Saturday, December 1, 2007

Confessions of MisterX: From Suckramento to Rowdytown, a 5-year journey ends.

Back in September 2002, I decided to start a hobby project. I'd been into web development since the early days and I felt there was a scarcity of good 'community owned' local content out there for Sacramento. Sure, there were sites like the SacBee, CitySearch, and AOL - but nothing that had a really honest local flavor. I decided I would take a stab at getting a local community site built. I wanted it to be non-commercial and honest, as a place for locals to say what they think without having it filtered by advertiser or conservative interests. After a bit of searching for available domain names, I registered 'suckramento.com' on Sept 1, 2002. Sure, it was an edgy and somewhat distasteful name... but that was okay since I wanted the site to be different.

The name 'Suckramento' fit for a few reasons. I wanted the site to encourage honest and critical discussion of local issues. I wanted the name to stand out and be memorable. Since this was to be my first site without any plans layed out... I wanted it to be experimental and offbeat. The other reason the name fit is... well, a lot of people like to poke fun at Sacramento. Don't get me wrong - I'm a Sac native & love this town. However, we've got some problems. In 2002, I had an hour long commute to my corporate job from my suburban house in north sac. There wasn't much social activity for late 20's single guy in that neighborhood... so outside of studying for my MBA, working on this website gave me something to work on.

Building and running a website was an invaluable learning experience for me. Outside of learning some tricks like developing a user-registration system and other technical magic, dealing with marketing, administering, and policy were great challenges to face. It is a bittersweet experience. With every person who's grateful or eager to help you, there's someone complaining or hassling you.

The website was developed organically, piece by piece. First there was a 'suck list', where people just listed things that sucked about Sacramento and voted on them. That got the site some free publicity when Armstrong & Getty aired the site on their show (because their nemesis Mayor Heather Fargo was listed there). Eventually, the other features of the site came to make it more than a place for discussions - hangouts, events, and later bands & photos.

Back then when I was involved with the site... a few friends from work & people I met on the site thought it could work if there was collaboration on 'features'. Features were the headline stories on the front page of the site. While 'MisterX' (my alias running the site) was having fun writing them... I knew that wouldn't last forever & I wanted the site to run on user-generated content. I experimented with this by creating a Yahoo Group for people who wanted to collaborate on features and other parts of the site. One person in particular who joined (user cartmansays) proved to be a violent and disruptive individual. The telltale incident was the first (and last) party of his we dropped by... which ended in a drunken outburst of violence and property damage. I guess that's the drawback of a site called 'suckramento'... it attracts some extreme types of personalities. That dude didn't mesh with the 'webteam' vibe & after some disagreements about his submitted feature (which was his personal profanity-filled narrative about lightrail) he quit the group via email CC'ing 20 people I don't know (but they were probably users he'd met on the site). I ended up having to develop a pretty effective IP+cookie 'banning' technique as a result of all that... when that guy and his friends started harrassing me personally (posting my name, workplace, etc) on the site. I simply tell this story because it demonstrates an important lesson when running a site: keep your personal info private, and use a serious screening process before letting anonymous users into the inner circle.

The best part of running the site is having a platform for freedom and creativity. That's the beauty of being an alias like 'MisterX'. You can have fun with it. This meant features on local topics... for things that the Sac Bee was unlikely to cover like (Sac's famous serial killers).

Then there was "Suck-Squad", where we arranged harmless pranks in a flash mob style. Well, we only did it once but it got a blurb in the Bee (putting silly notes in clothes in the Downtown Plaza clothing stores).


Then there was She-Bay, another experiment done once (once was enough). It was humorous though. We found a local girl who we auctioned off for a date. Really, we just thought it'd be funny to do something called 'sheBay'. The girl wasn't that pleasant or easy to work with (understandable), so we didn't repeat that experiment.

Ah, then the Sac-Girls... this was one of the highlights of the site. The users seemed to like it, and it was fun to practice photography on aspiring models wearing a Suckramento.com spaghetthi strap top.

Like I mentioned... the drawback of running a 'irreverent' site like Suckramento.com is that you want to keep your name distanced from it. After all, it's for the community - you are just providing it so you don't need your name plastered on it right? When the site won a 2004 Dottie Award for best humorous local website, they called the name "Mister X" to come accept & present a speech. Part of me wonders if they granted the award to see who MisterX was, hehe. Being nominated got you free tickets, so my friend and I went for curiousity & the free food but left the award ceremony early when we realized our category was last. I was able to pick up the trophy later.

Unfortunately in the early days I hadn't learned the privacy lesson yet. Early on, R.E. Graswich posted my name in the Bee when he blurbed about the site. People at work ended up emailing around about it... and I partially suspect that it put me in a negative light to some of the more conservative old fogies managing there at Intel. Before that, Pera Davalos interviewed me for her Consumnes College newpaper to do a story on the site... which was a safer medium. Still, personal privacy was always my burden with Suckramento. Eventually, that is what caused me to change the name to Rowdytown (partially).

After I had changed jobs, moved downtown, and started spending less time on the site... someone at work went to training and met someone from my old job who knew me. He found out about the Suckramento, and after I asked him to please keep it on the down-low, I realized he was telling people. I said to myself 'That's it... time to change the name'. For a while, I'd been wondering what would happen if I made the site generic & let it be copied for other cities. Would it grow easily? I decided to change the name to Rowdytown.com so the less palatable 'suckramento' wouldn't keep haunting me at my new job (where I basically work FOR Sacramento) and also so I could test the waters on expansion. Well, I learned pretty quickly that sites don't get a kickstart without a lot of money or effort or both. I eventually shut-down the multi-town rowdytown experiment so in the end it was just Sacramento. I still think there is opportunity for sites like that... but it takes a devoted effort, which I was past by that point in my life. When you get into that franchise territory, you're just another joe schmoe so you lose the advantage of your local support. The big fish eat the little fish in that market.

So here we are. I look back fondly at the good times running Suckramento.com. I've sold the site to an interested party (although I look forward to helping & staying involved how I can). They are some bright guys creating a site of their own, and they remind me of myself a few years ago. Maybe suckramento will see some exciting new changes... but regardless, I'm letting my baby go to proud new parents. Since I didn't have time to devote it was only right to pass on the reigns. Will there be new projects for 'MisterX'? Possibly. In fact I have one in mind (should I find the time) but this one will be totally different: a technical service for developers (that's all I'll say for now). Sorry, no sac-girls.

5 comments:

Wendy said...

I will always be glad I discovered suckramento.com - because it's through that site that I found the dive bar connoisseurs, etc.

jason said...

I'm not exaggerating by saying this but Suckramento/Rowdytown changed my life.

christopher said...

Do you plan to give up the Rowdytown.com name. We currently have Rowdytown.net, which only points to our ebay store, but would like to have the .com name. My wife and I own Rowdytown kennels, which she has had for about 20 years. She is known worldwide by the rowdytown name. You can find it on google. Please let us know if interested.

Steve V said...

Um... Christopher - you didn't leave an email to reply to, but I sold the website (including the rowdytown.com domain).

You'll want to contact the new owners of suckramento.com. They aren't using rowdytown.com, but they probably still own the registration & might be able to transfer/sell it to you.

JT said...

What were some of the notes we put in pants n' stuff? I remember one was "Hey, I just partied in these pants and returned them the next day!" Can you remember any others?