Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot: The Rise and Fall of TWD, part four

To read part one of this series, click here.
To read part two of this series, click here.
To read part three of this series, click here.

Foreword: This particular installment of the series was co-written and edited by my fellow TWD co-founder, Ray Bogusz.

Some of the things in our story may seem trivial or otherwise easily resolved now that we’re so far removed from everything that happened back then. But these were tough and stressful times for all of us and I think it’s clear that both of us want to provide a relatively accurate yet balanced account of the true story of TWD. Ray’s most extensive contributions are denoted with italics.

— Mike Bessler, 2012

The Rise and Fall of TWD is as much about a website as it is about the relationships between the people who started it. If we were particularly egocentric, we could probably call it “The Rise and Fall of Mike, Jason, Ray & Adam’s Big Effin’ Rasslin’ Adventure,” and not be too far off. Thankfully we’re not that egocentric, because that’s a really shitty title.

Perhaps it’s best that my voice comes in exactly when the issues with the site’s server begin to come into play. At the time of the GoDaddy Chronicles, we’d had some arguments here and there, but we hadn’t completely fallen out yet. Below, Mike is going to talk a lot about traffic volumes, grid hosting, and data transfers. While you should read it anyway, the gist of it is this: TWD had truly “gone global” and we were about to be faced with having to either shut down, or get a significantly more powerful hosting option.

I can’t speak for all four administrators, hell I can’t speak for anybody associated with the site other than myself, but I really genuinely wish we’d never upgraded the site. At the time, had we sat down and gone over the site and asked some difficult questions, the story would have gone much differently. When the time came to upgrade, we should have hosted a conference-call (as Mike and I were accustomed to doing) and—completely seriously—asked ourselves where we legitimately saw the site in six months, in a year, in five years. Did we think we’d solve our ad revenue problems? Would it even be worth it to pursue that route? Would we be comfortable with putting in a few upgrades essentially for show, and seeing if we could get a bigger site to buy us out? Was that even feasible? If there seemed to be no good option, should we just run the site as barebones and try to find a buyer for the name alone? (It actually still is worth a few hundred bucks.)

Unfortunately, we didn’t ask those questions. We looked too far forward to what we thought would be a big payoff for us—including the staff writers—instead of looking at our present and the much bigger reality: No matter what we did or how hard we fought to keep it together, money was probably going to sink TWD long before it gave any buoyancy.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that it killed me to not be able to help Mike pay for the site. It killed me that the dynamic was so toxic that nobody could get along. Hell, it killed me that I ended up being such an ogre to some of the staff. I think of Rob Siebert, Al Dankwa, Tenechia Haynes, Kurt Lewicki, and the Michaels, Scanlon & Cranwell in particular as those six were often directly—and unfairly—in my crosshairs. I genuinely like all six of them, and even though we often see things in wrestling and the world very differently, I think we’d have gotten along much better if I hadn’t felt like I *had* to be an ogre to get anything on the site done on time. I didn’t want to be that way. I like to think I’m actually a pretty nice guy. Hell I know I am, because I didn’t like the persona I came to have both on the site and behind its scenes. When we talked about this section on the phone, Mike mentioned that some of the writers out and out started to hate me. I don’t blame them, in fact, I’m sorry that they met that Ray, and I forgive them for anything vitriolic they might have said about him—you see, I hate that Ray too, and thankfully he isn’t around anymore.

I’ve lamented elsewhere that there’s enough blame to go around to the four administrators twice over. I stand by that assessment. The culture of embedded views and circular arguing went well beyond any two of the administrators’ (pick two…seriously) relationships. Unfortunately, nobody ever did anything to change it.

It’s a shame we were so young, so to speak.

— Ray Bogusz, September 2012

Shortly after our visibility and traffic began to skyrocket, we’d seen some early warning signs of problems with our site’s functionality and hosting, especially when our number of visitors spiked. This kind of thing happens to a lot of “DIY” or less-than-professional sites that gain sudden notoriety due to referrals from lager sites, internet memes and high-profile developments. For instance, I noticed that the wrestling site known forever to TWD faithful as “Fjords of Shame” was down for a spate during one of the more recent WWE pay per view shows. The first really noticeable TWD outage happened – if I recall correctly – when we posted a PPV preview article the morning before a big WWE event. Ray contacted me via text to advise that the site was down and I rushed home to contact GoDaddy. Incidentally, has anyone ever had to spend hours upon hours on the phone with GoDaddy over the course of a six-month period while you have hundreds or articles in the balance, the labor and expectations of over a dozen writers and administrators as well as an online reputation and readership to uphold? It’s a daunting situation, to say the least. It’s not like cooling down an overheated nuclear reactor but it’s still a pretty uncomfortable and hopeless feeling, especially when a number of other factors loom large; namely, the awareness of one’s own technical limitations, numerous other personal responsibilities, concerns about the inherent limitations of the website design and hosting plan, et cetera, ad nauseum

I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t appreciate GoDaddy, either. Their customer service is top-notch and I regularly recommend them to folks who are looking for any kind of web hosting or anything along those lines. I do think, however, that they’ve been using the album Hot by Squirrel Nut Zippers as their telephone hold music for far, far, far too long. I actually used to like SNZ before the TWD era. Okay, the point here is that I spent a lot of time on the phone with GoDaddy during the rise and fall of TWD. The initial problem – the one I mentioned above – was relatively easy to fix. We had a database issue that needed to be resolved, some of which involved changing a name or two of some critical files. That was a quick repair that was facilitated by customer support even though they technically don’t provide support for WordPress-related matters because WordPress is a third-party product. This is a huge issue that anyone with a relatively successful and/or longstanding WordPress site may tell you. Yeah, WordPress has an online community of developers, peer to peer support, blah, blah, blah…But have you ever tried to use a WordPress support forum to resolve a complex, time-sensitive issue? Yeah, good luck with that.

Things really got dicey on January 4, 2009. I remember the date well because I had tickets to go to Monday Night Raw that night and the event had shaped up as one of the biggest nights in wrestling history. Bret Hart was scheduled to return to WWE and stand in the center of the ring to get some long-awaited closure to the Montreal Screwjob. At the same time, TNA had moved their show to Monday nights in an attempt to go head to head with Raw. In preparation for this, TNA signed Ric Flair, Jeff hardy and others in what was sure to be a memorable night for wrestling fans everywhere. But an e-mail I got just a few hours before heading out to the show (in the middle of a snowstorm, I might add) put a damper on my excitement for the evening. The e-mail was a notice from GoDaddy indicating that TWD’s rapid growth and traffic had caused us to outgrow our hosting plan. In fact, TWD had actually knocked a number of other GoDaddy sites offline a number of times in the past few weeks leading up to the e-mail, due to the fact we were on a shared server. The folks at GoDaddy basically advised me that we needed to come up with a new hosting plan and migrate our site within 30 days or face complete shutdown.

A phone call to GoDaddy’s customer service revealed that we were in a tight spot which seemed to be well beyond the reaches of my admittedly limited technical know-how. Additionally, pretty much every option was vastly more expensive than what I’d been paying for the first several months of our operation. I notified the TWD roster that I thought the situation looked fairly grim. It seemed our options all involved the same basic components: a much more expensive hosting plan, which would require me move all of our files and database, redirecting the URL and properly connecting the TWD database back to the new site. Anything else — like getting a super-deluxe plan in which GoDaddy would rebuild a new site for us, etc. – was going to cost hundreds of dollars per month. Ultimately, I think I found a plan that would get us into the $60-$120/month range and all of the administrators agreed they’d chip in an equal share but up to then, nobody had even followed through to pay $5 per month for hosting or any portion of the theme package for our re-launch, so I was less than confident that this was a sustainable solution from my end. At this point, I had a number of other bills to pay and adding somewhere in the neighborhood of a $100 per month to my household financial obligations was not an option I wanted to consider.

Monday Night Raw turned out to be a memorable event, to say the least. My friends and I scored seats behind the control booth, so as events were unfolding with Bret hart in the ring, we were also watching the event staff view the simultaneous live broadcast of TNA Impact on one of their monitors. I’ve often described this night as “surreal” at a number of levels. Truth be told, the trouble with TWD loomed large in my mind as I tried to enjoy everything that was going on around me.

After a few days of wrangling with TWD folks and GoDaddy, an intrepid customer service rep from GoDaddy found a much more affordable option: grid hosting. Rather than explain the whole science behind it, I’ll just say that this alternative actually seemed to make hosting much more stable and more affordable in the long run. They even offered to do some of the “heavy lifting” to help keep the site up and running, including large parts of the migration and some of the database restoration. The fact that I owned some extra URLs and hosting plans would also make it a little easier to “hop” from one stage to the next. It was both daunting and nerve-racking to get to this point and my confidence in the whole project was becoming very shaky. Nobody on the TWD team had the technical expertise or the financial resources to help in what had become a large undertaking to move the site to yet another stage in its evolution. Nevertheless, I set a date for server migration and we all pressed on together.

Of course, TWD rolled on despite the above-noted crisis. Indeed, from my perspective – and likely that of others – work behind the scenes had become rather crisis-oriented. Drama was never in short supply. We had let AkD go in the lead-up o the server issue and that was actually a rather difficult thing to do as he’d been with us from the very beginning. I think there was a pronounced departure between AkD and the site administrators regarding standards of quality and timeliness. As far as I could tell, though, AkD was not bitter and even made it a point to personally reach out to me and tell me there were no hard feelings. I still consider him a good friend to this day.

Considerable tension had grown between Ray Bogusz and Rob Siebert. I can’t really remember the origin of the problem. There were some things about Rob’s writing style that rubbed Ray the wrong way and, in turn, Rob didn’t care for Ray’s editorial work in a number of situations.  They bumped heads a few times in a fashion that was unpleasant for everyone involved, from the principle parties throughout the ranks of administrators and contributors. Subsequent dust-ups between the two would follow. Ray summarizes his recollection of the conflict as such:

As I recall, Rob and I are just two people who resent otherwise obviously unnecessary supervision. Unfortunately, he just caught me at a time when all four administrators were regularly fighting in circles. I think, in a less toxic environment, Rob and I would have gotten along—or at least tolerated each other. You see, I actually liked Rob. He was smart; he was witty; he worked incredibly hard for a site that paid him nothing but grief; and he wrote fabulously clean copy. That sounds like an editor’s dream, but somehow TWD even made that relationship toxic. Go figure that one out.

Was the fall of TWD part of a CIA-backed conspiracy? Jesse Ventura probably thinks so.

Content-wise, we were still going gangbusters. Adam landed an interview with Jesse Ventura about Ventura’s forthcoming show Conspiracy Theory (a series that turned out to be all kinds of crazy if you ask me) and I did what turned out to be a respectable interview with Four Horsemen leader JJ Dillon. The writing team was recapping, summarizing, analyzing and entertaining at a magnificent level and TWD had turned out to be the very type of wrestling site I think we had all sought to build from the very get-go.

Ray and I were bickering on a regular basis by this point. In my mind, a lot of tension had built up between us over time and this seemed to taint most of our interactions. I felt like Ray was a perpetual provocateur who was hell-bent on upsetting me any way possible to score points with everyone else affiliated with TWD. In turn, Ray regarded me as both a simpering bleeding heart and a rigid Marxist-Leninist who continually sought to suppress any opinions that didn’t conform to my world view.

In retrospect, neither of us had even remotely accurate views of the other’s opinions or motivations with regard to TWD, but it was rather difficult to see this when we were in the thick of things.

One of the most explosive disagreements with Ray and I had to do with an “Editorial Roar” column that Ray had written about some racially-charged accusations leveled by Elijah Burke who had been released by WWE in late 2008. To be fair, I had no argument with Ray’s critique of Burke’s public comments, attitude and work ethic. My issue was with Ray’s deletion of a lengthy comment left by a TWD reader who disagreed with Ray. The reader had made a number of statements regarding institutionalized racism in America, some of which had some validity and others that bordered on being inflammatory and unproductively argumentative. Still, when it came to my attention that this comment had been completely deleted from the site by Ray with no discussion on the matter, I was both alarmed an indignant. In the past, Ray had expressed frustration with me for shying away from controversy and suppressing particular ideas and statements but now I felt like Ray was doing just that to a rather dramatic extent by completely suppressing an admittedly imperfect but nonetheless relevant perspective of a TWD reader. My attempt to discuss the matter with Ray quickly turned to into an argument and I think folks could tell that there was a lot more to the friction between Ray and me than a question of comment moderation.

As the argument grew, I made the decision as Site Administrator and sole owner of the TWD domain and hosting plan, that the comment should be reinstated in some form. After fishing the comment out of our deleted content, I did some quick ‘net searching and found that the same individual had previously posted a similarly-worded argument on another site and tailored the TWD version to the Burke situation. I re-posted a shortened version of the original comment (because it was rather extensive – over 1,000 words as I recall) with a carefully-worded note that the remainder of the comment could be read on the other page (including a hyperlink to that article). My recollection is that Ray openly thought this was a terrible solution and took to the same comment thread to level a counterattack against the poster, and to take a sideswipe at me in the process. I sent him an e-mail in which I expressed concern that he was now publicly criticizing me on TWD. He replied with a rather mean-spirited suggestion for how I use my time, and expressed that as far as he was concerned, I had brought it all on myself. In the end, Ray took the entire article rather than continue what had quickly degraded into a playground name-calling competition. The controversy was, however, far from over. At this point, it might be best for Ray to take back over:

"The Iron Sheik," crayon on paper rendering by Raymond Bogusz, 2009.

I’ve more or less been given control here by Mike and I’m not going to gloss over what happened either. It’s an important step in the story after all. The other guys agreed that there needed to be actual delegations of power instead of the nebulous field of “general administration” we’d been working under. As such, I was given a lighter load of administrative tasks. That’s a really tasteful way of saying I didn’t control comments anymore and that I was told I had to pick a staffer to offer an assistant editorship to.

I’m not the kind of guy who likes to admit he needs help. This is because generally speaking, I don’t, and when it comes to work, I pride myself on so often *not* needing assistance. I did need it here though. Posting times on TWD were rather continuous and that meant I either needed to read everything in advance (an option rendered impossible by time and competition restrictions), or sit at my computer wide-awake literally 24/7 (an option rendered impossible by human biological and psychological realities). I ended up picking Scott Beeby because he was smart, normally didn’t need a lot of editing anyway, lived in a convenient time zone (Australia) and I got along with him. Also, he wanted the responsibility, another huge issue at TWD that will hopefully get addressed in another entry.

As for the general tone of the email sent to me with their decision, I was understandably hurt. I felt—and to this day still feel—like I was being made a scapegoat for far larger issues at hand. The disagreement between Mike and me over the comment on the Burke column might have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, but to single me out as the penultimate cause of conflict was unfair and, I thought, unwarranted.

Since then, they’ve all expressed to me in some way that nobody was particularly happy about the decision they reached. I guess that’s comforting, but it was a real turning point for me in the site. Not only did I now know I needed to see money coming in to keep my spirits up and my eyes looking forward, but I knew I needed to see the rest of the infighting between administrators and administrators, administrators and writers, and writers and writers, stop. Neither of these things was ever going to come close to happening. Mike should advance the story now…

Don’t be mistaken though: Conflict wasn’t necessarily marching hand-in-hand exclusively with Ray. Adam and I had what was probably our biggest falling out over my unilateral decision to create a new “writer” that would present material with a decidedly irreverent and humorous approach. My new character – or maybe “pseudonym,” is a more fitting term – was called “Branko Broz,” created as an implicit not to my enduring Slavophia. The name was kind of a two-part portmanteau in that I drew “Branko” from Branko Pribićević, a noted political scientist from the former Yugoslavia and “Broz” from the full name of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Broz Tito. I had created archives on the life and work of Tito and the history of Yugoslavia and was very proud of this achievement. I had a whole back story planned for Branko with plans to tough on various details of his life throughout a column that I’d named “The TWD Burn Unit.” Ray and Jason and I had more or less cooked up the idea of a “character” joining the TWD bullpen during a late-night conference call and while I still think it was a good idea, I’m sure I should’ve been more sensitive to the opinions of folks like Adam who had invested so much time and effort in TWD and wanted it to retain a certain degree of integrity and professionalism. On the other hand, I think that the use of pseudonyms and “character” voices in writing – even in the news and opinion-oriented media – is a time-honored and generally acceptable practice. Adam and I really, really clashed over this and at one critical juncture he even offered to walk because I was so upset with some aspects of our disagreement. But somehow we managed to patch things up rather quickly. “TWD Burn Unit” continued but mostly without Branko, although he’d periodically return to create mischief around TWD.

As the evening rolled around to migrate TWD to its new server, I was definitely feeling stressed, not just over concerns that TWD would be completely fouled up in the process of moving things around but also because my dog – my best friend of 13 years – was gravely ill and dying. She was a boxer and for the past three or four years, we knew we were on borrowed time with her due to the many health problems that often claim the breed at an early age. But it just so happened that everything finally caught up with her the night of the site migration. So I sat up with her all night, checking the site and talking to GoDaddy support every so often until things were relatively in place for TWD. Domino died the next morning. I have said it other places but I’ll say it here once again: I know that losing a pet is not an incredible tragedy in the grand scale of things. Hell, we live in a world in which hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of people have perished in the most fleeting of moments. So I am generally quite sensitive to the idea that it couldn’t be productive or sensitive of me to go on and on about losing a pet in a public forum. But it was an emotional time for me and at some level, this marks the beginning of the final spiral for TWD.

All of the admin were struggling with personal stuff around this time. Adam was coping with the fact that a very dear family member was extremely sick and, moreover, the relative was hundreds of miles away and Adam couldn’t afford to drop everything to rush out West to be by his side. Ray experienced the death of a family member at some point during the existence of TWD and I know it was all very taxing on him even though he and I had drifted apart by the time that it happened. As for Jason, I think it’ll be sufficient to say that the circumstances of his life had become damn near impossible and they were getting worse every day.

The launch and rise of TWD in September of 2009 were wonderful and heady times, indeed. But by late January 2010, we were in a very unpleasant place, both as individuals and as a group.

Mike and Ray used to be a couple of Mega-Jerks. Come to think of it, they still are.