This past November, 20-year-old blog posts from a defunct webzine began circulating in an email newsletter, delighting a small faction of Gen-X writers, tech workers, and Web 1.0 aficionados. In a time of tell-all TinyLetters and targeted drip campaigns, it’s rare that people get excited about a newsletter, but this one was doing something different: quietly reissuing daily posts from a beloved relic of early web culture, an online publication called, simply, Suck.
Suck debuted on August 28, 1995, with a short essay on sensationalist news stories (a moral-panic feature in Time about cyberporn; the O.J. Simpson trial; the Courtney Love conspiracy theory), and a brief mission statement that declared the site “an experiment in provocation, mordant deconstructionism, and buzz-saw journalism.” Among digital-media pundits and amateur web historians, Suck is regularly credited as the progenitor of a certain style of Internet writing: fast-paced, snarky, and merrily irreverent; simultaneously condescending and self-deprecating. In its first few months, Suck offered commentary and criticism on popular culture, mainstream media, and technology: from the browser wars to TED conferences (“attendees sitting at the feet of would-be uberati, soaking up tips regarding the get-rich opportunities of the digital future”). The tone was something like the library-steps chatter of critical-theory students with Adderall scripts and 24-hour access to the microfiche room.
The site’s design was simple and straightforward: center-aligned black text winding down the white background of a single static web page, updated once every weekday. Unlike many other content-based sites in the early ‘90s, Suck didn’t have a front page or a login portal. At a time when hypertext was used formally (cf. print footnotes), Suck used it to comedic effect, often deploying tertiary links as punchlines—a sly, original humor that was grounded in a technical understanding of how the web was meant to work. (Subverting the web’s organizing principles is now part of online-writing’s DNA: The Awl editorializes in its tags and categories.) Suck quickly attracted more traffic than the clumsy web presences of major corporations or renowned publications.
Suck owed much of its originality to the cynical wit and insight of its co-creators, Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman, who existed both inside and outside of the cultures they criticized: tech, media, and the web. Steadman and Anuff both worked as developers for HotWired, a digital sibling of Wired magazine. Unlike many early web pundits, they knew their material, and knew that the Internet didn’t live up to the media hype. “I don’t know what it is about the Internet, but people start prophesizing all over the place,” Anuff told me over the phone. “Between Wired and HotWired, everywhere were people who took themselves seriously and were full of pronouncements.”
Anuff and Steadman determined that one of the best critiques of the web would be to simply build something better than what existed, and they developed Suck as an after-hours project. As the site rose in popularity, Steadman and Anuff managed to conceal their involvement from HotWired, despite the fact that Suck ran out of their employer’s server room. (“A lot of HotWired employees had cheap PCs running out of the server closet,” Anuff told me over email. “ [It] seemed like a meaningful office perk at the time.”) Three months in, anonymity blown, they sold the site to HotWired and turned Suck into a bonafide day job, with a robust freelance budget and a full-time staff.
The site’s employee roster was impressive: Ana Marie Cox, Tim Cavanaugh, and Owen Thomas all honed their skills at Suck. Also among the early employees was Heather Havrilesky, who wrote under the pseudonym Polly Esther. The moniker stuck: Havrilesky still writes a weekly column, “Ask Polly,” in which she dispenses compassionate, tough-love advice. “Ask Polly,” which originated at the Awl and is now run by New York Magazine’s The Cut, is so popular that it became the foundation of a forthcoming book, How to be a Person in the World.
By all accounts, Suck was a heady, exhilarating, frustrating place to work, in no small part due to the rigor and inexperience of its staff. “Reading Suck was like finding an eye rolling teenager with a Lit Theory degree at an IPO party and smoking clove cigarettes with him until you vomited all over your shoes,” Havrilesky wrote over email. “And working at Suck was like working for that teenager.”
The nostalgia that many feel for Suck is not the commodified early-web nostalgia frequently geared toward millennials—e.g. “15 Reasons We Miss The Internet Of The ’90s,” a piece of branded content on BuzzFeed, published in 2015 and paid for by Google U.K.—but something a little more soulful. As someone with no nostalgia for Web 1.0 (when Suck launched, I was 8 years old, learning how to touch-type with a cardboard box over my hands) my interest comes from a suspicion that Suck represents the web at its best, when an independent online publication could control its own narrative. Suck wasn’t trying to game its analytics, or optimize for anything, or bait-and-switch its readers for clicks. Even so, it quickly reached 10,000 daily readers, and boasted a budget large enough to pay contributing writers $1,000 per post. Reading it now, I’m struck not by nostalgia, but envy for the particular freedoms afforded to early online publications.
Suck emerged at a time when nobody—publishers, marketers, readers, or writers—really had any idea what they were doing on the web, or what the web would do for them. “Stumbling on this sly, skeptical voice in a sea of repurposed press releases was so refreshing,” Havrilesky wrote. It still is: These types of voices still exist on the Internet, but they are a minority and can be harder to surface, surrounded as they are by optimized, data-driven content.
In my email exchange with Steadman and Anuff, I asked about the viability of Suck—or something Suck-like—today. “Today’s media outlets are increasingly content mills by, of, and for social media,” Steadman wrote in response. There are upsides to the current web, of course: accessibility and diversity being just two of many. “You wouldn’t want a handful of white geeks defining online culture forever,” Havrilesky wrote. “Online culture would be pretty goddamn dull if it were still that monotone.” Still, Suck’s impossible resuscitation stands as a reminder of what online culture has lost.
Mark Macdonald, the 32-year-old developer at the helm of the “Suck, Again” newsletter, seems to have felt this loss acutely. For him, part of Suck’s appeal is its singular editorial vision. (Appropriately, Macdonald is building a website called Gazet, a platform for assembling and dispatching “hand-picked digests of stories and videos.”) Macdonald uncovered the site’s archive using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and his newsletter is copy-pasted verbatim from the original versions, including images and links. “Suck, Again” is neither monetized nor advertised; it has several thousand subscribers. “It lives or dies depending on whether people tell each other about it,” he said, but regardless of subscriber numbers he intends to send out the full archive—all 7 years of it.
Reading Suck highlighted, for me, the scarcity—and importance—of insightful, informed critical discourse about the tech industry. (Breathless tech press, on the other hand, we have in abundance.) Suck’s critiques of the tech industry—its products and constituents—continue to resonate. If Suck is any indication, culture—at least, tech culture; Internet culture—runs on a twenty-year clock. The first missive from “Suck, Again”—a Suck post from November 2, 1995—excoriated a winter issue of Spin, summing it up as such: “Every half-baked cybercraze from the past five years is regurgitated here as a shocking new breakthrough, from cryogenics, ayahuasca, and Extropianism to digital tattoos, e-cash, and Fruitopianism.”
That sounds a little like the recent buzz around cryonics, LSD microdosing, the Applied Rationality movement, networked implants, Bitcoin, and the Paleo diet: just some of this generation of Silicon Valley’s greatest hits. The post then moved into a condemnation of mainstream media homogeneity: “Word has it that this “Future of the Future” bandwagon has been seized by every two-bit culture rag on either coast,” it continued, “expect similar steaming loafs in your stocking this holiday season courtesy of Details, Esquire, et al.”
Suck could be crass and cruel, but it never snarked for the sake of snark itself. Its writers always punched up—or at the very least, punched horizontally. As the tech industry becomes increasingly fundamental to work, leisure, and identity, grappling with its ideology and outsize influence has become a social necessity—not just an avocation for and by insiders. Matt Buchanan and John Herrman, editors of The Awl, have written scathing critiques of the industry and its implications for the outside world. Model View Culture, a quarterly journal on technology and culture, regularly publishes critiques, many of which are written not by pundits but current tech workers. Anuff also cited repositories of user-generated content as Suck torch-carriers: “Stuff reminiscent of the earlier, web-wonkishness is lamentably less common, but still seems to exist in low-key abundance via Medium and Hacker News.” Still, these outlets are small, and generally rely on referrers—the social web—for traffic.
It’s unclear why there isn’t more space for Suck progeny these days. Maybe it’s the potential for backlash on social media, where venture capitalists and startup founders are trailed by dedicated sycophants. Maybe it’s just hard to churn out comprehensive critiques against the 24-hour news cycle. Maybe it has something to do with the ever-smudging line between media and technology, and a survivalist drive not to bite the hands that feed. Or maybe the audience for something like Suck has withered, as people grow more comfortable with technology. Maybe, at a time of rising sea levels and political uncertainty, the current generation of web devs and app-makers and tech consumers simply wants to be optimistic about technology’s promises for society, humanity, and the future—at least, that is, for the next 20 years.