The Web may have burnt out 12-year blogging veteran Andrew Sullivan, but Fark founder Drew Curtis is as invested in it as he’s ever been.
It’s been 16 years since the then-26 year-old Curtis launched Fark, a Web 1.0 community-based aggregator that predates the likes of Digg, reddit and even MySpace. And despite its age, Fark still draws over 3 million unique visitors. Because of that, Curtis, who has flung himself into Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, has seen more eras of the Web than most.
“There’s no blueprint anywhere for a 16 year-old Internet community. No one knows what the next thing for something like this is,” he said. “I’ve gotten pretty used to not having any idea, but I’m very good at guessing.”
Curtis, 41, talked to Digiday about the Fark’s baffling staying power, the problem with venture capital, and his plans inject some youth into Fark’s userbase.
You’re running for governor in Kentucky? You don’t seem like the type.
I can’t be a good politician. Someone sent me a list of the things I was already doing wrong, and most of them are things that I refuse to do, like never saying “I don’t know” when someone asks a question. Well sometimes I don’t know. Politicians say they always do, but I’ve never been happy with that as a voter. So the idea is that if there are enough people that feel the same way, maybe this will work. What I’m saying is I’m a really smart guy, so put me in office and I’ll fix stuff.
What happens to Fark if you win?
I should still be able to do it. I’d have to hire a very strong general manager that I don’t have on board right now to replace me. Fark is me getting up in the morning, loading up a bunch of news sites and taking the extra step of posting them. Even if I walked away completely, which isn’t going to happen, I would still be doing most of that.
I think the question a lot of people have is: How is Fark still around?
Part of it has to do with being super conservative on the business side and not taking any super crazy chances. Two years ago most media sites started converting over to Facebook comments, and the theory was that trolls would be unwilling to be assholes if they had to use their real names. I disagreed. There are some people that are only going to be assholes if they’re anonymous, but if you get rid of them you’re just going to get people who don’t care if their name is attached to it. And that’s what happened.
So your strategy is to hang back?
My strategy is wait a year and see if people are still doing it. Fark is 100 percent owned by me and it’s self-funded, so even risks that I think are worth taking are sometimes not possible. But that’s what’s kept us around for the last 16 years. It’s also what’s stopped us from blowing the hell up like other companies.
What were some other risks you didn’t take?
Actually, I’m starting down the barrel of one right now. One of the things that would make sense but would cost a crap-ton of money is to do the exact same thing BuzzFeed did a few years ago and hire some writers. Im 95 percent sure that would work, but we’re still cranking along, so I’m not going to rock the boat.
Well it’s worked out pretty well for BuzzFeed.
Oh yeah. Before they made that change their traffic was half of ours, now they’e enormous. Clearly that was a good idea. But they also have venture capital and I don’t. The calculus there is is very different when I’m putting both my family and employees at risk when I try new things. Even if I know it’s right, I occasionally have to not do something.
On growth: a lot of publishers have grown rapidly because they’ve gotten huge on Facebook. But Facebook hasn’t always been the best ally.
I said the same thing about Google, which was more benevolent than Facebook. If you hand your engagement channel over to a third party, thats dangerous. Over 90 percent of our traffic is organic, which means that no third-party can come in and make a tweak and wipe out half our audience. Building an audience that way is a lot harder and a lot slower, it’s a lot safer. I’m thinking more longterm.
That’s basic business sense though: You don’t let one distribution channel control your entire business. Why do publishers fall for it?
It’s really easy to do, so people do it. One of the unique things about Fark is that I own all of it, and I’m not optimizing for money. I like money, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day I’m optimizing for my own happiness more than anything else. Companies where you have venture capital, the VC’s are demanding extreme growth. No one is saying to take 10 years to slowly build something so that a third-party can’t knock you out. It puts a lot of pressure on the companies.
On the other side you have the constant pressure to churn out more and more news, even if it isn’t actually “news.”
The problem that mainstream media outlets have had on the Web is that they’re like fruit stand owners that also sells snacks at the counter. When you look at the revenue split at the end of the month and you realize you’re really in the snacks business, what do you do?
But the fluffy stuff has always subsidized the real journalism. Advertisers want to be next to the style section, not torture coverage.
When I wrote my book seven years ago, “It’s Not News, It’s Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News“, I was disgusted by the fact that news media didn’t use the importance of a story as any kind of metric. But people told me later that the importance was never the metric. But if that’s the case, maybe nothing’s changed after all. Pre-digital, people would tell you what they only read the serious stuff in Newsweek, but you never really knew if that was true. No one was reading Playboy for the articles.
Back to Fark: A lot of the community has been using the site for over ten years. How do you get the site in front of more young people?
We’re starting to grab them. We’re doing something called the “Fark 2.0 initiative”, which is us trying to snag more kids over the next five years. We’re going to them and we’re asking, “what are we missing here, exactly?” I’m not going to pretend that, as a 41-year old guy that I understand anything relevant to a 20-year old, but maybe I’m close.