VIDEO: Alan Cumming and Company Launch Web's First "Obsession Network"
The creators of the networking site itsasickness.com are betting our obsessions will be the Internet’s next big thing. Behind the scenes at Departures’ photo shoot, the three founders—including actor Alan Cumming—discuss their own “sicknesses” and why our fixations are what make us most interesting.
“This is how we use the Internet already—we just don’t admit how wonderfully weird and funny it is,” says Barnaby Harris, referring to his new website, itsasickness.com, a portal for anyone who’s obsessed with something and wants to “geek out” about it online. “We encourage people to acknowledge their sickness,” Harris says, “and help them see that other people have it, too.”
The expression “It’s a sickness” has been following Harris around, in different contexts, for years. A veteran Broadway stage manager, he realized at some point about eight years ago that nearly everyone he knew had become obsessed with yoga. “I got caught up in it, too. Then one day I stepped back and saw that most of these people were just as hostile and bitter as the rest of us. But they were so sanctimonious; they carried their mats around New York City like they were Torahs. What’s that about?”
Harris, a puckish 44-year-old, didn’t need long to come up with an answer. “It’s a sickness,” he says. “We’re a sick people in an obsession-based culture.”
The yoga scene, Harris thought, was both silly and humorless, and he decided to say so. He made a T-shirt that said F**K YOGA (this is a family magazine, but you get the point) and wore it for 39 days straight. “Everywhere I went, people asked me how they could get one. I even did a spread for GQ!” Energized, he opened a store called F**k Yoga, in lower Manhattan, where he sold the shirts. To his delight, the Tony Award–winning actor Alan Cumming became a huge fan. “I loved how the shirt made people gasp,” says Cumming.
Wanting to push the concept further, Harris began selling other products printed with the logo—flip-flops, skateboards, even yoga mats—and started targeting other obsessions, notably one of America’s most famous architects. After his F**K FRANK GEHRY shirt got a write-up in The New Yorker, Harris and Cumming considered doing something bigger: a theatrical piece, maybe, or a TV show or radio interviews. Ultimately they decided that the project belonged where the daily drama of our obsessions already unfolds: on the Internet.
By 2008 Harris had left the theater and traded in his retail shop for studio space in an industrial arts building on the Lower East Side, where he, Cumming, and a small staff began developing itsasickness.com, the world’s first “object networking” website for obsessions. Cumming went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in April to announce its initial launch.
Object networking, a phrase that Harris says may have been invented by the itsasickness team, is about establishing deeper ties to the things that we obsess over, and in the process recognizing that our relationships with these things—favorite foods, TV shows, political causes, you name it—help define us. Social networking, as anyone who’s spent time on Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn knows, is about making more (and usually more shallow) connections to people. Itsasickness is built on the counterintuitive premise that focusing on objects, not interacting with people, is a more intimate and pleasurable way to spend time online.
Fred Gooltz, the young chief operating officer who learned about using social networks for online organizing while working for groups that supported Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, has a blunt way of contrasting the two kinds of sites. “There’s nothing more disorienting than a social-networking site,” he says. “We hardly know most of our ‘friends’ these days. And how much do we really care what they just ate for lunch?”