We recently spoke with Brian Lam, a writer from Wirecutter who has a 10 year history in technology journalism at Wired and Gizmodo. He now reviews and researches the latest innovations in ‘gadgetry’ for the company’s website. In the interview below, Lam discusses the goals of the company and how Wirecutter stays on the cutting edge of consumer electronics.
Can you intro Wirecutter?
The Wirecutter is basically a quick guide to what the best choices are in gadgetry, backed up by lots of research.
There appears to be only one product per category. Where are the other product listings?
Well, the original vision of the site was to have one major choice per category. We’ve stuck to that in terms of the design of the page, the items and the image on the top. It’s focused around one gadget, but we have cheated a little bit and put in some alternatives in the story, that will satisfy some people who may not want exactly what we want. The key to us doing a good job is to recommend something that’s really solid, something that will work for most people.
A lot of people ask us, “How can you recommend just one thing? How can that be right for everyone?” Pick something like the cordless phone. Now, even if you’re making $30,000 a year, or if you’re making $300,000 a year, chances are, the right amount of money to spend on a cordless phone is going to be $70, $80, because that’s where these things run out of features that you actually would ever use or need. It’s got a speakerphone, and it’s got an extra handset, and it’s really reliable, and it’s the bet range you can possibly get. Why spend more money?
We feel like there’s context out there that can help us make that decision and recommendations. We’re offering an experience where people can get recommendations and not have to do all this research and worry about it.
It’s not really a social platform, which goes against the current trend, but it’s still very curated, in the sense that you are the experts. Why did you make that decision?
Well, my experience working on a Gawker blog was that the crowd is often wise, but more often than they’re wise, they’re unwise.
I don’t really see a distinction between professional reviewers and amateur reviewers. Where I do see a distinction is with people who have done their research and have seen enough competing models, or done enough homework, where they actually have the information, and not just an opinion based off of a sample size of one product that they say is OK.
For us, it’s all about being scientific, and we do it with the best data that we can. In terms of it being not social, I think in a way it’s social. Although it’s not viral the way content would be on, say, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post or a site like that, basically it comes down to Wirecutter is always being used by many of our readers to give family members and friends advice.
Everyone has that one person in their circle of friends who’s the IT person or the geek, and they get asked a question, “How do I choose this?” or “Which one should I get?” A lot of people don’t have all that info on the top of their heads, so it’s an easy reference to point relatives and friends to. In that way, it’s very naturally social.
What is it that makes you and your writers the authority on these products?
I think it definitely helps to be a beat writer and to know your beat in and out, but at the end of the day, it saves time. It doesn’t necessarily come up with data that someone else who does their homework and reporting can’t find. I would say that people don’t have to believe we’re an expert. If you look at some of our pieces, we start out with the recommendation, and that’s only the first 30 or 40 words. Sometimes these pieces can be extremely long. We don’t expect people to read them all, but it basically outlines evidence on why.
It’s all about the evidence. It doesn’t really matter who it comes from, as long as they’re good sources, multiple sources, and they all have corroborated each other’s findings.
You’ve already got a lot of categories. What’s going to be next for Wirecutter?
I’d love to consider launching Wirecutter style sites that are not necessarily consumer electronics, but I want to do it in a way that helps. I think some categories need more help than others. For example, I’d say home appliances are really tough, because there’s almost no data out there. There are maybe two or three sources on the web for home appliances. I’d want to make sure that we’re adding something to the conversation, because I think there’s a big echo chamber effect on the Internet these days.
Editorial is so compelling when it comes to recommending an item to someone, it’s designed to help people make that decision. We’ve looked at 40 phones, and this is the one, and this is why. If you say that and say it in a way that is so focused, people take action. People buy the thing they need.