21st: A giant sucking sound

The Web's "longest-running daily column" takes a paperback leap for bratty immortality -- and succeeds in killing off a few more trees.

Published October 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

On a good day, Suck -- the Web site whose symbols have always been a fish, a barrel and a smoking gun -- fastens its attention on some fishy pop-cult phenomenon and pulls its popgun trigger. Coherent arguments may be elusive, points of view murky, transitions inscrutable; but metaphors can build up a hypnotic momentum of their own if a writer sloshes them around long enough -- and by the time the dead fish has risen to the surface and started to stink, we've safely clicked away.

On a great day at Suck, though, the metaphors' queasy-making Brownian motion turns into something more orderly. The words magically assemble themselves into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into observations, observations into arguments -- and, darn it, before you know it the writer has actually said something.

There have been some good days and some great days in the two years plus that Suck has cranked out its daily commentaries. Everyone knows that two years on the Web is the equivalent of many lifetimes for higher life forms. Suck has grown older, more respectable and more restless; where are the barrels of yesteryear?

From its start as a labor of love by two Hotwired geeks, Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff, Suck was fierce, funny and mostly justified in its rants against the corporate media, the advertising biz and the technology industry, even as its writers' heads twitched with nervous reminders that, yeah, we're no better, we're only in it for a buck -- we suck, too. The Web always seemed the perfect platform for Suck's brand of shotgun satire. But apparently, pressure to bust loose from browser-window prison has been building at Suck for some time. Anuff talked with drooling relish about plans for print ("Suck's gotta be a juggernaut ... it's gotta hit every possible media outlet") in a Wired magazine profile that dates back over a year now.

It turns out, though, that "Suck: Worst-case Scenarios in Media, Culture, Advertising, and the Internet" (new from Wired Books -- the publishing house formerly known as Hardwired) can be called a book only by giving it the generous benefit of any number of doubts. It's more like a 150-page greatest-hits collection -- one where the stoned recording engineer fell asleep at the board, muddying the sound and blurring the catchiest hooks.

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."

Sometimes Suck's hypertextual cross-referencing can get positively baroque in its self-referentiality, at a depth that most readers would be happy never to plumb. In the Suck book, you'll find Ana Marie Cox's "Wiping the Slate Clean," marking the debut of Michael Kinsley's online magazine with some swipes at the "would-be Web toughs dog-piling on the new kid on the block." Borrowing the phrase "snottiness on autopilot" from a jab at Suck I'd written here in Salon, Cox turns it back on Salon, linking the words instead to Gary Kamiya's "chain saw" critique of Slate.

OK, so Suck has always had something of a Salon fixation -- but is this level of link-artistry communicating anything outside of the narrowest circles of Bay Area Web journalism? Critiquing the practice of posting hot-lists, one Anuff column jibes, "Each new iteration looked less like information evolution and more like the Talmud on Miracle Gro." "Talmudic" is a good word for the kind of devotion that decoding Suck's links can demand.

The Suck book doesn't make the mistake of trying to duplicate its trademark narrow-column, boldface text-snake design in print. The book does gamely try to mimic Suck's link-style on the page by connecting underlined words to Web addresses and marginal commentary -- and it's, well, a nice try. So the first thing to know about Suck's tome is that this is a rare instance of writing that actually loses something in the transition from screen to page. You can read the fully linked Suck online for free -- or pay $17.95 for the privilege of missing out on the prose's most distinctive quality. It's a new concept: value-subtracted repurposing.

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Any attempt to flog Suck for such blatant venality is immediately arrested by the Sucksters' own scars and stripes: At Suck, self-flagellation is habitual vice and high art. No publishing venture has so thoroughly inoculated itself in advance against charges of "sell-out" -- from the manifesto with which it launched in August 1995 ("... Somebody will always position himself or herself to systematically harvest anything of value for the sake of money, power, and/or ego-fulfillment. We aim to be that somebody.") to frequent self-descriptions along the lines of "self-indulgent hipsters in dire need of a spanking (and cash)" to the freshly minted introduction to this book, which concludes, "We're making the world safe for hypocrisy. Ours." Why throw one more dart at people who toss bull's-eyes at themselves with such alacrity and accuracy?

Because the game is itself a kind of dodge, that's why -- a clever wave of the hands to distract us from looking too closely at the trick being performed. Suck's Maginot Line of self-mockery recalls the critic Mark Crispin Miller's analysis of television's "preemptive, prophylactic irony": "TV preempts derision by itself evincing endless irony ... TV protects its ads from mockery by doing all the mocking, thereby posing as an ally to the incredulous spectator." Miller called this "the hipness unto death"; at Suck, where the self-derision is overt and self-conscious, this kind of hipness is well past rigor mortis, heading toward decomposition.

One way or another, most of Suck deploys this classic strategy of youth. Smart adolescents desperate to prove to the world that they're in-the-know -- nobody's pulling the wool over their eyes -- have always preferred the comfort of sarcasm to the self-exposure of choosing a belief and risking being proven wrong or feeling left out. This kind of insecure bravado has nonetheless regularly generated amusing tropes and critical insights in Suck's columns -- a sign that adolescence is a passing phase, whereas smarts have some staying power.

The book's selections from the Suck back catalog neglect the earliest days of the Web site, before Wired bought it out and added it to the Wired Digital stable, back when it was mostly just Steadman and Anuff riffing away under pseudonyms ("Webster" and "The Duke of URL"). That's too bad. There was a more casual wackiness to this ur-Suck -- a loose commentary on the fad of body piercing would wander amusingly into a strange digression on the revival of the codpiece, complete with link (still functional!) to the Codpiece Resurrection Society: "This fashion trend (chiefly popular amongst the sons of wealthy aristocrats -- people just like you) was the rage for no less than 200 years !!"

Suck got more formulaic over time, but there's still good, memorable stuff in the 32 essays collected between these covers. Suck's inventiveness often takes the form of a single twist of phrase jumping out from the dense, elusive syntax -- as with Steadman's conclusion about the launch of MSNBC: "It's no longer a matter of whether or not the revolution will be televised -- though there's some question as to its ability to make it past a V-chip. What remains most salient is that the television will not be revolutionized." Or Anuff's observation about Bob Dole's garbled attempt to recite a Web address during the '96 presidential debates: "At some moment between Dole's muttering of www and his failure to include the dot between dolekemp and org, the Web became conclusively, incontrovertibly lame."

Suck's creativity generally takes the form of intricate micro-handiwork; the essays are full of convoluted aphorisms and amusing neologisms (like the self-descriptive "parannoying" or the delightful "Eudoraphoria"). But it's when the writers gather their courage and sustain a conceit for the length of an essay that they really cook -- as in Paulina Borsook's meditation on Silicon Valley dating "dos" and "don'ts"; Michael Sippey's "Astral Theory of Rock," applying astrophysics to our mundane stars; the pseudonymous POP's genuinely outraged screed against start-up company exploitation, "Dining With Cannibals"; or Heather Havrilesky's taxonomy of personal e-mail.

There are some glaring omissions -- like no example of "Filler," the consistently amusing weekly collaboration between Havrilesky and Suck's artist, Terry Colon. "Filler" -- along with most of Colon's wonderfully goofy sketches and caricatures of his colleagues as hapless, no-neck monster-tots -- often reaches beyond Suck's pop-culture staples into more archetypal territory, giving the material more staying power. But much of what Suck trains its satire upon is ephemeral; it's difficult to get excited today about critiques of OK Cola and The Site, no matter how witty they are.

Suck has always resisted the notion that it is primarily a site for Web criticism, even though that's how it first achieved notoriety. Over time its editors have cut back on the Net commentary (though Anuff now writes a good, Suckish Net Surf column for Hotwired) in favor of jargon-laden, deconstructive assaults upon ad campaigns. No doubt they feel that, given the sheer volume of punditry out there, when it comes to the Internet, everything's been said already. And yet "it's all been said before" applies with even more definitive jadedness to the other targets -- the vacuity of TV, the machinations of Madison Avenue -- Suck now prefers. The Net, at least, is old scams in new bottles; with the more venerable media, everything turned to vinegar ages ago.

By putting its prime content on its home page and changing it every weekday, Suck taught the nascent Web industry a lesson in the values of simplicity and immediacy. (Then it forgot those lessons itself with Suck 2.0, an ill-thought-out effort to add a bunch of new departments to the site, most of which quickly disappeared.) Suck's founders inspired a legion of colleagues to launch their own sites (like Rewired, Stating the Obvious and Soundbitten); each has its own personality, but all owe their architecture to Suck.

For all the cynicism on the Sucksters' sleeves, their original "if you write it, they will come" approach was fundamentally idealistic -- that's what attracted the imitators and won them a following (otherwise, as everyone knows, "satire is what closes Saturday night"). On the other hand, their eagerness to sell out fast -- motivated by an understandable mix of greed and exhaustion -- won them press coverage but lost them some credibility. Sure, writers should get rewarded for their work, but it's a little unseemly to start an exciting new venture and then bail before it has fulfilled its promise (Steadman's been out of the picture for a long time now, and Anuff isn't involved in Suck's daily operations any more, either).The Web already has too many people looking for "exit strategies" and not enough committed to sites for the long haul.

Suck's buyout plainly wasn't a perfect getaway, anyway -- or we wouldn't be seeing such strange recrudescences of the Suck brand as this new book. It's hard to tell whether Wired sees the book as a way to drive traffic to the Web site or hopes the book's sales will help underwrite the Web site. Either way, somebody made a big miscalculation: Suck's viscous writing can only be downed by the sip, not guzzled by the six-pack.

Normally, I keep a book by my computer to help pass the time between Web-page downloads. Suck's book somehow managed to invert this relationship: Waiting for these writers' points to congeal, I found myself turning to the screen for relief, browsing CNet, The New York Times, Slate -- anything for a breath of forthrightness and clarity. Reading Suck once a day is a pleasure for many on the Web. But 32 Suck columns in one volume is just too many dead fish in one barrel.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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