Maddox is the first writer I remember reading on the web. If you came of age during the first blogging boom, you probably had a similar experience. His writing and his style was influential for a generation of writers, humorists and web entrepreneurs. Since launching in 1997, he’s seen hundreds of millions of visitors, developed some of the web’s most classic memes, and sold a metric ton of t-shirts. Most of all, he’s always been ahead of the curve in terms of online business models and calling out bullshit trends in culture from “extreme” marketing to the swine flu craze.
After a few years of sporadic content, Maddox is back in a big way. More recently, he’s built a massively popular podcast, a YouTube channel and regularly taken the media to task for offensive stories on Robin Williams’ death, BuzzFeed’s nasty habit of stealing content, and media’s propensity to pseudo-outrage.
If you had told me as a teenager, when my friends had Maddox stickers on their cars and we all eagerly AIM-chatted each other his pieces, that I’d be interviewing him over a decade later or that he’d occasionally link to my own writing, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are. To continue our series of interviews with influential and insightful voices on the inner-workings of today’s new media, I reached out to ask Maddox his thoughts on media manipulation, some of his least favorite websites, and outrage porn.
So you were one of the biggest and earliest critics of BuzzFeed—not just for the annoying listicles and nostalgia trolling but also for the content they steal from creators like you. A few years and millions of dollars in funding later what do you think of them now?
They’re even worse. I was just reading the gripes of BuzzFeed employees I know personally, who were complaining that they weren’t given credit for writing, producing or directing any of their videos. Since I wrote my original piece about BuzzFeed, many of my friends have found employment at their Los Angeles offices, where they produce much of their video content. Not only does the site take credit for material from other websites, BuzzFeed doesn’t even credit their own staff for the content they legitimately created. These credits aren’t insignificant either, as many of my friends have cobbled together careers based on their credits on small web projects. When Buzzfeed publishes content, the creator is, for all intents and purposes, BuzzFeed corporation. As a friend very aptly pointed out, The Onion doesn’t credit individual writers, but they are a satirical news organization whereas BuzzFeed is not. The Onion’s entire reason for existing is satire with a strong editorial point of view, while BuzzFeed’s reason for existing is…to generate ad revenue and to trick you into clicking their content. One does it out of necessity to its voice, the other out of ignorance, greed or malice.
There was the famous screenshot you took last year after Robin Williams’ death with ABC running the tasteless footage of his home. Ultimately, you targeted the CEO and they had to apologize and stop. Do you think if you hadn’t said anything, would anyone have cared? Of course, a bunch of other outlets also stole your scoop after. I’m guessing you don’t think very highly of the whole establishment?
If I hadn’t posted that juxtaposition of real-time helicopter footage on the same page as his family’s request for peace during their grief, it’s possible that someone else may noticed the same thing, possibly even from ABC News. However if it were the latter, there’s a tremendous amount of internal pressure not to run problems like this up the corporate ladder. Chiefly, the fact that your boss has an ego and a boss of his or her own; pointing out a mistake like this could embarrass him or her and ultimately cost you your job, or at the very least, a raise or promotion. Would you risk it? Nah, better look the other way. You have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Why rock the boat? Let that asshole Maddox do it.
You and I told about some of the sanctimonious coverage of the celeb nude leaks and then the Spider Man/Woman cover. Do you think these people actually care? Or do you think that pretending to be mad—that getting upset and getting other people upset—is a quick way to get traffic?
There are three reasons at play that, when combined, create a Captain-Planet-esque superhero of shitty motives for outrage: The first reason is that the righteous indignation feels good. We live in an age of relative peace where we don’t have a “big devil” like communism or fascism to point to as the source of all our problems. They need a cause that isn’t religious since believing in things isn’t cool anymore, so finding an enemy that they feel just in hating and blaming makes them feel needed. Second, There is the money motive. It’s very lucrative to get those clicks coming to your website. Outrage is big business. And third, as cynical as I am, I can’t totally dismiss the possibility that some of these people might actually care. However, their well-intentioned idiocy is often myopic, causing more harm than good.
Why does the media have to refer to every scandal as a BLANK-gate? What would you rather they do?
It’s a lazy communication device used by journalists as shorthand for “this is a scandal.” I’d rather they call it just that: a scandal. Though #GamerScandal doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I think it’s irksome because it bothers us as writers to know that some lazy journalist thought they were being clever by using the suffix to get the headline. It’s a race to the bottom to see who can coin the word used to describe the scandal of the hour, with no regard for the breadth, scope or context of the issue. For example, the suffix was used to label both “Pardongate,” the controversy surrounding Bill Clinton’s pardoning of 140 people, and “Nipplegate,” when Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. Though the latter gave rise to the possibly more annoying “wardrobe malfunction.”
Tell us about your media diet. What do you read? Who do you trust? Who should people stay away from? What is the worst outlet in your eyes?
My favorite news portal is Google News. It shows headlines from a number of different news outlets for popular stories, so you can see at a glance which organizations are trying to spin the narrative. For example, when the GOP-led report on the Benghazi scandal (Benghazi-gate for short) was released, right-wing websites like Fox News wrote headlines like, “GOP lawmakers, Benghazi survivors fume over House report” whereas left-leaning news organizations bristled at the findings, using words like “debunked” to describe the scandal. I take the “truth is usually somewhere in the middle” approach and try to read both left and right-leaning news websites. Though if I’m short on time, I’m partial to BBC or NPR. The dryer and more boring the news, usually the better. Remove the profit motive from the news, be it corporate or outrage-based, and you’ll get better news.
Your stance early on about not taking advertising on your site—because it would change how and what you wrote—was very influential to me. Not just for my own writing, but it helped me to see the subtle but significant warping effect that a business model can have on a medium (which I wrote a lot about in my book). Clearly, history has validated your views there—a huge part of the reason that internet culture is so awful is because of CPM advertising. How has that policy been for you? Clearly, it cost you a lot but are you happy with the choice? What about now with your videos, which are ad-supplemented in some ways?
The choice to publish in a medium that is funded by advertising, such as YouTube or podcasting, weighed heavily on me. I rationalized the decision by upholding my promise to always keep my written website ad-free to have an outlet to express myself that would always be free of corporate interests and the self-censorship that ensues. Having dipped my toe in ad-funded mediums, I appreciate the freedom I have to say what I want so much more. I’m constantly worried about what I can or can’t say when someone is paying the bills. Not having a profit motive to get people to click on my website has allowed me to be more honest as a writer. I don’t have to write a listicle to get people to click because I don’t make money from that traffic. Frankly, the more traffic that comes to my website, the more I have to pay out of pocket to serve those readers. Success punishes me.
The ad-free model has benefited me in another way: if I praise something, people trust me because they know I don’t advertise and have no reason to laud something I didn’t truly believe in. It’s a very powerful form of trust that money literally can’t buy. I feel comfortable with my decision. It’s a form of asceticism that has put me in dire straits financially at times, but the sacrifice has lead to a greater appreciation for what I do.
What do you think of podcasting as a medium? It’s having a moment here and you’ve jumped on it on a big way. I remember you tried a radio show with Sirius, what 10 years ago now? Where do you see this going? What opportunities does it afford you?
Despite the Apple-related etymology of the name, podcasting is an excellent medium and the new home of talk radio. I first started listening to talk when I was 12-years-old, so I was saddened to see the demise of all the talk radio giants. When the last great AM and FM talk stations crumbled, the baton was passed to podcasting, starting with Adam Carolla. He was one of the first to make the successful transition to the new medium and has flourished. My brief stint with Sirius was fun, but didn’t last long because there were probably too many cooks in the kitchen.
The cost of entry into podcasting is almost trivial, but the medium is starting to get saturated and the path to success more difficult. That’s mostly a good thing, because the podcasts that do succeed are usually the best ones, made by the right people—the type of people who persist and create art, even when nobody is listening, because they love doing it. It has democratized broadcasting, and done it in a way that’s free from the specter of advertising. At least in the beginning. The future is bright.
This is not a media question at all, but I was genuinely surprised to learn when we hung out last year that you ride a bike. I just never saw Maddox on a bike. What else don’t we know?
I actually don’t eat a ton of red meat (steak). Though I try to get Korean or American BBQ at least once a month. I’ll never give up my bike though. Still the fastest way around town during traffic, guaranteed. I still recommend your episode to people as a “best of” for new listeners. Yours is the only guest-problem to make it to the top-10 list. We still reference your problem all the time. Would love to have you on again. Thanks for these interview questions, that was fun. I wanted to say this up top but didn’t want to sound like a circle jerk, but I really appreciate your writing and think that it’s insightful and well-written. We think alike on a lot of things, and there are few writers I’d say that about.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.