Perspective, Issue 1: Matt Alexander

This post was written when I was a child, I’m only keeping it here for archival purposes. All of these words should be only taken in context. This interview in particular is interesting to look back upon.

Perspective is about the views of our current landscape by those who make, write, speak, code, and design our future. Those who aren’t afraid to walk a different road, those who say no to the status quo. Today, in our inauguratory episode, Matt Alexander of One37 fame sits with me to discuss the current journalistic landscape and what he thinks could be done to improve it.

Cristian Colocho: Briefing myself with the earlier years of One37, it seems that your focus initially was technology with a dose of enterprise. Recently though, your writing has been more philosophical, with less business jargon and more broader ideals. Is this something that you did consciously, or was this change in tone a side effect of the progression of you, as a person?

Matt Alexander: Last year, when I started writing and producing content for the site, I didn’t really know what I wanted it to become. I was in the midst of an unfulfilling corporate job and I just needed an outlet. In the back of my mind, I hoped starting a website would allow me to gain credibility and find a route away from my job, but, really, I didn’t know what I was trying to build.

Without prompt, I set up the domain, the back-end, and started writing about anything and everything that seemed fitting. At first, this naturally defaulted to articles about Netflix and Google, as that seemed to be the right thing to do. I looked at successful writers and I attempted to emulate their respective styles and formats.

Although I certainly got a lot of attention and links for that style of writing, it just wasn’t fulfilling. I’d become indistinguishable from virtually every other Apple-centric writer blathering on about coffee, antique keyboards, and my personal struggle toward full-time blogging. Regurgitating snarky one sentence comments from John Gruber and uninteresting PR-driven content from TechCrunch was, ultimately, an effort in futility.

It was in January, 2012 that the shift in style occurred. I wrote a controversial article for The Loop about the life-limitation of E-Ink technology and was promptly picked up by an enormous number of large-scale publications. Out of all of these, Marco Arment, founder of Tumblr and Instapaper, took sincere issue with what I had to say. Rather than passively sit back and let this highly revered person claim my inaccuracy, I wrote a sincere response articulating precisely why I had made the argument.

After that, despite his obvious disagreement, my website’s traffic went through the roof. I realized that deviating from the perceived norms of the community was an extraordinarily rewarding thing to do. Rather than mindlessly endorsing successful Apple community members and perpetuating tired perspectives about Apple, Google, and Microsoft, I decided that my weblog should be different.

Since February or March, I’ve given myself permission to do just that. My diction and style has certainly alienated some of my early supporters, but, in return, I’ve gained so many more people. And although the site isn’t huge yet, I know that my readership is comprised of a great many people I truly respect. And, more than anything else, I’ve opened my mind to so much more.

So, thinking about your question, I don’t think the shift was necessarily representative of any personality change. I just realized that success does not stem from trying to fit into a misperceived mold. I gave myself license to write and behave in my own way and I stopped pretending to want to be something different. In return, the website and podcast are on a path I enjoy. And, really, that’s the most important thing.

CC: I totally understand the idea of deviating from the norm. It’s always a fear in the back of my mind when I write content. That fear of becoming just another Daring Fireball clone. However, I don’t think writers become a clone because they want to, I think they want to be accepted by other writers in the community. Which is easiest by running a Daring Fireball style blog.

Speaking of writers who write content just for people to skim, rather than consume, I want to ask you for your current opinion of the multi-man news sites. Ones such as The Verge, Android Police, and 9to5Mac.

Do you think that such sites are irrevocably going down the hole in an attempt to publish mundane content for page views? Or do you see it as a passing trend?

MA: When I was last in San Francisco for Apple’s WWDC, I remember running into a lot of journalists for larger publications. Unlike the independent folks there, like myself, these writers were stressed, tired, and were all trying to secure the same meetings to get ahold of the same betas and the same stories. Although, in many respects, their day-to-day writing is much more legitimate than mine, there was an obvious pang of resentment between the independent folks and the professional journalists. A small, but palpable rift. The independents were sitting in bars and coffee shops, whilst the professionals were all in an unacknowledged cold war with each other.

The trouble is that, as you say, there are innumerable large-scale technology publications. Some pander more toward an Apple audience, some more toward Google, and some aim for a more cultural voice, but, at the end of the day, all of them are in the business of making content which is inherently shareable and likable. Without imparting a sense of excitement to the reader in each headline and article, these publications come unceremoniously tumbling to the ground. Content is, sadly, secondary for most.

So, in some respects, I have an enormous amount of respect for the amount of work these writers and editors put into the creation of popular content. Into setting themselves apart from their competitors, and trying to report news in the best and most eye-catching way. But, in a much more idealistic sense, I’ve grown jaded to the whole process. I’m tired of a catchy headline supported by unsubstantiated content.

I believe there are some exceptions, though. Above all others in the tech arena, I enjoy The Verge. I link to them frequently, I enjoy their media and cultural coverage, and I think they do fantastic video reports, too. The folks there stand apart from their peers simply due to the fact that the publication feels purpose-built for the contemporary Internet. There’s a focus on quality of content, but also on user engagement. It’s an endearing and forward-thinking combination — one that I believe is certainly conducive to success.

Similarly, as odd as it sounds, I’ve really been enjoying the frank and humorous coverage at BuzzFeed FWD, as well. The folks there have managed to hone a signature tone and have done a great job popularizing it.

The trouble I have is when it comes to most of the “Me too!” publications you come across. The sort that willfully break NDAs and embargoes simply due to the fact that they’re too lazy to do any actual reporting for new information. Most of these have a “9to5” or a “Cult” slapped in front of an uninspired name. It’s embarrassing and it cheapens the entire point of both journalism and writing.

So, back to the question, I think plenty of publications will survive. Within that pack, though, most will merely continue to subsist off the blood, sweat, and tears of the people trying to further the medium. The easiest way to spot the ones that’ll go far is by looking for the ones drawing the most ire from bloggers. In my area of the Internet, that amounts to, coincidentally, The Verge and BuzzFeed. They’re drawing upset for new revenue models, new reporting methods, and for having embraced new media — all good reasons for confidence in them, but items which remain controversial to the stubborn old guard.

CC: Publications such as The Verge truly are pushing the envelope when it comes to how, where, and what they cover. Some independent bloggers however, such as Ben Brooks, seem to believe that publications such as The Verge still have huge faults, even if they are pushing everything else forward.

Are you a supporter of the idea that those such as Ben Brooks have, that writers (and more specifically, reviewers) should be much more subjective in their writing? The idea that they should have more enmity, using the buzzworthy “bullshit” in order to show what they really mean, opposed to being somewhat vague for the sake of making the review appeal to more readers.

MA: Ben has taken a very aggressive stance toward The Verge which I feel to be ill-placed. It began with his dislike of their layout, then their editorial process, and most recently — again — their layout.

Honestly, I think the reviewers at The Verge are doing a fantastic job. In fact, if there’s one thing worth paying attention to there, it’d be the quality of their reviews and all of the media embellishments therein.

The argument made against them is that, when dealing with computers that bear a resemblance to a Mac, for instance, reviewers sometimes tend not to go out of their way to make a significant point of it. Although I understand the upset over intellectual property theft and trademark infringement, the problem here is that Apple’s designs have frequently graduated into reference models for the industry. Apple-esque design is bound to surface in the competition and, no, it most certainly does not warrant a boycott of products or a lengthy controversy-laden tirade against a company.

A sub-$300 Chromebook looks like a Mac? If anything, that might encourage buyers looking for an attractive and affordable computer. It need not turn into a misguided drubbing of Samsung or Acer. It’s just not a matter worth delving into.

What Ben fails to acknowledge is that the larger market — let alone the publishing world — does not need to abide by his set of standards and ethics. Perhaps he has a point that a given Samsung Ultrabook looks strikingly like a MacBook Air, but what service is lost for the reader by choosing not to belabor the point? Most of his arguments — and, indeed, many of the arguments made by independent commentators everywhere — leveled against publications like The Verge are utterly steeped in personal standards. And, oddly enough, his argument that reviewers should acknowledge these faults would — if anything — impose much more stringent rules and checks upon editorial content. Certainly not free it up.

Not to harp on Ben, but he recently published, without prompt, an article grading the layouts of a variety of popular websites. Based upon standards set out by his own personal weblog, Ben proceeded to dish out failing grades to innumerable publications for what appears to be little more than self-gratification. Publications both large and small could not possibly operate in such a baffling, self-righteous, and arrogant manner without significant backlash, contrary to what Ben might have you believe.

At the end of the day, unlike Ben’s weblog, publications like The Verge are in the business of informing a broad swath of consumers — both technology literate and otherwise. They are not specialized or company dogmatic publications, they are informative websites that have a vested interest in not alienating an enormous segment of users based upon the subjective perspectives of one upset reviews editor.

If all publications operated on the Ben Brooks scale, few would make any money, none would have a sustainable readership, and no one would able to attain review units in the first place.

CC: To switch topics, I want to ask you about your podcast, Bionic. For those who don’t know, the show is a look at competitive ecosystems to the one of Apple, primarily Android.

Where do you see the podcast itself going? Is it one day that you find yourself using Android and a Chromebook, or do you believe that the correct path to take is the one of an outside spectator?

MA: Bionic has been quite an adventure so far. We’ve got a lot of news related to the show that’ll be coming out in the coming weeks, but, for now, I’ll just say that we have big plans for the show.

When Myke came to me with the show concept, the initial idea was to chat only about Android — a topic I was most certainly not qualified for. At the same time, having decided that I wanted to increase the sense of balance in my writing, the prospect was quite exciting. So, at first, we focused purely upon the perspectives of iOS users of Android. And, famously, this resulted in me deeming Android the superior mobile operating system.

Of course, more recently, this has grown into a larger discussion about the competitive ecosystems we see in the technology space. Virtually every facet of technology is moving toward an existence as a living platform, rather than standing alone as independent products.

So, although we certainly focus on Android, I’m really thinking about a lot of competing products these days. On one hand, I can see myself buying an Android phone next year should iOS’ developmental stagnation continue. On the other, should Windows Phone get an unforeseen shot in the arm, I could end up there too. As far as a Chromebook goes, I have a strange affinity for those things and could well end up with one within the next month or two.

If there’s anything I’ve taken away from Bionic, it’s that I’m invested in the best and most innovative products that fit my lifestyle. At the moment, I have enormous respect and admiration for Android, but it just doesn’t fit my day-to-day. But, within 12 months, I imagine that could undergo a significant change. And I’m really excited about that.

CC: Bionic certainly has been a joy to listen to. It’s been interesting as an android user to listen to what the preconceived notions of Apple users were, and how they have changed.

For my last question, I want to end in the most cliché way possible.

Where do you see technology moving forward, whether it be wearable devices like Google Glass, wrist watches that are tied to our phones, or even the Microsoftonian idea of having one device to rule them all?

MA: Well, I’m pleased you’ve enjoyed. It’s always a pleasure to hear that people have derived some enjoyment from my amateurish ramblings.

In terms of the future, I suspect the trend will be toward a complete permeation of technology and interconnectivity into our lives. Beyond the self-contained smartphone, tablet, and computer, virtually every element of our human experience will be inevitably governed by a sense of harmonized communication.

Google Glass, the Nike Fuelband, and Nest Thermostats, to name only three, are present day examples of futuristic technology. Nike is commoditizing the calorie within an ecosystem of interconnected products to track your wellness, Nest is changing conceptions of how a digital home should behave, and, most ambitious of all, Google Glass is seeking to redefine the very way in which we engage with the world.

We’ve all collectively referred to the past decade or two as being an explosive era of life-changing innovation. With the rise of the Internet at the heart of the equation, the very landscape of the world has changed. And, as companies like Google begin to dabble with the most far-reaching possibilities within this environment, I believe we’re on the cusp of a significant redefinition of the way we interact with each other, products, and, moreover, the world. Google Glass may not be the look of things to come, but I think it’s unquestionably a harbinger of change for all of us.

When you take a step back, in the most trite way possible, there are really some amazing things happening around us today. It won’t be long before these futuristic ideas are realized, but most of us won’t even feel the shift. We’re already expecting it.

CC: As they say, there’s truly never a better time than today.

I’d like to thank you for sitting down with me for this interview today, great insight as always.

MA: Thanks very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure!

You can follow Matt Alexander on Twitter at @mattalexand, or on at @MattAlexander. He also writes at One37, and speaks on his podcast, Bionic.