Web Masters Episode #20: Drew Curtis

In 1999, Drew Curtis launched a humor website called Fark. In 2021, it’s still one of the most popular communities online. Hear how Drew and Fark have managed to survive two-plus decades on the Internet in the new episode of Web Masters. Listen now on:


FARK.com: Frequently Asked Questions: Legal Stuff

Aaron Dinin:

It’s been over 20 years. I can’t believe not only that the site still exists, but that the community is still going so strong.

Drew Curtis:

Me neither actually. Yeah. I get that a lot actually. It’s really funny because it really is like that lost horseshoe crab species. To give you an example of how odd we are. That’s not even optimized for SEO because that wasn’t a thing when we started. So we didn’t even do that. That’s how old it is. I think I counted that we’ve survived something on the order of five or six extinction-level events in the ecosphere of the internet. And we’re just still cranking along basically. That’s really kind of funny how that works.

Aaron Dinin:

And why do you think that is? Why do people keep sticking around your old online community when they got so many options from the big social media platforms?

Drew Curtis:

One of the problems with algorithmically generated content is you can only tweak the hippocampus so much before it stops working or it gets annoying. And I’ve been running little weird tests trying to run targeted advertising out on the internet to get mostly people who used to read the site to come back. And what’s interesting is, is that people who left just kind of wandered off. Nobody who just said, “Okay. Screw it. I’m never coming back.” They got a promotion or whatever. And when they come back, they’re like, “Oh, my God. This is what it used to be like and it’s still like that. How do you do it?” It’s because I’m not using psychologically driven data to burrow into your brain and mimic heroin. That’s why it is not like Facebook.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s right. There was a time on the internet, on the websites, hosting online communities didn’t use psychologically driven data to burrow into your brain and mimic the addictiveness of heroin. Seems quaint huh? Well, it turns out you can still experience what that was like because one of those sites is still up and running and it still has a thriving, active, passionate community. That site is Fark.com. And the man you just heard talking about it is Fark’s creator and primary moderator, Drew Curtis. Are you ready to hear this story? Let’s get dialed in?

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to another episode of Web Masters. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University and this podcast is my guilty pleasure. It gives me an excuse to talk with the entrepreneurs who have built some of the world’s most successful and impactful internet businesses and their stories are always fascinating. That’s true of the person we’re going to hear from in this episode, except unlike a lot of the people we talk to here on the show, this particular entrepreneur is still doing what he started back before the turn of the millennium. He is Drew Curtis, founder of Fark.com. Fark, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a community news website where it’s dedicated and passionate members submit interesting, funny, weird, or sometimes grow test links throughout the day. And it’s moderators, spearheaded by Drew himself, approve roughly 100 of them that get publicly displayed to the site. It was launched all the way back in 1999 and it’s become something of an unkillable anachronism in relation to the modern web, because, as Drew explains, he built his audience during a time before modern marketing practices took hold.

Drew Curtis:

Well, I mean, part of the reason why though is because if you’re not relying on SEO or search or social … I mean, all our traffic is organic. There’s not really much that can wipe you out. Not all at once anyway. I mean, if people stop using the actual web. Okay. Maybe. But so far so good.

Aaron Dinin:

In other words, the only thing that’ll kill off Fark.com is something that kills off the entire worldwide web. And if that happens, we’ve all probably got bigger problems to deal with. But for now, Fark is still here. That means the web is still here. And so long as the web is still here, it means it’s worth me taking a moment to tell you about this podcast’s sponsor

This podcast about the history of businesses on the web wouldn’t be possible without the support of our sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that specializes in helping people buy and sell their profitable internet based businesses. That includes large community websites like Fark.com. It also includes things like e-commerce stores, Amazon FBAs, SAS apps, domain portfolios, and pretty much any other online work from anywhere type of business. If you’ve got one of those and you’re thinking about selling it, be sure to contact the team at Latona’s. They’d been helping business owners, just like you, sell their digital assets for a long time now. They can definitely help you get a great price for yours. Alternately, if you’re interested in purchasing an internet business, be sure to check out the Latona’s website, latonas.com, where you’ll be able to see listings for all the businesses they’re currently helping sell. Again, that’s Latonas, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com. All right.

So, on this episode, we’re going to time travel or get about as close to it as you can on the web because we’re going to explore how Drew Curtis built Fark.com back in 1999 and see how he’s still running it pretty much the same way today, which is, you’re going to hear, is a bit different than how other big online communities are currently operated. Just as importantly as you’re also going to hear, Drew makes a case for why his model is maybe a little better. A lot of that comes from how he got started on the internet and his first experiences with online communities.

Drew Curtis:

I did not grow up well off. My parents couldn’t afford a computer. So I didn’t have one when I was a kid and I was a freshman in college in 1991 and I needed a computer for college. Somebody sold me their third hand IBM Pcjr, I think it was, that had a giant hole in the front of it because they took the hard drive out because it was a 10 Mega hard drive or something really valuable at the time. So this thing’s got a big gaping hole in the front of it, but it did have a little crappy ass 1200 baud modem on it. And I had gone home for Christmas during break that freshman year and friends of mine were dialing up BBSs and that seemed kind of fun.

And I was like, “Oh, okay. That’d be really neat.” And I had heard that there were some in the town I was going to college in, but the problem was I was going to college at Luther College in a town called Decorah, Iowa. Population five or something. I mean, it’s bigger than that. There’s a few thousand people, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. It might as well be on Mars.

Aaron Dinin:

Decorah, Iowa, isn’t quite Mars, but it’s definitely a small town in rural Iowa with a population of around 8,000. Luther College is a small, private liberal arts college with about 2300 students. When Drew returned after the winter break with a newfound passion for online message boards, BBSs, he immediately wanted to figure out how to access them while at school.

Drew Curtis:

So I went back and I went down to the computer lab and I was asking around and I was like, “Do you guys know of any local BBSs?” And they’re like, “Oh, here you go.” And they gave me a dial-in number and a log-in account on the mainframe. And I was like, “Okay. Great. So the college runs one there.” “No. No. You wanted an internet account, right?” And I’m like, “I guess.” Thinking that maybe it was the same thing or whatever. And then I log in and I got a prompt and I’m like, “What the hell do I do with this?” So I had to go back down and ask them.

Aaron Dinin:

And so what’d you do online once you finally figured out how to use the internet?

Drew Curtis:

So there wasn’t much to do at the time, but I found a friend of mine was doing the same thing and I discovered text-based games at that point. So I just started dicking around then decided, “Well, I should take a comp psych class because maybe that’s interesting.” And then I liked it and that eventually became my major. So I was on the internet in 1991. And here’s a great story for you. So this is pre-web, right? So in late 1992, there wasn’t much going on, but there was a board called ISHKA which was at University of Iowa, I think, or Iowa State. I can’t remember. I think it was University of Iowa. And it was basically just like usenet, but sort of their own usenet and people would get on there and talk about whatever.

And I remember getting into a conversation with people where I’d found the games and I’d found the discussions and I was like, “Okay. So what else is there?” And I remember talking to a couple of guys in a room and they’re like, “Yeah. I think that’s it.” And I’m like, “Really? That’s it?” And they’re like, “No. That’s it. We can’t think of anything else.” “So there’s nothing else fun to do on the internet?” They’re like, “Nope.” And remember this is pre-web. So they were right as it turned out, but then the web came along and I was like, “Okay. Well, that’s kind of fancy. I might keep an eye on this.”

Aaron Dinin:

That was a good guess. That web thing was definitely going places. And so what’d you do to keep an eye on it?

Drew Curtis:

I spent my junior year at the University of Nottingham, in England, working on virtual reality back when it was running off of the Silicon graphics machines. And this was funny too, because what happened was I did an independent project cause they had VR and I was like, “This is great.” But it was all single user VR, and I’m like, “Well, this is stupid.” Clearly the net is going to be virtual reality at some point, right? And we’re still waiting. So I told them that my independent project was is I wanted to take their single user VR program and network them together and make a multi-user VR system. And they’re like, “Sure.” So what happened was is I produced it in the spring and they were like, “Holy shit.” “What?” “This doesn’t exist?” “What do you mean it doesn’t exist?” And well it turned out that the toolkit I was using released into their next drop, but they didn’t think I could build it.

And if they told me I couldn’t, I probably would have given up and not tried, but I actually did what eventually everybody did, which was, I figured, “Well, you can’t pass moving graphics files streaming through the internet back and forth. That’d be dumb.” But you could pass coordinates and vectors and velocity information, and that’s only eight to 10 numbers. And all of a sudden you … As long as the individual computers are rendering on their own, this thing moved there, which is basically how everybody does it by the way.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So you’re inventing new protocols for VR in England as a junior in college. How did that get you to starting a business on the internet in Kentucky?

Drew Curtis:

It was pretty clear that the internet was going to be a thing, and what happened was it took a weird path so I came back home from college in 1995 and I got a job working for state government in Frankfort, Kentucky. I lived in Lexington, Kentucky. They’re in different area codes. And the reason why that mattered was because I found out … I didn’t live in Frankfurt, but I worked there and I found out there was no dial up internet access in that town of 40,000 people. And a friend of mine is like, “You and I ought to start one?” I was like, “Yeah. Okay. Sure.” I didn’t know how to do the server management, but he did. So luckily [inaudible 00:09:59] was dumb enough to give me a … He’s a gold card. $5,000 worth of credit on it. So I basically bought the first servers and the first modems with that. We set it up. So I started an ISP and did that for several years. Fark overlapped and the ISP went from 96 to 2002. And Fark started in 1999.

Aaron Dinin:

I didn’t realize your first venture wasn’t Fark. It was an ISP. So how did Fark fit into all of that?

Drew Curtis:

Yeah. So at the time what was happening was I was still in touch with some people in Nottingham and I’m basically doing my morning reads every day. And occasionally I’m coming across weird articles, which I have to tell people, and especially college students now, and I’ve had to mention this for the last 10 years is that it used to be hard to find weird news because that wasn’t what everybody was doing unlike now where it’s almost it’s the zeitgeist every day, but … So it was really unusual when you came across something like that. And so I was emailing it to people, but by the late ’90s I was starting to suspect that people were getting annoyed by that because they weren’t telling me. They were all, “Thanks for the email.” Or whatever. And I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to put this on a website. And then that way I’m not bothering you guys. “

And so I started basically hand coding links. And you can see what that looks like if you go back in our archives because we’ve changed the site over the years, but we have not changed the archives. So they are as they were when we started. It’s literally just me editing straight HTML and dumping a link on their head using notepad. About a year later Slashdot had comments and we didn’t. I needed some practice coding databases anyway. So I just started dicking around with it. And that’s where the comments came from.

Aaron Dinin:

So you’re describing yourself in relation to Slashdot, which would have started, I think a couple of years before Fark, right? And it was getting pretty big by 99 to 2000. I assume that means you also must have had a pretty decent sized community by then too, right? Which is why you’re kind of comparing yourself in that Slashdot vein. So I guess my question is how’d you get there? How’d you grow the community?

Drew Curtis:

Well, so they started telling other people and I think part of it too at the time was what websites do you go to; was a question people asked each other. Somebody asked me the other day, “What apps do you use regularly?” And I realized nobody’s asked me that in five years. And that’s apps. And we would see bursts in traffic in September and January in the early years pretty specifically because people were going back to college and changing all their classes and sharing that information. The other place we got a bunch of traffic from, and it was slowly over time, was because I had the bandwidth to do it, they started having me on one of the early tech TV shows called The Screen Savers every Friday. And they would basically say, “So what did you see this week?”

And I did a little segment with them every week for two or three years probably. And what I noticed was interesting was is that our traffic would tick up slightly every week I did it. And then any week that I missed, it wouldn’t tick up slightly. I think what would happen was people would see me for the 20th time and go, “Okay. Fine. I’ll go check this out.” But it was very slow organic growth because it was impossible to go viral back in those days unless you were an email attachment somehow.

Aaron Dinin:

It sounds you had slow and steady growth for a long time. When did you decide to turn what was, I guess, basically a side project into your primary business?

Drew Curtis:

What happened was is that … So 9/11 hits. And at this point, although I didn’t know it in that fall, that ISP was starting to crumble. DSL had come out and BellSouth, the local phone company, had kind of stacked the deck. They made it pretty much impossible to compete with them. And they’ll argue that they didn’t, but that’s bullshit. They totally did. And we were slowly but surely getting ground under. And basically I was an optimist and I was also 26. So I was like, “I’d never seen this before. Well, this will turn around. No big deal.” Or whatever. And we just kept on going. But I’ll never forget. It was sometime right around September or October of 2001. It was right after 9/11. WorldCom went bankrupt out of nowhere. We had been essentially borrowing money from them. Now I didn’t realize I was doing this, but BellSouth didn’t really care that we were racking up a six figure phone bill and we were running one month behind, and then two months behind until WorldCom went bankrupt on a Friday.

BellSouth called on Monday and said, “Pay it all now.” And that was the beginning of the end. They said, “We will shut you off in 24 hours.” And I don’t have $100,000 sitting around. We had to scramble. Coughed up a check. They kept us on, but, of course, that meant we didn’t pay $100,000 to somebody else in the aggregate. And, then, at that point, I’m just basically screwing one guy or the other guy. I mean, we’re not out of the money. We’re just slow walking everything until it’s pretty clear the following spring that we’re not going to make it. And so we had a buyout option from a local ISP in Louisville. And said they would be more than happy to buy our assets, customer base, and take care of the debt. And that I could just walk away from it. And so I took that deal. Basically they bought it for the debt. They were like, “We’ll take the debt on. You can leave.”

And I was like, “That’s probably the best deal I’m going to see.” So we closed the doors right at the end of March in 2002. Took a couple of weeks off because that was tough, but then Fark is still kicking around. And I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll make it go with this.”

Aaron Dinin:

But it wasn’t making any money, right?

Drew Curtis:

So, yeah. Advertising sucked. I didn’t really have any income other than I had a couple of side projects that we’re working on. So finally I realized that right around 2002 basically I was going to have to come up with a subscription model for this. And so I did. And within short order enough people signed up right when we launched it to where we had $10,000 in revenue a month. And that was enough to basically keep my lights on, pay Fark’s bills, and then that’s kind of how the ball got rolling.

Aaron Dinin:

And why didn’t advertising work for you as a business model back then?

Drew Curtis:

It was impossible. There was some really bargain basement crappy stuff. The model hadn’t been invented yet. Google AdSense didn’t start until 2005. And even then that sucked, but it was pretty clear that advertising was going to be a thing at some point. But the problem was is I didn’t realize how long. And so I was like, “Well, the only other option we got is subscriptions.” And so I wrote a subscription algorithm and we fired it up and that’s what became TotalFark, which incidentally also eventually became Reddit gold because I consulted with them when they launched their subscription product. They’re like, “How’d you do it?” I was like, “Let me tell you.” I gave them everything because why not?

Aaron Dinin:

As you heard, Drew described TotalFark, which was Fark’s subscription model, and it ultimately became the foundation for Reddit’s subscription model. In fact, a lot of what Reddit and other news aggregators and social content share communities ultimately became, are, at least in some ways, descended from Fark. That’s not all. According to Drew, lots of the content we see in here about across mainstream news and media might actually be coming directly from Fark.

Drew Curtis:

We’ve kind of had this weird problem where we are everybody’s secret source, especially in journalism for finding news articles and whatever and/or comedy. And for some reason, people are extremely reluctant to talk about where they find their humor. Patton Oswald wrote a really good article about it, where he was openly discussing with himself about why he catches himself, not on stage situations because it’s not cool, but in group situations passing up somebody’s joke is his own. And, in fact, if you’re not a comedian, you do it all the time as it turns out constantly. At the end of the day it’s really funny because people won’t source their comedy. So that makes it hard for people to mention us because … I mean, the people who read our site would blow your mind. I can reach out to any digital media organization. Everybody knows who I am.

And then if I go next door to the coffee shop, nobody will know who I am. And it’s not a complaint. It’s just an oddity basically. And then I can see where everybody’s coming from. Journalism traffic to our site is only five or 10% of all of our traffic. And it’s people looking for stuff to write about. And we never get mentioned, which is fine I guess because you can mention us all the time, but that’s literally the thing that keeps us going. So it’d be nice if they could do it once in a while.

Aaron Dinin:

What Drew is pointing to here is the thing that’s become the fundamental paradox of Fark in the current digital age. Fark began as an outlier by aggregating humorous, sensationalized, and entertaining news stories. It was a place people would go to see something outside the mainstream that might give them a good laugh or, in some cases, trigger the gag reflex. However, in the 20 plus years since it was launched, Drew has seen an uncomfortable shift in the media landscape that’s brought traditional news reporting in line with what Fark presented as satire in comedy.

Drew Curtis:

What happens is the entire news cycle is instead turned into what we do, which is really weird. Not to say that there are wasting your time all the time, but most of the time they’re wasting your time. The guys that have done the least movement on moving into the bizarro news space is NPR, and they will still do two stories every morning when I listen to the Morning Edition. I’m not saying they’re getting them off of Fark. I don’t know where they got them from, but we’ve always had them. So that’s the least amount of movement anybody’s done. And it also sounds they’re not trying hard enough because they could totally put more bullshit in there. I think they’re just too busy doing real news, but it’s hard to fathom how far the news cycle has shifted towards just useless, silly crap. It blows my mind. That said, it is what everybody likes.

The analogy I used to use was imagine you run a vegetable stand and you have the rack of chips next to the cash register. Then when you’re doing inventory you find out that the most profitable item and the most high dollar volume item you’ve got is the chips, do you stay a vegetable stand? So at the end of the day, what do you do? Do you want to try to do serious news or you just want to lie for profits? Well, some people will choose lie for profit. Makes a lot of money. I don’t blame them.

Aaron Dinin:

Drew says he doesn’t blame them, but based on my conversation with him, I’m pretty sure that’s not true. In fact, it seems like a big part of why Fark still exists is because Drew is very devoted to remaining an independent publisher and not “selling out” based on his own self-interest. In fact, as you’d probably expect, over the years he’s had opportunities to sell Fark and has turned them all down.

Drew Curtis:

I had one that got all the way up to the stage of “sign here and you get a check” right around 2012, but it was coming from Demand Media, which was in that E-how ecosystem of “Let’s just do long tail SEO” back when that worked. Demand Media at the time was public. And this would have been 2011. What happened is that I became convinced through the process of the negotiation that they were going to buy this and neglect it. And I didn’t want that to happen. So I didn’t sell.

Aaron Dinin:

You see that’s crazy to me because pretty much every entrepreneur I’ve ever met would have certainly sold by this point, but you keep running the site day in and day out. How do you do that? Isn’t it a ton of work? Have you just been manually reviewing link submissions for 20 plus years?

Drew Curtis:

So, and I learned some really interesting trick in business school, and this was not remotely the most important thing they taught, but that was news to me, part of the reason there’s a lot of outsourcing to Asia isn’t just because it’s cheaper. Because in many cases it’s not anymore, but it’s because that it’s in a part of the time zone where you can run a third shift on a first shift basis. So what I do is basically I got up at eight o’clock. I take a look at what’s been submitted overnight. I pick the stuff and basically hit it every once in a while throughout the day till about four o’clock in the afternoon. And then I throw it to a girl who lives on the West Coast and who’s a night owl and she takes it the rest of the way up until the late at night, her night, and then I’ve got another guy who picks it up who lives in Berlin that gets it when he wakes up in the morning and he runs it during his day shift.

And then I pick it up from him right after. So we run it 24 hours a day by essentially facing where people live on the planet. I could do 200 articles in about 10 minutes and that usually takes about an hour and a half to two hours to stack up. But it’s user submitted and it’s kind of an even split. 50% of it is submitted by a prolific bunch who are amazing writers. And then the other 50% is by people that are just taking a shot because they saw something funny or weird. And then usually what I’ll do is I’ll take the tagline. And a lot of times I don’t change it. Sometimes there’s a better joke. Sometimes there’s a little twist. So I’ll edit it a little bit sometimes, but that’s pretty much what I’m doing all day long.

Aaron Dinin:

But what if you get sick?

Drew Curtis:

I can run it from my bed. I wrote an app on my phone. So I can literally do it upside down. If I’m in a car, I can do it if I’m not driving. Yeah. I can do it pretty much everywhere. So, I mean, I haven’t been sick enough to get taken out for a day or two, but the nice thing is if there is ever a day where I’m like, “Oh, crap. I’m totally hoes.” Then I can hit everybody else up because there’s a different couple of people that will take it on weekends. And somebody’s around. Basically is what it boils down to. Worst case of like, “Oh, God. I have the worst hangover of my entire life this week.” Usually somebody can grab it because I can brute force most of the heavy lifting from my bed as long as I’m awake. So unless I’m unconscious, I’m fine.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, I love the idea of that. For 20 plus years there’s been a hugely popular website out there and it’s continued operating smoothly because the founder has remained mostly conscious.

Drew Curtis:

You know what’s different for me? It’s the weird thing. So I’ve actually taken extended periods off in the past. Not months and months or whatever, but when I was in business school sometimes those days would get pretty hectic. So I pull one of the other day guys in, or for a lark I ran for governor of Kentucky in 2015 just to see what that was like. And that was a lot of work. And so there were some days where I couldn’t run it. During 2015, I discovered it. When I don’t run the site, I don’t know anything. And that was a really interesting discovery to make. I mean, first of all, I don’t mind it. Literally I’ve monetized that hour everybody spends when they get to work and they just dick around reading what happened last night. Well, that’s what running Fark is. Okay.

Here’s a bunch of stuff people send in. You’re like reading Twitter and just poking the ones you liked. That’s straight up what it is. And everybody kind of does that anyway or a lot of people do. So it’s fun. The additional bonus is I know literally everything that’s going on as a result. And it doesn’t take 100% of my time. When I get up at 8:00 and I hit it hard I’m usually not done until 9:00 due to just random stuff going on. But after that, I can walk away for a couple hours and go do whatever.

Aaron Dinin:

But still, doesn’t managing that everyday get kind of exhausting?

Drew Curtis:

So my wife busted me a long time ago. I used to get asked the question, “How much work do you spend on the site every week?” And I told people half an hour and she got really angry one day at me. And she said, “Look, just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s not work.” So work I don’t like to do, yeah, it’s about half an hour a week. Work I like to do 70-80 probably, but it’s no big deal. It is exactly identical to doom scrolling for everybody else. I just monetize it.

Aaron Dinin:

So, speaking of monetization, you said you couldn’t get ads to work in the beginning because there weren’t good ad based business models back then, has that changed by now?

Drew Curtis:

So I did subscription in the early day because that was the thing that I thought was going to get us to win. It seemed like eventually the ad market was going to mature, and we’d be able to make a crap ton of money off of that. And what’s been really weird is for one reason or another, we’ve never really figured it out. Monetization of ads on our site just doesn’t work. We don’t know why. And it doesn’t really matter. After 20 years, I’ve pretty much decided it’s not going to change. And the other thing we discovered is is that what advertisers are willing to pay people or pay us to deliver ads to you is much less than you’re willing to pay to not see them ever. So we have a no ads, $5 a month thing. And most people are like, “Hell yeah. Okay. Fine. We’ll do that.” Well, we don’t make anything near $5 a month off of anybody on an ads basis at all. Even our most significant power users, we don’t.

Aaron Dinin:

Do think ads still have potential long-term or is it pretty certain that the model at this point is subscriptions?

Drew Curtis:

What I realized was initially when we started subscriptions the idea was to get us as far as when ads would actually pay decent money. And that never happened. And then it didn’t happen again after the second extinction event. And it didn’t happen again after the third extinction event. We always had a subscription piece, but we never really pushed it because that’s not really where I wanted to go because I thought the better money was in advertising. And now what I’m realizing after this time is like, “Okay. We’re 20 years in. It ain’t going to happen.” Pretty clearly subscription is the only path forward because you don’t need that many people to sign up for it to run the site. If 1% of our audience pays we’d been making more money than we ever have on a revenue basis in the history of the company.

And that is something I have control over. So that’s a decision that we’ve kind of come to here recently. And we kind of tried to thread the needle on it, but basically I think I’m moving towards a footing of, “I’m going to try to get rid of ads at some point.” We can’t do it right now because it sucks but it’s not insubstantial. So I can’t say no to it, but if it gets a lot lower, I can totally turn that off. So we’ll just see where it goes, but that’s been sort of the basic thing. Is there isn’t a way to make money in this business. So you just do what you got to do.

Aaron Dinin:

Do what you got to do is pretty much the mantra of how Fark has survived all these years. Drew has had television partnerships and partnerships with traditional media like USA Today, and he even published a book in 2007 called It’s Not News, it’s Fark: How Mass media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News. But my favorite story about his strategies for making money came from what I asked him about how the site got its name.

Drew Curtis:

Yeah. So it’s basically just another euphemism for the F bomb. And, in fact, that’s actually a joke that was carried over from one of the text-based video games I played. They didn’t let you swear either. They had a filter that would come in and change all the cuss words to something else. It would change the F bomb to Fark. And this was before I had the domain. I got the domain in 97 because it seemed like a domain to have.

Aaron Dinin:

And is that why Fark is known for not allowing profanity in the comments?

Drew Curtis:

I just thought that was funny and we kept it. Somebody suggested, and I don’t remember who it was, that maybe we should have a swear jar because once in a while you might want to drop an F bomb. And I love this idea because this reminded me. Have you ever seen Michael Che on SNL talking about how he contractually wrote into his contract that he can use the n word three times a year on SNL? So every once in a while I’ll do it. And it’s so funny because he always mentions that he’s like, “I can only say it three times. I’m about to use one. That’s how strongly I feel about this.” Somebody pointed out that, “Well, what if we had a swear jar?” Because you just got to drop it F bomb once in a while. So we’re actually going to do it. Where essentially we haven’t figured out how much it’s going to go because we’ve started having little tokens we’re calling farks to give because you don’t want to run out of farks to give obviously, right?

So the idea is you can basically spend one of those and you could drop two F bombs or something. And what’s funny is I told people who would be kind of inclined to use it. I was like, “Could you sort of mentally keep track off and you might pull the trigger on it.” And they’re once a week easy. And I was like, “Well, alrighty then.” I mean, because the best part about it was what if you could cuss, but it actually stood out. The reason why we don’t allow cussing is we want you to be more creative. Well, what if it’s like, “You want to know how bad I wanted to drop an F bomb here? I paid five bucks to do it.” So that’s an excellent coming along and it looks like people actually are kind of enthusiastic about it.

Aaron Dinin:

You have heard it on the Web Masters Podcast first. Profanity coming soon to Fark.com and a digital swear jar is going to be the new monetization strategy that takes the internet by storm. But, more seriously, as you can tell from what Drew has shared so far, one of the most unique aspects of Fark is its quirky community, and it’s a community that probably doesn’t look how you’d expect.

Drew Curtis:

So I’ve dug in on the demographics and it’s really interesting. They skew is slightly older because we haven’t been picking up that many new people lately because the social networks have been sucking up all the air in the room. I’m hoping to get back to it at some point because my kids are almost old enough to take over and I’m actually going to rely on them to see what we can do about that, but other than that, demographically, this always shocks people, slightly more women than men. Most people think it’s 90-10 men to women. It’s not. The other one. It’s really funny because we were looking at the demographics and this is what the demographics say, and I’ve got my own opinion about those, everybody on this side breaks into two camps financially. They are either dirt poor or in the upper bracket. And I don’t mean upper upper class.

But I mean everybody’s doing really well or not at all. Now I do know a lot of people who are not doing that well, but also there’s the possibility that these people are taking steps to cover their tracks and they’re not trying to show up in the system. For example, our ad block usage is 65% of the audience uses ad block, which indicates that they’re all really smart.

Aaron Dinin:

For context here, the most recent data estimates said around 25% of internet users use some form of ad blocking technology. So 65% is definitely high. For what it’s worth, it might also explain why Drew has so much trouble monetizing his advertising.

Drew Curtis:

They’re smarter than the average bear. Most people are an expert in something which is kind of a shocker. And I don’t know how that happened exactly. You want the answer to any obscure question, just pop onto our subscription site and ask it and boom, somebody will tell you. Usually multiple people will jump on and tell you, but yeah, so demographically, other than the weird skew in earnings and there being slightly more women, it’s all over the map. It doesn’t actually make sense, but internationally, it’s also unusual. It’s about 85% United States and about 10% Canadian. And then the rest of it is mostly British and then hardly any traffic from anywhere else. And I think the reason for that is because we’re humor based and humor is very cultural. My parents don’t understand British humor at all, and that’s not that far removed.

Canadian humor is sort of in between British and American humor. It’s kind of this weird hybrid. So I think we actually mostly represent Canadian humor more or anything else. I’m not Canadian. I’m just saying that’s probably the style. And after that I talked to some people from Japan. They read the site they just don’t get it because the Japanese are more literal. And if you’re literal, and you read Fark, it’s not going to make any sense at all.

Aaron Dinin:

Do you have any sense of why the community has developed the way it has? Was it intentional or just kind of ad hoc?

Drew Curtis:

Yeah. We were kind of winging it for a while, but what happens is, is eventually I think there’s a lot of my personality in it and I’m not exactly sure how the transfer occurred. But one of the things that I always enjoyed about living in England was, is pub culture. And it’s not the drinking actually. It’s the fact that you can leave your house, walk across the street, go into a pub and have an entirely different group of friends over there hanging out in the communal living room. I actually had a group of friends that we met. There were locals. I used to hang out with all the time. And it was funny because they were super diverse. In fact, the only bond was, is everybody lived within walking distance of that place, but because of that and because of this sort of unspoken rule that we’re not going to hate each other, even though none of us thinks the same. We can do this.

And that was basically sort of the rule on Fark, which was essentially you’re allowed to have different ideas. You’re not allowed to hate somebody for it. And somebody suggested a house party analogy for Fark. Our basic rule set was this is a party at my house. I’m glad everybody’s here. I’m glad everybody’s having a good time. I don’t need you guys to talk to me necessarily. You can hang out in the living room with your own friend group and do whatever, but the minute you start taking a dump on the floor or telling me that the music sucks or criticizing the food or the decor, then I’m throwing you out. And you can go have the first amendment free speech on the street. So as long as you treat it like that, you can stick around. Our bar for banning people is very high. It’s actually very difficult to get banned off our site, but some people manage it. And usually they’re crazy.

Aaron Dinin:

Why do you think the internet is so good at turning people into trolls?

Drew Curtis:

I don’t think it turns people into it. I think that there’s always been that proportion of the population that are like that. And we just didn’t know it.

Aaron Dinin:

How do you deal with those types of people?

Drew Curtis:

Yeah. Well, it took getting rid of the actual true assholes because you can’t have people that would have conflicts like that, and then in bad faith cut you in the back. Our general rule was whatever you’re doing, if you’re running people off of the site you’re gone. It doesn’t matter what it is. Even if it’s completely within some rules that you think we have. What was really interesting was, is when we dropped that misogyny ban in 2013, that got rid of an entire cadre of guys that were riding the line for years and they couldn’t not cross that line, which was an amazing insight into what the assholes these guys really were. Think about that. It’s not hard to not be misogynistic. These guys were doing it on purpose consistently and we’re not willing to stop. And then these were people that when we got rid of them, we had lots of other women who came back saying, “These guys drove us off the site.” And I was like, “Oh, my God. I’m sorry. We totally fell down on the job there.”

Aaron Dinin:

It sounds like your philosophy at Fark is to protect your community above just about everything else. Is that a fair assessment and maybe even a reason why the community has remained so devoted for so long?

Drew Curtis:

It’s always been about protecting other people. And there’s a lot of decisions that I made along the way, because when we started out we were just us and a few other little screw sites out there. But eventually others came along and did things where I was like, “I don’t know that I like …” Well, here’s one specific thing we decided to do; was making it impossible to stalk people across Fark. You can’t do it. Whereas Reddit coded it into the actual system. And I don’t know whether or not they realize it or not, but we had complaints from women saying they were getting harassed. I don’t know what happened on Reddit’s end, but they don’t apparently have a problem with it because you can still do it. But that just seemed unsafe. We don’t want people stalking and we don’t want people chasing people away.

Drew Curtis:

So we made it so you could come across people, but you can’t find where they are right now. You can’t find where they were yesterday. You can’t read anything that they’ve actually ever posted before unless they show you where it is or you find it by accident because that kind of behavior was starting to cause problems on those sites. And we don’t want any part of it. So we’ve made a bunch of decisions to basically keep people safe along the way. Decisions that no other site made. And, in fact, if you wanted to take away a lesson from the first decade of the web, that is, if you leave Nazis and racists and assholes on a site, you will become enormous. You will become huge. Whereas if you don’t, you sort of whittle away people who are just going to go gravitate towards those things.

And here’s the deal. I don’t feel bad about the way it went down, but to give you an example of how weird it has been for me in the last couple of years, so we’ve banned misogynistic speech in 2013. Facebook banned racism this year. What the actual (beep) is wrong with these guys. You’ve got to be kidding me, but here’s the reason why. I guarantee you they’ll take a look at it and they’re like, “Oh, God. We’re going to lose so much traffic.” I mean, that’s the only calculus or they’re oblivious. It’s one of the two. I can’t figure out which it is.

Aaron Dinin:

I think we all just heard the fundamental difference between Fark and its social media peers. The person at the top decides what to prioritize. Is it money or is it something else? That decision ultimately shapes the community. So if you really want to understand who Drew Curtis is, or really any person leading a social media platform, then take a look at the community that person has built.

Drew Curtis:

This is a community that’s full of people who are not exactly assholes but they don’t take crap from anybody. I mean, they say what they think and they tangle each other a lot, but it turns out if you tangle with somebody and then you later on decide you’re going to let that be water under the bridge in a way that I think is not happening on social media right now … Right now, basically, if somebody says something you don’t agree with, you’re just going to unfriend them and lock them off and then you’re going to go back into your reality distortion field bubble that you’ve set up through the algorithm or whatever and never talk to anyone who disagrees with you. But the way it used to work, back in the day, was is you would disagree with somebody.

It’d almost come to blows and then make up and decide, “Okay. We’re fine.” There comes to a point where you learn to disagree with people and respect them. And we have a 20 year track record of people who have been around for, in many cases, five or 10 years doing this. And I think it creates a stronger bond.

Aaron Dinin:

The strong bond at the Fark community that’s lasted over 20 years is pretty sure a testament to the man who built it, Drew Curtis. If you enjoyed his story, and I suppose this is one of the rare instances on Web Masters when I can say, “Go be a part of that community.” Because unlike a lot of the businesses we explore here on the podcast, Fark.com still exists and it’s not too different than what it was back when it launched in 1999. Just remember, don’t be an asshole. I’d like to thank Drew Curtis for taking the time to talk with us. In addition to hanging out with him on Fark.com, you can follow him on Twitter. He’s @DrewCurtis. This podcast is on Twitter too. We’re @WebMastersPod. Feel free to message us there with any thoughts or feedback you have about the show. And I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. Also be sure to check out my articles on medium.com, where I publish lots of content about entrepreneurship startups in internet businesses.

You can find everything just by searching my name. Thanks to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for everything he does to make these episodes sound good even when the recording qualities I hand him might not be so great. Thanks for our sponsor Latona’s. If you’re in the market to buy or sell a cashflow positive internet business, be sure to check out latonas.com. And remember, if you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe on your podcasting app of choice, leave us a nice review and tell everyone because, well, just like Fark’s longevity is a by-product of its community, ours is too. The more people who listen, the longer we’ll keep creating new episodes. And that starts, of course, with the next episode we’ll be releasing in just a few days, but for now, well, it’s time for me to sign off.