December 25, 2005

An Interview With the Consumerist

Former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson tells Gelf about his new blogging assignment to expose evil companies and give tips for beating them.

Carl Bialik

Earlier this month, Nick Denton's bloglomerate Gawker Media launched the Consumerist. Former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson provides a mix of anti-consumerism, dirt on customer-service sins, and tips on how to be a better consumer by finding deals. Last week, Johnson answered Gelf's emailed questions, telling us about the site's origins, his Marxist tendencies, and his "huge hard-on" for Amazon.

Joel Johnson
Joel Johnson
Gelf Magazine: Whose idea was Consumerist? What's the story behind its launch?
Joel Johnson[Gawker Media managing editor] Lockhart Steele approached me about the idea a few months ago. It was apparently something he and Denton had cooked up, albeit in a half-baked way. They knew they wanted a shopping blog—but not a shopping blog—and that they wanted to address the issues that consumers really find the most frustrating on a daily basis.

And by "consumers' frustrations" they meant "Things That Bug Nick Denton."

So we chewed on it for a while, did some test blogging, tried to find some editorial angle of attack. If you've read the site lately, you'll see that angle is fairly crooked, for which I am wholly to blame.

But it's really an unglamorous process. We thought we had a good idea so we turned on the site, more or less.

GM: How would you describe yourself as a consumer? Cynical but hopeful?

JJ: Undisciplined yet fussy. I will cringe at spending $10 in a retail store but gleefully and mindlessly drop ten times that amount online. Online shopping is my constant, gnawing need.

But how can you resist it? Today I decided I needed a new hat, so I browsed for hats for 15 minutes, clicked a button, and in two or three days will get a hat delivered to my door. Not just a hat, in fact—a hat wrapped in a box, like a present.

Bear also in mind that I make my living writing on the internet, so it is possible for me to both make and spend money in an unending cycle without so much as seeing the outdoors except as a bleary backdrop to my heroic UPS delivery man.

So that's me: a total whore to the broken machine. But I like that machine to at least attempt to lull me into complacency, not flaunt its screeching failings.

GM: Will Consumerist make capitalism a safer place for consumers?

JJ: The short answer is easy: no. The long answer is: still no, on the whole, but with little bits of yes here and there. (And it might be lame to say so, but it should be said that our impact, such as it is or will be, would be greatly lessened without our readers out there making their issues known and acting as our unpaid research team.)

Most of my concessionary position stems from my opinion that we're not ever going to break free of capitalism and free market transactions, so we damn well better be treated fairly and politely when I'm greasing the cogs with my money. I probably have more Marxist in me than most Americans, and I still enjoy the little brain buzz I get from buying new things, even if I am cognizant of their ephemeral nature. It's okay to like capitalism, even the selfish parts, but we just shouldn't be so drunk on it.

GM: How important is it to be able to launch a blog with the backing of a company like Gawker, to lend credibility and traffic?

JJ: It's a load of help, naturally, but important? Not so much. I've seen solo sites go from nowhere to name brand in a few months just on the strength of their writing and topic. Launching a site with Gawker gives a great leg up, with an established infrastructure and lots of site promotion opportunities, but it's still the content that makes or breaks something, as much as it frightens me to acknowledge that.

In some ways it makes it a bit harder. You've got a lot of hungry eyes from the start, ready to take a chunk out of you since you're part of a network. You're getting a paycheck to do a job, which can dull some of the sense of passion that makes young blogs so addictive. But, you know, paychecks are nice. And coffee is an acceptable replacement for passion, when necessary.

GM: Seems like your chosen topic could create a litigation minefield. Does anyone screen your posts? Have you been given general guidelines for how to rip companies without having them sue you?

JJ: Not at all. Denton, bless him, generally gives us the freedom to dole out as much rope as we like. And he's promised not to giggle at our hanging.

I'm not really worried about it. The worst thing that could happen is that I write something that is incorrect about a company and get sued for it. That would be very bad, and I'm told the glamour of lawsuits wears off quickly, but all I have to do is try very hard not to ever make a mistake in any of my thousands of posts a year.

Factual errors aside, if a company can't handle being called a douche, then they should turn in their social security numbers. Being called a cunt musket is part of what makes us truly quasi-legally human.

Really, though, I'm more interested in encouraging companies to come correct than fruitlessly, if humorously, wailing on them. But sometimes an angry pejorative is all you've got.

GM: What mix do you plan between original reporting and linkage?

JJ: Depends on how lazy I am on a given day. I love the links to complaints of others as a catalyst for comments and discussion, but the reporting hasn't happened as much as I'd liked. Remember, I'm a wretched sloth of a man.

I'm starting to realize now, though, that The Consumerist needs to be doing more digging when we can. It's going to be more work and I'm going to have to use a lot of reporting skills that I don't really have.

Overall, we're still finding our way a bit. In the world of the writer-is-editor blog title, I'm much better at writing than I am at providing a cohesive arc to the topics from week to week (or often day to day). It was one of my great shortcomings at my last Gawker site, Gizmodo, and it's part of the reason the site never did as well as it could have.

GM: How'd you decide to give Amazon and Wal-Mart their own categories?

JJ: Well, Gawker uses tags instead of hard categories, so every company that I decide to tag will have its own category, too.

Those two do stand out, though. Wal-Mart because it's the biggest retail operation in America (the world?) and no matter what you think of it, its actions affect both you and the rest of the retail and consumer world.

Plus they're just so god damned weird. I'm from the Ozarks myself, so sometimes watching Wal-Mart is like watching what would happen if you put my hillbilly family at the helm of the most efficient retail engine in the world. I want to root for them, but I'm often embarrassed at how badly they muck it up.

I have a huge hard-on for Amazon, for various reasons, most of which spring from my laziness. They come very, very close to being the All-store for me, which is scary but comforting, like being back in the womb and finding Mom now serves not just milk, but every kind of milk ever. Including cream gravy.

Obviously, I think of both of these companies as family, which is something I'm not comfortable addressing any further until I've had time to masturbate about it.

GM: What do you think of customer service in Brooklyn retail stores?

JJ: It varies. And not just 'varies' like the broad range of beige platitudinal brush-offs to be found in big chain stores across the country, but 'varies' in the sense that sometimes I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to knife my way out of the potato chip aisle. But you do find the occasional sweetheart and then you cherish them and consider buying them gifts on Christmas just because they smile at you when you buy a Coke.

I prefer Brooklyn's extremes over the slow, distracted hand job you get from the average retail polo shirt. It works in Brooklyn, because if someone rips you off or is a prick, you can usually find the same product literally right next door.

GM: What's with the color scheme? It looks kind of pink.

JJ: SOMEONE thought it should look like a horror film poster. I don't love it, although I don't hate it as much as some. (I actually like the logo, Myspace-y as it may be.)

But when that someone gets their mind on a design concept, it's best to just let them have their way then start brewing up your own redesign in private. Otherwise you end up with a gay cyborg elf (Gelf?) for a logo and you have to hide your face at every tech convention for months.

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