Current Affairs

Why I Broke Up With Wirecutter

Graham Downey tells us about how he tried to stop worrying and love the Wirecutter—and how it quietly took over his life.

Do you find yourself in need of a printer? OK, maybe need is a strong word, but couldn’t you use one? A personal printer might seem superfluous in the digital age, but working from home means you can’t use the one at the office and the print/ship store is stressfully crowded with people returning impulse buys.

Printer shopping, like shopping in general, turns out to be a bewildering and stressful experience. There are too many choices. It’s borderline-impossible to distinguish between two similar printer models, let alone compare specs across brands. Most recommendations are suspect, too. When you look for independent reviews you find a host of blogs and YouTube channels that simply repost corporate PR. You’d like to trust that cute Instagram influencer, but can you be sure they’ve disclosed which brands gave them free stuff? On top of that, it’s relatively easy to buy Amazon reviews. And honestly, do you even want to comparison shop for a printer?

So, being a bit overwhelmed—but still a person of taste and discernment—you google “best printer.” The first three results look too scammy or too nerdy, but the fourth result is the “paper of record,” the trustworthy New York Times. You click through to Wirecutter, the Times’ product review site. Right away, Wirecutter points you to the Best Printer, exactly what you were looking for.

Wirecutter did all the research for you—almost 500 hours comparing and testing printers. And they seem like reliable guides. Their approach (which is detailed clearly and concisely at the top of the review) seems objective, transparent, and comprehensive. They lay out all the printer pros and cons in a detailed essay following the recommendation. 

You read a bit about price per page and pages per minute and paper tray stability. You briefly consider the gallery-quality photo printer. (Wouldn’t it be fun to hang up nice prints?) You wonder for a moment about the budget pick. (But would you regret not being able to print in color?) Ultimately you decide the Best Printer for Most People is good enough for you. Plus, it comes with a scanner, which you just realized you need. And frankly, at this point, you’re over printer shopping, so you click the Wirecutter link that takes you to Amazon.com and two days later you’re the proud owner of the Best All-in-One Printer.

An experience much like this led me to fall in love with Wirecutter. Instead of a printer, I was shopping for an electric toothbrush. The one I found was inexpensive, but not cheap, with exactly the features I wanted and nothing more. I’ve had it for eight years and it still works. Owning it meaningfully improves my life: I brush my teeth more because it’s easy to use. So, in a sense, Wirecutter has saved me from cavities and bad breath—and even more importantly, from worrying about toothbrushes.

Wirecutter promised to help me worry less about stuff. They said I “would never buy junk again.” When I imagined my Wirecutter-curated future, I imagined an open house, all wood and sunlight and houseplants, adorned with a few elegant objects. Something like a mountain monastery or hip coffee shop with plenty of rose-gold millennial aesthetic. In this space, I wouldn’t be weighed down by stuff. I could escape the crass, endless, and wasteful pressure to acquire more stuff, because I would have only the Best Stuff.

In this minimalist spirit, I threw out my messy drawerful of cheap pens and replaced them with the Best Pens. I had no idea how much nicer nice pens are! Thanks to Wirecutter, I was liberated from the mild scourges of crappy pens and clutter. Wirecutter solved all my pen problems.

Except that if I had been more skeptical, I would have noticed that I hadn’t had any pen problems. Until I saw Wirecutter’s pen recommendation, I’d been doing just fine with whatever was cheapest at the drugstore. But after reading, I was convinced I needed fancy pens.

Looking back now, I can see that Wirecutter didn’t just help me satisfy pre-existing desires; it created new desires and even made them seem like needs. What I had thought was minimalism was nothing of the sort—it was merely snobbery. I thought fancy stuff was good stuff. When I pictured what “consumerism” looked like, I imagined crappy things that use up our planet’s resources and keep us in debt and fail to make us happy. But my “smart,” Wirecutter-inspired shopping was no less wasteful or disappointing.

In retrospect, I’m embarrassed. How could I have thought that I could shop my way out of consumerism? It may be in part because Wirecutter wanted me to think that. Their slogan “you’ll never buy junk again” and the simplicity of their recommendations confirmed my delusion that I could evade the chaotic messiness of life by buying the right stuff.

Wirecutter’s message was perfectly tailored for readers like me, readers with disposable income and a willingness to “invest” in quality (or “responsibility”). I have been very profitable for them; they’ve taken a cut of the sale price every time I followed their recommendations. These fees are called “affiliate fees,” but they’re really just sales commissions. When you clicked on Wirecutter’s link to buy that printer, Amazon.com paid Wirecutter a 3 percent finders fee. Of course, Wirecutter isn’t the first or only site to use affiliate fees, but they’re one of the most successful.

Wirecutter was so successful that in 2016, the New York Times paid $30 million to absorb the site. As of 2018, Wirecutter brought in $20 million a year (albeit that’s revenue as opposed to pure profit). This makes Wirecutter an important source of money for the Times, especially considering the paper’s otherwise declining advertising revenue.

More than anything else, Wirecutter’s affiliate fee model offers a convenient way for the New York Times to make more money from their readers. The Times’ Cooking section, for example, is popular but has a lower fee than a full subscription. Placing Wirecutter links for pans or tupperware in Cooking articles is a subtle way to increase revenue per reader. Alternatively, as one analyst noted, Wirecutter links can act as a mild sedative to counteract the anxieties created by the Times’ apocalyptic news coverage (the analyst seemed to think this was a compliment).

Looking back on my relationship with Wirecutter, I feel like I’ve discovered that my sweet-seeming ex is actually a pick-up artist. Not the skeevy kind of hustler who negs and pressures, but the cleverer sort who knows that the easiest way to get laid is to earn someone’s trust. (Marketers have a term for this: they call it “soft selling.” In short, building a relationship with customers is often more effective than pestering them.)

I’m sure that some of Wirecutter’s kindness was genuine and selfless, but looking back with post-break-up-clarity, I can’t help but be suspicious of everything. All the times they seemed worried on my behalf, all the ways they went out of their way to help… were those genuine signs of care, or was it all calculated to earn my trust so they could sell me stuff?

To be fair, Wirecutter is transparent about how they make their money. I could and should have known better. But this transparency also seems like a bit of a scam, like the player who admits they’re a player in order to make you feel special and smart—you’ve figured them out—so they can play the same old game right in the open.

Perhaps I trusted Wirecutter because I wanted to trust Wirecutter. I craved the simplicity of just buying whatever they told me to buy. Even if they were making money off me, even if there was no such thing as the Best Pen or Best Travel Mug, I figured their choice would be good enough. Yet the more I trusted Wirecutter, the more often I found myself disappointed. 

Speaking of travel mugs, it was after I bought their Best Travel Mug that my relationship with Wirecutter really started to unravel. Unlike the situation with the pens, I had actually been unhappy with my previous mug. It was made of crappy plastic and too spill-prone for my bicycle commute. So I was pleased when Wirecutter anticipated my needs with an elegant-looking, spill-proof recommendation. 

The mug was everything Wirecutter promised. There was just one annoying feature: it burned me all the time. Every morning, I faced a new pizza-mouth dilemma—that fateful choice between waiting for food to cool vs. giving into impatience and burning the roof of your mouth. Except this was even worse, because I wasn’t just postponing tasty tasty pizza, I was delaying my morning caffeine hit. 

Of course, Wirecutter acknowledges that there is no Best for Everyone; they only recommend the Best for Most People. And in their defense, a substantial body of beverage research shows that the average person enjoys surprisingly hot coffee. But who exactly wants to get burned all the time?

Wirecutter knows that this mug keeps coffee too hot. They laugh about it in their updated recommendation essay, and condescend to recommend a less efficient alternative. Yet they continue to make this evilly efficient mug their top choice. Why?

Wirecutter has put themselves in a bit of a jam. They have to call products the Best for Demographic X  because they need to use language like “best” and “demographic X” to improve their visibility on the web. Every Wirecutter article is carefully designed with these search-friendly headings and keywords meant to improve their Google ranking. This is an essential practice for websites: when was the last time you got all the way to the bottom of even the first page of search results?

But then Wirecutter also seems to take the Best very seriously. Maybe they want to keep their promise or maybe they just buy their own hype, but in either case, they seem really focused on finding the Best Stuff. Unfortunately, searching for the Best leads, paradoxically, to bad recommendations.

In the case of the travel mug, most mugs work pretty well. (The design problem of how to hold liquids has been well-solved for a few thousand years.) So in order to find the Best mug, Wirecutter must make fine distinctions. Unfortunately, they get so wrapped up in the small, measurable differences, like temperature retention, that they lose sight of the big picture, like not burning your mouth off. Wirecutter was so focused on finding the Best Travel Mug that they ended up recommending something that actually makes it harder to drink coffee.

Similarly, Wirecutter’s attempt to find an objective Best leads them to regularly discount important subjective considerations, like design. In other words, they often recommend ugly things. Or, maybe “ugly” is a harsh word: it might be more accurate to say that Wirecutter regularly recommends bland things. For example, the four different sets of dinner plates they suggest are all white. And their “style upgrade” for raincoats is a waxed cotton coat that could only be considered stylish if you think style simply means trying to look like you’re rich. These happen to be rare instances of recommendations that make any mention of design. Wirecutter’s choices are consistently bad because they’re meant to be safe—and safe, for them, means fitting in with the bad tastes of rich people. 

The snobbery of Wirecutter goes beyond aesthetics. To stay with the raincoats example, their top choice costs $160. This makes the $60 “budget” pick look cheap. After reading Wirecutter’s rationale, it would be easy to think that you simply must pay at least $60 for a decent raincoat, and you probably should invest the extra $100 for the better version. 

But if you dig a little deeper into the differences in the coats, you would be surprised that the budget pick wasn’t Wirecutter’s top choice. (Suspiciously, that honor went to a coat made by a company that helped determine the criteria for evaluating coats.) All of the raincoats Wirecutter tested kept off rain, so what, for them, justifies a $100 difference for the primary choice? Well, the budget pick has small zippers.

Of course, it makes sense for Wirecutter to cater to readers who have enough disposable income to pay $100 for superior zippers. To make money, they need readers who can afford to click on the links. And they know their readers are rich. The New York Times openly brags to would-be advertisers that the paper’s average reader makes six figures. Plus, because their fee is a percentage, they make more money if they recommend more expensive things, which can often only be justified by superior bells and zippers.

It’s revealing that one of Wirecutter’s favorite brags is that their choice works just as well as something that costs five times as much. Wirecutter isn’t offering a real deal, but rather a facsimile of a seriously luxurious lifestyle on a (comparatively) modest budget. In other words, Wirecutter isn’t for people who can afford to redo their kitchen every year, but rather for people who can afford a fancy kitchen if they can get it right the first time.

This idea of “getting the kitchen right” typifies Wirecutter’s appeal—it’s a potent mix of social striving and risk aversion. This mix is visible in all of their recommendations, particularly when Wirecutter recommends the $450 blender because it’s an investment: it lasts longer, and has a better warranty, and will save money compared to buying a daily smoothie from Jamba Juice; most of all “it will make your life a lot easier.” But it’s not really an investment, it’s really just comfort. Comfort in the luxury of having a nice juice every day. Comfort in not having to worry because the blender just works. And, maybe most of all, comfort in pretending that buying all these fancy things is normal.

When I first started to follow Wirecutter, I didn’t have much money. In these early days, reading Wirecutter gave me that peculiar mixture of hope and inadequacy evoked by consumerism. I imagined that if I could just buy the right things, my life would be perfect. Had I been less afraid of debt, I surely would have gotten myself into trouble reaching for this ideal with my credit card. As it was, reading Wirecutter made me feel that my life was inadequate. Because I lacked money, I was missing out.

This fantasy of self-perfection, or at least self-improvement, is difficult to resist. Even as I write this, I find myself wondering, what if? What if I had an insta-pot? I could use it to cook more often. I’d be healthier. I’d be happier. I could use it to throw dinner parties and my friends would love me even more. If only I had an insta-pot!

As time went on and I started to make more money, my relationship with Wirecutter changed. Now I was who they were really writing for. The dream they sold became a more achievable ideal. And instead of making me feel inadequate, their talk of “most people” made my wealth seem necessary and natural. Reading Wirecutter, I internalized the unconscious idea that a $160 raincoat and $450 blender were the bare minimum. 

When I lusted for the Best Things, I was really lusting for a perfectly ordered life. But aiming for a perfectly ordered life is like running on a treadmill: endless and static and unsatisfying. As the critic Mark Greif writes, “the ceaseless grooming and optimizing of ordinary life stands in the way of finding out how else we could spend our attention and our energy.” My relationship with Wirecutter suggests that he’s right. Thinking about stuff tricked me into thinking, essentially, always about myself.

Looking to Wirecutter to optimize my life was always a bad idea. As with the optimal travel mug, the optimized life is not a good life. It’s bad for me and it’s bad for the world. Which isn’t to say that having stuff is bad. Just that it’s bad to think that I can atone for climate change or inequality by buying the right stuff. These problems, problems of systematized greed and selfishness, will not be solved through individual action.

Of course, I can’t pretend to have all the answers, and I can only speak from my place of privilege, but it strikes me that there is at least one time-tested, collective solution to the problems of stuff: sharing. The best way to help people who have no money is just to give them money, and sharing stuff is one of the best ways to have less stuff.

Sharing is also a useful practice. Sharing money helps me be less invested in my wealth—it forces me to acknowledge that my wealth is socially created, and not primarily a function of my individual effort. Similarly, sharing helps me be less attached to stuff. When I share my blender, I have to accept that it might be misused.

Sharing has all sorts of other benefits, too. For one, it’s a better way to end up with good things. I learn more about what I want in a backpacking tent by borrowing a friend’s than by reading a review. And, of course, the happiness of sharing is a lot more durable than the happiness of shopping—sharing just feels better.

As Walt Whitman noticed some time ago: The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow, all or any is best, / It is not what you anticipated, it is cheaper, easier, nearer.

More In: Media

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A fall edition loaded with surprises and wonders! With articles on: the socialist tendencies of ants, the wretched memoirs of billionaires, the malevolence of Big Tobacco, and much, much more. Plus: nude leftists! Shapes of the month! A secret DNC memo! And a comic about Chuck Schumer meeting aliens.

The Latest From Current Affairs