Exclusive interview: Fark founder Drew Curtis
7th Apr 2009 | 12:00
Get the inside line on Fark's past, present and future
How Fark works
We also quizzed Curtis on how Fark makes money, why it doesn't get the press that Web 2.0 stars Digg and Facebook get, and how the Fark community has changed over the years.
The full interview follows…
TechRadar: Fark was Web 2.0 before the term came about, and now there's Digg, Facebook, and so on, and they're getting the magazine covers. Why's that?
Drew Curtis: Part of it is because there's not a lot of money associated with us. Somebody was asking me the other day why Michael Arrington at TechCrunch doesn't go after us – I think he's only mentioned us one time – and it's because we're not doing the Silicon Valley thing that everybody else is doing. There's not a lot of money, there's not a lot of flash... because that's what the media is concentrating on. They say 'look at these kids, they're getting rich – how awesome is that?' and that's not what's happening in my case.
But they're also missing the point – just because you throw a whole bunch of money into a company they [the employees] don't get to take it home. I can only think of one exception – Federated Media, where John Battelle got to take home half of his C-Round and god bless him because nobody else made any money from that. I think that's why we're not as exciting.
And the other problem is that the media has always thought of us in a weird way – journalists have always treated us as their special source that nobody knows about. Except Fark is 10 years old and now people kind of know!
So the question for them is: what do we do with these guys? Because we don't really cover the story angle of making a tonne of money, we don't really cover the story angle of obvious tech company, or cutting-edge tech, so we don't really have anything they can grab hold of and write an article about. So that's probably what's going on.
But what's funny is you mention the whole 2.0 thing. I've starting telling people that we're Web 3.0, because one of the things we've been doing is we change the name of what Fark is every time they come up with a new term. Right now whatever they're going to call Twitter is whatever we're going to end up being. They haven't decided what that is yet but when they do we'll be like "oh, we're that for news, how about that?"
The other thing is I think that we're also ahead of the curve – accidentally – in the sense that I think that the next big jump in social media evolution will be editing. There's so much shit out there – people talk about what a great news source Twitter is – no it's not! I mean, it's horrible, how do you find anything on there? Oh my god, it sucks! But if someone were to curate that, that would be a whole other story. That's the next jump.
TR: Fark has a moderated story queue, and mods choose what goes front page, while Digg is more of a free-for-all – what are the advantages in the way you do it?
DC: One of the advantages is that you can't be taken over by well organised minorities. Reddit got completely owned by about 200 Ron Paul supporters during the [US election] campaign, and they basically made sure that anything to do with Ron Paul made the top of Reddit. Just 200 guys – they've got a million people reading that site but 200 guys took it over.
So that's part of the problem and we're immune to that. The other thing is that we can move things faster – for example, Digg doesn't have breaking news. I have to clarify what I mean here – I was talking to a guy from USA Today last night and one of the talks going on at the same time as mine [at SXSWi] is about breaking news in the digital age, and I said, 'here, I'll post this up for you, it takes 10 seconds'. That's basically it – somebody will get it out there first but the second, third, twentieth and two-hundredth guy will get it 10 seconds later. So does it even matter any more? It doesn't make any difference. So I don't mean like that, but I mean more like – it takes a good half hour to an hour for stories to pop up to the top of the social news sites, whereas we can just go 'oh, shit, something just happened.'
What we do is slightly different, though – we actually wait about five minutes to see if someone comes up with a really funny tagline, and then we post that, because there's no rush. Unless it 's something everybody needs to know, or they're going to die in the next five minutes - other than that, you don't have to worry about it so speed isn't really an issue.
TR: On Digg it can take 6 to 12 hours for a story to hit the front page...
DC: Yeah, you can circumvent the process. A lot of people will figure something out, but I think that one of the other flaws is that they don't have that many people choosing stuff so it just ends up completely out of hand – it doesn't scale. For example, they were talking about how on Digg - and it's definitely this way on Fark – about 20 to 30 people submit about 80% of the stories.
Digg has been trying to move away from that and we've actually embraced it and gone the other direction – I have no problem with that because that means that consistently these 20 people are sending in some awesome shit, and we've done what we can to make it easier for them to do it.
For example, currently if you submit stuff to Fark we block duplicates or we wouldn't be able to read what people are sending in, which sucks because I'm sure we're missing out on some funny taglines because of that. But what we did was we took our top submitters – every year I look at the top 10 – and among other things I remove the block for them, to make it easier for them to get stuff to us because their stuff is better.
TR: So what sort of percentage are you seeing between stuff that gets greenlit and hits the front page and stuff that doesn't?
DC: Almost all of the stuff that makes the main page is from those 20 guys – not exclusively, and it's not like we've got a quota or anything like that, but that's how it works out. Because those guys are writing it properly. If I could write a manual I would, but the problem is that it's comedy, and that's a moving target. Depending on what's happened during the day, comedy changes. For example, I read that in the week of 9/11 the top rated TV show in North America was Friends, for the first time in years. The reason was because all of a sudden edgy wasn't funny any more, and people wanted to go back to slapstick and get comfortable. So it's a moving target.
Right now we're on full-on snark mode, until something horrible happens, then we'll all switch back. So you can't give people rules and instructions. You've either got it or you don't.
How Fark makes money
TR: So Fark is predominantly ad-funded?
DC: Yes, with a significant portion coming from subscriptions. If all the ads went away we could still operate on an emergency level indefinitely at that rate. We have five employees and I'd have to fire three of them...
TR: Having so many paid subscriptions is pretty amazing...
DC: Yeah, I can't believe anybody signs up for it, to tell you the truth. You don't get anything. The idea that you would be able to read all the links... I only know of only a couple of people that actually have it for that – but other than that I don't know why the hell people sign up for it.
TR: It's a show of loyalty...
DC: Yeah, basically I get this little [Total Fark] button and I like this site, and five bucks is nothing, and if you have enough people do that then eventually you've got an OK amount of money coming in. I'm not driving a Tesla around town or anything like that, but it keeps the lights on.
TR: So you've got your ads and your Total Fark subscriptions, and you've also got paid links...
DC: We use them as a way to direct people to microsites. We did this with Maxim a few times back when we were still doing ads with them. They would set up a microsite where people could go and, say, vote on the best Budweiser Superbowl commercials of all time.
You can do that all day long and advertisers love it because it's something that gets delivered to them but the problem is how do you get people to go to that thing?
Well, we solved that: we basically create a sponsored link, put it up in the middle of the page and say 'hey, check this out' usually with some kind of a teaser that gets people interested, and then say sponsored link at the end of it.
We don't actually sell those per se – it's sold as a package, but I don't really know what the value of that is. So what we do is we say if you make a big ad buy we'll throw this in.
TR: And you introduced Foobies [NSFW]. Are those links paid for?
DC: I never really figured out what the hell to do with that, it was just I like boobs. But dealing with the people who advertise in that market is really sketchy. And at the same time it's in this really weird spot because it isn't pornography, it's just nudity and there aren't that many sites on the internet that do that.
So I ended up renting it to the guys that run Mr Skin... and they've kind of taken it over. We're still posting the stuff to it, but it now lives over on his site and they're running ads around it. We're still trying to figure out how that relationship looks long term. But they like it, and I like it because I don't know what the hell to do with it.
The traffic is not substantial – something like a million uniques and 1.5 million page views – because people are just coming in and taking off again.
And there's other complications of running a site like that because, for example, we have comments on there but only enabled for Total Farkers – the idea being that a spammer's not about to pay $5 to make comments. But if you left it wide open it would all be like 'We've got the hottest chicks on the net!' and hundreds of posts like that. No thanks.
TR: Have you had problems with links on Foobies or the Fark main page where there's some bait and switch going on?
DC: It was mostly the Foobies stuff. I haven't had too much trouble with the mainstream links where there would be something pretty tame and innocuous and they would see the traffic coming in and they would swap in a completely virus loaded site. But we banned those submitters and the URLs that they were sending in and eventually you get most of them. To my knowledge it hasn't happened in a while.
New features on Fark
TR: How have you seen the Fark community change over the years?
DC: What's interesting is that we are in a weird spot being ten years old, so we've got people that were 18-22 ten years ago at one end, and at the other end we're still picking people up right around 22.
They come out of college and they get to their first boring, horrible job and they're sitting around in the cafeteria going 'god, how do I keep myself sane?' and somebody clues them in on Fark.
It's really funny, watching that demographic spike at 22. It's like clockwork. Our biggest months of the year are October and January – we think January because that's when the semesters change and the kids are sitting around talking about their favourites sites.
But when you're ten years' old you start looking at how you continue to make sure this happens, how we continue to stay relevant to these guys. With us it's not really humour but it has more to do with 22-year-olds and 18-year-olds have this base level of features that they expect to see when they hit a site and they get a little bit confused then they don't have it.
The stuff we're getting emailed for that we're putting in is stuff like private messaging, friends lists, and email prompts. So we're going to put all that stuff in.
I mentioned that in a local newspaper interview and a bunch of Total Farkers got all up in arms – they were like "don't turn Fark into Facebook!" so I said "we're not going to turn Fark into Facebook, you dumbasses! We're adding some shit and if you don't want to use it, you'll never see it. But if you're expecting it to be there, then you'll find it."
I'm a big fan of not forcing people to use functionality that they don't want to, and not changing a good thing – like Facebook has done."
TR: Is this new functionality just for Total Farkers?
DC: No, it's for everybody. The Total Farkers ended up catching hold of it and complaining. But I believe that about 20% of our audience is anal retentive. They're the guys that if you go to their house and you turn their little miniature cats around backwards they freak the fuck out when they walk into the room.
TR: That's most of the people on the internet…
DC: Think about what that means when you are designing a site. Even if it's the best idea in the world, those people are still going to wig out because you turned their little cats around backwards.
They get used to it eventually, so what we do is for the first couple of weeks we ignore most of the complaints, but the valid ones, like for example when we redesigned Fark back in 2007 one of the complaints that came in initially, aside from people hating it, was that the background white was too bright.
We hadn't ever noticed this so our design guy contacted the guy and said 'what do you mean?' and he said 'it's just too bright' so we said 'OK' and started turning it down a couple of clicks. And it was literally like 10 points off pure white and the guy was like 'perfect!'
The funny thing was all these other people wrote in said 'thank god you guys turned that white off'. So we pay attention to stuff like that, if it's easy to fix.
TR: So to sum up – new functions for Fark include private messaging, friends lists...
DC: Just basic stuff that kids think should be there. We're also redesigning the comments: if you're average Joe who'd never heard of Fark and you landed on one our comments pages could you figure out, without anybody telling you what to do, what the hell you're supposed to do? Currently the answer is no, it doesn't make any sense to people who don't use the site. So we're changing it round a bit, just making things a little clearer, so it doesn't significantly impact the layout.
And also we're adding running voting contests along the side... If you come to the main comments page the comments will still look exactly the same, but you can vote on all of them. And there will be three tabs out to the right of the main page – we're running three contests all the time – best, funniest and crap. So you can vote comments up.
It will not change anything on the main comments page at all - but we're saying here's something else you can do if you guys care, because people really do like to give props when they see something that's hilarious.
We don't expect people to look at every single comment and vote – that's not the point. If you don't want to participate in that you don't have to because we're not shoving it in your face, but if you do, it's something extra to do.
TR: Do you have a schedule for rolling these new features out?
DC: Within the next month probably. It depends, though, since as we're not venture funded we're not really in a hurry. We don't have any quotas to hit! So whenever we get around to it, basically, but I think within the next month.
Sign up for the free weekly TechRadar newsletter
Get tech news delivered straight to your inbox. Register for the free TechRadar newsletter and stay on top of the week's biggest stories and product releases. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register