“He [quickly] and generously agreed to provide initial funding and general start-up support for us,” Berkley told me, likening the financial relationship to a “very kind grant” that, even with Musk no longer in the picture, has gotten them to their launch. (So far they have gotten by on Musk’s original funding, but are looking for additional funding in the near future.)
Thud is a small operation: two founders, six writers, three designers, and two “tech whizzes.” In an email, Berkley confirmed that nine of the 13 staffers previously worked at The Onion, and the other four come from the advertising world.
Berkley and Bolton want to emphasize that Musk’s involvement leaves him with no creative control of the company. It’s an important clarification considering that last March, Musk joked that Thud was “the name of [his] new intergalactic media empire.” And Musk’s humor has repeatedly gotten him in trouble on Twitter.
Read: Elon Musk isn’t done tweeting yet
“Overall, our understanding of it … is he was excited about it,” Berkley said, claiming that Musk’s involvement is good-natured and innocuous. “He’s just a really big comedy fan, and saw this opportunity to help bring more of this comedy.” Bolton said his “armchair psychoanalysis” is that Musk “liked this idea and saw it as a public good in a way.”
“Accurate and entertaining satire is vital to a functioning democracy,” Musk told me on a phone call late Sunday night. “Unless it’s about me,” he joked.
Thud’s projects draw upon the straight-faced style of The Onion and its sister site, ClickHole—a parody of internet clickbait sites like Upworthy—but apply it to more immersive projects outside of phony newswriting. Thud’s creators say they want to create satirical “worlds” that people can explore for themselves.
For its first act, today Thud launched DNA Friend, a satirical version of at-home DNA-analysis services such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA. “It’s been kind of hard to avoid 23andMe and Ancestry over the past year and a half,” Bolton said. “People haven’t really paused to consider as much—at least a lot of the people who are doing it as a novelty—that they’re in fact handing over the most intimate information that there is about themselves: their genetic code. And handing that over to a for-profit company.”
“[DNA Friend is] an alternate world where some of the pictures are a little weird, where the testimonials are very weird, the technology is unbelievable,” Bolton said. “If you delve into these different pages, like the About Us page, you’ll see the people behind it, and you’ll see that there’s very explicit commentary about the kinds of things that people could do if they use all this genetic information that they’re compiling.”
DNA Friend already has Instagram and Twitter accounts set up. Additionally, a “spit truck” will appear at “Burning Man Worcester” on May 14. While the spit truck isn’t actually real (and hopefully Burning Man Worcester never will be), some of Thud’s projects and promotional efforts will exist in the physical world. Thud will release a book sometime next month, and the team has ideas for live events people can attend and entire stores they can explore, and from which they can purchase items. (The team says it has no plans to sell advertisements or branded content, so if it monetizes any of its work, it’ll be through ticket sales, retail, or e-commerce related to its work. Think of the Comedy Central show Nathan for You’s “Dumb Starbucks” or “Summit Ice” stores.)