The early 2010s were a great time for a technology blog: the digital media industry was still quite hopeful, and Silicon Valley remained something of a fascinating and worthwhile look. That was back when Gizmodo poured out a prototype iPhone 4 (courtesy of a forgetful visitor to a bar in Redwood City); At a time when the biggest news from F8 was the launch of something called “Timeline” (which, according to TechCrunch, “something like a very good blog Tumblr”). So when Engadget’s top editors left the technical site that supports AOL to launch The Verge in 2011, no one could have guessed that it would be the last new technical blog we knew.
Ten years later, The Verge has not only succeeded and relevant, but the parent company under which it was originally launched – Vox Media – has become a digital media player itself, or at least the only one that has ever bought an entire magazine. Meanwhile, The Verge followed its course, revealing gadget reviews, a Pulitzer-nominated feature, and, of course, an elusive Facebook review.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of The Verge, vanity fair talked to the editor-in-chief Nilay Patel about how the coverage of technologies (and public expectations about them) has changed over the last decade, especially regarding a certain social network in the news recently …
It’s been a week since we first officially heard about Facebook Papers, but so much is still appearing. Was there anything in the newspapers that surprised you?
The most amazing thing is that many of our assumptions are true. We can imagine how these companies work – a bureaucracy of a company with a hundred thousand people, which has a deep political interest from players from all over the world. The documents finally showed that one, most of these assumptions are correct.
And secondly, there is a huge amount of dissent inside Facebook. Facebook has internal corporate values, so it’s strange for all those people who go to Facebook, navigate and tell them how to behave at work, and then post something that actively contradicts these values. The documents showed us that they knew it. I don’t think there are many amazing events in it, but the main result of the work done with the documents is a thorough theory of why Facebook has gone astray.
Looking at the trajectory of Facebook, does it seem that this has always been an inevitable conclusion for the company?
This is a moment that any good monopolist in history could accurately reflect on the pass. If you look at all cellular operators, they are all monopolies or duopolies; there is not much competition. But the reason they don’t take punches is because they see them as national champions, don’t they? AT&T and Verizon claim to win the 5G race. They are deeply entangled in government; they lobby all the time. Other telecommunications companies have realized this.
Facebook was kept separate. This distance has always meant that this moment is inevitable for them. They did not understand how another huge government in this country – the government – could seek to restore itself, and how this process could be used by whistleblowers or other people who want to change.
I think it beats them like a truck. Now they spend a lot of money on lobbying and posting ads that say: we welcome regulation.
Let’s take a look at the bigger picture of technology and media over the last decade. How has the lighting changed, as it were, since the first days of gadget review?
I think we’re a little behind the reviews of breathtaking gadgets, but at the same time we still invest a lot in reviews because they offer us some power and control over history. We can take everything Apple has done through the App Store, antitrust and photo scanning, and then we can look at their phone and say, “It’s nine.” This connection was a huge force of our power. I can’t think of any other part of the media where the cycle closes like that, except for sports, can I? You can cover teams all day, but at the end of the day someone will win. In the end, they will send the product, whether it is good or not.
I think product reviews that these companies actually produce are becoming more important because you’re surrounded by them and marketing noise all day. An authoritative review will be critical for us. It feeds journalism. Because when we do investigative journalism and big functions, we don’t mind how the products work.
Has the subject-source relationship changed, do you think? One side took more power?
We live in an era of direct transitions: CEOs open their own marketing channels, companies create their own clubhouse, venture companies open media organizations. And this is good. Because, for example, I run a podcast where I interview executives every week, and they keep coming. They don’t disappear – they want to be on the show.