AOL Shut Down His Website. Then Laid Him Off After Nearly 10 Years. So What’s Victor Agreda Jr. Going to Do Next?

In Cover Stories, News by Coury Turczynleave a COMMENT

Stacked against the walls of Victor Agreda Jr.’s modest ranch house in North Knoxville is a brazen assemblage of physical media—exactly the sort of old fashioned, dust-gathering stuff that most technology experts are supposed to have abandoned years ago. Hard copies of books, movies, and video games crowd shelves and floor space, vying for attention amid an invading army of pop-culture toys peeking out from the hedgerows: Dr. Who, Disney, Star Wars, Star Trek, and a sizable number of Japanese magic tricks manufactured by Tenyo.

Gathered at the base of a flat-screen TV is a compendium of geekdom’s most sacred DVDs, including the Lost box set, the Criterion Collection edition of Brazil, and the 1958 Alec Guinness Technicolor comedy The Horse’s Mouth. Although streaming these artifacts of entertainment history would make for a tidier living room, it’s clear that Agreda has configured this space as a comfort zone, a three-dimensional expression of his innermost self: proud 41-year-old nerd.

Follow the trail of tchotchkes around the room and it will ultimately lead you to an Apple II, the great invention of Steve Wozniak that unleashed Steve Jobs’ marketing prowess, the combination of which made computer technology accessible to everyday people in a way that still informs the industry today. Agreda’s Bolivian-born engineer father purchased the personal computer in 1978 when he was 6 years old and growing up in Kingsport, Tenn. It was the launchpad for his unlikely career in tech media.

Victor Agreda Jr. at the helm of his living room broadcast studio.

Victor Agreda Jr. at the helm of his living room broadcast studio.

Right now, on a Friday afternoon, surrounded by the detritus of his obsessions, it’s show time. Agreda situates himself at his workstation, plugging a headset into his laptop and preparing to go on the air with a microphone before him and a webcam aimed at his impressively coiffed mug. But the production studio is actually located in Austin, Texas. His interview subject is in New Jersey. And his broadcast will not be carried on a traditional network.

“Hi, this is Victor Agreda Jr. with Coders and this week we’re talking to Justin Esgar about software project management,” he announces in soothing, FM-radio-worthy tones. “But first, here’s a word from our sponsor.”

Coders is not something you can catch on TV, even on one of those satellite channels in the 500s. It’s a production of RCR Wireless News, a trade-media website for the wireless industry, which describes the show thusly: “Coders is a weekly look at the fundamental computer science driving the telecom networks that keep the world connected. This includes apps, BSS, OSS, APIs and more.” Indeed. But Agreda is genuinely enthusiastic about every arcane detail, and not just because this is part of his work as Knoxville’s one and only tech media star. He loves this stuff.

“We had a fascinating conversation a while back about how hardware is becoming abstracted into software,” he says, his voice progressively accelerating as he becomes more and more excited by the prospect. “If you set up a Mac lab with 20 Macs, one or two are going to behave differently in some way for some reason. So the idea is that now they’ll be able to know all this in software so you won’t have to have an IT guy go, ‘Oh, well, that’s this thing, so we’ve got to switch this bit on that in order for it to talk to this thing.’ You’ll actually have software that’s intelligent, that knows ‘That’s this manufacturer, just reroute for this.’

“It’s really kind of crazy Ultron/Jarvis-type stuff, but that’s actually what’s coming up right now. Software in general is becoming more intelligent, and the network layer is actually becoming more intelligent. So a big part of what we do is to teach people that the software you’re making actually has a hardware component, and all of these things are merging and coming together and becoming more powerful.”

Technological prognostication—and making it at least somewhat understandable to laypeople—is just one of the skill sets that Agreda has honed for the past decade. As a writer and editor of The Unofficial Apple Weblog, aka TUAW, he guided what was one of the most respected Apple news blogs in tech media, leading a staff of bloggers from his Knoxville home. That ended abruptly in February when its owner, AOL, decided to “simplify” its portfolio of brands, which includes TechCrunch and The Huffington Post, by shutting down TUAW and video-game site Joystiq. It’s the sort of predictable corporate decision you read about every week on, well, tech blogs as once-world-conquering companies prepare themselves for humble buyouts, in this case by Verizon.

Since then, Agreda has been improvising a freelance career based in his living room that includes writing articles, producing keynote presentations, and hosting streaming talk shows. However, the new vocation he has been striving most to get off the ground for the past several months is decidedly different: playing video games live on the Internet while people watch. (Yeah, that’s a thing now.)

But can he possibly make a living at it?

Agreda is banking on his grasp of digital media, his technical knowledge—and his ability to crack jokes, even about the bleakest parts of his life.

***

COVER_0702_agreda11The day Victor Agreda Jr. got laid off was not unlike any other work day for him. Which is to say, he was at home, prepping his articles for the day, living the telecommuting dream promised to us since the late ’90s: a job that can be worked at anywhere, far away from any one particular office. For Agreda, this meant cranking out news and opinion daily about the biggest company in the world, Apple.

He had gotten the job by being an exceptionally good online commenter. In 2004, Agreda was teaching multimedia, Web development, and game design at ITT Technical Institute in Knoxville. That same year, a New York City-based startup called Weblogs, Inc. had concocted a business model of paying just a bit of money to bloggers who were doing it for free anyway, enlisting the most talented ones to launch several soon-to-be-major sites: Engadget, Joystiq, Autoblog, and TUAW. Agreda ran his own blog, Solution Spheres, about Apple-centric tips and hacks, like making an iPod case out of a milk jug. Once TUAW launched, he immediately became a reader—as well as its highest-rated commenter. (“I looked at it like community moderation—I tried to come in and be the voice of reason.”)

Both his blogging and his commenting got him the attention of editors at Weblogs, and Agreda started writing for Download Squad, a site that launched in late 2005 to review software downloads. (We call them “apps” now.) He started out earning $4 per post. In October of that year, AOL acquired Weblogs, Inc. for $25 million, all cash. It was a smart move for AOL, which desperately needed content to sell ads around—its bread and butter revenue stream, dial-up Internet access, was drying up. (Though it yet remains one of AOL’s most profitable divisions, which says a lot in itself.)

At first, AOL’s ownership was a boon. Agreda got hired, his bilingual abilities serving to help manage Autoblog and Engadget’s Spanish properties. Soon, he was managing around 10 sites, not as the editor-in-chief, but assisting each site’s equivalent, which they called “lead bloggers.” Eventually, his official title became “Programming Manager Level 2.” As more and more sites fell by the wayside, Agreda found himself only working on TUAW and taking on more and more responsibility as the site lost lead bloggers who got full-time job offers elsewhere. About three years ago, he became the de facto editor because, he says, the company couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.

“So I took over as editor-in-chief and tried to set the vision for what we wanted to do,” he says. “TUAW had become a respected organization because we’d been around for a long time and certainly I like to think that over the years we tried to maintain a certain sort of editorial integrity. We never had anyone get paid to write a review from a developer—there was none of that.”

John Michael Bond, an Atlanta-based writer and editor for TUAW, confirms Agreda’s adherence to what have now become “old-school” journalistic values, such as verifying facts before posting stories—which may have cost them views. (TUAW peaked at about 3 million unique visitors a month.)

“Victor hates clickbait and rumors that turn out to be false. Editorially, he wanted readers to come to TUAW for information they knew they could count on to be accurate,” Bond says. “Some other publications, especially within the Apple blogging universe, get big traffic from posting hearsay. There were certainly times when he’d tell me to not run with a story unless I could 100 percent back it up, even when our competitors were going full steam ahead.”

Among Apple-focused blogs like Apple Insider and Mac Rumors, TUAW stood apart with a more critical approach that helped it avoid charges of “fanboyism.” In the overpopulated world of tech blogetry, there are Android fans, Apple fans, and (waning yet still adamant) Microsoft fans—and they all regularly overrun the comments sections of technology articles to accuse each other of blind worship to their platform of choice. (The few platform-agnostic commenters attempt to keep the peace to no avail.) This can be goaded along by any perceived bias of the site itself in reporting the latest developments from Cupertino.

“There was definitely this attitude of ‘Oh, well if you are fans of Apple, how can you be impartial?’” he says. “All I can say is, let me point you to the thousands of articles we published yearly that were incredibly critical. If you look, I probably made more than several enemies at Apple with some of the stuff I published. Me personally—stuff that I wrote.”

That includes one of his last few pieces published in January (“Is Apple’s Quality Slipping?”) in which he declared “Apple’s software … appears to have slipped off the cracker.” Such editorial stances were noticed, even in more mainstream media. In Fast Company’s obituary for TUAW, writer Harry McCracken declared the blog to have “long been one of the most dependable sources of Apple news” and that “not having the site as part of my daily regimen is going to be disorienting.”

That reputation may have also been due to AOL not assuming much editorial control over TUAW.  “I used to joke that we were like Tatooine—we were part of the Empire, but we were this far-flung outpost so they really didn’t mess with us very much,” Agreda says.

But that lack of interest extended into even the overall content strategy of the sites that AOL had purchased in order to develop a content strategy.

“I’ll have to say if AOL had listened to the Weblogs group it had acquired over 10 years ago, it probably would have made the transformation it’s making now sooner and faster and better,” Agreda says. “But the problem with that was—and this is the nature of big bureaucracies—the people involved with our acquisition within a year were almost all gone from the company. So we were orphaned.”

Agreda sensed that he might finally see changes—of an unpleasant sort—when management shifts last year resulted in a rather unusual reporting structure for him.

“I knew it was the beginning of the end when I had two bosses on two different coasts,” Agreda says. “And I thought, ‘Okay, here comes the Empire.’ That’s when you see the Star Destroyer in orbit above and you’re like, ‘Hmmm, something’s going on.’”

When one of those bosses left in November and the other one kept pushing off teleconferences with him, his suspicions grew. Finally, he got a phone call from his remaining boss “and that was pretty much it”—TUAW was abruptly shut down Feb. 3. The reason why is pretty simple: AOL couldn’t figure out how to sell ads for it. While it could be argued that TUAW was competing against AOL’s other, bigger tech sites, Engadget and TechCrunch, it had a loyal audience and potential advertisers. The problem was AOL’s sales structure, and the economy of scale it worked on, required big ad buys rather than lots of smaller ones, Agreda says.

“We left millions of dollars on the table. AOL could’ve made a lot of money off of TUAW, they could’ve made a lot of money off of Joystiq before they axed them, but they didn’t have a sales organization that was set up to sell that way,” he says. “They had a sales organization that was set up to sell for the ’90s, which is when AOL started. It was incongruous with the way the Internet works.”

Imagine being a tech-media expert working for a tech-media company that constantly gets tech media wrong. Then imagine being suddenly relieved of that feeling of powerlessness. For Agreda, it was liberating.

“Honestly, there’s a part of me that’s very relieved to no longer worry about page views, building an audience of billions within minutes—this ridiculousness that every content company thinks that every human being on the planet is going to read you 24 hours a day. Think about it—logically, if you want to have a growth curve, isn’t that the endpoint: every single human being, including fetuses, reading you 24 hours a day and clicking on every single ad? That’s insanity. So, I was kind of like, ‘You know what? No. Not going to do that.’” 

So, he pivoted. A hard 180.

***

COVER_0702_agreda6The first thing you might notice about Victor Agreda Jr. is his hair. It’s really quite marvelous—a mass of unruly curls that appears ready to swoop off his head at any moment, perhaps restrained only by his sharp widow’s peak part. When he wears a bow tie and black glasses, he looks like a mad professor or irascible pundit—and you know he knows it. If he had a handlebar mustache, he’d probably twirl it just for fun.

On Facebook, he toys with his profile photos as if they are an ongoing public experiment in self-image. He appears as mimes, clowns, and (with the help of various apps) painted portraits. None of this obsessive tweaking is to make him look better than he does, as if often the case on Facebook—in his normal state, he’s actually a handsome fellow. Rather, it demonstrates his willingness to play different roles, even if it’s just within a small square of pixels.

Agreda often makes these same trials on stage as well, in his other life as a local stand-up comedian. If you watch the video of his early performance at the finals of the 2010 Rocky Top Comedy Contest (at funnyordie.com), you’ll see him testing the limits of propriety, not really sure of where he’ll land. His routine starts with jokes about hairy butt­holes, moves on to middle-aged online dating (he’s divorced, but onstage he insists his penis is still a teenager in “dick years”), and continues to his father’s embarrassing revelation about his conception. The best part may be his big finish, reading from Craigslist’s “missed connections” section, wherein one person posted, “Looking for the guy who did me in Walmart.”

He’s come a long way since then. “I believe that comedy has a profound influence on humanity,” he says. “If you can make someone laugh, they drop their guard and they might listen a little bit to something that maybe they wouldn’t listen to normally. It has real power.” So he’s been working to make his comedy more personal, more political, more bizarre.

Local freelance writer/consultant Shane Rhyne first met Agreda via social media about five years ago, then got to know him better as they both tackled local comedy rooms. He describes Agreda’s current performance style as being experimental, combining traditional stand-up, stage magic, ventriloquism, and clowning to create a singularly surreal act. “Victor has a definite vision of what his crazy onstage world looks like, and he’s loyal to that vision,” Rhyne says, even if it means taking on stand-up comedy itself.

“I think a lot of Victor’s comedy is built on the idea of making fun of the rules we impose on ourselves,” Rhyne says. “Even his inside jokes about comedy are playful jabs at what comedians expect a comedy performance to be. He makes you laugh at his attempts to break the rules and then ask yourself why those rules are so important in the first place.”

One performance in particular intersected both Agreda’s social media and onstage lives, sparked by his infrequent bouts with depression in his real life.

Facebook is an unavoidable factor in Agreda’s line of work—as a digital professional, you must build your own personal audience of followers in order to prove your worth to employers. Most of his posts consist of funny updates, industry news, or political statements of the sort that result in unfriending by the less tolerant. But when Agreda descends into one of his infrequent depressive states, he sometimes uses Facebook as a way to vent rather than to seek help through therapy or actual friends. This can result in making public statements he later deeply regrets, one of which spurred an even further descent into darkness.

“Even though it was a vaguebook post, I said some pretty mean stuff about someone that I cared about, and she knew it was about her,” he says. “No one else would have known. And the worst part about that, too, is people seeing it out of context—it’s kind of like a gladiator moment where I’m feeding this person to the lions and everyone around me has the bloodlust cheer going on. So I deleted all of that, but I did damage to that relationship to this day that has not been repaired.

“That’s one of those things where you realize the power of social media, because you can shame people, you can embarrass people, you can harm people. And that’s because if you have more than three friends on Facebook, you wield a certain amount of power.”

The realization of just how badly he had ruined the relationship sent him into a state of near-total dysfunction—he would just lie in bed all day, unmoving, not wanting to do anything. He didn’t pursue any freelance work. He didn’t go out. He felt physically ill.

“There were times where I would feel like I had a body cold—it’s almost like an adrenaline rush, like when you feel like you’re going to die or something. It’s this creeping, under-the-skin feeling,” he recalls. “So I knew that wasn’t right, that wasn’t normal. That, coupled with dark thoughts. So it was one of those things where it’s like, ‘Is this a scratch? No, wait, my hand is missing.’”

COVER_0702_agreda9On June 6, though, there was to be a farewell show at Pilot Light for Knoxville comedy ringleader Matt Ward, one of Agreda’s best friends in the scene. So he devised a particularly bizarre challenge for himself: He would perform as a mime who was also a ventriloquist. And his puppet would have a mental breakdown because it’s not allowed to talk.

“I was kind of joking in the weeks coming up to that that I could cry on command. That’s how much anger and anxiety and fear and other emotions were in me—I could just release them like that,” he says, snapping his fingers, “and weep tears on command. I would remain completely emotionless while this puppet is screaming at me. So my goal was for at the end of the bit to be crying on stage.”

The comedic gambit didn’t work, though. When it came time for the puppet’s breakdown, Agreda no longer had the emotional power to make himself cry in that way. Which lends some credence to the common myth about why comedians become comedians: self-therapy.

(Please note that Agreda is starting to see a therapist now. One of his latest Facebook posts: “I’m super happy with my life. Who doesn’t look back from time to time with a tinge of regret? But then you take inventory and realize, there are no regrets—life is good right now because of everything that led me to this moment.”)

Meanwhile, Rhyne remembers it as being a great performance.

“It was four or five minutes of complete silence on stage, and yet it built in energy as the audience became more and more a part of the absurd scenario,” he recalls. “By the time he was finished, the room was roaring in laughter.”

***

COVER_0702_agreda8According to technology research firm Gartner, global video-game sales will reach $111.1 billion this year. That’s famously more money than the glamorous film industry makes. And that’s where Agreda has decided to steer himself, though toward one rather small but growing subset of the business: actually just playing the games.

Twitch.tv livestreams games that people play on their PCs and consoles. Gamers can put themselves on camera and use a mic to add an ongoing commentary. Users, in turn, can subscribe to feeds they like and chat with the gamers as they play. In 2014, Twitch was estimated to have been the fourth-largest source of peak Internet traffic in the U.S. Consequently, Amazon bought it that same year for nearly $1 billion. This year, Twitch claims 1.5 million broadcasters and 100 million visitors per month. It’s only 4 years old.

You may wonder: Why would anyone want to watch other people play video games?

“I observed this stuff for a while and I thought it was really fascinating, because this is very much like the early days of blogging, where you would as an individual creator put something out there and people would interact with you,” Agreda says. “But it’s live and it’s video games. And it’s really compelling, in some cases. A lot of it was boring—one kid just sitting there, staring at the screen, not talking to anybody. But some of it was really fascinating. I found this one girl who’s 16 years old streaming Grand Theft Auto—she’s just messing around, but everybody who would come in she would shout out. It was this multi-tasking miracle.” 

Even famed YouTubers like Captain Sparkles and Markiplier are doing it. So why not him? Agreda came up with a concept: He would make video-game broadcasts that were more like talk shows, but the guests would be playing the games.

Thus, Angry Dad Gamer was born, the tag based on how he would often behave while playing video games with his children, Weston and Belle. He invested in a giant black obelisk of a gaming PC, plus lighting equipment, which he installed in his living room. Then he invited friends and comedians, such as Wil Wright (aka “Lil Iffy”), Ward, or touring comics, to come over and play.

“My original concept was Mystery Science Theater with video games,” he says. “Mystery Science Theater was logistically very hard to do because they would have to watch a two-hour movie to completion, write jokes throughout the movie, and then go back and massage those jokes a couple of times. By the end of it, they were so sick of watching the damn movie, but then they had to do the performance.

“I found that here it’s pretty much impossible. We only have so many comedians, so many artists that can come in and do that process.”

So, he’s expanded his offerings with parodies, reviews, and even board-game playthroughs, cross-posting them on YouTube. But since launching Angry Dad Gamer in May, he’s garnered 90 followers—not anywhere near enough to generate revenue from ads on Twitch. Same goes for his views on YouTube. More successful has been his page on Recurrency, which is a crowdfunding site that utilizes small monthly payments from supporters rather than one lump sum.

“So I haven’t made any money off of YouTube or Twitch,” he admits. “It’s all through Recurrency right now, and it’s not even close to enough to live on. It’s not even a car payment right now.”

Unless you happen to have a video go viral, or already enjoy online fame, building a sizable audience to monetize on Twitch can be daunting. It could take another six months or more of nearly nightly gaming for Agreda to earn more followers—an onerous prospect, even for someone who loves video games. Fortunately, Agreda has another new business in the works that he and a friend are establishing in San Francisco, requiring him to live there part-time starting in September. All he can say about it now is that it’s “a legal thing” that’ll be very different from the work he’s been doing for the past decade.

“I won’t be writing a whole lot, I won’t be producing video—but I almost became a lawyer. I have high reading comprehension and logic skills and all those good things lawyers need,” Agreda says. “I just hated the paperwork. Literally. A big part of what we’re doing relies on the fact that I spent 10 years building a network of technologists across the world. That’s what we’re going to be leveraging; it’s my network, and it’s my ability to communicate and understand these things.”

It will also help further Angry Dad Gamer—Agreda is planning on setting up a studio at their new flat and inviting developers to play. “One of the things we’re looking at is setting up in San Francisco and actually having people who design the game come and play their game, and comment like a live director’s commentary.”

It’s a great idea—and it might just be the next pivot that’ll make Angry Dad Gamer an even happier man.

Coury Turczyn

Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.

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