Everything you need to know about the web (or at least, the cooler parts of it) you can trace through the brilliant and now-defunct website Suck.com. While it’s most notable contributor has taken the smart-ass shtick to turn herself into a self-promoting gadfly , Suck’s most obvious (and in some cases unfortunate) claim to fame is the crazy idea that an opinionated website that’s updated daily could be successful. As a magazine whose glory days are behind it once wrote, the brilliance of Suck can also be found in the way it presented information.
Suck’s best hook all along — its most original contribution to Web culture — has been the style of hypertext link it pioneered. Suck’s writers use links not as informational resources or aids to site navigation but as a rhetorical device, a kind of subtextual shorthand.
A link from a Suck article, far from illustrating a point, more often than not undercuts it. A Suck link’s highlight is often a warning: Irony Ahead — do not take these words at face value. Feed’s Steven Johnson analyzes it in his new book, “Interface Culture,” as a kind of associative slang: “They buried their links mid-sentence, like riddles, like clues. You had to trek out after them to make the sentence cohere.”
Of course, why even bring up Suck.com today? Because this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the publication. In a time in which a site lasting three years seems remarkable, the concept of something on the web being a decade old seems practically foreign. So it isn’t really surprising to find out that the minds behind Suck were muthafuckin’ old school.
“I remember going out to lunch with [Wired executive editor] Kevin Kelly and [creative director] John Plunkett, which for me was of course incredibly exciting,” Anuff says. “At some point during that conversation, I suggested that there was no Mad magazine of the web, and it was not immediately batted down. I remember Kevin Kelly giving a nod, like, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting,’ and I thought, ‘Hey, I just had a really good idea.’” He took the idea to Steadman, who encouraged him to pursue it. “I remember telling Carl about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, we should do a Mad magazine. You should do it, and you should write it, Joey. You won’t have to go through Gary. They won’t edit your stuff.’”
Anuff considered himself a writer first, a web specialist second. His technical skills should have made him that much more qualified to write for the web. It was strange, then, that every time he submitted copy for publication, the criticism he received centered less on what he wrote than how he wrote it. “HotWired had this crazy policy where they didn’t allow tertiary links, is what they called it. A tertiary link was when you linked to something that wasn’t explicitly referred to in the text. If I said, ‘Proctor & Gamble have a policy against suffocating infants,’ and I linked on ‘suffocating infants’ to the policy page on Proctor & Gamble, and it said, ‘All our products are tested for the risk of infant suffocation, and we have a strict policy,’ that’s a primary link. If I linked ‘suffocating infants’ to Dave Winer’s column, that would be a tertiary link. That was, by policy, not allowed at HotWired.” It was absurd, with a medium so new and unexplored, to establish such rules regarding what was and was not allowed. The lack of established rules was what made the web fun.
And so was born one of the highlights of the early years of the world wide web. A rare specimen of that endangered species of commentary that’s both intellectually engaging and pants-shittingly hilarious. Like all great ideas, the realization that this Suck.com thing was an artistic success was quickly followed with the question “How do we use this to make lots and lots of money?”
Even if you’re unaware of the specifics, you know what happened next. IPO’s, trying to stay afloat using web advertising, layoffs, bubbles popping, blah, blah, blah…in short, Suck.com is dead, its obituary published on June 8th, 2001 in the form of a Q&A session that began with the question “Who said Suck is entitled to a vacation?” and ends with the promise that their vacation is as “real as the World Wide Web”. Well, I think the web is a lot more “real” now than it was in Suck’s day, but I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.