BY BILLY HYLTON
People in Russia, England, South Africa, Japan, and New Zealand are fans of his, yet he is unknown in the Bluegrass – his home.
The Lexington native and Lafayette High School grad, now a resident of Versailles, is name-dropped at parties in Silicon Valley. He chills in New York City with people who operate web sites that you enjoy. He consults for Wired magazine.
All thanks to a web site that originally sported nothing but a picture of a well-endowed squirrel.
Shift magazine (a major web-culture publication) ranked Drew tenth out of the web’s twenty-five top personalities, but he and his buddies can hang out once-a-week at T.G.I.-Friday’s in Hamburg Place without being recognized.
The magazine gushes that Drew will be, “world-famous. Or at least web-famous.” It even finds him more fetching than some of the digerati elite, like Napster’s Shawn Fanning, Matt Drudge, and even gadfly Michael Moore.
Drew thinks he may have been spotted once at Slone’s Market, but adds, “I was probably just full of crap.”
Fark.com’s roots go back to the early 90s when Drew would substitute the word ‘fark’ for a naughtier F-word while online chatting and gaming. The word stuck around, and in 1997 he registered the domain www.fark.com. Meanwhile, Drew frequently emailed offbeat news stories to his friends and eventually realized it would be simpler to publish hyperlinks to the stories on his new web site-so the squirrel had to go (at least from the homepage).
Fark.com evolved into a collaborative project. Not only did Drew and his buddies, Jeff Foster and Phil Bowens, post wacky stories, but like-minded folks in the US and around the world contributed as well. It is now a continuously-updated clearinghouse for stories of bizarre phenomena, questionable human behavior, and pop-culture esoterica.
In 2001 Fark.com received an astonishing thirty million page views, a number wildly out of reach to all but a handful of web sites. The site jokes that at its current rate of growth, by the end of 2002 “there will be more people reading Fark than will be alive on the planet at that time.”
Hitting the mainstream
Furthermore, his creation has enlisted an army of participants known as “farkers.” All kinds of people are into this, not just Internet-obsessed fanatics.
Kurt Schneider, an honorably discharged ex-soldier, is a good example of the widely varying perspectives found from the bunch. The libertarian’s interests include: mountain biking, action pistol shooting, acting, restoring a 1970 International Scout, and full-contact martial arts. “I have yet to find a satisfying answer to the difference between Fascism and Communism,” he admits.
A few high-profile farkers include Wil Wheaton of Stand By Me and Star Trek fame, and the original American badass, Mojo Nixon.
Farkers are so dedicated they throw “fark parties” in various cities around the country, such as FarkFest2002 in New Orleans. In fact, there are parties this month in Denver and Buffalo. A message board keeps everyone coordinated. Teriaki, a California-based farker, recently tried to secure travel arrangements: Hey everyone-I am looking to share a shuttle or taxi to the hotel for New Orleans. I land at 4:45-Southwest from Phoenix – anyone gonna be there around that time? ”
How to Fark
The website is very simple. Story headlines include a rectangular icon that hints at the submitter’s feelings about the subject matter. The graphic might say, “Amusing,” “Strange,” or “Ironic.”
To the right of the headline is a hyperlinked number indicating the amount of reader comments. For example, the headline, “National Slacker Day poll shows that Brits pretty much slack off everyday,” (graphic says “Obvious”) may have fifty farkers discussing the story, inserting links and pictures, and teasing their comrades across the pond. Or, the conversation could meander into unrelated territory, such as U.S. immigration policy.
Farkers also have “photoshop contests.” To the uninitiated, Adobe Photoshop is an image-editing tool. But in Farkistan, “photoshopping” is the modification of an image-no matter what editing tool is used. For example, a contest instructing participants to “photoshop these goobs at a renaissance festival” may result in over a hundred hilariously doctored images. The gang then votes for the best revisions.
Although the site can feel cluttered with so many links and story headlines, its lo-fi design is refreshing. Absent are excessive Flash animations, dynamic roll-over menus, futuristic typefaces, and annoying pop-up ads.
“I do believe its simple design and navigation have a lot to do with it,” says Monica. “It’s very easy to read an article, go to the comments session, see a statement you do or don’t like, and then comment on the article or other comments.”
R.M. Summers, a Louisville farker agrees, “It brings the web’s full range of offerings to one place. Many sites imitate this, kinda like CNN, MSNBC, but fark does it in a simpler manner. Sometimes simple and neat is the way to go, ya know?”
And then there are the odd “farkisms,” such as the inclusion of “French Surrender” in all headlines pertaining to war.
Perceptive readers will recognize this as homage paid to the wickedly funny satire rag, The Onion. The theme repeatedly appears in World War II-era pages in Our Dumb Century: The Onion Presents 100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest News Source.
Another cherished farkism is site mascot, Cliché Kitty. “All of a sudden everyone was commenting on a photoshop posting of this cat,” remembers Monica Ovalle, a senior at the University of Texas-Austin. Farkers were then “posting pictures of their cats and photoshopping the kitty into every photoshop contest that came along.” She insists that a fark party is incomplete without reference to the esteemed cat.
Sure, wacky news stories and goofy images are amusing, but how does a site like this get such a vast and devoted following?
Drew maintains that Fark.com’s success is a reaction to the never-ending torrent of horrific “real” news.
“We don’t want to hear about murders or assaults, we want to hear about how Alice Cooper is putting on a play at his kids’ school or how Kentucky State Troopers have been setting up roadblocks to give candy to people not wearing their seat belts.”
Also, Fark.com joins a squad of content sites that have a highly democratic structure. Its “users” are empowered to affect the site’s ultimate value. After all, farkers submit story ideas and are then responsible for the discussion that follows. Less interesting material results in half-hearted conversation. The casual reader depends on farkers’ involvement for a quality product. Similarly structured sites include Slashdot.org (“News for Nerds”), Indymedia.org (leftist/anarchist activism), and Metafilter.com (hodgepodge of news and commentary).
Andrea, a farkette who works at an ad firm, claims that the collaborative spirit is a draw, “It points to the enormous potential for interactive media by allowing users to control the content instead of being fed what others deem important,” she says. “This creates a sense of community and ownership.”
But Fark.com may owe some of its success to something other than its straightforward layout and communal vibe: boobies.
Indeed, occasionally sandwiched between news headlines will be information about a Sports Illustrated model, for example. The familiar icon reads, “Boobies.” Thoughtful submitters will indicate its “safe for work” status.
Drew concedes that boobies are his one political statement: “I have a real problem with the fact that it’s no problem at all to put several hundred murders in TV shows in prime time, but God forbid you put a nipple on TV, because that’s offensive,” he asserts. “What the hell is wrong with us?”
Even more outrageous is the fact that Drew is such a major figure in web circles, yet he remains so approachable and down-to-earth. He seems unaware of his celebrity. Drinking beer with his buddies, playing soccer, and working at his Internet Service Provider, DCR.NET, occupy much of his time.
But he has perspective on what stardom might be like, “I’ve been talking with Wil Wheaton a lot lately because he hangs out some on Fark.com,” Drew says. “He’s got the opposite problem-everyone recognizes him when he goes outI feel like I’m kind of lucky in the sense that you’ve got all the really cool stuff that comes with people knowing who you are, with none of the drawbacks like people always stopping you.”
But you sense that if Drew were to get stopped by a passerby, he would just prefer not to talk about himself. Maybe he would say how much he enjoys traveling and meeting other farkers (“everyone without exception has been cool”), or recommend that you check out other cool sites like www.somethingawful.com. Chances are that he would laugh a lot and soon have you cracking up.
The Lafayette High School graduate is content to continue presiding over Fark World Headquarters in Versailles. “I’m definitely going to stay in Kentucky,” he assures. “I lived in England for a year. Every British person’s dream is to live in a house out in the country. Around here that’s an affordable goal.”
Though some farkers are curious as to why Drew hasn’t bid farewell to the Horse Capital of the World for greener pastures, it’s easy to see the appeal, “My house backs up to Lane’s End Farm. In the springtime, I can sit out on the back porch and see for about a mile-and-a-half.”
Blogs (web logs)
In addition to the Shift recognition, Drew recently nabbed Best Political Blog at the Bloggies, a publicly-chosen award.
Drew was surprised, “I don’t think of Fark as being a weblog or political for that matter.”
Unlike yesterday’s vanity sites, blogs (short for “web logs”) tend to be smarter and feature personal commentary, photos, or just random quips that the blogger felt inclined to publish. Ego gratification? You betcha. Wordy pseudo-intellectual ranting? Yup. Interesting ideas and compelling observations overlooked by mainstream media? That too.
“I think people have a myriad of reasons to blog: support, community, ego, etc.,” says Jim Bishop. “I keep mine for three reasons: 1. Keeps me from having to talk to certain members of my family very often. They feel as if they know what I’m up to, that we’ve ‘kept in contact.’ Although this is false, it keeps me from feeling guilty about not calling my Aunt Myra. 2. I need a place to unload every once and a while. 3. I learn new coding tricks doing stuff on my website.”
Blogger.com, a site that offers free blogging capabilities, describes their service as, “Push-Button Publishing For the People.” The technology allows users to access a web form, enter text, and then push a “submit” button. The entry is then instantly published to the blogger’s web site. No HTML coding or web development experience is necessary.
Most bloggers link to their friends’ sites resulting in a networked community. But there is debate over whether a genuine “community” is created.
“There are different theories of what constitutes community,” explains T. Andrew Finn, an associate professor in the College of Communications at George Mason University in Virginia. “One side of the coin is that these things, in theory, attract a more diverse group of people than our physical communities. They could be argued to build democracy by giving a voice to people that ordinarily could not reach such a broad audience.”
On the other hand, some contend that virtual communities are a fantasy. They don’t have the same limitations and face-to-face challenges of our physical networks.
What isn’t debatable is blogging’s popularity. The trend is arguably the hottest thing on the web right now. And unlike B2B (business-to-business) e-commerce schemes, they will carry on even without gobs of venture capital.