What’s happening at The Verge?

MARCH 17TH, 2016 — POST 073

I remember what started my love of tech. Or rather, what showed me a long-held, entrenched obsession with mechanism and technology. In 2012, it was made okay for me, who could never really afford technology beyond an iPod, to be into tech. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. The moment I was done getting through a nearly 11-minute product review video of the original Nexus 7 done by Joshua Topolsky with The Verge, I was in. Whilst I may have mentioned this product before as seminal in my tech history, but this video might have been more so. I had never seen video like this before. And almost 4 years later, its production would still have it in the top echelon of quality on YouTube. The bulbous wide angles and silky tilts and pans have come to form the cornerstones of The Verge’s video aesthetic.

There was a period in which I was watching every video The Verge produced, including all 1-hour+ Verge Lives and Vergecasts. Whilst the core of their video strategy, gorgeous product reviews handled with a just-what-you-need-to-know voice, was strong, there was seemingly no end to how high the bar could be raised. With higher-budget studio series like On The Verge or Top Shelf or later documentary series like Small Empires or Detours, the company had accrued some of the most formidable video products online which centred on some of the more formidable voices in tech.

But now, in 2016, I don’t watch nearly as much as I once did. For one, the bar seems to have been set a long time ago and the company is now content just to uphold it. The recent VR/360˚ interview of Michele Obama illustrates The Verge probably still has one of the tightest video teams out. With no real answer to the question of how attention is directed elegantly and efficiently within a non-fixed medium, these guys might have just established a paradigm. However, the best video of The Verge’s past was never about how well their own team could use technology. It was about using technology to say something.

There are two videos that stand out to me as the pinnacle of The Verge’s video output. Within a month of each other during 2013, two videos went live: Finding Paul Miller and Beyond Recognition. The first was a year in the making: one of the founding editors returning to the internet after a year-long sabbatical. The second was about a facial transplant recipient reconnecting with the daughter of her face donor. Both of these serve as beacons along the seductively murky waters of technology. In both these videos, technology in the narrative and technology in medium simply get out of the way. Technology isn’t in itself worth caring about. It’s the authentic humanity that emerges in novel ways at the seams of, or in concert with, technology that is gripping, is devastating, and is fundamentally beautiful.

It’s too much to say that The Verge has lost its humanity, but it has lost a lot of its personality: partly because its lost a lot of persons. The distinct voices of Joshua Topolsky, David Pierce, Sam Sheffer, Michael Shane, and others have left The Verge over the last few years. Despite migrating in Chris Plante from Polygon, or Walt Mossberg from Vox Media’s recent purchase of Re/code, there are still big shoes in their New York City offices that new acquisitions just aren’t filling.

There still remains a lot of talent at the company. Adi Robertson is one of the strongest on-display voices and her surely-soon-to-come comprehensive coverage of VR hardware (once it all starts shipping) will be the one to watch. Ben Popper and Russell Brandom both provide penetrative insight into their domains of expertise and their occasional Vergecast spots are always entertaining. However, there is still a sense that the best of The Verge is years behind us.

If the site is to do as they once did and never feel satisfied with the standard they set, they ought to look to highlight those voices that speak to a technologically transcendent humanity that the site once did. People like Nicola Fumo, not actually on The Verge’s roster but employed by Vox Media’s fashion site Racked, is an unlikely gem. Occupying the space left by Sam Sheffer on the Vergecast panel and pitching in with The Verge’s coverage of CES 2016, Fumo is the kind of personality The Verge used to covet. She’s not an expert but an enthusiast. Fumo doesn’t care about PPI or mAh but rather how tech impacts living. Her half-joking confession of Project Figurehead, an intention to take over The Verge, might just be what the site needs: a return to the stories technology enables us to tell instead of those in which technology is the protagonist.

Here’s my vote for Fumo 2016.

Read yesterday’s