If you were of a certain age when the internet became an inextricable part of daily life, you probably posted a thing or two on Something Awful. Created by Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka in 1999, the site evolved from a cynical blog to a massive forum, irrevocably shaping online culture—for good and bad—along the way. The site looks a lot different now than it did in years past, though, thanks in part to the $10 fee that provides access to its forums, one designed specifically to keep out the bots and trolls. The goal is to ensure users only encounter (and peddle) lively conversation and, of course, plenty of gutting, good-natured snark.
That fee wasn’t enough to keep Something Awful out of the red, however. Earlier this month, Kyanka, who’s been running the site more or less solo for the last several years, was hit with more than $60,000 of medical debt on the same day the site’s bank account dipped into the negative. Something Awful was on the verge of shuttering, but, less than 24 hours later, it wasn’t. A Patreon associated with Kyanka’s side gigs became a touchpoint for Something Awful fans (a.k.a. “goons”), who disseminated it throughout every forum and social channel possible. Thousands were raised via the Patreon alone, while personal donations and merchandising sales went through the roof. Can you imagine doing that for Jack Dorsey?
“Something Awful is saved for a good while,” says a moderator using the screen name Bobbie Wickham, telling us that there’s “enough money through the Patreon alone to keep things going.”
“It’s universally agreed among the goons that the money needs to go to keeping the forums running, and paying off Lowtax’s medical debt,” she continues. “God only knows how long it’s been since the guy has turned a profit from the forums, and he’s long overdue. After all, SA is a business he’s owned and run for twenty years(!). He’s entitled.”
One could raise the question of why a dinosaur like Something Awful should stay active in these Extremely Online times. Who needs it when there’s Reddit, 4chan, and the breadth of social media? The moderators’ response speaks to many of the current issues plaguing the tech community, namely the question of what content moderation looks like in such a vast online culture, especially one awash in bad-faith actors. Following New Zealand’s Christchurch shooting last week, footage of the attack quickly spread to YouTube, Facebook, and other forums, resulting in desperate calls for tech companies to invest in moderation and acknowledge their role in facilitating radicalization. It’s easy to feel as if the internet has gotten away from us.
Something Awful obviously operates in a much smaller realm than the aforementioned hubs, but that’s part of its appeal. For the moderators we spoke to, the bot-defying entrance fee works alongside a culture of active and thoughtful moderation to prevent the rampant racism and misogyny pervading other online gathering places. There’s also Kyanka’s refusal to sell Something Awful, which, as Wickham puts it, has allowed it to “serve as a bastion against crazy right-wing internet trash.”
Hieronymous Alloy, another moderator with whom we spoke, echoes this sentiment. “Basically, the SA community is what the internet could be if it were intelligently and humanely moderated. Diverse, intelligent, balanced, detailed.”
“The political discussion forum is the best around, largely because most people here didn’t come here for the politics,” Alloy, the moderator of the Book Barn subforum, says. “They came for something else, not just to push a partisan agenda and, as a result of that, plus the $10 fee keeping out bots and trolls, the discussion is balanced and doesn’t generally fall into the same kinds of partisan tail chasing or circular firing squads you find in other discussion forums.”
Sure, those forums still look like the internet as it existed a decade ago, but that could change as well. “The forum is old and the coding is shot to hell; the dream is to eventually fix it for good and have a professional maintain it,” Wickham says. “Things have been chugging along okayish with the remnants of the volunteer team who built it, but it’s time to have someone contractually obligated to handle the site in exchange for money.”
Now, that’s actually a possibility, and you can help make it even more of one by donating to the Patreon here.