Pulling an all-nighter with the Duke, Webster, and Strep Throat at Suck.com.
The Duke of URL won't sit still. He's up out of his seat, he's back down, and back up again, shoving his jet-black wedge cut around like a bad toupee. It's a performance worthy of an audience, but the SOMA offices of HotWired at this late weeknight hour are all but vacant. Pontificating one moment on the merits of the Web--"It feels better than TV. There's not the sense of wasting time that you feel on TV"--and decrying the new media's utter mediocrity the next, the Duke doesn't own a move that isn't mannered: flapping arms, cartoon scowls, rolling eyes, manic grins, and EX-ag-GER-at-ED IN-to-NA-tions that help make his emphatic points about the Web and technology and media. Points that are many, points that are opinionated, points that are subject to change, points that he formulates on the fly according to a personal scatologic that makes heavy reference to shit, dogshit, bullshit, shitters, and crappers.
But the Duke is only half of the story. When he slips out of the loft office that resembles an electronic sweatshop as much as it does the newsroom of the 21st century to cage a cigarette break in the stairwell, the floor is quickly assumed by Webster (aka Dunderhead), the Duke's boss, roommate, and partner in Suck (www.suck.com), the intermittently brilliant and consistently insolent Web site about the "Media Industrial Complex" that the two publish each weeknight in a 9 p.m.-to-dawn marathon.
Webster, unlike the Duke, is no candidate for a Ritalin skin patch, although he is slowly recovering from a college-era Derrida overdose. Surrounded by more computing power than was present at the creation--Silicon Graphics rigs and Power Macs and scary tendrils of networking cable--Webster switches the subject to Netscape's boy millionaire, Marc Andreessen, whom he wouldn't mind prosecuting in a Web Crimes Tribunal. Andreessen's sin, according to Webster, was to hijack the Web's HTML language when he was a student and jigger it to his own liking (pushing the IMG tag instead of the more inclusive tag that others advocated). What was Andreessen's hurry, Webster wants to know. The idealist of the Suck twosome, Webster fantasizes about a Web that is too cheap to meter, a perfect world in which browsers allow users to publish as well as view, making every man a creator of his own Lascaux paintings. The bifurcation of the Web into passive consumers and active commercial producers isn't unprecedented in the annals of media, he points out.
"It's like the Lumiere brothers, who wanted film technology to be a play and record system instead of the one-way playback system of Edison," Webster says.
Hovering nearby is Strep Throat, industry insider and part-time Suckster, who busies himself by flipping through Web pages that load instantaneously thanks to HotWired's T1 connection to the Net, and offers occasional qualifying remarks to the hyperboles of the Duke and Webster.
Soon, the Duke returns swilling a can of Coca-Cola as if it were life's very tonic and interrupts the proceedings after retrieving a salient if arcane piece of hate e-mail prompted by a recent Suck. He reads the e-mail out loud and throws his hands up in absolute glory.
"What do you want us to say? We suck! We admit it!"
Suck arrived fully grown (if not half-baked) on Aug. 28, 1995, establishing a punk formula of three chords and a cloud of dust, 1,000 words of vituperative text that excoriates the computer industry for its crimes (real and imagined), a few eye-gouging graphics (the Duke says that when in doubt, scan in genitalia), and those obligatory links to other sites.
"Every paragraph has a smartass comment and the GIF," says the Duke. The whole schmear is usually published by 9 a.m., so you can read it with your morning caffeine.
But what about the rise 'n' shine needs of Webheads in the Eastern time zone?
"Fuck the East Coast," says Webster.
The debut Suck came with this statement of purpose that proclaimed the Web site as "the last word on the net":
Shit makes great fertilizer, but it takes a farmer to turn it into a meal. With that thought in mind, we present Suck, an experiment in provocation, mordant deconstructionism, and buzz-saw journalism. Cathode-addled netsurfers flock to shallow waters--Suck is the dirty syringe, hidden in the sand. You wanted feedback? Cover your ears and watch your back ... it wants you too. But Suck is more than a media prank. Much more. At Suck, we abide by the principle which dictates that somebody will always position himself or herself to systematically harvest anything of value in this world for the sake of money, power and/or ego-fulfillment. We aim to be that somebody.Those somebodies with grand Web designs are Joey Anuff (the Duke), a 24-year-old who studied rhetoric at Berkeley and slummed his way through various computer production jobs before getting hired as a HotWired production assistant, and Carl "Webster" Steadman, HotWired's 25-year-old production director ("Please don't say production manager," Steadman implores), the co-author of two computer-related books from Addison-Wesley.
Hyping yourself as "the last word on the net" in 1995 is sort of like boasting that you're the captain of the AM airwaves in 1918: The stupidity of the net is so awesome that any drizzle rod with an AOL Web browser and a Beavis temperament can promote himself to a Web pundit. What makes the Sucksters' view panoramic is their intimate knowledge of the cyberama, their impeccable news sense, a grounded appreciation of Web-page design, a hankering for media manipulation, and a cynicism that burns hotter than a Pentium chip. And the boys can write, disproving for at least the moment that the Web is something to look at instead of something to read.
Ravenous to bite the hand that feeds them, the Sucksters deride HotWired and Wired ("the Microsoft of digital culture boosterism") every chance they get (although Webster insists the record shows that Suck is run off his equipment and they only work on their site after hours). In "How to Read Wired Magazine" (Oct. 6), Suck advises readers to take advantage of the publication's perfect binding by ripping out all full pages of ads: "Repeat at all occurrences of offending material. Negroponte is optional." Finish the job by purchasing a can of spray mount to fuse together all those offending two-page ads--"Well worth the $4 investment--one can is ammunition enough for a full year.
"Now behold the fruit of your righteous labor!" they write. "A much thinner, but far more readable package. Kudos to Wired for producing such an easily de-mutilated product!"
Cheap shots are integral to Suck--hence the site's motto: "a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun." But some of the shots are meant to kill. In the Sept. 8 edition of Suck, they rip the RealAudio proprietary sound file format as "an astronomically expensive bandwidth-throttling audio server priced way out of the range of the average webhead." On Sept. 29, they argue convincingly that Netscape's unspoken goal is to displace software giant Microsoft by leveraging its market-dominant browser into an "operating system" that will run applications across platforms. By Oct. 4, they're documenting Paul "Starwave" Allen's role as Bill Gate's proxy in a Web takeover.
Convinced of their own commercial potential (Webster is always talking about writing a Suck business plan), the boys petition Netscape in their Sept. 13 edition for inclusion in its "What's Cool" on the Web page. "We've elected to take it upon ourselves to be the rigorous and uncompromising critics--and occasionally court jesters--of this new, commercialized, consumer-driven online culture," the Sucksters soft-pedal. They might have won a "What's Cool" designation, too, which is worth tens of thousands of hits, if their pitch hadn't needled Netscape with an honest observation of conflict-of-interest: "What's Cool" is dominated by (surprise!) sites that use Netscape Communications and Commerce Servers, even though Netscape owns less than 10 percent of the server market.
If staying up most of the night to watch an edition of Suck come together is any indication of how the process works, we can assume that the Duke provides the fetid wit, Webster the chilling effect of technical clarity and vision, and Strep the worldly wisdom of a man who routinely hikes Silicon Valley (for this reason, he demands anonymity).
"Carl is an amazing editor. An excellent editor," says Joey, whose pseudonymous byline graces most Sucks. "And I usually leave the last paragraph to him to write."
Suck's appeal is better experienced than written about, though. Unlike "professional" Web sites like Starwave and HotWired that have hired newspaper and magazine editors who in turn have hired newspaper and magazine writers to create Web content that is largely indistinguishable from the product of their print forebears, Suck is untainted by the old recipes. This is Web content by the Web savvy for the Web enthusiast. It's hard to imagine its vitality translating to a zine or a TV show or the pages of an alternative weekly. That the Duke and Webster are launching such magnificent turds into the Web punch bowl in their spare time instead of working daylight hours on the "editorial" side of HotWired suggests that HotWired hasn't got its priorities straight.
By 4 a.m., the group hysteria caused by sleep deprivation and the higher cognition it induces are beginning to wear off. There is work to be done. Mindful that thousands of Web nerds await their daily fix of Suck, they prepare to hunker down to write the next edition. Exhausted but blood engorged with plans for the future, Webster gabs about his commercial scheme to parse Web hits into meaningful numbers for advertisers. And the Duke, every bit as vivacious as a Java animation, turns twitchy over his latest brainstorm: recruit supermarket tabloid star Ed Anger from the Weekly World News as a guest writer for Suck.
"Can't you see it?" the Duke fairly shouts. "Bits to bytes, I'm hopping mad! I have seen the future of digital media and I'm madder than a pig in a laundromat!"
(Reprinted from SF Weekly with permission.)