Interview: Fark’s Drew Curtis
FARK.com is one of the hippest sites on the World Wide Web. At its heart, FARK is a news agreggator, harnessing the power of thousands of contributors who dig out the funniest, most controversial and strangest material on the Internet.
The FARK faithful submit thousands of links every day, making the site a model of participatory democracy. But only a fraction of those links make it on the site. Drew Curtis, the founder of FARK, is the filter through which every link passes before it makes it to the front page.
We caught up with Curtis at a Sports by Brooks event in Sacramento.
BadMouth: There are people out there, I’m sure, who only get their news from FARK, what kind of picture of the world do they get?
Drew Curtis: FARK says that once a month, somewhere in the world, a wife chops her husband’s penis off. At least once a day, somewhere in America, a tractor-trailer truck full of food overturns. Florida and California are really weird places to live. The British have horrible teeth. France surrenders. I’m trying to think about what else we have on there…Oh, and the Japanese are just a horribly, horribly screwed up culture.
BadMouth: FARK doesn’t seem to have an underlying ideology. Do you make any effort to “steer the ship” and keep it in the middle?
Drew Curtis: Actually, it’s really funny. Rather than trying to keep it in the middle, we try to steer it really hard left and right, all the time—with any luck, a good balance between the two. This week is a pretty good example. On Monday or Tuesday we’d run some pretty good right-wing articles in the last 48 hours. So much so, that I was getting complaints about it.
I was doing a lot of my work out of a Starbucks in downtown San Francisco in the morning. So I get there at 6:00 A.M., and I’m talking to Jeff who’s taking care of the link selection. He says, “I’m getting a lot of complaints about this. So I guess we should do some left articles.”
I say, “That sounds fine to me.”
He said, “What would that be exactly?”
I’m like, “Well, uh ‘Bush sucks,’ ‘The economy’s bad,’ and, uh, ‘The Iraq thing isn’t going so well.’ — Stick to that. That’ll probably do it.”
BadMouth: So in some sense, you do try try to guide the site, at least to create a balance between the two sides.
Drew Curtis: We do polarities in equal amounts.
BadMouth: So you try not to inject your politics into the site. Is there anything of your personality that does show in FARK?
|“Everyone else is stupid, and you’re not.”|
Drew Curtis: Yeah, kind of the general theme—I was talking to someone from a newspaper that hit the nail on the head as far as themes on FARK go. It’s that “Everyone else is stupid, and you’re not.” That part of my personality comes through.
BadMouth: How much of the work do you actually do on the site?
Drew Curtis: When I’m home, 95-percent of it. When I’m on the road like now, five percent, maybe. There’s only two other guys. They split the duty when I’m gone, then when I get back I take over.
BadMouth: How hard is it to balance the need to keep FARK relatively free with the need to pay the bandwidth bills?
Drew Curtis: It isn’t too bad. There’s certain things we won’t do. We don’t run pop-ups; we won’t sell links—that kind of stuff. We’ll put ads up all day long. Generally the ad style kind of takes care of itself. Your mainstream, mass-market ads totally fail on FARK.
We’ve gone through all of the mass-market advertising guys. There are none left, because they don’t get anything. No one clicks on them. Nothing happens. Like that “Smack The Monkey, Win $10,000?” That stuff did horrible on our site. Not surprisingly, because it’s all crap, anyway.
BadMouth: Does it work for anybody?
|I had advertisers berating us. They had ‘Smack The Monkey’ ads. They were giving us crap, like ‘Why are your click-thrus so low?’I was like, “Hell, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because your ads suck.”|
Drew Curtis: Evidently it does, because I had advertisers berating us. They had “Smack The Monkey” ads. They were giving us crap, like “Why are your click-thrus so low?”
I was like, “Hell, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because your ads suck.”
They were like, “Well, we have some markets that are like 5-percent [click-thrus].” I don’t buy that for a minute. I don’t think that traffic is legitimate, because no one clicks on that stuff. I’m sorry, but no one does it.
BadMouth: Slashdot is the other big community-driven site. Unlike you they “sold out to the man” a few years ago. Has anyone tried to buy FARK?
Drew Curtis: It happens a lot. My favorite was the guy who offered me like $40,000. He made it out to be this giant sum of money—which granted it is. I wouldn’t mind having $40,000. You can sign me a $40,000 check anytime you want. But as far as just sheer humor value goes, that’s just not quite going to cut it.
We haven’t [sold FARK] because we really started to take off after the dot-com boom had ended. There was nobody around. Slashdot, they sold in late ’98 early ’99 or something like that.
BadMouth: Does FARK make any money at all?
Drew Curtis: It’s paying the bills for itself, which is more than I could ever hope for, honestly. We got lucky. By the time it got too expensive to run, we were saved by the fact that I owned the ISP it was on. If we had to pay that bill, FARK would have died. We couldn’t have made it.
Right now, we’re stockpiling cash away. We’re going to have to buy a bigger server pretty soon, and we’re not going to have to have a fundraising drive this time. We’re just going to be able to afford that, which is cool.
BadMouth: FARK isn’t a porn site, but you do have boobies links in there. Do you have a test to determine what crosses the line?
|Nudity? People ripping their clothes off and running around? That’s fine. No problem. But actual porn doesn’t fly.|
Drew Curtis: Yeah, actually porn does. Nudity? People ripping their clothes off and running around? That’s fine. No problem. But actual porn doesn’t fly.
BadMouth: That gets us into Supreme Court territory. How do you define “porn?”
Drew Curtis: The actual sex-stuff going on. What we do is “Would this ever show up in Playboy?” That’s what we’re using [to define porn].
BadMouth: My wife gets upset if she finds me looking at the virtual boobies on the Internet. You do these events with real live boobies. Does your wife mind?
Drew Curtis: She doesn’t care. Doesn’t bother her a bit. There’s a funny comedian—I forget what his name is—he said, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite. It’s whether or not you take your meals at home.”
BadMouth: What can “legitimate” news sites learn from a place like FARK?
Drew Curtis: I don’t know. And the reason I say I don’t know, is that I was invited to speak at the Newspaper Association of America Conference last January. Long story short, they’re kind of hampered by the fact that the newspapers understand about having Web sites. The publishers just aren’t willing to take risks like that. There are a couple of newspapers out there that are, like AZ Central, which is the Arizona Republic, I believe, out of Phoenix, and The Kansas City Star, both have owners that are willing to take risks like that. The rest of them are not willing to go that way.
If you own a company that’s been around for 100, 150 years, and it works. There’s not really any incentive to go out there on a limb and do anything else crazy like that. The flip-side of that is that there are plenty of other mainstream outlets out there that are trying to do with FARK does, and they can’t do it.
BadMouth: Do you think FARK utilizes the medium of the Internet in a unique way? Would a paper version of FARK even be possible?
|Anybody could do what we do—no problem&mdsah;and 10,000 people have. And it hasn’t worked.|
Drew Curtis: I don’t think so. There’s something about—and I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting my own horn here—there’s something about the link selection and the tagline selection that makes all the difference. Anybody could do what we do—no problem—and 10,000 people have. And it hasn’t worked.
Why not? What that means is, it’s not the idea. It’s the process. It’s like hamburger restaurants. There are 10,000 hamburger restaurants out there, but you can name your favorite one, and you can explain what it is about that place that does it. It’s not the concept of a hamburger restaurant. It’s how these particular guys do it.
BadMouth: If you had to break it down by percentages, how much of FARK’s success was luck and how much was genius, what would you say?
Drew Curtis: It’s half and half. That’s the way it is with any kind of business. It’s half opportunities presented to you and it’s half converting them.
BadMouth: You get thousands of links a day. How many of them are complete and utter crap?
Drew Curtis: Aw, most of them. We get 2,000 a day. We pick about 50.
BadMouth: You get all those links. How many of them are trying to plug a site?
Drew Curtis: We don’t have many people trying to push an angle. Actually the number one rejected reason for a link not getting on the main page is because it’s a repeat. Literally, stuff will come in six hours later after it’s been on the main page.
BadMouth: Do you have certain contributors that consistently “bring the goods?”
|The number one consideration on a link is the tagline. Number two is, “What’s the article about?” A funny tagline for a stupid article will make it. Whereas a bad tagline for a good article will not.|
Drew Curtis: There are certain guys—I mean, you can see them in the Top Submitters link on FARK. Those are the guys that are consistently turning in the stuff. It’s honestly the way they phrase them. The number one consideration on a link is the tagline. Number two is, “What’s the article about?” A funny tagline for a stupid article will make it. Whereas a bad tagline for a good article will not.
BadMouth: What’s it like being an Internet celebrity?
Drew Curtis: I was talking with Wil Wheaton about this. Monday or Tuesday night, we were in San Francisco doing that Tech TV thing. We were staying at the same hotel so we closed the bar down both nights, and we were talking about this very issue.
Because on Tuesday before we shot the Tech TV thing, we went to Alcatraz. He walks downstairs wearing a Wheaton T-shirt from Wheaton College. And I was like, “Man, that’s totally going to give you away.” And actually it didn’t. But my experience has been that when I’m not wearing a FARK T-shirt, I’m invisible. When I have a FARK shirt on that’s when I find people all day long. I get recognized nonstop.
BadMouth: What’s the average crazed FARK fan have on his mind that he needs to share with you?
Drew Curtis: Actually, not much. They don’t realize it’s me most of the time. They’re like, “That’s a cool T-shirt.”
I’m like, “Thanks, it’s my Web site.”
They’re like, “Oh really? No shit?”
It’s like being Superman. You take the glasses off and no one knows who you are. Without the T-shirt, no one knows me. It’s the perfect celebrity.
BadMouth: Copyright has become a huge issue on the Internet with the RIAA and the MPAA and every other trade group trying to crack down on Internet users. You guys do the Photoshop contests, where people copy and alter copyrighted photographs. Has anyone tried to crack down on you?
Drew Curtis: Oh yeah. It happens a lot actually. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. If we were doing this in print, no one could ever say anything about it, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is much more strict than print laws are on the same thing. So it’s totally bogus.
As far as the Photoshop stuff goes, in general, what’s happening there definitely falls under “fair use,” without a question. We’re just not willing to fight it, yet. But I’m talking to some guys about setting up a tar-baby type of a situation, where we pull an image down. We Photoshop it. We know it’s totally legal from the get-go. And then when they come and try and sue us, we nail them.
|Let’s get the Digital Millennium Copyright Act overturned. I was waiting for somebody else to do it, but it’s taken a long time. I think we’re going to have to step up to the plate and do it.|
Do the old tar-baby thing. They get stuck and we just pull them in and say “A-ha! Let’s get the Digital Millennium Copyright Act overturned. I was waiting for somebody else to do it, but it’s taken a long time. I think we’re going to have to step up to the plate and do it.
We’re going to have to suck somebody in. Because the longer this sits around, the more precedent gets stacked up behind it, the less likely it’s going to be that this gets overturned. We’re going to have to do this pretty soon, is what this boils down to.
BadMouth: Well, I covered my list of smart-sounding questions. Is there anything about FARK that I should be asking about that I missed?
Drew Curtis: Aw, I have no idea. I’ve been drinking beer.
This is what happened to BadMouth the last time we got FARKed.