Thursday, November 22, 2012

Five Questions: Rob Sterling

Kenn Thomas of interviewed Rob Sterling of for an upcoming book about the history of conspiracy cyberculture.  Here's the results...

1. What was the original inspiration for The Konformist?

Pot.  Lots and lots of pot.

I was also a big fan of Spy Magazine and Mondo 2000 in the early 90s, and had gotten into The Realist after reading Paul Krassner's Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut.  I also read Jon Vankin's Conspiracies, Cover-Ups and Crimes in 1992 after reading about it in Mondo and the LA Times.  I was pretty sold on conspiracy theories after that.

Then in 1995, I started seeing all this conspiracy culture on the web: Brian Redman's Conspiracy Nation, Steamshovel Press, Feral House & Vankin & John Whalen's  Here was all this mind-blowing information, and the ability to disseminate it to the masses was suddenly quite plausible.

And that's when it hit me: conspiracy culture was going to become the next big thing, and the Internet was going to be the medium.  So the plan was simple: I would use the Internet to create a quasi-magazine called The Konformist that would present this information with a sense of humor, like Krassner, Spy & Mondo had done before.  The bigger plan was to replicate Orson Welles: he used a new media technology (radio with War of the Worlds) so he could enter the field of motion pictures, his true art-form love like mine.  I released the first Konformist on April Fools Day in 1996, then pretty much went near daily in November after the Clinton reelection.  It got a huge following almost immediately.

I think to quite some degree, I was successful in leading a cultural movement to the masses with The Konformist.  Sadly, I have yet to make a Citizen Kane.

2. How wedded was it to Internet technology at first?

It's kind of funny, while I was so right on so many things (like anticipating the conspire cyberculture) I was also quite limited in my thinking on others.  Like the plan for The Konformist was that it would be a magazine, and by magazine I mean an actual magazine with pages made out of paper.  I didn't have the money for that, but the theory was the Internet version of The Konformist was going to be a practice version of the real thing when I got funding.  It was only after I was into it for over a year that I realized the Internet Konformist WAS the real thing.

Cut to 2012, and Newsweek is soon to die, and the future of mags appears to be paperless, as mainstream mags like Salon & Slate have been pointing to for over a decade.  My guess is we will soon be at the tipping point where nearly all magazines receive over half their readership between tablets and PCs rather than paper, if we aren't already there.  I didn't see that far ahead.

Anyway, a lot of how The Konformist developed was in an almost accidental style.  At first it was delivered by email: I'd see people's email addresses on bulletin boards or Websites and if I thought it would interest them, I would add them to my list.  Technically, I suppose you could call what I did spamming, but hey, you break eggs to make an omelet.  (Jay-Z sold crack.)  Then in 1998 (again on April Fools Day) I opened, and that became a center of special articles.  Later in 1998 I joined eGroups (later Yahoo Groups) and that became the way to distribute Konformist to people by email, now that I was pseudo-legit and had long stopped fishing for readers.  I was actually quite late to the Blog game in 2007, which is a shame, because Blogs are easily the most efficient way to distribute information on the Web at a centralized location.

I think one benefit I had was I wasn't part of the school paper in high school or college.  My thing was always writing fiction, not non-fiction, which is why I still write like a storyteller and not a journalist.  But since I didn't have any uptight loyalty to printed journalism, I was able to embrace things easier.

I may rib on him a lot, but Matt Drudge had a similar evolution with The Drudge Report as I did, and probably for the same reason.  We both didn't really know what the hell we were doing but we knew what worked.  As a side note, one of the earliest mainstream news article (written by the entertaining conservative Jim Pinkerton) that mentioned Drudge also listed The Konformist as a top Internet news source.  Drudge has gotten a bit more news coverage than me since, though.

3. How did you decide what to put in it (i.e, based on the importance of the scandal or the insight of the writer?)

Through the early years especially, the content of The Konformist was very much supply-side dominated.  This was the nature of the beast, as The Konformist literally was ground zero for conspiracy theory through the early 2000s.  If you had a conspiracy theory, and you wanted people to read it, it had to be in The Konformist.  So there was a lot of writers who sent me their stuff, and they were among the best of the cyberculture: Acharya S, Jaye Beldo, Greg Bishop, Barry Chamish, Alex Constantine, Stan Gates, Ian Goddard, Adam Gorightly, Ace Hoffman, David Hoffman, Kathy Kasten, Robert Lederman, SMiles Lewis, Jim Martin, Dave McGowan, John Quinn, Jon Rappoport and Kenn Thomas, among others.

I think besides the supply, the philosophy I had at the time was: "What you are hearing from the establishment is bullshit.  Here's something else."  So if some writing questioned the official version of things, I was heavily inclined to include it.

The last part of the original recipe was my own editorial style.  Like I mentioned, one great source of influence was Spy Magazine.  Of course, aside from a good sense of humor, I have little in common with with those snobby, Ivy-league pricks.  If I was trying to replicate Spy, I failed miserably.  But in a similar vein, when The Ramones started, they were actually trying to sound like The Bay City Rollers.  They failed miserably at that, too.  But somehow, I think having a running undercurrent of humor in The Konformist like there was in Spy (and, in a more similar way to The Konformist, Mondo 2000 and The Realist) was one of the things that really helped make it more digestible.

4. How has that process changed over the years?

Well, one major change is The Konformist no longer is ground zero in the conspiracy game.  The truth hurts sometimes, but that's the truth.

I would say the three sites that dominate the conspiracy cyberculture now are, Alex Jones' and  And I salute them all.  And I think the main reason why they have succeeded (and I don't say this to diminish the quality of their content) is that they all had the best business plan.  Jeff Rense has a radio show with advertising, Alex Jones has a radio show with advertising, and Disinfo, even without their marketing maestro Richard Metzger, is an excellent book-DVD-etc. media producer.  To quote Al Pacino in the unfairly maligned Godfather III: "I don't need tough guys. I need more lawyers."  I focused on content, and I should've developed a business plan, or at least something that vaguely resembled one.  Because in the end, you can only run on tough guys and adrenaline for so long.

Many writers don't send me their stuff anymore, because they don't need The Konformist anymore.  They can put it on their own website, or put it on Facebook, and it gets out there without me.  That's how it goes when you aren't ground zero.

Also, I have increasingly shunned right-wing views.  That's my own editorial decision.  I've concluded that even when the right challenges the official version, their version is just as equally bullshit in its own right, and I have little patience for bullshit.

I would say since The Konformist is less supply-dominated, it has become more my discriminating tastes.  Basically, my philosophy has evolved: the question I now ask: "Would this be fun to read while stoned?"  I even have one popular regular feature (first inspired by my Uncle Fats, a dedicated Deadhead and culinary lover) called "Stoner Cooking" that tips off this philosophy.  So in some ways, The Konformist could be viewed as more entertaining than ever.  But it certainly no longer feels like you've been dropped in the middle of a new and exciting universe like it was when it started.

5. Are people smarter now about parapolitics or less so?

Well, I think conspiracy theory has more become more embedded in our culture.  It's like at the peak of heavy metal popularity in the late eighties, even Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson sang songs with riffalicious guitar licks.  So parapolitics has become something the official narrative needs to acknowledge.  And this is a two-way street.  It would be possible to read The Konformist today and perhaps not think it's a radical conspiracy site.  I don't think it's because my views have softened, but because there isn't a huge chasm between my interests and what mass culture accepts as there once was.

You can see the changes in our 2012 election.  Marijuana legalization was not too long ago considered fringe.  Only a few brave souls (most notably the late great Jack Herer) even discussed the economics behind the conspiracy to demonize and suppress it.  Cut to present, and it's pretty clear that pro-marijuana laws (despite the fight against them by the Democratic Party establishment) are an election goldmine that soon will be embraced.

Or look at GMOs.  When The Konformist first began presenting information about GMOs, nobody really new what the hell we were talking about.  Well, this year, Monsanto, DuPont and others had to spend $45 million to defeat Prop 37 in California (which would have required labelling of GMO foods.)  Yeah, 37 did lose, but when companies have to outspend their opponents 10 to 1 and barely eke out a victory, time is not on their side.

These micro-examples aside, demographic changes support the wider embrace of parapolitics.  As the 2012 election shows, our society is becoming increasingly black, increasingly Hispanic, increasingly Asian, increasingly gay.  And these are groups that are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, because they are more likely to have been victims of them historically.  I'll even make a prediction on this: the sneering parody of a conspiracy theorist by the establishment as an angry white male will soon be outdated.

On the other hand, it may be that there are less conspiracies now than there were sixteen years ago.  That may sound strange coming from me, but I suspect that may be true.  And I don't mean that as a good thing.  Sixteen years ago, would torture be officially acknowledged by the establishment?  Would legalized assassination be officially acknowledged?  Would the massive criminality by the banking vultures be officially acknowledged?  "Conspiracy" implies a plot of secrecy, which at least means a desire to conceal bad behavior.  Our culture has become disturbingly depraved over the last decade, so there does seem less desire by the establishment to even hide their dirty deeds.

I also wonder if push comes to shove how critical the public's skepticism may be.  There was a lot of Sybian-riding in 2008 over Barack Obama's cynical "Hope & Change" marketing, and had there been more demands on his administration than cult of personality cheering, we wouldn't be experiencing a lost decade like we are now.  And then there's the big one of conspiracy: 9/11, an event which led to the immediate disintegration for most of the public of any critical thinking.  Yes, skepticism of many parts of the 9/11 story are now widespread, but it's after the Neocons got all they want.  If another giant event like 9/11 happens, do I expect people to be any more skeptical of the official line?  Nope.

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