"A fish, a barrel and a smoking gun." If you recognize that phrase, it's likely you're old enough -- or at least, been on the web long enough -- to remember Suck.com, one of the earliest ad-supported content sites on the internet. Started in 1995, Suck offered daily doses of satirical editorial that skewered all manner of topics -- from the state of the early web to politics and pop culture. It ran its course in 2001, and while there were efforts to at least keep its archives online, even the last remnants of Suck.com disappeared from the web unceremoniously earlier this year. In celebration of Suck's 20th anniversary (which passed a few weeks ago), several of the publication's original crew gathered at the XOXO Festival last weekend to reminisce and reflect on its legacy.
Prior to the reunion however, I caught up with Suck co-founders Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman to chat about Suck's history. To modern eyes, Suck.com's center-aligned, black-text-on-white-page aesthetic probably doesn't seem like much. But back when it debuted, it was unique and different. "At the time, online publications would force you to go through a number of clicks to get to content, and they were updated weekly or monthly, certainly not daily," said Steadman. "It was just obvious to me that you needed daily content and you'd go to a place that was a habit-forming medium."
But more than that, he along with Anuff knew that there needed to be a site that would call bullshit on the internet. "There was Netscape's Site of the Day and there was an ecosystem of sites that were making content, but that was it. ... It was all just self-infatuated prophesizing," said Anuff. "There was a need for skepticism, for tough love. ... The web is not a genius masterpiece. It was never going to be a challenge to find shitty web content." In short, Anuff said, writing for the site was like shooting fish in a barrel -- hence the slogan. What Anuff really wanted to do was a Mad Magazine-style publication for the web.
So, they did. The two worked for HotWired (the online companion to Wired's print magazine) at the time and when they weren't busy doing that, they worked on Suck. "We wanted the site's name to be borderline profane," said Anuff. "The joke was, I thought we could call it Suck, and then use the tagline, 'We admit it.'" They also liked it because the name had the dual virtue of being catchy and sort of naughty. Plus, they didn't plan for the site to last very long. "Joey promised me we would only run it for a year and then shut it down," said Steadman.
But it didn't. While they ran the site under anonymous pseudonyms for a while -- Anuff was known as the Duke of URL and Steadman was known as Webster -- they were soon uncovered by fellow co-workers. That's partly because Suck's targets sometimes included Wired as well (one particular example was an article that detailed how to remove advertising from the magazine's website). But because the content was so good, Wired struck them a deal and offered to buy Suck. They could remain independent, but Wired would give them a budget and a staff.
Though Suck's ownership would eventually change hands a few times (it shifted from Wired to Lycos and then to Automatic Media), this early influx of cash meant that it would last another six years. The site hired Ana Marie Cox to be executive editor and Tim Cavanaugh, who served as editor-in-chief from 1998 to 2001. Suck signed on Heather Havrilesky to be Senior Editor and write under the name Polly Esther, who was behind the popular comic/column called Filler (which always went up on Wednesdays). And perhaps most notably from a design perspective, it brought on the talents of illustrator Terry Colon, who provided the site's iconic comic style. For six years, the site honed and crafted its voice, hired a host of different contributors and was easily one of the most successful publications on the web. Suck paid its writers very well -- about $1,000 per column, said Anuff, which is unheard of even by today's standards. There was even a book published in 1997 entitled Suck: Worst-Case Scenarios in Media, Culture, Advertising, and the Internet.
Cox, Cavanaugh and Havrilesky joined Steadman and Anuff in a reunion at the XOXO Festival last Saturday, making it the first time all five of them have appeared on stage together. Steadman and Anuff in particular have not seen each other for almost 14 years prior to the conference. The group traded memories and jokes, talking animatedly about the past. Cavanaugh mentioned it was like therapy thanks to the couch on stage. Havrilesky later said, "I never have therapy sessions like this. I usually cry into my hands."
Cavanaugh pointed out that one particular lasting legacy of Suck's is the idea of using a link as a rhetorical effect. "People still used italics to make a point in a sentence back then," he said, explaining that the site was one of the first to use a link to let readers know what it was writers were discussing, or to point to a joke. "That was what knocked my socks off about Suck right away, was the idea that oh, the link is this funny thing."
"I think one of the things Suck did was recognize the ability of, if you have a link, if you're writing on the web, you can assume people will catch up with you," said Cox. "You can assume there's a body of knowledge you share, and everyone is in on the joke."
Now, of course, the site is no more. Funds ran out largely thanks to the dot-com bust, and Suck posted a "Gone Fishin'" sign that said it was gone indefinitely. Suck still exists on mirror sites and on Archive.org, but if you go to Suck.com itself, all you'll see currently is a rather bland porn portal.
When asked if Suck could exist today, Anuff said no. "Now there's nothing unique about it," he said. "Opinionated expressiveness of digital communications is so prevalent today that it's worthless. ... The chances that the thing that you're saying is unique, that it's worthwhile, is low." Anuff did say he liked a lot of the amateur writing he finds on Tumblr and Medium, but it's not quite the same. He also had a sense that today's audiences wouldn't be patient enough to read through Suck content. "There was no "TL;DR" in the '90s. Everything that Suck ever published was TL;DR."
"The threshold has just moved low," said Steadman about the plethora of content available today. "It's not democratization; it's mediocratization." He pointed out that one of the key factors that set the Tumblrs and the Mediums apart from what Suck did was that Suck was an actual publication with editorial oversight. "There's something about having a publication where one needs to pitch. All of our ideas would regularly be shot down. That's not how it works today." Even with the good sites, Steadman said, voice and point of view are not drilled into their DNA. "It's not that they don't have a voice; it's that they don't have a unified voice," he said. "That's one of the painful processes for getting writers for Suck. We brought on a writer once who was very good, but his tone was entirely wrong. We took the time for each of our editors and writers to learn the voice and get that down."
"And, to me, in order to fall in love with something, there has to be something," explained Steadman. "Love is about projecting onto something what you want it to be. That's difficult with publications without that strong singular point of view."
"I think ClickHole is actually the Suck of today," said Cox during the onstage reunion. "I wish we had the balls to be as absurdist." Anuff countered, "I always felt belittled and embittered by any of the efforts of The Onion." Cox replied that Suck actually had a column about how awesome The Onion was. "That was a mistake," said Cavanaugh, to which the crowd chuckled.
"Suck was a wonderful opportunity to treat the reader as an equal," said Steadman, summing up Suck's core ethos. "To me that's what writing is about. It was about inviting someone in. It's not telling them where to go."