It's all the goofy things, like President [George H. W.] Bush going to the grocery store and not understanding how to use a scanner, or not understanding the cost of milk. That's what sticks in people's heads.
I have a buddy who is working for Obama's campaign, and I keep telling him stuff they ought to do for publicity. But they're really just frightened because they could do something and it might backfire terribly.
Q: What have you advised Obama's campaign to do?
A: Take advantage of current events. I was saying right after this Michael Vick thing came out: Any politician donating money to the Humane Society in the name of Michael Vick would get great media coverage. The problem is that there are so many people involved in a campaign and there's an approval process, so it takes them too long to get there.
Q: What kind of political news is the worst?
A: I have a joke in the book about White House press conferences. The press secretary, the guy that everybody is asking questions to, is the guy who didn't go to the meetings. He's not allowed in. They don't let him know anything of any use. So it's kind of odd that every day at the White House the media spend a couple of hours talking to the guy who is the least likely to know what the hell is going on. And they all know it, too. This isn't news to the people covering it. What are you guys doing? You're just goofing around.
Q: Are we doomed to the eternal media cycle of tripe?
A: I think we really are, and it's because there's a segment of media consumer out there who doesn't read media unless it's something like 9/11 or Janet Jackson's boobs.
One of the things that drives the most traffic to a news website is actual honest-to-God news. But it's on a cycle that you can't predict, and so that makes budgeting really scary because companies don't know whether or not there's another piece of real news coming around. There's nothing going on this week other than the Turkey-Armenia genocide ruling. Other than that, there's nothing of real serious import happening and who knows how long that's going to keep going? That makes it difficult for the media. In the meantime, you know Britney Spears is going to do something stupid tomorrow, and you also know that a sizeable portion of your audience only cares about that stuff anyway. So it makes it really difficult to avoid doing that stuff.
Q: Since the media is just giving us what we want, is the picture it paints of society accurate?
A: If you wanted to learn about what kind of society we live in just from watching news, one of the things you'd come away with is thinking nobody swears. Vice President Cheney told somebody to "Fuck off" on the floor of the Senate and that was some kind of massive deal. "Oh my God, how could you do this? How could you?!" Come on. I live in Kentucky. It's every third word down here.
Q: What about serious international news about wide scale violence or famine? Why do B-list celebrities get more play than 10,000 dead in a monsoon?
A: It has to do with a certain human nature baseline. No one really cares that you're going to drive down the road in your car and be really likely to get hit, but with airplanes it's completely unacceptable. The same kind of goes for Israel, where there's this baseline assumption that if you go to the market you might get hit by a terrorist attack and you just have to phase it out.
Some people made a big deal out of the fact that the first thing the Bush administration did when they came in is was talk about invasion plans for Iraq. What people don't remember—because we all got used to it—was that we were dropping ordnance over Iraq on a daily basis back then. So if you are going to list countries to talk about invading, that was probably number one on the list since we were actively bombing it. It was one of those things that just fell off the radar, because after a while it became the same thing every day: "Oh, we hit three more radar installations in Iraq. OK, great." You could see that daily in every single newspaper, but nobody read those, including myself. You just kind of saw them and moved on.
After a while, you establish a baseline with these horrible things going on in other countries. For example, what's going on with Burma right now? I'm sure there's some nasty stuff that happened there today, but I don't know what it is and I don't know how newspapers would make that stand out to anybody.
Q: Do we have these blind spots at home, too?
A: There are still vast swaths of Mississippi and Louisiana outside of New Orleans that are destroyed. I'm pretty positive that if it was Queens, people would still be talking about it. But since there's no major media presence anywhere near, they can't just take a camera out the window and say, "Oh, look at the devastation that's still here. Maybe we should get out and fix it."
Q: Is Matt Drudge your long-lost brother or your nemesis?
A: Both of us are putting up a bunch of stuff that we find interesting online. But it's not really competition since he is going mostly conservative and real news; he wants to be a news outlet. And we're doing the opposite; we're just screwing around.
The whole concept of competition on the Internet is an odd one because there really isn't any. If people find another site that they like, then they just add it to their bookmarks. It's not like you have to take one out when you find a better site. The only way you can really lose an audience is by sucking. No one can take it away from you.
Q: When you make fun of the media for freaking out about lead paint, bird flu, meth, and Paris Hilton—which you do on your site and in your book—are you afraid that you'll be wrong?
A: The problem with making fun of this stuff is that if any of this actually happens then I'm an idiot, but I'm willing to be the idiot. I don't mind. Of all the things that I've made fun of, only one or two of them is actually going to happen. So I should be OK. My ratio is going to be fine.
Stay tuned for more from Drew Curtis in an upcoming print issue of the magazine.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.