June 13, 2001

Dumb money: On Suck's demise

Author: JT Smith

- By Joab Jackson -

Cyberpunk -

So, constant negation doesn't make for a good long-term business model.
Tell me something I don't know.

Suck, that once-legendary
online lode of cynical commentary, has gone on hiatus, and so has Feed, another e-zine under
the umbrella of the Automatic Media group, which has run out of money and ceased
operations
. For the past six years, Suck had been serving up fresh
blasts of opinion five days a week while its staff looked for a way to
make a profit. The search was unsuccessful, and last week Automatic pulled
the plug
. According to the site itself, the hiatus is temporary one, but don't
hold your breath waiting for Suck's return.

When I first wrote about Suck way back in the spring of 1996, the
site's founders, Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman, had just sold it to Wired
Ventures, which provided sufficient scratch for a seven-member staff. I was
amazed at how quickly Anuff and Steadman had sold off their good thing. I mean,
geez, at least rock stars, cartoonists, filmmakers, and the like usually do a
little hand-wringing over "selling out" before rushing off to the limo
dealership to inquire about the hot tub package. It took less than a
year for these two Web wiseacres to start feeding from the hands they bit.

This eagerness to cash out seemed at odds with Suck's core commodity:
genuine, almost nihilistic loathing, as served up via the then-menacing
medium of a freewheeling Web zine. Suck's sharp daily jabs punctured
the overinflated Internet ballyhoo. What concerned me was that the trouble
with such raw vitriol is that they just don't make for a sustainable revenue
stream. Artists who milk their outrage for the retirement benefits
either end up becoming toothless parodies of themselves (Alice Cooper, Hunter
S. Thompson, and Marilyn Manson spring to mind) or collapsing under the
weight of all the bad will they bring down on themselves (Creem
magazine, the Sex Pistols, Abbie Hoffman, Bill Hicks).

Certainly, Suck wouldn't have lasted as long as it did without the kind
of financial backing Wired provided. But the question is, what did it gain
by sticking around? Anuff and Steadman might have been better remembered
if they had packed it in five years ago and left Suck's mystique to do the
heavy lifting. Its reputation might have swelled to mythic proportions,
like that of Might, the small, mid-'90s San Francisco magazine
co-founded by future literary star Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of
Staggering Genius
) that died after a handful of supposedly brilliant issues.
Arguably, the existence of Eggers' book, if not its popularity, owes a
good bit to Might's glowing cultural reputation, a reputation fanned
by its very scarcity. Also arguably, McSweeney's,
Eggers' current periodical endeavor, does not glimmer with anything approaching
the angelic aura that surrounds the memory of Might. After all, it's still
being published.

To be fair, in its last few months Suck was as good as it ever was.
Along with the justifiably talked-about musings on the pathetically lovelorn by
Polly Esther (aka Heather Havrilesky), a Suck writer would occasionally
cough up the most brilliant essay you'd read that week. Cartoonist
Peter Bagge's illustrated story on the gentrification of Seattle's waterside
watering holes ("Tavern
Turnover"
was one of the funniest, most insightful things I've read
anywhere this year.

But as far as cultural legacy goes, Suck's drawn-out existence left it
neither here nor there. It got too tamed to be considered a genuine
underground phenomenon on the order of, say, Seanbaby.com, MetaFilter, or Robot Frank. But I doubt
it will be given much more than bottom-rung status in the rundown of the
great failures of the Net's first literary age, well below the nearly deadSalon, the
starting-to-wane Onion, and maybe even the read-it-while-you-still-can Ironminds.

The worst insult of all was how Suck died -- or, more precisely, was put
to death. Suck always claimed to be above the industry hubbub it so
mocked, but to have its demise coolly executed as a business necessity
exposed that pretense for what it was. Whatever Suck set out to be, it ended up
as just another unprofitable venture.

One of the most heartless if amusing commentaries on Suck's demise came
from the indie zine I contribute to: Pigdog
Journal
. In "Don't
Let the Cyberdoor Hit You in the Cyberass on the Way Out"
, Pigdog
editor "Mr. Bad" asserts that Suck was never an honest-to-god free-for-all Web
zine at all, but a "little corporate loss-leader lapdog that continually bit
its owners and shat on the Chippendales. . . .

"It doesn't matter how much you call yourself a 'Web zine' ...
because when the market is down, Master is gonna put you in a Hefty bag and
throw you out by the side of some country road," Mr. Bad continues,
stretching out the lapdog metaphor. "At night, when the feral curs come to chew
through the plastic, think they're freeing you so you can be their little buddy and
join the gang? Think again, Alpo. I mean, FIFI."

How's that for rampant negativity?

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