On a recent balmy September evening in L.A., a few hundred stylish young people congregated at YouTube Space L.A. for the third installment of localhost.us, a new event series focused on the intersection of culture and technology, presented by the creative firm Use All Five. The topic of the night was identity; as the Internet continues to swirl and grow around us, how should we approach the fabrication of our online selves?
Participants in the night’s discussion included artist and creative strategist Ryder Ripps and Sus Boy, the self-proclaimed "boogeyman of the Internet." Ryder’s agency OKFocus has worked with clients such as Nike, MOCA, Kenzo, Red Bull, Instagram, and Been Trill, and he is in the beginning phases of a collaboration with Kanye West. Sus Boy, who took to the localhost.us stage wearing a black plastic bag and sunglasses to protect his anonymous anti-hero identity, is creative director of the We Did It Collective, and has created websites, videos, live visuals, and more for Skrillex, Groundislava, and a number of other producers and artists.
I sat down with Ryder and Sus Boy before the event to get their thoughts on working with clients, drawing an audience, and building up a cohesive identity within the fractured digital stratosphere. The following interview reads a bit like a choose your own [identity] adventure game...Follow your ego or wear a mask, the choice is yours.
How do you walk the line between your personal identity as an artist and your business as a creative director?
Sus Boy: Sus Boy was my conscious decision to get away from the confines of business in order to do something that was purely artistic. It’s been interesting how that’s garnered more attention, and people have been inspired to want to work with it. That wasn’t the intention at all. It’s more about entertaining this idea and this concept, and people just seem to want to collaborate with that.
Ryder Ripps: First of all, my business name is OKFocus. I don’t use my own name. OKFocus is a collaboration between myself and my partner, Jules LaPlace, and our work is about finding a meeting place between a concept and a technology. My own [art]work is about whatever I want. I keep a note on my phone that has over 1,000 ideas on it, so there are plenty of things that I would want to execute myself, outside of the bounds of client objectives, that have more cultural objectives.
So when you’re working with a client, who runs the show?
Sus Boy: With the work I used to do, creative control was always a frustration. It’s crazy to think back to being a normal designer. When you’re pitching this fantastic idea, you have all these different tiers for how it breaks down, you've made an identity bible, and you’ve created a whole campaign, and the client buys it, and they love it, but then they just deviate from your plan. Now that I’m doing design work for myself, that control is there. If not, then I don’t want to be involved.
"Being the creative director at OKFocus means I can look into someone else’s soul and figure out who they are."
Ryder Ripps: That’s the hardest thing. Being a smaller agency, it can be tough to convince people that you have the technical prowess to handle every aspect of a project, and people often want to pigeonhole you. They say, "You made something like this, let’s just copy that and do the same thing again."
Being the creative director at OKFocus means I can look into someone else’s soul and figure out who they are. I find cohesion with what they understand the world as, what we understand the world as, and where these two places meet. We don’t chase clients, so when someone wants to work with us, it’s naturally a collaboration. They can’t always articulate it, but something about what we’ve done attracts them, so being able to figure out what they see in OKFocus, and what they need, is kind of the most artistic thing to me.
Ryder, regarding your collaboration with Kanye, how is it working with someone who throws a 100-foot shadow?
Ryder Ripps: Working with someone...I was going to say “someone like him,” but there is no one like him. Working with Kanye is an extremely rewarding, inspiring experience, because he doesn’t just want things in the way that most people want things. He’s really focused on having intellectual integrity and soul in a production. Collaborations with someone like that are extremely emotional and beautiful in a way that is honest to real creativity. Being able to look someone in the eye and see an entire holistic vision of where the world is right now—not just a song, not just an album, not just an album cover—but a holistic vision that permeates throughout. This is something that is extremely unique about Kanye West. I can’t get into details of what we’re working on, but there’s no one in the world who is as intelligent and at such a stage in their career.
Sus Boy, who are you? Why are you anonymous?
Sus Boy: Sus Boy is the boogeyman of the Internet and is something that was festering inside of me. There are so many reasons why I prefer to be anonymous. [When I first got started,] I didn't feel like it was worth it to make it about myself. I’d rather create a characte who could be more ultimate and perfect, that I could shape however I wanted. In that sense, it’s pure. I’m not trying to be unique or original. Rather, it’s about being free from those kinds of binds. Trying to cultivate your identity through yourself just seems a little dangerous. To be able to have something that’s purely an idea means I can go 100% with it.
Do you think the anonymous identity you’ve built up with Sus Boy has translated directly into you having more power?
Sus Boy: Totally, and it’s all about the power of hiding the face. By doing that, I’ve created this abstract concept that other people can truly love. I don’t think that it’s cool to take your identity and sell that. I love my family life, my privacy, and the sanctuary of my own identity. When it comes to the public display of what I’ve created, I can’t get my human self mixed up in that. I guess I’m kind of schizophrenic in that regard. The things that I need to get out of life, this mission that I’m on, I need to dress up as a superhero to do it. It’s like Superman and Clark Kent.
Ryder, the pairing of you and Sus Boy is interesting since his anonymity contrasts boldly with the way you’ve built your online identity to be synonymous with your name. How do you feel about putting your name out there in this way?
Ryder Ripps: I still am uneasy about being Ryder Ripps. I collaborate with a lot of people, and I have a huge amount of respect for people who have skill sets that are not mine. Like Kanye, or anyone who’s great, I can’t just do everything myself. It sounds extremely pompous and diluted, but I really was set up for this role. My skill set and how I think about the world have set me up to be this person.
Do you think that you becoming this person was somewhat random?
Ryder Ripps: No, it’s not random. There are people who make an expression evident. When an expression isn’t evident, it’s convoluted. There are plenty of things in the world which we don’t understand, because we don’t know how they got here. The second you can attach a person to an idea, then we can understand how it got here. Look at architecture. An overt example is Norman Foster, who has 400 people working for him or something, but we only understand his buildings as Norman Foster buildings.
"If people started to hate Sus Boy, I could always create a new character. I put so much of myself into it that I can’t imagine killing him off, but it’s true that I could."
So it’s a responsibility to put your name out there?
Ryder Ripps: Yes, it’s a responsibility. It’s way easier for people to understand something when there’s flesh behind it, and it’s way harder for them to find truth and to get emotionally involved in something when it’s coming from a company or something else that is not living and breathing. People really need that sense of relatability.
Sus Boy, does being anonymous make you feel safer about crafting an online identity?
Sus Boy: Yeah, the whole idea that you could get your identity thrashed on the Internet if you make one mistake is something that’s hard to shake. If people started to hate Sus Boy, I could always create a new character. I put so much of myself into it that I can’t imagine killing him off, but it’s true that I could.
You’ve been working on a fashion line, right? How do you channel Sus Boy’s identity into a fashion line for other people to buy into?
Sus Boy: Making art is about building out your world. With the clothing, every piece manifests the Sus Boy identity. To actually build out these ideas with a fashion brand that could take it there felt like we were really bringing something from the Sus Boy world to life, creating 360 degrees of an idea. To me it’s not about wanting to have a streetwear brand, it’s about making the idea into something real that people can share. If people want to dress up like Sus Boy, that’s the coolest thing ever.
You’re working across so many different platforms—websites, social media, live visuals, music videos, fashion…Do all of these different platforms work together? Or do you feel like your identity is fractured between them?
Sus Boy: The more idea-driven you are, the easier it is to figure out how to bring that idea to life through all these different mediums. At the end of the day, that’s a sign of being a really good designer. You’re not doing a poster [as a one-off], the poster’s just one piece of this giant concept that you’re building out.
People seem to be constantly grappling with how to present themselves online, especially on social media. Why do you think this is?
Sus Boy: That’s something I get confused by, the question of why you even make an online identity. People really want an online identity, and they want a lot of followers, but it’s almost just to validate their existence or something. If you want a a lot of people to pay attention to you, you need to ask yourself, what am I really doing? I see [social media] as more of a giving thing than a receiving thing. It’s not about my identity or myself, rather, I see it as a source of entertainment for other people. When I create a channel on a network, I’m in complete service of the public. I’m trying to build out an entertainment concept, just like MTV, Nickelodeon, Adult Swim, whatever. Within all these social networks, there’s an amazing opportunity for anybody to start their own entertainment network. That’s what I see it as. I want to create my own version of Ren and Stimpy, an idea that everyone can share and love and participate in.
"There is no real self. It’s a feedback loop."
So then why is your Instagram set to private?
Sus Boy: I just did that recently. I think Instagram is so successful because of the confines in its structure. These kinds of simplicities are what attract people and what create a language for sharing ideas. So for Sus Boy, I like to think about all the different ways I can manipulate the structure.
Do you accept everyone who requests to follow you?
Sus Boy: I’ve definitely declined a few, that’s for sure. It’s interesting to go through that process of having to accept somebody. Even if I accepted everybody, it creates a weird interaction between us where I have the ability to say no to you, creating yet another suspicious layer. Sus Boy is all about surrounding everything with that mystery. That’s a part of the participation, that’s a part of the entertainment.
In the future, will there be a difference between people’s online selves and IRL selves?
Ryder Ripps: There is no real self. It’s a feedback loop.
So there’s no difference between online and offline identity?
Ryder Ripps: There often is a difference, but it’s transparent and is a reflection of reality. The difference is more about how the conception of other people’s identities, and the presentation of those identities, factor into the choices we make about our own. That’s what culture is; it’s about how signifiers are consumed and then regurgitated. It’s all just style.
I asked my friend the other day, because I’m from New York, how do people find out what to wear in L.A., where you’re always in a car, and you don’t really get to people-watch? In a sense, that is how the Internet works. The process of finding out what to wear takes place through the feed. Once you start participating in it, it becomes a feedback loop where the feed is the street, and what we see online informs who we are in real life. So it’s not a question of how people translate their real life personas into their online personas; it’s more a question of how people look at the Internet and change themselves.