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Meet Thom Wong, The Tyee's Net Hunter

Our new web sleuth likes to go out on a link.

By Vanessa Richmond 24 Nov 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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Thom Wong is a law student who studies all day then transforms into his alter ego. At night, he spends hours hunting for web sites that aren't yet on the radar.

What does he look for? Sites that hit the pop culture zeitgeist, smartly target politics and world affairs, or simply offer cheap thrills. They have to be well designed and easy to navigate. When he finds one that meets his criteria, he copies the address and sends it along to friends and other link-hunters.

What's in it for him? New information, to start with: the kind you don't get from a usual Google search or from the newspaper. Plus, he likes the thrill of getting there first. BC's own budding link star usually finds the next big thing even before famed link directories like Boing Boing.

Starting today, Wong will be posting his insider tips for Tyee readers, and guiding them through the newest sites and portals on the web. In a feature called 40 bLinks, Wong will post links and commentary twice a week for forty weeks - every Monday and Thursday. He'll show readers which sites will get buzz and why.

So how'd he get started on this unusual hobby and rise to be one of the web's emerging stars? Thom Wong told The Tyee. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

On the Internet

"I haven't always been into the Internet. When it started, I thought it was lame and for people who are socially awkward.

"Then six years ago, my partner got a computer with a dial-up modem, and Napster hit big. I thought, "Wow, if you can get free music…"

"But more than that, suddenly websites weren't just newspapers in electronic format. If they were, no one would care about that. The whole interface is about being able to click. Amazon tried to copyright one-click shopping, but they weren't allowed. Clicking is what everyone does.

"People started to like the Internet because it's insane. It links your computer up to other people. That's what got me.

On links

"I got started on links when I was doing my undergrad. This was in 1994. It was a really big deal that as a student you got free high-speed Internet and unlimited email.

"I started emailing new links around to friends in about 1997. Good links were forwarded like 1000 times. That was when people still tended to use the Internet to read online content - like stories from Rolling Stone -- then they'd email around the link.

"I started to wonder what else was out there. So I started looking for sites that were about things I wanted to do myself: like films, animation, graphics, or magazines, like McSweeney's.

"Then I started to visit sites that listed other sites, like Milk and Cookies, Gawker, Fark and Boing Boing.

On what's out there

"Most of these sites were run by guys. I remember I came across one that was run by teen girls. They had posted all these comments about how much they wanted Justin Timberlake. It was pretty graphic. That's not the norm, but I'll admit that I thought it was pretty cool.

"It actually tends to be very fratboy, very soft porn and also funny. Like people singing and dancing and falling down, falling off bridges. People setting themselves on fire, buddies writing on each other, animals walking around malls. I've never really been into the humiliation ones, but they're really popular.

"Anyway, the next thing was that some websites became a bit more interactive. Someone would post a photo and invite others to guess what they did to the photo, like in PhotoShop.

On blogs

"The next evolution was blogs, especially those with inter-textual links.

"It was when I saw that someone took Pepys' diary and rewrote it as a blog that things really changed for me with the Internet. The blog has the same text but whenever he writes the word "London," for example, it will take you to a different page about London that's related to what he's talking about. When I saw that, I thought, "That's the future of education."

"I probably came late to blogs and I started five of them before I could sustain one regularly. I thought, "This is boring and stupid and no one wants to read it." Then I did it again.

"My first blog was One Good Tum. My most recent is Thomas In Law School. I usually get about 10 hits a day. But there's one person who complains when I don't update it regularly. And yes, when I see that 20 people have looked at my blog that day, it makes me feel good. And when only two people have checked, I feel let down. That might be a little sad.

On what makes him click

"Now I surf a couple hours a day looking for sites that I like, then I send these links to friends. What matters to me is that they have good design - that they're interesting to look at and easy to navigate. For me, they also have to have a strong authorial voice. And they have to have good links in them - like the places they send me have to be worth my time.

"Some of my favourite sites right now are Screenhead, and Kotaku. Both are part of the Gawker empire. Stereogum is also good.

"There are a few things that make me click on a link someone else sends me: like who sent it, and what it's about. I like sites about movies, funny stuff, books, animation. But I tend to stay away from gross humor, funny violence (like a kid trying to be Jackass, or a kid hurting himself on his skateboard). I just don't really want to look at that.

"One link I came across a few months ago was by BMW. They had a mini-game where you had to get this guy to run and jump into an oncoming mini. There are endless ones like that.

"The thing about many of these is that they're instantly forgettable. You visit them, blog about them, email someone a link about them, then you're done. I don't even remember most of them; never mind bookmark them.

On the catch

"Some people are really into finding new ones first. And a lot of people who hunt for these links tend to find them at a similar time. Within 24 hours of me finding something, I'll see it again 10 or 20 times. Someone might email it to me, or I'll see it on a blog, It's just the viral nature of the Internet. Like the light-saber guy. Someone finds it then sends it to Fark, then it's everywhere within 24 hours then Rolling Stone will have written about it by the end of the month.

"That's why I like it. A lot of times, people will email me a link and I'll write back and say, "Oh yeah, I saw that," or even, "I saw it a week ago." Just wanting to find new things is the biggest thing.

"It feels good. You feel like you're more in the know, which is a bit ridiculous these days. But everyone uses Google, it's very last week. This is like the next level of Google - it's not just a list, but someone's rankings of what matters. They've sifted through it for you. And if you know about them, you have access to a whole different kind of information.

Thom Wong's 40 bLinks starts today with bLink 1. 40 bLinks will run every Monday and Thursday for the next 20 weeks.

Got a link you like? List it in the comments section.  [Tyee]

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