Daniel O’Brien is very much like a lot of us. In his mid-twenties, he’s a big Simpsons fan and spends a lot of time reading, watching TV, and listening to podcasts. O’Brien is also a writer. He is, in fact, the Senior Writer for a website that gets over 300 million pageviews a month. For the last two years, O’Brien has been handling those responsibilities and more while working for Cracked.
First launched in 2005, Cracked began its life as an online extension of Cracked magazine, a long running Mad competitor. But as its print-media predecessor closed up shop in 2007, the Cracked that we know today began to take shape. Readers can expect regularly updated content that including lists, articles and videos that range in topic from pop culture to science and history. Yes, these kinds of features can be found in other places online, like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post. But like a kind of weird older cousin, Cracked always has the know-how to back up their often colorful content.
Daniel O’Brien is clear about the website’s goal. “[W]e’ve always been fond of saying that we teach you the stuff you didn’t know about the stuff you know,” he says, and you can see that philosophy in every update. While we all know a thing or two about the animal kingdom or the economy, most of us aren’t familiar with 5 Terrifying Serial Killers Who Happened to Be Animals, or 7 Bizarre Trends That Predict an Economic Collapse. And while this particular kind of content is important to Cracked’s success, so too is its voice. “Cracked articles strive to come from the mouth of a smartass with distinctly nerdy sensibilities,” O’Brien continues. (You can see this firsthand in articles like ‘5 Dumb Hobbies You Won’t Believe Have World Championships’). “The ideal Cracked article lives in that intersection of ‘informative’ and ‘accessible,’ where we’re teaching you something and making you laugh at the same time.”
While Cracked is known primarily for lists like the ones mentioned above, all of the other features on the site, like the videos and articles, are written with that same Cracked philosophy. Among these features are rotating columns like O’Brien’s Dan Dan Revolution, where columnists are encouraged to experiment with form and write about topics that are more personal to them. “My column runs every week, so I just have to constantly be in brainstorming mode,” says O’Brien, “9 times out of 10, I’ll end up chasing a dead end […] [t]hat 1 time out of 10, you’ll find something interesting enough that it needs to be shared, so you’ll write it up, and there’s your article.” There’s also After Hours, a video series where four enthusiastic nerds (O’Brien included) discuss the dark flip-side of beloved pop culture institutions. httpQuick Fixes is a new feature, offering more topical, focused material than regular updates. “We publish between four and five new pieces of content every single day,” says O’Brien, “There’s a lot of room to explore and experiment.”
With all of these updates, the staff at Cracked have their work cut out for them. “[O]ur team is so small that everyone has to be able to do everything or else the site will fall apart,” O’Brien says, “At night we all take turns running around on the giant hamster wheels that produces the energy that powers our servers.” While the regular staff is busy preparing videos, scripts, columns and books, many of the featured articles are created by enthusiastic fans in their Writer’s Workshop. According to O’Brien, the articles born in the Workshop are “meticulously researched, sometimes by one writer who will tirelessly search every corner of the internet… but often by a group of strangers.” This community based research gives Cracked the ability to legitimize and focus their updates, no matter how far-fetched the pitch.
From their humble beginnings as the online progeny of an elderly print magazine to the reigning champs of office computers and Facebook shares, Cracked has expanded, both in readership and in creative scope. “[T]hings changed, and our audience grew, and it was clear they were hungry for content of all kinds,” says O’Brien. “As the site grows and as the internet changes, we get to create new kinds of content, which has been fun and exciting.” As long as their dedicated staff of writers keeps up that weird older cousin vibe, Cracked will continue to produce quality work. And that shouldn’t be a problem. “Every one of our writers looks at the world through the Cracked lens now, 24/7,” O’Brien assures, “I guarantee you these writers will go home to their significant others and pitch article ideas.”
Stephen Winchell is a writer and performer in Chicago. You can see him every month in the bizarre variety show, The Telethon.