The new digital venture Thing X believes in transparency--perhaps a little too much.
When you register for the website, which launched October 17th, a caption announces that Thing X is collecting your personal information in hopes that you may give it more "web clicks." Most web entities tend to leave their thirst for pageviews formally unspoken, but not this one. Unlike Google, whose slogan was once "Don’t Be Evil," Thing X is a proudly evil organization that wants your web traffic (and information about your "personal seepages") via any means necessary. Or at least that’s the cover story. The truth is that Thing X is the new project from a group of former Onion staffers and . They still do want your web clicks, though.
"At first it was just a placeholder name for this thing we Onion ex-pats were gonna do together, but we liked the name and it stuck," says Joe Randazzo, Creative Director at Thing X, and former editor of The Onion.
When the razor-barbed satirical news site announced in 2011 that it was consolidating staff into its Chicago offices, most Onion employees in New York were given the option to pack up and go. Randazzo was among a cabal of New Yorkers who decided to stay put, though, for various reasons. Soon after, Dave Willis, a comedy friend of Randazzo’s who’d created some of Adult Swim’s signature shows, got in touch to suggest finding a way to keep the Onion staffers together and work with Adult Swim. After much deliberation, the pair landed on a concept and set out to make it work.
Thing X is basically a metaphor for itself, minus the evil. It uses the idea of a modern web company hell-bent on snatching up pageviews as a chance to satirize digital culture in the same way that The Onion did the news. Not in exactly the same way, though. There’s a sensibility similar to some of the more dark and twisted Onion pieces powering Thing X, but the writers are also dipping into different genres such as horror, science fiction, and children’s programming to round out their tone.
“It’s basically a chance for us to do the stuff that we think is funniest without any sort of formal format like there was at The Onion," Randazzo says. "There, it was all done through news voice, which is a wonderful template for comedy, but we just sort of wanted to break free in as many ways as we could from that and do stuff that we find really entertaining and things we haven’t seen before.”
In terms of prose offerings, there will be the typical columns, interviews, and reviews, but there will also be loads more content geared around the theme of the weird and ominous Thing X. These dispatches will include weekly messages from "HR," supposedly intercepted emails, and notices about new products the company is developing--some of which will actually be available for purchase.
In addition, Thing X is launching with four original video series. One is a how-to channel, where various wildly unqualified hosts teach viewers about different skill sets--like the clinically depressed guy who teaches you how to iron your shirt for the cute delivery lady who’s coming by today. Another series, called Magical Apartment Land, documents all the goings-on in an apartment where the inanimate objects come to life once the humans leave. Rather than being benevolent and fun a la Toy Story, however, these guys are more like bickering roommates who are always fighting or having sex with each other. Tim Heidecker, whose absurdist partnership Tim & Eric seems simpatico with Thing X, stars in a movie review series with comedian Greg Turkington (better known as Neil Hamburger). Finally, there’s Think X, where luminaries from all over the comedy and Internet world weigh in on all sorts of ideas. Although this last series comes closest out of the bunch to approaching sincerity, it’s still not without a satirical edge--Randazzo’s 4-year old son was one of the first people interviewed.
The Internet is an eminently mockable entity, offering many tools with which to do so. Thing X is threatening to employ just about all of them. In addition to prose and video offerings, the web venture is also out to skewer every aspect of the web navigation experience. The discrete parts of the website, from the registration page to its email blasts and commenting system all have a particular self-aware slant. Nothing is boilerplate. “We want people to actually look forward to getting emails from us," Randazzo says, "and that means including original content in those emails.”
Thing X has a presence on every social media platform, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram--each with bespoke content. Rather than just promote the site’s headlines and stories, these platforms will engage with fans and comment on the day’s news. Although the writers will be responding to topical events as they happen, it won’t just be in the fake news style of The Onion (although there will be some of that), but filtered through the Thing X voice, which is still developing.
“[Adult Swim parent company] Turner has been extremely supportive and sort of hands-off in terms of editorial voice and they’re sort of just trusting us to come up with something totally new on our own," says Randazzo. "I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
The creative director was able to handpick the editorial team himself, most of whom are former Onion writers. Adult Swim is basically just funding and hosting Thing X, as well as running promos on the channel, but there is also some talent crossover. Adult Swim writers have stepped in to help on certain projects, but overall the new web presence is an autonomous unit. Randazzo isn’t ruling out the possibility, however, of eventually expanding into a TV series.
“We hope in time that we do stuff that’s good enough so that we could potentially develop it for the network," he says. "Right now we’re pretty excited just to do something new, though, and since Adult Swim wanted original digital content, we’re kind of filling that void.”