29 June 2014

At The Verge, Everything is Awesome

Last week Amazon announced the Fire Phone. A smartphone that is designed to do nothing but be a cash register for Amazon. Yet that didn’t stop the usual suspects — tech blogs like Engadget and The Verge — from the usual hype: discussing pre-announcement leaks, spreading rumors. When Bezos finally got up on stage and in Jobsonian fashion proudly announced his cash register, Engadget, The Verge and others where there to provide him as much free publicity as possible. (Leo Laporte’s TWiT network had a “TWiT Special / Breaking News” live broadcast.)

Before the its announcement, I remember reading predictions from more than a couple of tech pundits that the Amazon Phone’s breakthrough would not be in the hardware, but in the data or voice plan. (Currently, pricey data plans are among the biggest financial burdens for most smartphone users.) Amazon, it was predicted, would be “disruptive,” offering game-changing discounted or even free data for Amazon’s Prime customers that would change the wireless industry. (“Disruptive” is one of those fancy notions tech’s talking heads use to make themselves seem important.)

Well, Amazon’s phone has been announced and here it is. What appears to be a mediocre hardware device (but it’s got four front facing cameras!) with plenty of pre-installed gimmicky applications to make spending your money with Amazon that much easier. (Remember when these applications were called “bloatware?”) Like its brethren the Kindle Fire tablets, it runs a walled-garden version of Android that forces you to Amazon’s paltry app store instead of the much more robust Google Play store. (No YouTube, goodbye Google Maps, hello Amazon Maps.) Alas, even the cellular plan is much less than magical; purchasing the phone forces you to a AT&T’s standard data contract for two years. Or you can purchase it outright for $649.00, or nearly twice the cost of Google’s more than adequate Nexus 5. So here are my questions to Mr. Ziegler: What was is it about the Fire phone’s business model that was worth getting exciting about? What did Amazon do that was so “interesting?”

Now, I understand that like all of us, these blogs have to make a living, and getting additional hits and page views on their websites is largely how they make their living. For them, “live-blogging” the tech industry’s commercials provide an easy, nearly effortless way to get their website traffic to spike. But you can’t have it both ways: you can’t faithfully hype the tech industry’s latest toys (no matter how mediocre or even terrible they turn out to be) and then pretend to be providing a service to your audience. No. What you’re doing is providing free commercial time for the tech industry. In the process analysis that’s actually beneficial to consumers suffers or disappears altogether.

The Verge is particularly egregious. They’ve perfected the art of hype while largely escaping the “clickbait” criticisms have often been made of Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and others. Over at The Verge (and its affiliated The Verge editors’ Twitter accounts), nothing is ever ordinary. Nothing is ever not worth clicking. Bombast and hyperbole reign. In their Twitter feeds the editors audaciosly direct you to stop whatever you’re doing, and visit theverge.com. Because nothing you’re doing is as important as getting them more page views.

And this is when the editors consider you worthy enough to be told why it is that you have to stop what you’re doing to go and give them more page views. Often, they demand that you give them page views without even bothering to tell you why. (But it will be amazing!) Because at The Verge everything is always amazing.

In participating in the non-stop hype (even when there’s no new device there’s always breaking news about rumors that are reportedly breaking), in being overly enthusiastic in their product reviews (The Verge gave Facebook’s bloatware app “Facebook Home” a 7/10, declaring “addictive”), in their overuse of hyperbole, and in focusing nearly exclusively on the next big thing they fail consumers.

So Verge, enough with the bombast and give your audience what they really need: level-head analysis clear of hyperbole and hype. Wait until you have the opportunity to thoroughly test and review a product instead of hyping it as the next big thing. Stop being virtual-billboards for the industry you cover.

Unfortunately, for a website that formerly billed itself “thisismynext” I’m not sure that will change. At the very least, rather than telling your Twitter followers that every other post on your site is “amazing” tell them what the article is actually about so that your audience can make that decision for themselves. Your readers deserve that.