It's A-R-S Technica, Not Arse Technica: an interview with founder Ken Fisher

02/01/2016 02:10 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2017

In 1998, Ken Fisher founded a small technology website called Ars Technica. At the time it was a tiny speck among thousands on the still-young web, an irreverent outpost at the crossroads of the online gaming and IT communities. Nearly 20 years later, Ars has become leading voice in tech journalism, catering to a large, dedicated readership. I talked to Mr. Fisher about the growth of his site, the nature of its online community, and the role Ars has going forward in the ever changing digital world.

ON THE GROWTH OF ARS

Ars Technica was an immediate hit. "It took off," Mr Fisher told me, "the site got really popular really quickly." Nobody expected Ars to grow well beyond its target niche, or to command a large audience. It was, after all, seeped in the tongue-in-cheek, tech-centric humor beloved by its creators. Ken "Caesar Augustus" Fisher authored posts riddled with the "faddish" language of internet forums that, he admits, makes him cringe in retrospect. The sarcastic, tone of early Ars-- where staff meetings would often end in "old-style WWF matches," gave it its character. But as the site continued to grow, its key figures began to realize that Ars's witty style was holding it back. To become a respected online news source, Ars would have to evolve.

"We can't be as funny as we once were if we want to be convincing," Mr. Fisher told me. More importantly, he explained, Ars couldn't be profitable. Though readers loved Ars for its wit, advertisers balked at it. Any growing website will tell you: love alone wont't keep the servers running. Slowly Ars adopted a more serious voice. It began to feature hard tech news stories, specifically regarding intellectual property rights. And as Ars Technica matured, it found respect. In 2008 it was bought out by Condé Nast Digital, in a deal Fisher says was beneficial to the site's future. "They were the perfect fit for taking a brand that is a little bit off center, is a little bit different," Mr. Fisher said. With Condé Nast backing the operation, Ars Technica continued to grow.

ON THE ARS TECHNICA COMMUNITY

Though Ars Technica's style radically changed, it never forgot the community that fostered its initial growth. "We kept our connection to the readers," Mr. Fisher said. More specifically, he kept his connection to the readers.

It is rare for editors-in-chief to actively participate in the nitty gritty of their site's comments sections. The everyday inconsequential nonsense of the readership concerns often falls below the demands of high-ranking staff. Executives often distance themselves from their audiences. Ken Fisher, though, is no ordinary editor-in-chief. He regularly visits his site's forum, discussing everything from website policy to Fallout 4. 'Caesar' has over 20,000 community posts to his name, and prides himself on his accessibility. The Ars team largely shares Mr. Fisher's communal vision, and oftentimes many different employees will work to solve the issues of a single reader. Ars Technica was born humble, and it remains so. Hiding from the unwashed masses in the safety of the executive's "ivory tower," as Mr. Fisher describes, was never an option. "That is antithetical to what new media, digital media, is all about."

MASTERING THE DIGITAL GAME

"Our goal is to have as much so-called 'direct traffic' as possible." Ars Technica, Mr. Fisher told me, prides itself on its self-sufficiency. Every month, between 60-70% of the site's traffic comes directly from the reader. Google searches and Facebook shares may cause page view spikes, but the vast majority of Ars Technica's readers arrive through bookmarked links. They often visit the site three times daily, and are heavily invested in the site's content. "You will not find that many publications that have that kind of direct traffic," Mr. Fisher assured me. And he is probably right.

In the social media-driven digital world, many publications seem to bet their business model on the fleeting nature of viral hits. They spend millions marketing, posting, sharing and tweeting their articles, hoping that spurts of stardom will drive up traffic, and thus, ad revenue. Ars Technica will have none of it. They despise the "reddit fairy," -- the statistical blip that comes from being featured on the front page of the internet. Apart from a few key moments of expansion, they have spent almost nothing on marketing. So strong is Ars's readership that the site operates without the slightest fear of future irrelevancy.

Ars Technica is a rarity in the hyper-optimized realm of digitally native websites. It has succeeded for nearly two decades without abandoning its original goals. What it lost in wisecracking style, it has made up for tenfold in quality and breadth of coverage. The Art of Technology has never been stronger.