Facebook's frenemy: The founders of Lamebook on freedom of speech and popularparodies
When The Social Network claimed three Oscars last spring for its cutthroat depictions of Facebook’s legal strategy, it’s not hard to imagine how aggressive the company has been in pursuing copyrights for “face” and “book” and suing any website (see teachbook.com) that uses them in vain.
But lamebook.com—an Austin-based, college-favorite parody site that lets visitors post their “friends" most absurd, real conversations—ended their scuffle over infringement a couple of weeks ago, when Facebook’s efforts to relocate the legal battle from Austin to Palo Alto, California were shot down by a Texas federal judge. Unlike most Facebook lookalikes, Lamebook is an explicit spoof and could defend itself in court by proving there was no way to confuse the two brands.
Lamebook's survival marks the longevity of the reality-based Internet humor mythos, where sites like textsfromlastnight.com and damnyouautocorrect.com expose truths so unbelievable they parody themselves. We got the chance to chat with Lamebook’s Jonathan Standefer and Matthew Genitempo over some fried okra about their experience of escaping the clutches of the social networking giant.
CultureMap: From the inception of the parody site, didn’t you expect that Facebook would take a bit of offense to your laughing at its users' expense?
Matthew Genitempo: Well, we never thought that we were going to be contacted by Facebook. We operated a website for a year before we did. We had friends who worked at Facebook in California, so when our website kind of took off, there’d be company-wide emails with Lamebook submissions in them. Like, "Hey, check this guy out. It’s really funny." So we thought we were in the clear.
Jonathan Standefer: Yeah, we knew we were on their radar. But [one day] I went out to get fast food or something, and my phone rings from this random number that said, “Hello, this is so-and-so from Facebook’s legal counsel.”
CM: A lot of people assume that Facebook opened suit on you, but didn’t they step on your toes first?
MG: Yeah, that was right after all the news hits started going down. We had done a bunch of interviews for NBC and FOX. And then one day, [Facebook] threatened to take down our Fan Page, so they did that. We had 85,000 followers on there, which is a really good way to communicate to people.
JS: When that’s taken away, that’s a really big blow to the traffic because people forget about it sometimes unless it’s in their newsfeed.
MG: And then it was funny, because someone tried to type in “Lamebook,” but we couldn’t type “Lamebook” on Facebook anymore. Not in statuses or chats or anywhere. You could say any curse word you wanted to on Facebook, but you couldn’t say “Lamebook.” I think we had pissed them off pretty bad. That went on for about a day, and TechCrunch did an article on it—talking about free speech.
SNL will rip somebody off exactly, and nobody cares. It’s fine, everybody has a good time. But Facebook doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor about it.
CM: That’s a really scary thing to do, completely omit a word from people’s vocabulary.
MG: Exactly, yeah! Everybody freaked out. I think they got quite a few emails. The next day, they turned it back on.
JS: Yeah, they said it was a “technological error” or something.
MG: I forgot about how big a deal that was. We were freaking out… it was weird. Then they gave us a warning to change our name or else “we’re going to sue you."
JS: It was really hard, because we had such a large following by then. We were afraid if we changed our name, we’d lose a lot of the readers because they’d get confused. So we registered Lameblog.com, and we were really going to change it. We started building the site.
MG: We just decided that we wanted to keep the name, and the proper step to that was to file declaratory judgment. So we actually sued them first just to bring it to a court and say, “We’re a parody, we can use this name.” And then come Monday or Tuesday the following week, Facebook counter-sued.
CM: Do you think it was scarier being sued by Facebook, who had a movie about suing people?
MG: I’ve never been married, but I think being sued by an ex-wife would be pretty scary too.
JS: Yeah, it was really funny, ‘cause the guy who served us didn’t know. He knocked on our door and said, “You’re being served by… Facebook.” And then he just handed me this huge packet and walked off. It was really intimidating.
CM: Do you see yourselves as the victors? A lot of news outlets are touting it as “David beats Goliath."
MG: No, we’re happy. I don’t know if I see myself as the winner. We can’t really say who the winner is.
JS: Yeah, it’s a settlement. I’m happy with it.
MG: I think Facebook’s kind of happy with it too. Everyone wins, everyone looses. Nobody gets exactly what they wanted.
JS: They’ve agreed to continue letting us run the site, and we agreed not to trademark the name “Lamebook." We had originally thought about trademarking that name, but we’re just not going to do that now.
CM: So, how are your lives after this?
MG: It’s that thing you think about… I thought about it every ten minutes. Because I don’t really know too much about litigation, but I always had this fear that I was going to wake up one day, and it was going to be like, “Yeah, you lost. Take down your website, and your company’s over.” You don’t really know.
JS: Especially when your company’s in jeopardy like that. And if it were just a joke site—like it was when we started—it wouldn’t be a big deal. But since then, this is our job.
MG: Yeah, we make a living off this. It’s opened up a ton of new doors for us to do new and better things. It’s scary, because you kind of wish that Facebook would have taken that into account. That was a really big annoyance to me; it seems like Facebook’s a really well-off company, you think about how much they’re worth and they can’t be stopped, and we’re just two dudes in Austin trying to make a living and have a good time. The annoyance factor was like, “Lay off.”
I think people go to Facebook specifically looking for things to submit to Lamebook, so it’s just extra hits that they’re getting.
CM: Yeah, your site isn’t playing off of Facebook specifically, it’s all about the users.
JS: Yeah, we like Facebook.
MG: I’m on Facebook like 20 times a day, and it’s such a necessary part of my friends, I have to use Facebook. If anything, I think that Lamebook helps Facebook.
JS: I think people go to Facebook specifically looking for things to submit to Lamebook, so it’s just extra hits that they’re getting.
CM: Do you think you guys have set an expectation for how far a parody site can go before it’s considered infringement?
JS: I mean, Facebook is just different than any other site. When all of this was going on, we kept talking about the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. I mean, SNL will rip somebody off exactly, and nobody cares. It’s fine, everybody has a good time. But Facebook doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor about it.
CM: Has the site drawn in more traffic because of your legal attention?
MG: Yeah, not as much as we thought it would.
JS: I think everybody’s pretty much aware of it already. Everybody who pays attention to the web world has already heard about the initial suit. I got a Twitter message from somebody the other day, some company with “Wordbook” in it who wants to talk to us….
MG: They’re suing everybody. There’s just so many, I think we could definitely gain some new readers from it, but the traffic didn’t like quadruple or night everything.
JS: Since it’s been a settlement, we’ve been pretty quiet.
To celebrate Lamebook’s local victory with a kick of irony, you can “like” Lamebook on Facebook to revel in the 750,000+ million people (including you!) who get online to talk about—what else—themselves each day.