I have a friend who visits the Sour Times Web site three times a day. She says it’s like watching other people masturbate. “The difference is that they are masturbating on your image,” she says. Here “image” refers to the Sour Times article written about her, while “masturbate” refers to anonymous users’ attempts at describing her. She calls the resultant articles “juices.” “You can’t help but look at their juices,” she says. When asked about why she is so obsessed with other people’s juices and this Web site, she replied: “Because I fucking CARE for my reputation, Kaya. Sour Times is where your reputation is made, where your name can get destroyed. For many people out there it is the only source of information about me. Don’t you care about what people say about you? I do!”
Sour Times (in Turkish, Ekşi Sözlük) is a big deal in Turkey. A combination of Urban Dictionary (likewise “a veritable cornucopia of streetwise lingo, posted and defined by its readers”), the Meaning of Liff (it is somewhat similar to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s 1983 dictionary of undefined or undefinable things) and Wikipedia, Sour Times may be the most exciting Web site created by a Turkish citizen, ever. Sour Times users start articles with mesmerizing speed during the day; their creations, thousands of them, appear on the left frame of the Sour Times homepage, where they are listed in chronological order. Here are some recent examples: “The monkey who doesn’t believe in evolution.” “The nickname Ataturk would use if he was a Sour Times user.” “Girls who are good at finding torrent files on the web.” And my favorite: “Men who get their socks off as soon as they get home.”
If an article contains more than twenty entries it is divided into multiple pages. Popular individuals measure the success of their personalities in the Sour Times community using those page numbers. “I have ten pages on Sour Times” is another way of saying you’re a successful person with prospects for a better life. But those pages may, on the other hand, also contain the worst things ever said about you. This is why people regularly check their Sour Times pages—to see whether an embarrassing detail of their character is revealed to the public. Turkish employers inspect the Web site before job interviews; reading a prospective lover’s Sour Times page is a natural first step of the Turkish way of mating.
I have two Sour Times pages devoted to my name. They are listed under the minimalist heading “Kaya Genç.” Mine is a modest page count, especially when compared to that of the current Turkish prime minister, whose article spreads to over 3,026 pages and contains more than thirty thousand entries. Some of the entries on my page have the dry tone of Encyclopedia Britannica; the one that refers to my alleged popularity among women is written in a more colorful style. A 842-word entry accuses me of trying too hard to be successful; another describes me as a writer obsessed with the ideas of “Delöz and Gattari” [sic]. Of course, I won’t repeat the good things said about me (which, sadly, are not many).
Sour Times was created by Sedat Kapanoğlu in 1999. A software programmer since primary school, Kapanoğlu’s first program, Patient 1.0, was a hospital management software. It didn’t sell because of its expensive price tag; when Kapanoğlu repriced it at five dollars it still didn’t sell (this time it was too cheap). Born in Eskişehir, a city famous for its university campus and beer culture, Kapanoğlu adopted a pseudonym (SSG) which represented his future ambitions as an entrepreneur (it stands for “Sedat Software Group,” with echoes of Rambo: One Man Army). He spent his youth writing elevator software and working for the Turkish State Meteorological Service. In one interview he described purchasing a sound card with his first paycheck. He bought a Casio wristwatch with his second.
A fan of the eponymous Portishead song, Kapanoğlu started Sour Times after he read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams’s book gave him the idea for a digital platform that contains everything in the universe.
In its first year the Web site earned him around eleven dollars. According to the PatronTurk website (“TurkishBoss”) this amount has recently risen to $100,000 dollars a month. Once a Microsoft employee in the company’s Redmond Campus, Kapanoğlu was quick to quit his job after realizing the business potential of Sour Times.
Kapanoğlu’s earnings come from advertising revenues. For advertisers the strength of the project is its extremely critical, no-BS approach to life. It was this same approach that has gotten the site editors into trouble in recent years; a number of celebrities have sued the site for libel. There were other complaints which mostly focused on articles considered blasphemous or as containing hate speech, mainly against Muslims.
Ali Emre Bukağılı, a civil engineer, has taken a number of writers and artists to court. He successfully sued the Turkish publisher of Richard Dawkins and the pianist Fazıl Say in court and lately has turned his attention to Kapanoğlu and thirty-nine Sour Times contributors whom he has accused of writing blasphemous entries. Bukağılı’s indictment against Kapanoğlu’s team was accepted in an Istanbul court last week. He cites a Sour Times article about Mohammad which refers to the prophet as a child abuser. Although the site’s editors say they deleted that entry immediately after it was written, there are other entries which Bukağılı accuses the site of not moderating with similar rigor.
So what would happen if Sour Times was forced to close? It has long been an important medium where people write whatever they like about whomever they choose whenever they desire. It has also become popular among professional critics who find it difficult to call a spade a spade in articles they pen under their real names. After all, artists and authors can’t easily phone jamesbond_lover or RTD2; it is even more difficult to sue killingmesoftly2013 in court. Most Turkish intellectuals would agree on the necessity for a forum for anonymous criticism of the high and mighty, and so far the Sour Times has been the best outlet.
The truth is, even if the editors should decide to pull the plug at some point, the Sour Times architecture isn’t going anywhere; in the years since its founding, numerous clones of the site have been created, some edited by Islamists, others by, say, communists, or members of particular professions. Perhaps the fast times of masturbation and irreverence are nearing their end, to be replaced by an era of more moderate, and less sour, information dissemination. The latest example of these clone sites is Cogito Sözlük, whose motto is “Come, come, whoever you are!” This quote—from the Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi—may hint at the larger change wrought by Kapanoğlu’s website in 1999. A far cry, after all, from Portishead.
Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul.