An epiphany about gadgets, blogs, and what people want.
When the iPhone 4S was released earlier this month, gadget junkies flipped out. In part because it was the first big unveiling from new Apple CEO Tim Cook, and in part because it wasn’t the long-lusted-for iPhone 5, tech blogs went wild and analyzed every little thing about the event, from the screen size to the new Siri digital assistant to who put pictures of it on the internet first.
What if you’re merely wondering whether you ought to buy it or not?
That’s where Brian Lam comes in. The former editorial director of Gizmodo, Gawker Media’s 40-plus-posts-a-day gadget blog (and one of the editors involved in the great iPhone 4 prototype leak), Lam experienced something of a mid-career crisis. It led him to a trenchant critique of the gadget industry and the journalists who cover it. Part systemic critique, part warning to the blog generation, Lam is throwing page views overboard.
“I just don’t want to spend my 30s the way I spent my 20s, doing this pop content, “ he says. “My main problem is with the noise. You have these publications that are getting investments, that are growing so fast, but it is tons of noise, slideshows, op-eds all the time. I believe in personal technology, I do, but I don’t believe you need to read 60 posts a day on a gadget blog to get that service.”
To solve the problem, Lam launched a new site, Wirecutter, designed to separate the wheat—clarity about the role of consumer technology—from the chaff—hundreds of posts detailing every rumor and iterative update in the gadget world.
Tech companies, Lam says, are driven by market pressure and internal incentives to create “15 tvs instead of three. It’s like a big scam, people have to make traffic and people are trying to sell gadgets.”
Lam remembers reviewing a high-end Sony television in 2007 that was wildly expensive, but dropped in price over the next few years. Sony analysts would ask him not to compare their newer low-end tvs to the older version because it’s picture quality and value far outstripped the newer models. “The true cadence of gadgets,” he concluded, “is not represented in the blog flow that’s reverse chronological.”
His new site, then, is largely a list of items ("the leaderboard") with titles like “The Good TV I’d Get” or “The WiFi Router You Want.” Lam’s goal is to build on his experience as a gadget reviewer and editor with a large network of tech journalists to handle all the painful parts of the shopping experience—research—and let consumers have all the fun. The Wirecutter's recommendations won't always be cutting-edge, but, he hopes, will be the best value, the right fit for the right person, or simply what he'd buy.
But in a media world built on noise–the slideshows, overblown headlines, and inanity that drives those lucrative clicks—Lam has had to make some sacrifices, cutting his cost of living by 70 percent, a move that included trading his newish car for an old Toyota truck, renting his house on Airbnb, and sleeping in a Vanagon. All that has allowed him to make his labor of love a reality.
Despite his preparations for the lifestyle of a low-intensity blogger, the site has the potential to make money. The Awl family of blogs partners with Lam to provide the infrastructure and advertising for his site: a mix of sponsored posts, banner advertising and commission-driven click through links to purchase the gadgets Lam and his friends recommend.
Choire Sicha, another Gawker Media alum and the co-proprietor of the Awl family, says the tech space sits smack in the middle the venn diagram of lucrative advertising and reader interest, but until Lam came along, it seemed hard to find a way to approach the topic in a way that didn’t, well, suck.
“Tech is a super-crowded space, it's a real page view churn business, and it all gets kind of unfun really fast. Which isn't our cup of tea!” Sicha says. “We all thought Brian's ideas about how to do this, in his groovy laid-back way, made sense as a way to address this thing that people like while also having a good time and not being boring, which is the worst thing imaginable.”
Lam, for all his cynicism about the gadget industry, still hasn’t forgotten what makes consumer tech so great in the first place, calling the site’s occasional post on amazing things, “tech as magic."
Magic best served slowly, with a dash of restraint.