gdgt's Peter Rojas | Interview

by John Dugan

Published May 10, 2010

Social networking and gadget mania come together this week at gdgt live—a realtime gadget trade show that's open to the public where tech companies (Belkin, Boxee, D-Link, DivX, HTC, Logitech, Windows Phone, Groupon and many more have signed-on) bring their latest, greatest and about to blow-up gear and let us drool all over it. The brainchild of Ryan Block (former Engadget editor) and Peter Rojas (founder of Gizmodo and Engadget—as well as gdgt is about users sharing lists of gadgets they own, info about how to use them and fix them, and much more. Considering how much time and money—and emotional capital we expend these days on our gadgets, its a brilliant concept. I got Rojas on the phone last week for an epic chat which you read some bits of after the jump. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, I had to get Rojas to comment on the iPad, the hit new gadg for which I haven't found my actual need, only desire. Rojas says of Apple's iPad, "There are two things they got right with it: They made it really responsive. All the gestures and interactions happen really fast. And they scaled the user experience correctly. I've had tablets from other companies. Nokia has had tablets for years. They shrunk down like a PC desktop. I get it, its like a mobile computer. But if you don’t have that core experience out of the box, it doesn’t matter what it can do. The Slate, its running an Atom processor, which is too slow. If its just slow, it doesn’t matter for anything else."

gdgt live is Wednesday, May 12 at Gallery 233 at 233 W Huron at 7pm. R.S.V.P online for admission. Walk-ins are welcome, too. Rojas calls it a "really, really democratic" event, all-ages and open to the public, so feel free to bring the kids.

What’s the gdgt event all about?

Its kind of like a mini gadget trade show where we get a bunch of companies showing stuff that’s coming out. And regular people a chance to get hands on with this stuff. There actually aren’t a lot of consumer facing technology shows any more.

If you think about it, if you are in the tech press, a gadget blogger or whatever, you get to go to these companies, go to these tech events before launch. But the average person, they don’t get to do that stuff.

For us, what the site is about, it is more about the community and users, more of a bottom up site than a top down thing.

It made sense for the mission of the site, which is about connecting people with gadgets. We were like we should do this in the real world too, we should have a physical manifestation of what the site is about.

How long has gdgt been up?
We launched in July of last year.

Are you still building?

We’re still building. Were rolling out new updates and features to the site, almost every few weeks day. We’re not sleeping, and feeling that we have so much more work to do. But Ive been really happy with what we accomplished so far.

My background is the founder of Engadget and Gizmodo, and did more bloggy kind of things before that and was a journalist for a long time. Its kind of a challenge to flip everything around. Ryan and I, my cofounder, are just two users among everyone else. Its kindof recognizing the expertise, knowledge and authority of users and giving them a way to connect and share with each other.

Theres so much more for us to do, but Im pretty happy with what weve accomplished in ten months or so.

Do you like to create new concepts and move on? You’ve moved on to the new thing every few years.

Yes and no. I was with Engadget for a pretty long time and I launched other sites alongside doing that. Its sort of like everything overlaps. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as moving on all the time, but I know what you mean. I like the big picture stuff and I like the challenge of trying to conceptualize and address the big problems. How can you create a better experience than what is out there right now in terms of people owning, buying, discovering and sharing gadgets. We’re part of the solution there, so to speak.

What blows my mind is that this wasn’t already out there. It seems like such a natural thing, there's such a conversation happening anyway.

When we were working on it, we weren’t in super stealth mode or anything. We didn’t announce what we were doing, partly, because it evolving so quickly. But we were like Man, it would really suck if we wake up one day and someone has done the exact same thing we are doing. It does seem totally obvious. If you think about the way the web is moving–everything is becoming more social and crowd-sourced, you know, you have LastFM for music, you have foursquare for when you go out. Every kind of vertical category is going to have its own social platform. Anything that people are passionate about or want to be connected to other people through, there’s going to be something about that. People that are passionate about gadgets, they think of themselves in terms of the gadgets that they buy.

Tribalism isn’t quite the right word. People don’t think of themselves in terms of just one product. People who are very enthusiastic about this stuff, this is their pop culture. I kindof figured out with Gizmodo and Engadget, if you think about tech as pop culture, you have to write about it in that way. Then you realize, if its pop culture, its just culture and you have to create a social platform for that, too.

It seems increasingly tied up with people’s identity. Its not like a Consumer Reports thing, what can this do and not do. Its like who is this going to make you. People feel this power that they can do a lot more with these things now.

You know when a technology is really great when it recedes into the background. For all of the hullabaloo of the last twenty years, no one cares what operating system they run on their computer anymore. As long as you can do what you want, which is mainly browse the web and stuff like that, you don’t really care. So that’s why everyone is fighting over mobile OSes, because there is a really big difference now. You want to be able to do the things you want to do and you don’t care how it gets done. And theres sort of a seamlessness to things now that we didn’t have ten years ago. Theres been an explosion in the number of products a person will carry and have in their life now and that’s one reason we started the site. Ten years ago, Im not sure I owned a cell phone. Scarily enough, now, I have five within arm’s reach.

Now the average person owns a smart phone, a digital camera, a laptop, they might own a game console, they might own a blu-ray disc player and a flatscreen TV. Now all of sudden, you go from owning two or three gadgets to an average person easily having six or ten without even thinking about it.

The core, the nugget, of the site was lists. Just go create your list. You can do a social network and layer in all the discussions and news and tips and support, all the different elements of the experience—but it keeps coming back to the list—and the database. The database is user-generated. If you don’t see something on the site, you can just add it. We’re up to 17,500 products or something like that now. Its growing by about a 1,000 a month. Its going to start accelerating actually. Most of the obvious stuff is already on there. You see people digging deep—like what was that random TV I owned 15 years ago.

How old? Are people going deep?

People are going deep. You’ll find Sinclairs on the site and stuff like that.

I'm one of those people who can't get rid of my Mac SE. It's like No, Mom, you can’t throw that out, its going to be history some day.

Its like a Wikipedia, there is a core group of users who really care. We had one of our top users, a woman, go through and systemically added every Sony Walkman and other things. She’s like, you know what, I want this database to be complete. And I’m going to keep adding stuff.