Exclusive interview: Fark founder Drew Curtis

Drew Curtis
Drew Curtis speaking later in the day at SXSWi

TechRadar recently caught up with Drew Curtis, founder of Fark.com, where he talked about new features coming to Fark and why Fark embraces its power users.

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.

Global Editor-in-Chief

After watching War Games and Tron more times that is healthy, Paul (Twitter, Google+) took his first steps online via a BBC Micro and acoustic coupler back in 1985, and has been finding excuses to spend the day online ever since. This includes roles editing .net magazine, launching the Official Windows Magazine, and now as Global EiC of TechRadar.