Continuing once again “The Greatest Sites Series,” we spoke with the creator, founder and still the one guy behind one of the most popular real news humor sites, Fark.com.
Mustang Daily: So what is Fark all about for those who may have never heard of it?
Drew Curtis: Basically, it’s just my life. That’s probably the best description. I tend to read news and stuff all day long and started putting a Web site together of stuff that I found was funny or strange. I started doing the actual site in February 1999, so that makes it about 8 years old.
MD: How has the job changed for you? Is it still as fun as it’s always been for you?
DC: Yeah, actually it is, which is probably a good thing honestly. It’s just gotten a lot bigger and the scale has just gotten bizarre too, you know, in understanding that, for example, I try not to post anything about stocks that I own. I did a test one day to see if we could move the market and we did just a little bit and that’s just enough to be illegal. I try not do that too often. It’s stuff like that that’s really bizarre. I had dinner one night in New York City across the street from where Fox News is headquartered and I was watching their news ticker and I was watching Fark headlines go by that they had gotten off our site. So that’s how it’s changed and it’s stuff like that that’s really kind of bizarre that’s quite a step up from just posting stuff on a Web site.
MD: Have you increased staff as well?
DC: No, one of the things about Fark is that it’s my third business. It didn’t start out as a business, but when it became one it was the third time around for me and I’d learned a few things the first couple of times, one of which is don’t hire people if you can avoid it. So, I haven’t and there’s technically no full time employees. I spend all my time doing it and I’ve got a guy who does the tech work for it, but other than that there’s no employees.
MD: So what exactly do you see for the future of Fark?
DC: Well, we have a T.V. show coming out, online only. I don’t know that I can tell you which network picked it up. They just announced today that they had an online initiative, so I suppose if you poke around and see if you can try and find some major media company that has an online initiative, that’s the one. I probably can’t tell you, but it’s going to be launched in January and it’ll be an Internet-only operation being written, produced, directed, etc. entirely by people who read Fark. It’s a fantastic thing. They’ve shot five quick episodes and it’s all on-your-ass hilarious. I’m shocked actually. The media company told us of all of the online content that they’re been producing for this initiative, ours is by far in a way the funniest thing they’ve got. And we’re the only thing that’s not Hollywood-generated. We don’t have any star power or major studio names behind it. Everything’s based on just a bunch of guys on some cameras. I’ve seen it and I agree. I’d be surprised if they had anything better than that. It’s actually shocking how good it is.
MD: Are we talking a weekly show?
DC: It’s actually going to be daily. Whether or not they were going to do it daily was up for debate until they saw the tests. Now that they’ve seen it, they’re all about it. It’s looking really promising.
Editor’s note: After some intense snooping, it looks like MTV Networks is the most likely “major media company” to pick up the show considering they just announced more “multiplatform” efforts.
MD: Very cool. How is the transition of print journalism to online affecting Fark (i.e. news sites with subscription fees to view articles)?
DC: In fact, that’s going the opposite way as it turns out. What we started doing early on was blacklisting sites that required subscriptions, not necessarily paid subscriptions, but subscriptions in general, because our readers are lazy. I remember one where we got complaints about they were asking for sex, year of birth and zip code and that was all they were asking for. People didn’t even want to fill that out. I can’t really blame them, because there’s so many other sites to get news on the Internet. What’s happened is over time I think general news convinced them that they’re missing out on a whole lot of traffic. I saw an interesting article about how when you did news searches on The New York Times, for example, they never come up and how using subscriptions may be one fast ticket to making yourself irrelevant in the next decade. So it’s actually going the other way, believe it or not. Furthermore, on top of that, talking about the transition to online journalism, one of the weird side effects is we have journalists sending their articles to Fark trying to get traffic. I would estimate about 50 percent of our submissions are sent in from mainstream news sites.
MD: So they’re starting to take advantage of Fark?
DC: Well, you know, I mean if it’s good stuff, it’s good stuff and we really appreciate it, but it also works out for them. Aside from bragging rights it also generates revenue for the Web sites in question. People ask me whether or not I had problems with sites telling me not to link to them but it’s actually the opposite. I’ve got too many asking me to link all the time. They like Fark, because unlike a lot of blogs, we link straight to the source and don’t summarize any of it so they get to capture 100 percent of their traffic, whereas other sites that summarize the article, some people may just go read the one paragraph summary and then back out. In fact, I’d probably be willing to bet that at least over half the people who check out a summarized article don’t go on to read the main one.
MD: Now I noticed you guys now have TotalFark, which requires a $5-a-month subscription fee for total access. We’ve been asking other humor sites if they were moving towards subscription fees and most said they wouldn’t be. When exactly was the point when you guys decided it was time to slap the subscription fee up there?
DC: The main idea was just to see if we could generate revenue by offering something else people would want to pay $5-a-month for. It turned out in our particular case we didn’t come up with a really good idea. It was actually kind of shocking to me that people still sign up for it. They do it because there’s a community in there and what really broke it wide-open was the small community, which stayed pretty small, but we allowed them to sign other people up for it. Now they’re paying $5-a-month to have a bunch of super good friends to hang out with on the Internet and it seems really strange and ass-backwards that people would be willing to pay you money for that. It was mainly to generate revenue and it’s carried us through with downtimes in advertising revenue because that (TotalFark revenue) always comes in every single month.
MD: So advertising doesn’t always come through?
DC: Advertising is not doing very well right now as it turns out. We made a decision in February to only go after mainstream advertisers and the main idea being, you know, you can get all the el-cheapo ads you want all day long with T-shirts and mugs and god knows what else, but the real money is with mainstream advertising and they don’t tend to advertise on Web sites with T-shirts and Viagra.
So the problem is that this is a transition period where we ran into two problems. The first problem is the transition period, which is basically that previously we forced advertisers to pay up front, and mainstream advertisers don’t do that. In fact, they’re really slow. They won’t pay for 120 days, and that’s if you’re lucky. So, making that transition killed all of our advertising revenue and we’re just now starting to see it trickle back in six months later. The second challenge, this is kind of bizarre, I don’t think a lot of people that are running independent Web sites have run into this because they haven’t progressed as far down the advertising side of things as we have.
For example, we have Maxim selling ads for us. They’re an interesting case study, because they have 25 employees and have been selling advertising to mainstream advertisers for the past 10 years. It’s interesting because you have to actually warm up an advertiser, because advertising with a site they’ve never heard of.they don’t really give a shit what kind of demographics you have; it’s all about whether they’re going to get fired when they go tell their boss where they paid advertising. They’ll buy full-page ads in the New York Times all day long because that’s acceptable, but if they have to go to their boss and explain how they sold ads on a site they’ve never heard.that tends to cause some problems. So it’s really kind of interesting and it has some interesting ramifications for bloggers making serious money down the road. In order to do that they’ll have to hook in with another major media company that sells their ads for them, otherwise it’s not going to fly.
MD: So when it comes to humor sites these days, it seems like the most integral part of the site is always the strong community that arises on the forums and comments. What did it take on your part to build the Fark community?
DC: The only thing we really did was let people make comments. The first year-and-a-half we didn’t have comments and I really did it because I wanted to learn some database programming. I figured it would be an interesting challenge and so the community sort of self-generated after that and it’s really kind of bizarre. What’s interesting about Fark’s community is, last time I checked we had 310,000 registered users, but the actual readership is about 20 times that. It’s interesting because everyone knows Fark for the community and comments and whatnot, but the vast majority of the people don’t know, don’t care, which is really kind of fascinating to me. There’s an interesting parallel to that in the blogging world where a lot of bloggers are under the impression that people know the top 10 blog sites out there, but if you started stopping people in the streets, two-thirds of the people you talk to don’t know any of them.
MD: Have you had any favorite submissions over the years?
DC: Yeah, one of my favorite ones was really early on because it was one of the most bizarre stories I’d ever heard in my life and it actually came up again a couple years ago because of a follow-up. It happened seven years ago when a guy who was 19, he’s 26 now, was at this local pub that was having an “I’ll do anything to win a bar tab” contest. Whatever you wanted to do, the craziest, most outrageous thing, you’d win 500 pounds in bar tab, which for the average Brit lasted about a month, especially if you’re 19 years old. Anyway, he decides he really, really wants to win. So what he does his he shows up and his mom is standing there while he’s doing this, by the way. He whips his junk out, nails it to the table with a staple gun, douses it with gasoline and sets it on fire.with his mom sitting there. So, needless to say he won. The follow-up later on asked him how he felt about that now and he said, “Yeah, it was probably a stupid idea.” When they asked him why he did it he said, “I really, really wanted that bar tab.” There’s plenty of them.
There was an interesting article about some information they discovered on an Al-Qaeda computer they captured out of Afghanistan. One of them was this long discussion about whether to continue buying nuclear weapons from the Russian mafia. Apparently they had given them $50 million on two separate accounts and the Russian mafia sent them like Volkswagen parts. They were debating whether or not they should try a third time and maybe the third time they’d send them a nuclear weapon.
MD: And that’s why I love Fark. There’s surprising studies now that are showing a good number of the American people get their news primarily from comedy shows like The Daily Show or from humor sites like yours. About how many Americans do you think are using Fark as their primary source of news and why do you think this is?
DC: The last unique count in a month was something like 3.5 million, but it’s hard to say if that’s low or high or not, the main reason being that a lot of workplaces have one IP address. Someone said a better measure would be to divide your total traffic by five, in which case that’d be something like 8.1 million. It’s a lot of damn people either way, it’s kind of surprising how big it is. I think the reason is, and it’s funny, I think people have always gravitated toward that and I don’t mean everybody, but there’s been a certain segment always interested in that. When I was a kid we would always talk about Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, and there was a certain segment of the population that only paid attention to that. I don’t think it’s necessarily that people’s attitudes are changing, there was always desire there and people only recently have started to tap into it.
MD: SomethingAwful and CollegeHumor both have books to boast now. Do you have any plans to write one?
DC: I actually have one done that’s coming out June 7, 2007. The premise is basically a combination between the book these guys wanted me to write and the one I wanted to write. Their stupid idea was why don’t you just summarize the funniest stories, but I said “Come on, that’s boring. No one wants that.” But what I wanted to do instead was critique the media, more of a larger conversation of the patterns that we’re seeing going through the media where it isn’t the usual biased bullshit, but it’s bias toward stuff that’s entertaining. They’re doing it because they’re trying to generate traffic. Entertainment and tabloid stuff will always generate more traffic than regular news and the news organizations have got to realize this and make the call, decide are we going to be real news or just do the Fox News run and become the laughing stock. It’s analysis of that and the different ways that mainstream media keeps a story in the news well past its due date.
MD: Finally, we recently spoke with SomethingAwful and we were wondering if you could clear up if there is or isn’t a rivalry between the two sites.
DC: That’s actually completely fabricated. It was an idea Lowtax (Richard Kyanka) had one day. He plays it up still. In general, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no rivalry and I think there’s a bunch of people that are probably confused about it on the SomethingAwful side. But, yeah, he was just playing it up for the hell of it. We help them out however we can, like Zack (Parsons) just had a book come out and on the Fark homepage we gave them a hand with it, you know that kind of stuff.
MD: Thank goodness. Well, thank you very much for your time.