December 18, 2012

Using the Web to get away from the Web


Many of us have experienced times of burnout — times when a pounding temple, stiff neck, and hyper-caffeinated soul lash back and say enough, get off the machine and go find some woods to walk in, or some humans to physically interact with, or any other damn thing at all that is not the internet.

Brian Lam, former editor of Gizmodo, took to surfing. After directing Gawker media’s gadget site to the promise land of bumper to bumper traffic and, as a result, lucrative ad sales, Lam decided he’d had enough. He moved to Hawaii and spent many days up to his neck not in links and comments and referrals but waves — ceaseless, pristine, Pacific Ocean waves. Picture those waves, crashing gently and through your hair, salt on bare shoulders, the back and forth tug of surf and tow, and maybe there’s a half coconut with an umbrella and blue straw sticking up out of it, waiting on a side table thatched with palm leaves beside a comfortably worn whitewashed chair sunk in the sand, and maybe the coconut has some sort of sweet rum in it, and when you sip the sweet rum up through the blue straw you squint directly into the sky, the pinkish clouds and say, only half aloud, I’m hungry, but you’re too relaxed — too engaged with the delicious freedom that is an untethered life — that food is but a pleasure to be put off, just wait until it comes, and who knows what it may consist of, perhaps some grilled white fish with lemon, but oh wait, there’s that bonfire later tonight, better eat sooner than later, so go on and catch one more wave … goodbye chair, goodbye sweet rum, it’s time to once again …

Oof, where was I?

As easy as it is to long for days of sunshine and surf, the law of the land is work. And even Lam, in his exotic retirement, has come back to the machine, albeit in a much more restricted sense. He’s now at the helm of The Wirecutter, a startup gadget recommendation site.

David Carr reports in the NY Times:

… leopards don’t change their spots, and they certainly don’t turn into unicorns. An accomplished technologist and writer, Mr. Lam worked to come up with a business that he could command instead of the other way around.

The problem is that these days, ad-supported media business models all depend on scale, because rates go lower every day. Success in Web media generally requires constant posting to build a big audience. Mr. Lam knew where that led.

With friends — including Brian X. Chen, who now works at The New York Times — he came up with his own version of a gadget site. But instead of chasing down every tidbit of tech news, he built The Wirecutter, a recommendation site that posts six to 12 updates a month — not a day — and began publishing in partnership with The Awl, a federation of blogs founded by two other veterans of Gawker Media, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

This sounds like an ideal compromise. After all, most of us on the Web enjoy being here, both because it provides unique opportunities for professional growth and profitability, not to mention the interesting curios one comes across in daily browsing.

Simply put, Lam recognized he needed a change and made one:

“I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people’s posts just for the traffic. People shouldn’t live like robots … I wanted evergreen content that didn’t have to be updated constantly in order to hunt traffic. I wanted to publish things that were useful.”

And now he’s just chillin’:

Mr. Lam’s revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it’s doubling every quarter, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.

“I don’t want to get too hippie about it, but surf is bad when it comes in lots of messy waves,” he said. “Our traffic is spaced out in manageable ways that we will grow over time. And even if it doesn’t, that’s fine by me.”




Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.