Young punks and old media hacks. They’re all on the Web chasing the same dream: money, power, ego fulfillment—and the quick Sell Out. This is the story of Suck.
Carl Steadman is tired. He slumps in the passenger seat of my cheap rental car, staring out at the slumping sun as we cruise across San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and into Berkeley, looking for something to eat, looking for something to do, looking for ... something.
“Let’s go to Santa Cruz,” Carl says, his voice flat and affectless. One of his favorite movies, The Lost Boys (movie blurb: “Sleep all day. Party all night. It’s fun to be a vampire.”) was filmed there, and he says he’s always wanted to see the seaside town: “It has a boardwalk,” Carl says, “with a roller coaster. It’s an allegory for what we’ve just been through - lots of blood sucking.” His explanation sounds sarcastic - everything he says sounds sarcastic. But that’s just the way Carl talks; in fact, he’s almost always sincere. Maybe he sounds ironic because he’s so tired.
You can trace young Carl’s exhaustion back to the summer of 1995 when he began moonlighting from his day job to work on a Top Secret Project. He’d toil away on it every night until morning’s light poked into the SoMa warehouse. Then he’d punch in for his day job. It was like that for too many months, Carl running on three hours of sleep a night, working one job for money and the other for love. Yet he had to keep going, has to keep going.
That’s because he’s chasing the Web Dream. In Carl’s case, the Dream had an unlikely name:
You’ve probably heard of Suck (www.suck.com). It’s one of the more successful sites on the World Wide Web. Suck’s minimalist design and amusing, smarty-pants tone has generated plenty of buzz on and off the Net. And Carl, 26, gets at least half the credit. He codesigned the Web site with his partner, the 25-year-old venal and flagrant know-it-all Joey Anuff. At first Suck was little more than a clean white page streaked down the middle by a narrow column of text. The two of them wrote Suck’s daily barb every night - typically, a pomo, decon essay criticizing some loser’s ghastly foray onto the Web. They filled each piece with hypertext refs from their own private collection and illustrated it with art ripped off from whatever site they happened to be vilifying. And each morning, they’d publish their neojournalism on their Web site.
“Suck is more than a media prank. Much more,” they wrote. “At Suck, we abide by the principle which dictates that somebody will always position himself or herself to systematically harvest anything of value in this world for the sake of money, power and/or ego-fulfillment. We aim to be that somebody.”
At first, Carl and Joey aimed to be that somebody anonymously. “We didn’t want to get fired,” says Carl, who was then employed as HotWired’s production director, with Joey as his lowly assistant. They published Suck under pseudonyms, Webster and the Duke of URL, respectively. The nyms helped create an immediate aura of mystery around the site - who are these guys? - not unlike, say, Joe Klein baiting his Primary Colors trap.
The Sucksters suckled Suck until the rest of the world, at least the World Wide Web, found it. And it grew. By the summer, less than a year after Suck quietly went online, more than 10,000 people a day were checking in. That’s a modest number by, say, mass-media standards. But the new class media is taking its first baby steps. And any site that truly attracts 10,000 people each day is a standing-room-only success.
Indeed, Suck’s numbers looked so promising and the future so bountiful that, after a mere three months online, the boys actually got to sell off rights to their Web site, to HotWired. Which is key to the Web Dream: the Quick Sell Off. Because the Dreamer asks: What good is being a pioneer if you can’t make money fast while you’re young enough to baste in the fat of life?
Now that’s an uncomfortable concept to many people in the journalism business. Money? Writers and reporters don’t make money, they make truth. That’s their line of business: figuring out what’s true and then telling other people. Who cares if anyone wants to hear it? Money is the devil, the Great Seducer that leads you away from hard facts and points you toward sweeps weeks and infotainment.
Yet for most of the tyros following their Web Dreams, money is definitely the goal. The idea of the Sell Off infuses the Web, a place that echoes with the footfalls of venture capitalists making their hasty exits. Just look at all the software guys who made a bundle off of their Web Dreams. Marc Andreessen and his Browser Dream. Team Yahoo! and their Search-Engine Dream. And Jim Gleick and his anyone-can-use-the-Net Pipeline Dream. They all got rich on Wall Street. So why should the schlubs who are giving people a reason to get online and use Netscape and Yahoo! and Pipeline - the content guys - starve?
They shouldn’t, of course. This is a fundamental notion of the Web Dream: you don’t really need a commodity to get rich. People will pay for ... your concept! And clearly, Suck had found a marketable concept. Which meant it was time to Sell Off. “We never wanted to be a business,” Joey says. “It was against everything we stood for. Of course we wanted to sell out. The first thing to do would be to turn this into someone else’s headache.”
But he had to do it fast. Because who knows when that big Web bubble is going to burst? Everyone who works on Web sites thinks about this and thinks about it all the time. The Web is driving on novelty power right now, waiting for the mass market to arrive. But what if it doesn’t? Or worse, what if it does only when big bandwidth finally gets here and the medium turns into ... TV! Who wants that? Not the Web Dreamer. TV is expensive to produce, and it reaches for the lowest common denominator as a way to make it pay off. If the Web metastasizes into that, bye-bye class media. The bubble bursts, and you’re left with nothing but bubble goo to show for your troubles. And who can sell bubble goo?
The Web Dream is what smart kids across America - smart kids around the world - are dreaming. They might not trust in God or Family and they sure as hell don’t believe in Country; they believe in Themselves, and in the power of their cleverly customizable, infinitely scalable, robust and ubiquitous, interactive, pull-down-menu Dreams.
And why not? Here’s a cheap and easy-to-use medium that lets anyone seize the attention of the planet. All you have to do is show the fools how to use it RIGHT NOW. And what do you have to lose, you who have nothing? It’ll hardly cost a dime, and you might just get rich doing it. Fuck waiting in line for your turn. Piss in the milk of the oligarchy. Don’t Let’s Make a Deal, and for God’s sake, don’t take what Carol Merril is holding in the box. Take the money. Then run like hell.
Except that our Sucksters did not get rich.
When they sold their three-month-old site in November 1995, they were promised nice stock options in Wired Ventures as well as comfortable raises to continue Sucking full time. They also got to hire writers, an illustrator, and their own engineer. But the Dream has yet to fully pay out - they must continue to work for a living. “I need a book deal,” Joey says wistfully, and, of course, venally. Joey’s heard that some magazine writer who occasionally writes about the Net got a US$300,000 advance. “I want to get on that book gravy train,” he says.
(Note to publishers: Joey has a name for his proposed book, which would be a call to arms for the Web-dreaming digerati: Sell Out! Carl and I argue that a better name, a name with a more doomed, forward tilt might be: Sold Out. But Joey, as usual, is adamant: Sell Out! He explains that the title is advice to the young Web entrepreneur, not an epitaph. “Sell out!” he says. “With an exclamation point.”)
Joey, who’s been driving my rental, slows down so we can scan this gloomy, fast-food- and strip-mall-infested Berkeley boulevard in search of a rib joint. Joey’s been driving, partly because Carl doesn’t know his way around town. In fact, the owlish Carl rarely leaves the office. He’s been living in the place, sleeping on a bunkbed eerily placed right there in HotWired’s office - a young capitalist revolutionary unable or unwilling to disengage from the Movement. He usually gets up when the advertising department arrives for work in the morning. But if he sleeps through that, Joey & Co. know better than to wake him. Carl is the kind of guy who, when anyone deliberately rousts him from a deep sleep, shrieks in a terrifying manner.
Now Joey, it should be noted, is decidedly Untired. I think it’s fair to say that despite his whining and complaining, Joey is energized, not enervated, bySuck’s success. Which is a curious phenomenon: sometimes in life, a person can be slowly leeched to death by the same thing that makes his beloved partner grow....
“What’s the lede on your story?” Joey asks me for the third time. Baiting me for the zillionth.
“I dunno, Joey. What’s the lede?” I echo dumbly.
“The lede,” says the always-right-but-not-yet-rich Joey, “is this: ‘Carl Steadman is tired.’”
Question for discussion later: Why is Carl really tired?
Question for discussion now: What am I doing here?
The answer to that, I’m afraid, is tangled up in a knot of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. The most obvious answer, of course, is I’m here to chronicle the story of Suck for Wired magazine. But that begs a tougher question: Doesn’t Wired Ventures own this magazine and Suck? Yes, it does. “Argh!” the more cynical among you might now be arghing. “More free advertising for Wiredproducts.” Which is not fair at all because of the next, more subtle answer.
The subtle answer: I’m here to do this story from the perspective of a competitor. As the executive producer of the brilliant and notorious Web site,The Netly News (www.netlynews.com), I’m someone who has been repeatedly singled out BY NAME for Joey-and-Carl abuse in Suck. Which is to say, I’m supposed to be able to provide the counterbalance, the bullshit detector, the we’ll-see-about-that perspective.
But why should Wired do the story at all, you hard-nosed types might still be probing. That should be superobvious: Because Suck is a grand tale of the digital age, a morality play for the ‘90s, a Cinderella story of the slack generation. It’s the New Media tale that the Old Media was waiting for, a classic Silicon Valley story of a bunch of kids in garages (or lofts, as it were) who built something from nothing and laid low the giants. If you don’t believe me, dig out the Suck puff pieces in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Economist, The Boston Globe, and ... I could make a longer list here but an unbecoming envy paralyzes me. Anyway, it’s simply too wired a story for Wired to ignore.
And there’s a Secret reason, buried like a snake, that partly explains why I’m here in San Francisco: while I’m in the Bay area, interviewing the Sucksters, I myself am being interviewed by ... HotWired! For a Web-Dream Job!
See how this undermines all the high-minded crap I laid out in the many obvious and not-so-obvious answers above? What I’m doing is a conflict of interest of senatorial proportions, an ethical high-wire act that, I hope, will have you riveted - if not by the brilliance of the narrative, then certainly by the balls-out chutzpah of the storyteller.
Am I a Time writer writing about a Wired property? Or am I a Wired writer writing about my Pathfinder site? Am I currying favor with a potential employer? Or seeking secret revenge on my enemies? Or simply garnering publicity for my Web site? The only thing that could make this piece dicier would be if I owed Anuff lots of money. Which I’d disclose right now if I did. But I don’t.
I paid him off long ago.
A bonus answer:
(This happens to be the most relevant answer of all.) I’m here, eating greasy ribs, and withering under the fresh ridicule Joey heaps on me, because I want to better understand ... the very Web Dream itself.
And I want to tell you my own Web Dream. Because, while the Web Dream is typically the story of Suck’s generation, a lot of us Old Media guys have our own Dreams, very different ones.
My Web Dream:
A young man awakens in a squalid shack on Long Island with visions of publishing his thoughts, his musings, his take on the world, to an international audience of millions. Well, OK, it wasn’t a squalid shack, it was a pretty sweet house on a half acre of woods. But still.
That young man - me - doesn’t run a huge media empire, doesn’t own a printing press, doesn’t even own a fax machine. No, when he first got an inkling of the Dream he was a lowly newspaperman, frustrated by the limitations of his aged medium. He had always had his own off-the-shelf Dream, of course, an old media dream, of waiting his turn and slowly moving up the ladder, to bigger and bigger places where, at last, he could speak in his own clever voice and reach millions of people. But it’s not like that in the newspaper business. If he has to write yet another parenthetic phrase describing the World Wide Web as “the multimedia portion of the Internet,” he’s going to carve the initials “FC” on tiny bits of shrapnel and send out yet another one of his Exploding Parcel Surprises. Instead, he hatches a more sinister plan:
He’s going to create his own WEB SITE.
And who better than he? He’s been writing about the online revolution for so long, he could swear he long marched with Chairman Louis out of Silicon Valley and into the American living room. He’s had more than a decade at newspapers, just got hired at Time magazine to cover the Info Revolution, and teaches “cyberspace reporting” to graduate students at Columbia University’s journalism school. He’s also the author of one of the first manifestos of that Revolution, “The Birth of the Way-New Journalism,” for HotWired’s launch, a piece that coined a buzz phrase at once memorable and utterly ridiculous. As is his planned WEB SITE.
In the Dream, he calls it: THE NETLY NEWS.
It’ll be irreverent. It’ll be witty. It’ll be addictive and cover the Net like the school newspaper. His site will garner a million hits a minute and prove that the revolution will not be televised, it’ll be digitized. And, best of all, it’ll attract ADVERTISERS.
Happily, shortly after he gets to Time magazine, his corporate masters go for it....
And that’s when the trouble begins. That’s when he learns what it feels like to beSucked.
On a cloudless day last September, I moved from my patrician office on the 23rd floor of the Time-Life Building in Manhattan to a more spartan row of cubicles on the 37th floor. My new digs resembled nothing so much as the economy section of a DC-8. This is where Pathfinder - Time Inc.’s publishing arm on the Net - lives. Please buckle your seatbelts.
With the callow and brazen Noah Robischon (my star student at Columbia) and *69 - the graphic artist formerly known as Adam Moore - I set to work, aiming to launch Netly in October. I still didn’t know what, exactly, The Netly Newswas, aside from a series of crude prototypes and a server-push animation of a rotating cow. (Don’t ask.) Yet I had whipped myself stupid over the potential of something I truly had begun thinking of as the Way-New Journalism.
What is the Way-New Journalism, you might ask? I’ll tell you. The “New Journalism” was a term coined by Tom Wolfe in 1972 to describe how some of the best print journalists were then revolutionizing the field by borrowing the tools of the novelist to tell nonfiction stories. Way-New Journalism would be a major leap forward since so many more types of media would be at the Way-New Journalist’s disposal. The Way-New Journalist could use the sophisticated narrative techniques of the movie, the drama of the radio play, and the surprise of the TV sitcom. Plus, the WNJist could fool around with way-new tools never before seen, such as hypertext and homemade applications that allowed folks to run computer simulations or games. And finally, this wonderful way-new medium would allow the WNJist to climb down from a perch of insta-expert authority and interact (whatever that meant) with people (whoever they were) online (wherever that was).
But Netly, Pathfinder’s first foray into purely original Web material, had not yet congealed. The prototype was kludgy, gray, ugly. It took too long to download and was too difficult to navigate. A bigger problem, though, was that while we knew what we wanted to do - run daily stories that covered Web culture - we didn’t know exactly how. I’m talking about relatively simple things such as how long a Netly story should be and how many of them we should run each day. This may sound obvious, but it’s not.
As a newspaper writer, I was constrained by something known as the “news hole,” which is the physical space available for a news story. On any given day, the number of ad and classified pages is tallied by a managing editor, who then figures out how many pages of news the paper can afford to run. That’s the news hole. The news hole is then further subdivided during a “budget meeting,” in which section editors vie for news-hole real estate. In that way, the events of the day are weighted, with the most important stories given the most space, or column inches.
It turns out that the Net’s limitless news hole is more curse than blessing. People have even less patience with verbiage online than they do offline. On the Net, the consumer is “paying” for the distribution of your stuff indirectly, in the form of his or her Internet provider’s hourly meter. If anything, we soon discovered, online “news” needs to be more like the blurb style of USA Today, not less.
When we started doping out Netly, hardly anyone had figured out how to use the medium to tell fast, brief, easy-to-read stories. HotWired’s Flux, a weekly gossip column from the pseudonymous Ned Brainard, was close. The column was the first example of what the Web magazine Salon (www.salon1999.com)dismissed as “snake text,” meaning the story ran in one long, narrow column. While the reader has to constantly scroll through snake text, the narrow width is far easier to read than, say, oh-I-dunno, Salon’s ripped-from-a-magazine page format.
Then, one day in late September, Noah was surfing the Web and found Suck. The discovery was a Eureka moment for us. I mean, these guys - whoever they were - had it all figured out, from the black snake text on white background to the simplicity of the navigation. The tone was just right for the Web, too: quick, funny, and very inside. And for the perfect last touch, they were anonymous.
“This is it,” I said to Noah and *69. For a week, we returned daily to the site, to admire it, learn from it, and of course, to borrow the parts of it that worked.
What we forgot was that this is the Web, a medium that watches you even as you watch it. Joey and Carl were recording our every visit to their site. Or rather their computer was: Suck’s so-called referer logs noted that the site was getting a huge number of visits from a few people at pathfinder.com.
Letting ourselves be watched was our first mistake, but not the worst. The worst was leaving the prototypes of Netly up on an unprotected staging server at Pathfinder, where Joey and Carl could find them. And publish them.
Which is exactly what happened on the morning of Tuesday, October 3, 1995. Headlined “Way Lame Journalism,” Suck’s daily piece went on to trash me andNetly, linking to particularly lame examples of what we’d been tinkering with. It may have been the first example of unintentional publishing in the history of the world.
“When we started logging hits originating from links on Time-Warner’s Pathfinder, we quickly tooled on down to their media morass for some spry reconnaissance. What we found left us both surprised and amused,” the Duke of URL wrote. “What we hadn’t banked on was finding a prototype for the section ... that’s not only mistakenly left open to the Web at large, but also seemingly ‘heavily inspired’ by our own meager efforts here at Suck.”
Well, OK, I’ll cop to being “heavily inspired” by the design of Suck. But please, we’re doing journalism here. Or at least, we wanted to some day. Newsweeklooks like Time, doesn’t it? Every newspaper in America looks more or less the same because the history of typography and layout reached some agreed-upon design standards. But each publication covers the world in its own way. I was sputtering with frustration.
The Duke continued, relentlessly: “If Josh and his underlings need a little helping hand when it comes to conceptual planning, we’re happy to oblige. And we’re sure the server activity and email you Sucksters are likely to generate will provide just the kind of helpful feedback they so desperately need. We only hope Quittner and Co., amidst their sniffing of our soiled linens, don’t become so distracted that they forget to honor their campaign promises....”
The piece ended with a boiled-down quote from my now-lamentable birth of the Way-New Journalism screed: “So where are the Way-New Journalists? ... I’ll let you know when we find an answer.”
If this was my Web Dream, it was turning into a nightmare.
After receiving a flotilla of unflattering email messages from people with names like Tainted Torture (“hahahahahah ... if only you pathetic excuses for Web interests would give credit to the www-zine that [you] so blatantly rip off, known to non-AOL jerks as Suck, you might actually gain credibility with the true net.community....”), we decided to retaliate. But how? We closed off access to the prototype at once. But that seemed a tepid response. Anyone clicking on the Netly links in the Suck story would get a “server not responding” message - a signal to the true Net cognoscenti that we were tagged, and tagged but good.
So we yanked out Noah’s QuickCam, took a picture of the three of us giving a one-finger salute to the Duke, and uploaded it to the URL to which Suckpointed. Now, when anyone clicked on a Netly link, they’d be greeted with the rude image of us and the exhortation, “Dear Duke: Suck on this!”
For good measure, the image also told people to check back on November 7 for the, um, official launch date of The Netly News.
Oh, it was ugly. And sophomoric. And like all ugly, sophomoric gestures, it felt enormously satisfying. At that time, I still didn’t know the true names of the Enemy. That night, Noah and I climbed to the roof of the Time-Life Building. As the thunder howled around us and lightning flashed, rain mixed with tears streaming down my face. I shook my fist at the sky and howled: “Who are you?”
The day after we got Sucked,a friend who worked for HotWired called to chat about something. “Hey, do you know anything about Suck?” I asked, nonchalantly.
“Aren’t they great?” my friend asked, clearly oblivious to my pain and suffering.
“Yes!” I said perkily. “But who are these geniuses?”
“Carl and Joey. They work here....”
“You’re kidding!” What a dumbass I was. I should have known. The snake text. The casual use of very inside Silicon Valley gossip....
Carl and Joey. I wrote the names of my new mortal enemies on a piece of paper and repeatedly underlined it, some might say hysterically. “Carl who? Joey who?” I asked, calm as a fire-retardant chemical foam.
She gave me their last names, as well as Carl’s email address. She did not know their home addresses or telephone numbers, nor their Social Security numbers, medical histories, the names of their next of kin or whether they had any allergic reactions to drugs or harbored any unreasonable phobias. Which was fine. I’d be able to get all that later.
My first email to Carl:
“I’ll get you bastards if it’s the last thing I do.”
Carl’s first email to me:
“Well, you discovered who we were (or did you?...) but you neglected to offer us lucrative six-figure salaried positions in the Big Apple ... that is what you are referring to by saying ‘get you bastards,’ yes?...”
It was hard to stay angry at the Sucksters for long. They were too charming, too smart, too wily, and I’d never be able to kill them unless I got close to them. Also, every time they skewered Netly, our hits went up. With enemies like that, who needs friends?
Over time, we became email pals. Which is how, many messages, many Suckattacks and Netly counterattacks later, I find myself in their company, sick of ribs and back in San Francisco - in the Haight of all places - going into a bar named the Club Deluxe that doesn’t give receipts. I think Joey picked the place knowing no way in hell would I get reimbursed by Wired’s parsimonious managing editor without a receipt. The Club Deluxe, indeed....
“Gin and tonic. You have Bombay Gin?” Joey asks the bartender. Who nods YES at his new best friend, the high roller. The dapper Carl orders the same and inquires good-naturedly about how much cash I have.
I could tell you who Carl is; at least, I could spew back the interview notes from the time we spent together that weekend. But Carl tells his story better than I ever could right on his homepage. Here it is, verbatim (and I get paid by the word to quote it. That alone will probably kill Joey).
Carl writes: “I was born in Richmond, California. I grew up in a blue house in El Sobrante. I went to Catholic school. My mother drove a yellow Rabbit. Both my mother and father worked at Safeway. My mother was a checkout clerk. My father was an assistant manager. My father bought a gas station. He bought real estate. He sold real estate. He made some money. He bought a dairy farm in rural Minnesota. The family moved.
“I experienced culture shock. I woke up at five in the morning to milk cows. I shoveled shit. I saved the money I earned from baling hay. I bought a computer and did freelance programming. I drank a lot. I read Vonnegut. I read Kafka. I read Joyce. I read Coleridge. I read Baudelaire. I listened to Bauhaus and The Cure. I attempted suicide. I lived with friends for a while. I tried to kill myself again. I was committed to a mental institution. I was released. I went to college. I lived with Matt. I tripped for the first time. I spent time in jail. I married Victoria. I worked full time as an overnight parking attendant. I bought lots of things. I took classes from Joe Austin. I read Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige. I read Lyotard. I read Baudrillard. I got divorced. I wrote a comic strip. I met Andra. I fell in love with Andra. Truly. I took courses from Liz McLemore. I read Derrida. I took courses from John Mowitt. I read Deleuze. Andra and I put together the Procter & Gamble Coloring Book....
“I read Hegel. I read Freud. I started work on Kid A in Alphabet Land. Everyone thought I was crazy, except for Andra. Andra and I started writing Rats to Cats!We bought Chester so Andra could use him as a model to draw the cats. My brother, Mark, moved in with me. My father hanged himself. I worked as a system administrator at the Center for the Development of Technological Leadership. I collected comic books, trading cards, children’s books, and toys. Andra left for graduate school. Mark moved out to live on the streets. I lived with Ben. I started work on When There Were No More Stories. After a year of work, I finished Kid A in Alphabet Land. Arthur Kroker called, and said it was brilliant. Andra died. I hurt. I still hurt.
“... After six years, I completed my degree in cultural studies. I took a job editing content at the Star Tribune Online ... I moved to San Francisco to work as the production director at HotWired ...I started Suck with Joey Anuff.
“... I still miss Andra.”
When HotWired hired Carl in April, 1995, one of the first things he did was convince management that HotWired wasn’t a “cyberstation” - as it was incomprehensibly termed in an early press release - it was a Web site. Then he set to work removing the “authentication” system from the site - users had to register and could get into HotWired only with a password. “It was crazy and stupid,” he says. The Web was hard enough to use without Web sites making it harder.
Carl needed an assistant. Three weeks after he arrived, he went through a long list of résumés. But none of the talent in that pile resonated. So he went to the trash pile - the stack of résumés from people who didn’t appear to have what HotWired wanted. “I was desperate,” he told me. He found Joey Anuff’s résumé in the trash pile.
Joey’s life was not as tragic as Carl’s. In some ways, though, it was as dislocating. Joey was a tech brat - his dad worked for Bellcore, the research lab for the regional telephone companies, where he helped create ISDN. Anyway, Joey’s folks split up when he was a kid, and he went to stay with his mom and big brother, Ed, in Puerto Rico, which is where his mother’s family lived.
A precocious kid, Joey was entrepreneurial almost from the start. At 15, he turned his hobby, comic book collecting, into a business. Joey scraped together the dough to open a comic book store called A Time to Play at a nearby mall. The store did so well it expanded into a Caribbean chain (called Comics), which his mother now runs.
The willowy Anuff went off to the University of California at Berkeley. He took some “intense, practical journalism classes” but abandoned that career path. “It quickly became clear how poorly it paid.”
He toyed briefly with the idea of law and took a prelaw class, but “when I saw who my classmates were, that was pretty depressing.”
He took a class on cults and was impressed by “the moneymaking opportunities.” But I guess he didn’t see any clear career trajectory there.
Then he started taking classes in rhetoric, which is the art of argument and the study of persuasive techniques. This Joey loved. It goes without saying that “rhetorician” isn’t something you find in the Yellow Pages. So his rhetoric degree didn’t prepare him for specific employment.
But his interest in computers did. “I was thinking about getting into porn distribution.” The way Joey saw it, adult CD-ROMs were the way to go. While at Berkeley, Joey learned his way around Macromedia Director, the popular multimedia-editing program. After graduating, he worked briefly as a freelance computer animator.
In late 1994, he caught the Web Dream: “When I started dabbling on the Web, everything flew out the window.” Carl was waiting there to catch whatever it was flying out the window. He was especially there to catch Joey.
On the day Carl had been summoned from Minnesota for a job interview at HotWired,Wired publisher Louis Rossetto was giving his quarterly address to incoming troops, in which he traces Wired’s humble origins and shows how it, and the digital revolution, will change the world. “This is the Struggle and Triumph of Wired, the Origin Myth of Wired,” explains Carl. “It’s the way youhave to tell that story - it’s a progression from nothing to everything. Louis does a really good job at telling that story.”
Now Carl, caught up as he was in the interview/tour process, didn’t get to hear Louis’s speech that day. But some employee dutifully videotaped it, and shortly after settling into his new HotWired job, Carl got hold of the tape. He watched it. “Over and over and over again. And I invited Joey to watch it with me. Repeatedly.”
Carl and Joey became fixated on that video, in many ways because they believed their boss was out to lunch on his analysis of the Web. Carl describes it as Rossetto’s “positivist view of the Net.”
Says Carl: “That Net wasn’t my Net. That Net wasn’t most people’s Net.” The Net that Carl and Joey knew mostly sucked. But in the Boys’ view, HotWired was then mainly in the business of “producing content that hypes the Net.”
And that was bad, curiously, because (and this is the weird part) Carl and Joey believed in the Web! They really did.
They believed that here was the first truly open marketplace the world had ever known, and all anyone was using it for was crap! You had old media companies translating their print product into photons and pretending their shovelware was “interactive.” You had businesses like Intel and AT&T and Budweiser using the thing to hawk their chips, phones, and beer - and pretending they were interactive. You had Mosaic and Netscape touting ridiculous garbage as “what’s cool” and “what’s hot.” And it wasn’t hot; it all sucked. “What blows” would have been a better, more complete directory of the Web, but who was going to publish something as painfully honest as that? Not HotWired, the Boys believed; HotWired was leading Wired readers online, following Rossetto’s Dream ... and pointing them to ... shit. And telling them it was shinola.
Well, people aren’t stupid; they wouldn’t hang around online for long, and the great ballooning Web bubble would definitely burst - unless someone told them the truth.
So Carl and Joey set out to radically realign HotWired, by competing against it. “I wanted a HotWired killer,” says Carl.
They would do it on the Web, of course, with their own site. “I ordered a server and put it on my Gold Card,” recalls Carl. The site would spring from the zillion hours of their conversations about what would work on the Web. Simplicity was key. That was a given: too many Web sites sprawled like Long Island, offered too much junk, had no center, and led nowhere. You hardly ever return to Sprawl Sites, mainly because you can’t remember where you’ve been. Worse, it’s hard to navigate a mess of a site.
Joey even argued that the ideal site should offer only a single screen full of information. Immediacy was important, too: their site would change every day - that way a daily visitor always knew there was something fresh to see there, so it was worth the quick click.
Most of all, the text had to be readable, which meant using the tried-and-true technique of black letters on a white background. Columns would be narrow and easy to scan, just like on Flux, which they worked on for their day job. That flush-centered column created a harmony on the screen that was pleasing and allowed graphics to be placed in strategic places of stories. More important, the centered columns made it easier for all browsers - which handled HTML in idiosyncratic, uneven ways - to accurately display their page.
The thesis of the site ... well, that was easy. They’d write about all the stuff that sucks on the Web. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel! Fish, barrel, and a smoking gun, it turned out, would be the only design elements people would use to navigate their site; clip art of each was culled from a Dover clip-art collection.
But it turned out that the name - suck.com - was so perfect for a Web site that someone had already registered it. So Carl arranged to pay US$250 to the owner, a network provider in Ohio, to use the www.suck.com subdomain. Later, Carl borrowed $1,000 to buy the name outright.
The larval Sucksters put together a simple, server-push animation - server-push being a kind of flip-book animation then the rage - that depicted the word Suckgetting sucked into the period separating the address, “suck.com.” That was the essence of the site: simple, cool.
Who at HotWired noticed the look of dread and tension on the faces of Carl and Joey when Suck secretly launched like a torpedo on August 28, 1995? Carl tied his desktop machine at HotWired into his server, which was hidden in plain sight among the array of hardware, so he could watch as people logged in toSuck that first day. This is the coldly accurate terror of the new medium: Carl could tell at any second not only how many people were logged in to his server, but in some cases, who they were.
On that first day, a hundred people found Suck - not a bad turnout considering the Boys told only their friends. Naturally, their friends told their friends, and good news travels like a sweet breeze across the Web.
This was critical since Carl had set some ambitious goals: he wanted 1,000 hits by the end of the week, he wanted to be more successful than any HotWired channel by the end of two months, and he wanted to be the Cool Site of the Day within three months.
Suck made each benchmark.
Carl invited Joey to move into his apartment to save money; Joey was then making $22,000 a year. The apartment was hardly swank; it was at window level with the top of a freeway on-ramp. Butit was across the street from the office. “We were working around the clock,” says Carl, “getting two hours, maybe three hours of sleep a day.”
The secret of who was behind Suck didn’t last long at HotWired. But rather than being angry, company chieftains were thrilled at the attention their prodigal sons were getting. “By the time HotWired approached us [about selling Suckrights], I was just utterly exhausted,” says Carl. “Which hurt negotiations quite a bit.”
Carl says he got screwed. He pushed himself as hard as he could, and he feels underappreciated. Ripped off. Underpaid. It still makes him angry.
I stayed out late with Joey and Carl that night. We parted shortly after my wallet sloughed off its last dollar at a coffee house at midnight. I saw theSucksters again at the office on Monday, but I was preoccupied with an upcoming interview: I was meeting with Chip Bayers, HotWired’s executive producer. And he actually was interviewing me, about a job.
You could say that HotWired, in my mind at least, was Ground Zero for the Web Dream. When I first met Chip a few years ago, HotWired was but a small amendment to Wired magazine. It had a tiny staff and occupied a little office walled off from, but on the same floor as, Wired. Since then, it’s staffed up to 155 employees and has taken off like a space colony sent in advance of a doomed planet. Now it occupies two floors of a renovated warehouse down the street from the magazine.
Now, here was Chip, saying that if I came to work for him, I could have it all: tons of staff, a correspondent in Silicon Valley, a correspondent in Washington, a team of designers. At Pathfinder, Netly was one small project among millions; at HotWired, I could get my own bunkbed next to Carl, I could have purple Ethernet hooked into my brain, my work would be at the center of HotWired’s universe. That is, when Joey, Carl, and Co. weren’t giving me wedgies.
Money and stock options were disclosed. I was being offered an opportunity to Sell Out!
Yes, yes, of course YES! I tried to sound casual as I answered Chip. Then I flew home to pack up my rotating cow.
Two days later:
(Sound of phone ringing) Me: Chip, I’m sorry. I’m a horrible person and a fool. Hate me. Kick me. Whatever. I can’t do it.
Chip: Hello? Who is this?
Me: It’s Josh, Chip. I’m staying at Time.
(Long pause as Chip considers, silently, the fact that he is on the phone with a nut ... who he almost hired.)
Chip: Uh, Josh? Are you OK? Have you been taking your medicine?
Part of my flip-flop had to do with Netly. It’s healthy, and we’ve been growing consistently. We’ve found our voice and our readers; we’re doing real reporting, breaking stories, covering the people and culture of the Net. Our referer logs showed that Netly was a checkpoint for lots of newspaper and magazine reporters who regularly cover Net stuff. So my Web Dream was materializing.
Also, another thing happened to me. On the day I got home after my intoxicating and grease-laden trip to Suck Central, I learned that I could have my own, old version of the Dream (my Old Media Dream). If I stayed where I was, I could eat my cake and have it too: continue running my Netly baby but also start writing a bimonthly column in Time magazine. The column was to be called “The Netly News.”
On top of that, I was offered the job of assistant managing editor at Pathfinder. Which meant I could continue the grand experiment, working with other journalists who were trying to figure out how to make straight news work online.
So I said Yes. Let’s do it. This is what I want, yes. This makes more sense to me. This is really who I am.
You see, much as I appreciate Suck, I don’t agree with a lot of what Carl and Joey say. They say that journalism - at least, the way it’s practiced by Old Media - is bankrupt; it stays alive by hyping events and creating false drama around the notion of “breaking” news.
I see the blemishes on my profession - I mean, who doesn’t? - but I think they’re curable, especially in this new two-way, talk-back medium. While the Sucksters believe “news” has no place on the Web,I believe it does; the hard part is figuring out how to make it fast and snappy and genuinely useful. Which is what I want to do.
“What’s the ending, Joey?” I had called him on the phone after I wrote the bulk of this piece, but was still groping for an ending. “How does this story end?”
“Carl’s still tired,” he says.
Oh come on, I say. Carl is the ending? Carl was the beginning. Carl’s what this whole story is about. What about me? But Joey dismisses me as making the right career choice, for the wrong reasons.
“You did it, unfortunately, because you believe your own antihype,” he says. “You’ve been in the game a little too long. You know better than to put all your eggs in the whole radical-media basket.”
OK then, are Joey and Suck the proper note on which to end this tale?
The site is certainly looking fatter than ever. During the summer, when Suck 2.0 was unveiled, the site doubled in size, with five new features. While Joey claims he never wanted to turn Suck into a business, I say he’s done just that: his site has a bunch of advertisers, and Joey claims he’s running in the black. Pal Joey is living large as a capo di tutti Suckster. He drives around town in a swank Lexus and has big plans for Suck 3.0 and world domination.
In fact, Phase One of Global Domination is publishing Suck in print. It’s one way to sit on top of the bubble until the Web crowds arrive. “Suck’s gotta be a juggernaut,” he says. “It’s gotta hit every possible media outlet.”
He plans to publish the best of Suck, and some new stuff, in a weekly magazine. Or at least, in a quarterly. “It makes much more sense to think of the Web as your corporate gazette,” he says. “It’s kind of like when you think about Coca-Cola: If you went to Coke’s headquarters, would people there be fussing about bottling? Or about media and media buys? See, really, what Coke is selling is media, a picture of itself. Coke is really a media company - it just hangs its revenues off bottles of Coca-Cola.”
“That’s kind of where Suck is,” he says. “We’ve created a marketing campaign for a product that doesn’t exist yet.” Suck magazine will be the moneymaking product, he says.
So print is the answer to the Web Dream? “I get this warm feeling every time I hold something I wrote in my hand,” Joey says, earnestly.
Which is a funny thing: for the first time, Joey and I are in total agreement. I tingle when I see Netly in Time. And then I realize that the biggest problem with Dreams is this: you can’t hold them in your hand....
Which, curiously, doesn’t bother Carl.
Carl is still chasing the pure Web Dream. He started a sabbatical in August and began working on a novel that, naturally, exists solely on the Web. He’s also got a new Web site up, placing.com. “He thinks people will pay him to feature their products there,” says Joey, not yet willing to dismiss the idea out of hand. “God, I hope he’s right.”
Even if he’s not, it’ll keep Carl going. That’s why Carl says he might never return to Suck - he’s off in some other direction, chasing his illusive Dream.
And that will make him even more tired. Because ... pursuing the ephemeral is why Carl Steadman is really tired!
Which, finally, makes perfect sense: Carl will always be tired because there is no other way to wholly chase the Dream. Carl’s tired, and that’s OK. That’s how he must be. That’s part of the zeitgeist of the Web, as Carl once explained it to me. People don’t surf the Web to find “cool” stuff, he said, they do it for the pure joy of the hunt.
The Web is a place where you go, without ever getting anywhere. And that’s its infinite beauty, says the always-dreaming, ever-searching, totally tired Carl: “It’s the journey, not the destination, on the Web.”
Fucking Joey, he called it again.
Suck didn’t survive the dotcom bubble, but its content remains available at suck.com, unchanged since 2001. Anuff went into series development at VH1 and most recently developed editorial products for Samsung. Steadman became a columnist at The Industry Standard and later worked at Wired founder Louis Rossetto’s chocolate company, Tcho, located just a couple of miles from Wired’s headquarters.
About the Author
Josh Quittner is editorial director of Flipboard, a social news app. A journalist by training, he’s been a director of digital editorial development at Time Inc. and editor of Business 2.0. For his Wired story “Billions Registered” (issue 2.10), Quittner registered the domain name mcdonalds.com before the fast food giant had the chance to do so.