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FATHER KNOWS WORST
  • July 16, 2012 : 13:07
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I had a personal website. For more than a year, in anticipation of the book, I’d been doing Alternadad-style ­material—cute jokes, little conversations, bits of cultural observation—and had built up a steady following with a decent number of commenters. NealPollack.com was all I really needed. But I wanted much more.

The word in 2007 was community. Facebook had become the thing, but it wasn’t yet the only thing. If you wanted to have a brand, then you needed to graft a social network onto that brand. Otherwise, your brand would never become stratospheric, and that would be a tragedy, because you were your brand and your brand was your life.

This trend excited me because it would bring me riches. My big branding idea was an online humor magazine, combined with a community, that would serve as the major cultural portal for my generation of parents. The idea, I thought, was brilliantly conceived, without flaws. This “new parenting” cultural space was mine to own.

I registered a site, gave the community a name, Offsprung, and went about rebranding a brand that already had a decent brand identity. My first and most brilliant coup was persuading my friend Ben to be my partner. Ben, who’d been coding social networks since before Mark Zuckerberg started stealing ideas from the Winklevoss twins, built a strong back end with profiles and chat functions and everything an online community needs to thrive. I took care of the editorial side, enlisting humorists, social commentators and personal bloggers, throwing together an interesting and random mix of voices, all of whom agreed to write for free. I’d pay them down the road, I said, if I could.

Offsprung launched modestly, riding on the back of whatever publicity Alternadad had generated. It was literate and funny, or at least I thought so. A few hundred people joined, and a few dozen of those started hanging out and exchanging baby photos. My complete control over this cultural sphere was taking longer than I’d planned, but it could still happen. Except that it couldn’t. I ­already had strong competition.

Babble appeared on December 12, 2006, the second major web publication from a company whose first online magazine, Nerve, had set the standard for neurotic confessional online sex ­essays. I’d written a column called “Bad Sex” for the company for more than a year. Then they fired me and turned the column over to other writers. So the relationship was already a little fractured and raw. It became even more so when they approached me to do something with Alternadad before the book appeared. I told them I was working on my own thing, but thanks anyway.

One of Babble’s first big articles was a book review called “The Ironic Thing: Why I Hate Parenting Memoirs Like Alternadad.” “Neal obviously thinks he’s so wild because he talks about shit-storms,” the reviewer said. “But every parent of every child in the world, as well as dog owners and workers in various segments of the service industry, have experienced shit flung at inconvenient moments, eaten or worse.” Babble, almost as desperate for traffic as I was, let me post a response essay. “I think ironic humor is a perfectly acceptable mode of expression when it comes to describing parenthood,” I wrote. “When the first thing you do in the morning is deal with the fact that your son has just pissed in his Barrel of Monkeys, is there any other way to respond than with irony and humor?”

This “debate” illuminated nothing other than my own desire to get publicity for my brand. In retrospect, the reviewer had some sharp, if overwritten, points to make. “As a generation,” she wrote, “what we know for sure is how to be sarcastic and irreverent. Parenthood is bigger than that. It inspires thankfulness, humility, rage, unfixable guilt over what we may be doing to our children, unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age, wonder and a quiet sense of sacredness.”

At the time, though, I wasn’t interested in thoughtful discussion. I was only interested in the fact that Babble had something like a million dollars because it was part of an actual business that could bring in big corporate sponsors. It paid its writers. I had about $1,000, thanks to Blogads, and could pay nobody. My Offsprung writers, understandably, moved on to other things, to be replaced by other writers who also moved on to other things. And yet the community continued. It was a nice group of people who believed in my brand and wanted to support it as best they could. Then Babble struck again, and I struck back.

We called our community section “Playground.” In 2008 Babble launched its own community section, also called “Playground.” In a blog post on Offsprung, I encouraged my members to go over to Babble’s Playground and start talking about how much they preferred Offsprung’s. It was clearly a measure of desperation. I got an e-mail from Rufus Griscom, the founder of Nerve Media, who referred to the behavior of the Offsprungers as “kinda tacky” and said, “We had no idea that you had social networking functionality on your site. I haven’t been there in some time.”

A blogger for New York found out about the flap—because I told him. He was somewhat sympathetic to my cause, writing, “Griscom has been a privileged person his entire life, after all, and he knows that when poor kids are mean to you, it is just because they are jealous.” I continued to lash out on Offsprung, threatening lawsuits and writing, “I wish them luck in their sterile loft community and hope that no more ‘kinda tacky’ people darken their doorstep.”

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read more: Sex and Dating, issue july 2012

4 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Alternadad - the OG Single Dad Laughing.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Always a pleasure to read your thoughts, Neal.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Brilliant. Funny. Sad in a way. But crisp, honest writing. Great work, Pollack.
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