Back in the pioneer days of the Internet- the veritable “boom times”, when men were real men, women were real women, and the Internet was called the “Information Superhighway”- a drunk man misspelled a four-letter expletive and, on a whim, decided to register it as a domain name. No particular reason why- not that a drunk needs a reason for doing crazy things, of course. Indeed, for the first two years of it’s existence, this site’s sole purpose was to display a picture of a squirrel with giant testicles.
Who would have imagined that a mere ten years later, that site would become one of the Internet’s few runaway entrepreneurial success stories- and an important part of the 2008 Presidential elections?
The first thing Drew Curtis, founder and operator of Fark.com, would like you to know is that The first thing you should know is that Fark isn’t a Weblog. It’s a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site. Every day Fark receives 2,000 or so news submissions from its readership- a link to a news article the submitter found particularly interesting, along with a humorous or snarky headline to “sell” the link. About fifty links a day are actually published on the main page.
Sounds simple? Maybe that’s why it works so well, because at over 4 million unique visitors a month, FARK.com is one of the most popular English-language sites on the Internet.
Popular though it may be, Fark doesn’t naturally pop to mind when thinking of US politics. Sites like LittleGreenFootballs, DailyKos, and FiveThirtyEight. Indeed, part of it’s mass appeal is that the impetus for Fark is, and always has been, grounded in humor.
In the course of writing a term paper on the role the Internet, and the blogosphere in particular, played in the 2008 Presidential elections, I emailed a wide variety of people seeking their opinions of how the process worked. Perhaps overly-ambitious, I fired off emails to everyone from Keith Olbermann to Michelle Malkin. David Frum and I chatted briefly, but he was too busy for an interview. The same story held true for Christopher Buckley and Nate Silver. Markos Moulistas, and Erick Erickson both blew me off after hearing some of the questions I wanted to ask*.
The only person to sit down and talk with me in detail was Drew Curtis. While I didn’t get to use it in my term paper (thanks to the lack of other interviewees), I have transcribed it here for posterity’s sake. In light of recent events, and seeing how polarized our political discussion process has become, I think it’s even more interesting than it was this spring.
Without further ado- Drew Curtis and Fark.com’s contribution to US politics, in his own words:
How, and when, did the politics tab come to be on FARK.com?
I think it was back in 2007 sometime, we added it because there are links that are of interest to smaller groups that we don’t post on the main page of Fark.
Do you track page hits on links compared to the tabs they’re on and/or did you see a noticeable traffic increase overall related to election events, or in the 2008 election campaign season overall?
Yes, we saw a substantial uptick in the amount of traffic related to politics. We also saw an increase in the number of comments generated. In 2008 we saw a huge uptick of paid commentators showing up to leave comments. Both campaigns hired teams of people to hit most of the major sites on the net.
What prompted the creation of the “political thermometer” at the top of FARK political pages?
We do politics a little differently than other sites. We’re just screwing around so we tend to take political articles and spin them hard one way or the other. We’ve always tried to keep a balance. We kept getting accused of being liberal/conservative/communist/fascist/religious/atheist by people who didn’t pick up on what we were doing so we posted it to show people we were more or less on track
As FARK has evolved over the years, did you ever think that FARK would play a role in the political discourse of our country? If so, what role did you see it playing, and how have your initial thoughts or perceptions played out?
No, not really. Although it’s been extremely interesting to watch how political parties have tried to use Fark over the past three presidential elections. Even in 2000, we saw a number of attempts to manipulate media coverage on Fark- however it was grass-roots motivated. This time it was a concerted effort by both parties.
What sort of concerted effort was there?
We’d post a story about McCain or Obama being dumbasses, and folks would come out of the woodwork immediately to defend them – folks whose accounts have gone idle since the election. Might be worth checking with someone who worked on the campaigns to find out how they did it on their end; I only know what we saw
You were talking about people making up non-stories and posting them to blogs- were they using existing sources like Kos or RedState, or did they make multiple vanity blogs, or how did that go?
No, more like articles on random blogs you’ve never heard of. Personal sites. People would submit a ton of those
Damn. Were they stupid? I mean, I suppose you’d have to expect, with the contentious nature of the election, there would be shenanigans like that, but that blog-trick seems pretty ham-fisted.
Yes, they are stupid. Most politicians have only heard of the Internet, knowing subtle tricks is like 10 steps down the way. Fark’s on a list of sites (along with Digg, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and others) that marketers are told to try to game to get a ton of traffic. Last time we checked though, a few were telling their customers don’t bother trying to game Fark because it isn’t possible. Hopefully the word will spread
Heh, so no stories of encountering a slew of submissions from McCain or Obama party servers, and fighting them off with a bottle of Heinekin?
Haha, no, nothing like that. The perception of Fark is really weird. Most people think it’s a small backwater site out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t do a lot to convince them otherwise, because it wouldn’t do us any good.
You seem to have purposefully eschewed a Web 2.0-type platform so popular with social networking places like Facebook, or Digg, yet FARK seems to have had no trouble attracting a very vibrant and diverse community of differing ideas and political affiliations. This seems almost counter-intuitive, as the reputation FARK has built is one of flippant cynicism and disdain of “traditional” media. Or perhaps that’s exactly why it thrived, because so many people of all walks of life were fed up- much as you describe in your book. What are your thoughts on this?
I personally do not believe in the wisdom of crowds. There has to be a custodian or organizer for crowds to come up with anything useful. Otherwise it’s just a lot of standing around and background noise. I tell people that Web 3.0 is “good editing”.
I see what you mean now about “Web 3.0”, especially considering that information. Do you still see any of this crop up, given the almost non-stop nature of political campaigning these days?
Nah, it’s kinda at a lull point right now, I expect it’ll pick up January next year. Very few people seem to be laying groundwork this far out. I also think a lot of people are going to be trying to replicate the fundraising efforts that Obama’s campaign came up with.
When did FARK start greenlighting links to political “blogs”, like DailyKos, RedState, The Huffington Post, etc, on a regular basis? (An addendum here- I’m trying to establish when independent, internet-based sources started to come into play, rather than commenting on the greenlighting done by FARK modmins- greenlit links seem to be generally chosen for their relative popularity, ie, that people will be interested in looking at them- hence the followup question below)
Fairly early on, an
d I suspect that the fact that we were trying to balance out political links had something to do with the frequency of links to one type of site or the other.
Ahh, so it was more of an equal time thing rather than a reflection on their “notability”, say?
Right. Although it depends, it’s always about teh funnay- we wouldn’t just greenlight stuff to make the meter go back the other way, we’d just pay more attention to what we were doing.
What do you think the impetus was behind this- were people tired of the “crap” being passed off as real news, or do you think there was another dynamic there?
Actually, I think it has more to do with what I’d call “me too” syndrome. People really don’t like their beliefs to be challenged. They tend to congregate around websites that mirror their views so they can be on “the team” and go after “the enemy” whoever they may be. We do this with sports too, you won’t find Yankees fans hanging out on Red Sox blogs. Etc.
Do you think this will keep sites like DailyKos et all from truly moving into the mainstream?
Depends on what you mean by that. If you mean mainstream as in having a balanced audience, yes they’ll never get there. I don’t think they’re trying for that though. If you mean mainstream as in having an impact on elections in general, I think they’re already doing it.
I understand, from previous news stories about the site and interviews you’ve done, that “real” news outlets will often lurk on FARK and try to catch “News Flash” headlines, or otherwise use FARK as a supplement- or crutch- to their existing methods of finding stories. Were there any notable examples of this happening during the 2008 Presidential elections that you are aware of?
There were tons. I can’t recall any specific ones from 2008, it happens so often I quit paying attention. I do remember one example from 2004 though. A Farker who worked at the airport where John Kerry’s plane was parked snapped some photos one night of folks repainting the plane with “And John Edwards” which was the first indication of who Kerry had picked. We posted it, MSM jumped all over it.
What role, if any, do you think FARK played in last year’s elections?
Good question. I don’t know. We’re not a partisan site, so we saw a lot of campaigns trying to get smear articles pushed out to Fark – probably because they knew we have such a diverse readership that it was actually likely to hit people in favor of their opponents. You can publish smear pieces on Kos all day but no conservatives are likely to see them.
By the same token, because we are editing we’re relatively immune to manipulation. We saw a lot of attempts to get made up non-stories seeded on Fark by writing multiple random blog versions of the same BS story and submitting them all as if there was a lot of discussion about the made up subject. Personally I’m already well aware that just because a number of media outlets report something doesn’t mean there’s more than one source of the information (in fact usually there isn’t more than one source, everyone’s copying everyone else). I’m even more suspicious of blog summaries. Even more suspicious when they’re all posted by the same person. Or multiple accounts with the same password. We saw pretty much every trick under the sun in 2008.
As mentioned before, FARK seems to attract a very diverse crowd of people, of all political persuasions and affiliations. While FARK simply aggregates the news, it still gives FARKers the opportunity to comment and discuss the article linked. Whereas if I was to head over to the DailyKos, or RedState, I would probably find the vast amount of commentators formed an “echo chamber” of thought in the direction of that site’s political leansings, regardless of the topic or validity of the article. Since FARK itself is a non-partisan site, I have often found it enlightening to read through the comments threads and get a “pulse” of what other people think about various topics in an environment that is openly hostile to “echo chambers”. This isn’t really a question, more of an observation, and I’d like to know if you had any thoughts on this, or if you ever noticed anything like this yourself. (* Or, more precisely, when I sent some of Drew’s comments to both Markos and Erick Erickson from Redstate, along with my followup comments- this question in particular- they both stopped talking to me immediately.)
I would also add that you’d be likely to find a small subset of trolls on purely partisan sites that are just there to raise hell. We have our share too but from both sides of issues.
I’m not sure anything else like Fark’s diversity exists on the entire net. Mainly because of the “me too” syndrome. Additionally I think we dodge the bullet there because people come to Fark to be entertained, and that tends to cross ideological boundaries. Arguing about politics is secondary to why people come to Fark, but opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got em.
What role do you think the Internet will play in future elections? Is the traditional media “doomed”?
They’re probably doomed for reasons other than political ones. As I mentioned before, I think the next innovation is the rise of editors or custodians of media. People will follow sites that select a mix of news they appreciate. We’re just hanging out waiting for everyone else to catch up. Maybe next bubble they will
Have you ever considered taking advantage of the unique position FARK has, or promoting FARK’s non-partisan nature to further political discourse?
Part of my problem is I have no respect for either party. On top of that, it seems like most political discourse is just a bunch of people shouting at each other. I don’t think there’s a lot of discussion going on. Assuming it was even possible to succeed at doing so, once word got out all the partisan hacks would show up and ruin it.
I suppose this is part of the appeal of FARK; you can essentially get your news a la carte, and a laugh or two in the process. Do you see any problems cropping up with the editorial or moderation of media, as you’ve got on FARK? What form do you think that’ll take, will people try and ripoff FARK’s format, or strive for something different?
Haha, well, what do you think Digg is? Rose told me so himself.
But I’m not really worried about it for a couple reasons. First off, “competition” on the Internet isn’t the same as competition for a timeslot on network TV back before VCRs. If you find a new website you like, you just add it to the list. You don’t cross one off to make room. About the only way you can lose an audience is by sucking, no one can take it from you. If someone made an exact Fark clone just as funny as the original, it still wouldn’t impact us – people would go to both. Similar sites do a lot better linking back and forth to each other because they tend to gain each others’ audience while not losing their own.
Secondly, execution is everything. Fark’s idea isn’t particularly revolutionary. It’s a bunch of links. It’s not what we’re doing though it’s how we’re doing it. Execution. For example, you and I could open a steak restaurant because we both know how to cook steak but we wouldn’t be very good at it – Ruth’s Chris would kick our asses all day long and look at what they’re doing, just cooking steak basically.
Do you see the Internet or “blogosphere” capable of evolving into a pan-partisan conversation, or is it destined to dive into more isolated communities of agreement?
I think it’s destined to dive into more isolated communities of agreement. In a way it’s a return to the way journalism was done in the late 19th century. Every town had at least one liberal and conservative paper, Democrat, Whig, Republican, Communist, whatever. It seems to me that the era of unbiased journalism was the aberration, partisan news coverage may be the norm after all. Which really sucks but I don’t see it going the other way.
As time goes on, politicians will only get more and more Internet and computer savvy. What direction do yo
u think you’ll see that start to go?
It got results (with Obama), so I think the next time around folks will go buy a team of “professionals” to run their ad campaigns for them. Whether or not that works is another thing entirely, entire organizations exist to scam money from election campaigns. Of particular interest would be the fundraising aspect, Obama absolutely hit it out of the park on fundraising via micro-contributions. I expect everyone will try to replicate that first. I think the communications networks (ie twitter and facebook) will be replicated but will be of more dubious use since they’re pretty much used to contact supporters not undecided voters. But who knows there’s probably value in that too.
How do you see anonymity in the blogosphere lasting into the future? I know you’ve had, uhm, biting comments towards a Kentucky legislator on that issue, heh. Is the anonymity key to way sites like FARK and others work? Contrapositively, with a loss of anonymity, you could largely avoid people trying to abuse your site in the way you describe, but is it worth it?
I think anonymity probably is here to stay one way or the other. It’s impossible to prevent people from adopting completely different identities (although we have many ways to recognize when this happens). I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not but I don’t see it changing ever. The net just doesn’t work like that.
Thanks for your time, Drew!