CyberWire Dispatch: Suck This

They created it to kill it. That was the plan all along. But success happened and sometimes success just really fucks up a good time. "They" are the boys of "Suck.Com" , Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman. Their "Suck" site was never intended to be a commercial venture, but a Web starved for unique content got in the way. And their site got too popular, too fast; it happened just in time. The sprawling, spewing nature of the Web, choked with tens of thousands of stunningly average pages, hungered for a critical eye. It needed a biting, cynical voice above and beyond the dog drool "cool site of the day" ratings and its also-ran rate-a-like clones. And so, for good or for ill, Suck has become a kind of de facto "Web Ombudsman with Attitude." What the hell is an Ombudsman? He or she is the eyes and ears of the reader, independent of the editors. Newspapers use them as a kind of internal seeing eye dog. The Ombudsman has free reign to hammer on the editorial coverage of the newspaper, without fear of losing his or her job. A good one is the conscience of the newspaper and a direct line from the readers to the ears of the editors, who are usually much too busy with important things like, oh, deciding what is best for their readers ... Right. Well, you begin to grasp an Ombudsman's importance. But the Web has no such Ombudsmen, or rather hasn't had until Suck cranked up. Someone had to step into that black hole of criticism. Enter Suck. The site has taken on everything from Time Warner's "Netly News" to trade shows to "Spamming." They pride themselves in "targeting sites with way too much money and too little clues," says the 24-year-old Anuff. Suck is quickly carving out its own "brand" despite all the efforts of its twenty-something creators to the contrary. The site "is very anti-brand," Anuff says. "We've done nothing to make the site pretty, which is pretty evident," he deadpans. As proof, he offers up the "characteristically eloquent Courier font" which forms the Suck "Logo." The site was never intended to be anything more than a good time. The boys "did it because we could," they say. In fact, it's death was planned from the beginning, says the 25-year-old Steadman, in a kind of pretzel logic akin to the twisted Vietnam-era military babble of "we had to destroy the village to save it." Anuff says the plan was to pull the plug the very day "that we got named 'Cool Site of the Day.'" But then commerce happened. Anuff and Steadman, both working the production side of HotWired when they started "Suck," suddenly began getting offers. Money offers. They came from the "usual suspects," a high class line up of media whores, slumming the Web, trolling for unsuspecting content johns, hoping to turn the ultimate cyber-trick and make a quick, dumb buck. The boys rebuffed all offers in favor of signing on with the home team: Suck is now owned by HotWired. Anuff and Steadman refused to name others that made them offers. "We don't want to be rude to those that we turned down," Anuff said. Steadman mumbled something about a "zero sum game," but I lost the rest of the quote. Besides, Anuff was spinning out a far more interesting sound-bite: "Why should we jack off HotWired for free? [bragging] about going with them over [still unnamed] others?" Suck represents a kind of unofficial "content hothouse" that is woven throughout the fabric of the HotWired work force. Employees there are encouraged to set up their own sites, on their own time, using excess capacity on the HW server, which is jacked into a T-1 line. Suck, to my knowledge, is the first such commercial venture to be spun out of that environment. It represents an exciting bleeding edge trend. A couple of terminally hip, content-oriented kids with no social life to speak of, create a unique Web-centric product and "put it on the market" simply by virtue of making it available to anyone that takes the trouble to drop by. It's a blue print for what can and should happen a hundred, natch, a thousand times over. Suck operates off it's own server, but uses other HotWired resources. In the beginning it was financed the old-fashioned, 20-something way: "With a gold card," says Steadman. They even had to go out and BUY the "Suck" domain name, from someone that had registered it before them. It cost $1,200, all told, to secure the rights to "Suck." Cheap at twice the price. The resources supplied by HotWired include the Suck "office," which is nothing more than some excess floor space the guys have carved out of a corner in HW's sprawling, hot-pink Ethernet-cable draped offices in San Francisco. HW has given Suck a budget, which includes enough money to eventually pay for freelance contributions and pay its creator's bills. The actual business relationship between HW and Suck remains murky, but not because I didn't try to get the details. When I asked, Steadman was either being coy or hesitant or simply didn't give a rat's ass, mumbling something like "we have a deal." Any advertising revenue drawn to the site (none yet, but it's planned) will go into HotWired coffers, as best I can tell. The Suck paychecks are drawn on the HW bank account, beyond that, I have no idea and frankly, don't care. The two come into the job with precisely the right backgrounds: No formal journalistic training. Steadman has a degree in cultural studies and Anuff has a degree in Rhetoric. Anuff, hired by Steadman to work on the production team for HotWired, is tall, dark and gangly. His thin physique belies the metabolism of that approaching a hummingbird. His heartbreaker eyes are set against a young face that couldn't grow facial hair if forced to. When interviewed, he has a habit of gathering his jet black, too-long-since-cut bushy wedge hair style into both fists, stuffing it behind his ears, where it promptly falls back into his face, forcing him to repeat the motion again and again. He's the animated one of the duo, reeling off twice as many sentences as Steadman. His Macintosh monitor is adorned with, among other things, the words "Pop Tarts" and "chocolate frosted" clipped from the box. Steadman has the quiet demeanor and soft voice of the typical "nice boy next door." You know the kind that one day shocks the neighbors when the FBI comes knocking on the door trying to find out "more information" and all they can say is: "Well, he was always quiet, kept to himself and seemed like a nice boy." His fair, almost pasty complexion in tandem with the ever-so-slight wire frame glasses gives the slam dunk first impression of "computer nerd." If you transplanted him to the East Coast, he could easily be mistaken for an up and coming editor at some arrogant, quasi-liberal political magazine. He is given to smirks, far more impish than Bruce Willis' trademark grin and to flashes of impromptu laughter. Not belly laughs, but a confined, almost thoughtful laughter, as if he's remembering an inside joke that you've just blundered into during casual conversation. And if one of these two can be tagged "shrewd," it's Steadman. When Steadman learned that the New York concern "East Village" wanted to create a Big Apple version of "The Spot" -- the quirky, soap opera-like site based in Southern California -- he went out and registered the domain name: "eastvillage.com." He then offered to sell them the name; East Village has threatened to sue. Just because their livelihood is tied to HotWired doesn't mean they'll treat their Mac Daddy's content with kid gloves. "As we work closer with HotWired we aren't going to get any kinder," Anuff said. "HotWired needs the least back stroking of all." However, Suck performs a service that HW can't or shouldn't, Anuff said. "It would be unbecoming of HotWired to cop a holier-than-thou attitude," he said. "Because they [HW] are at the top ... it would be like they were shooting down," he said. The danger, of course, is that Suck will be seen as merely an extension of HotWired, a kind of self-possessed "hit squad" sent out to slam other sites that might compete with HW. However, that wasn't the sense I got from taking to these guys. They do believe they are independent, they do plan on being tough on the parent organization when it's warranted. And frankly, if all this went away tomorrow, well, they'd say "fuck it" pick up the pieces and just move on. The resilience of youth and all that. But Suck's job is tougher now. Despite the best intentions, Suck readers will be judging the site against a different set of criteria now that they've aligned with HW. And that may not be such a bad thing: the readers watching the Watchers. It's just an extension of the Net's own "police thyself" culture. For all their apparent success, the Suck duo is ambivalent. In a kind of "Kids, don't try this at home" disclaimer, Steadman says that if he knew then what he knows now, he "wouldn't do it again ... if I'd known how difficult it was," he says. Originally, the two planned on writing a weeks worth of content in a single weekend, thus leaving the week days to cultivate some kind of life. Even though they live within a little league outfielder's best throw of the HW office, when Dispatch interviewed the two, Anuff "hadn't slept at home in a week," choosing instead to crash at the HW office and slipping home only to shower and change clothes. Anuff says he wouldn't do it again because, well, "I couldn't, it's already been done." There's that four-star university rhetoric degree kicking in, no doubt. About all that's left for these two is to design some kind of icon that others can download and place on their site, something that says "This Site's Been Sucked." Followed closely by a line of merchandise playing off the word "suck." The first item being the "I've Been Sucked" T-Shirt. You have been warned: If your site blows, it'll be sucked ... eventually.

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