It’s not unusual for Matt Swider to gain 10,000 Twitter followers in a single day. So it’s natural that Swider, the US editor-in-chief of TechRadar, a popular gadget site, doesn’t review them all. But this past May, one new blue-checked follower stood out: the journalist Ronan Farrow, arguably the most famous investigative reporter in America. Over the past year, Swider has become something of a celebrity himself — to the point that, depending on how you think about these things, he might wield more power than any other tech journalist in the country. Had he risen to such a level that he had become a target? He didn’t know what he could have done. A little alarmed, Swider messaged Farrow to introduce himself.
“Like many gamers, I am watching HotStock for a PS5,” Farrow responded, referring to the popular real-time product tracker. “If there’s anything else I should be doing, I welcome pointers!”
When it comes to finding a PlayStation 5, pointers are Swider’s thing. Sony released its latest gaming console in November 2020, and it’s been nearly impossible to get ever since. The global supply chain can’t move enough microchips to meet the demand of a locked-down world running out of ways to amuse itself indoors. As a result, the consoles — along with the new Xbox Series X and certain computer graphics cards — have become objects of intense desire. For this desperate group of consumers, Matt Swider is the most reliable guide for the trek to the top of Mt. Bandicoot.
When Swider tweets, his followers — nearly a million on Twitter — act. Don’t try telling them it’s just a game. In many cases, they claim their happiness, their relationships with their children, and even their livelihoods depend on buying the consoles. As a result, Swider has the power to conjure thousands of people into digital and physical crowds around the nation, night and day, simply with his reporting. Can anyone else in journalism do that?
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned some unlikely figures into celebrities: science and health reporters, epidemiologists, the TurboVax guy, certain wild-eyed former New York Times journalists with outré opinions about COVID vaccines. But perhaps none is as improbable as Swider, a journeyman consumer tech reporter who had just 8,000 Twitter followers in January 2020. TechRadar, his employer for the past eight years, is a nice place to find, say, a hands-on review of a Samsung tablet, a careful story regarding the superiority of updates in Windows 11 relative to Windows 10, or a roundup of bizarre devices that support Amazon’s Alexa. It is not traditionally a breeding ground of media stars.
Yet Matt Swider, with his unassuming manner and unpolished presentation, has become just that: a star. On the one hand, the circumstances behind his fame are as complex as the flow of world trade. On the other, Swider is doing the oldest job in journalism: figuring out what people want to know and telling them as clearly and accurately as possible.
Just as important, he’s doing it all the time. From his one-bedroom apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, behind a six-monitor setup, Swider has pioneered a form of always-on, participatory multiplatform service journalism — though he does most of his work on Twitter. He sets an alarm many nights for 3 am Eastern (12 am Pacific Time, when Amazon restocks the PS5), misses the occasional shower, and cuts short the occasional date. And he responds to DMs around the clock, mostly from ordinary people but occasionally from someone like Farrow, or actor Chris Williams (perhaps best known as Krazee-Eyez Killa on Curb Your Enthusiasm), or singer Darren Hayes, one half of the heartthrob ’90s pop duo Savage Garden.
Still, as you might expect from Swider, who founded his first video game news site at the age of 14, the long hours are not exactly a hardship.
“This is my game,” he told me recently, in the slight Philadelphia accent he retains from his childhood in Bucks County. “This is what I enjoy.”
To understand the service Swider renders and the loyalty of his audience, it’s necessary to understand what it’s like out there for the poor souls trying to buy a PlayStation 5. Brick-and-mortar stores almost never have them in stock. Online retailers, like Best Buy, GameStop, and Amazon, release limited batches of the system at quasi-regular intervals. These “restocks” are digital feeding frenzies. Untold thousands of shoppers frantically refresh their shopping carts, competing against a silent network of so-called scalper bots, programs that continuously scan hundreds of websites and purchase the consoles as soon as they become available. Sustained, acute demand has created an entire secondary economy of resales and scams. On eBay and StockX, consoles go for twice the price. Meanwhile, on every imaginable social platform, fraudsters try to coax digital payments from naïve buyers — they’ll send you the PS5 after they have your money, of course.
According to Michael Pachter, the longtime game industry analyst at Wedbush Securities, these exorbitant resale prices reflect the greatest imbalance between supply and demand in a console release cycle since the notorious launch of Nintendo’s original Wii system in 2006. That was before the maturation of modern social media, and before online shopping had become the essentially frictionless consumer experience it is today.
Among those who can’t find a console and refuse to pay a premium, an online subculture has sprung up, creating a novel identity: the heartsick gamer. It is marked at some times by an esprit de corps and at others by a nearly existential sense of longing. In places like Reddit’s r/PS5restock, people share simple, free browser extensions that send text or email alerts when the systems are restocked and try to even the odds with the bots. Others wistfully congratulate those who have lucked into escape from consumer purgatory, or speculate darkly about packages that go out for delivery but never arrive. (These are not communities where FedEx is trusted.)
One of the few trusted people in this world is Swider. Like everyone else in the audience he serves, he began as an aspiring PS5 owner. In February, frustrated that Sony’s website produced an error message when he tried to input the details of his American Express card to buy the console, Swider tweeted about it. The next day, when Sony opened the queue back up to customers, he tweeted about that too. People responded to thank him for the heads up and to say they had gotten a PS5. More followed. In fact, Swider noticed that every time he tweeted about a retailer with new stock, he would gain more followers. Ten in a day, then 100, then 1,000, then 5,000. One day, he got 23,000 new followers. And all he was doing was monitoring retailers through bots and then telling his audience as soon as he knew when and where the systems were in stock. Over time, he started to notice patterns: which retailers restocked on which days, which retailers included games with a PS5 (these more expensive bundles tend to last longer), which subscriptions entitled people to enter special private queues.
As Swider’s audience grew, he began to hear from people he had helped find game consoles who worked in and for big box stores — everyone from warehouse workers to marketing managers. Suddenly, he had a network distributed throughout the country tipping him off to a pallet of PS5s in Michigan or an updated inventory count in California. Perhaps unfairly, Swider’s corner of the journalism world is known more for collecting lanyards than cultivating sources. And yet at one point, Swider said, he had ears inside Amazon, the most secretive of retailers. (The source ultimately went quiet after what Swider thinks was a talking-to from corporate security.)
For Swider, the source network was a virtuous cycle: The more people he helped find PS5s, the more people helped him find PS5s for others. Pretty soon, anyone in America who had an internet connection, a Twitter account, and a desire to buy a ninth-generation game console followed him. (That includes, well, me. Disclosure: I did not ask Matt Swider for help finding a PlayStation 5, though it was tempting.) He doesn’t know how many people set alerts for his tweets, but he knows that every time he posts a restock link, 100,000 people click on it. Today, his phone is full of pictures of gamers holding up their new toys, grinning and relieved, like people who just finished a Tough Mudder.
“It’s gratifying to see people being gratified,” Swider said.
There are other restock accounts on Twitter, but none are as obsessive as Swider about calling out scams. Swider estimates that he gets 2,000 to 3,000 DMs a day, most of which he answers, most frequently with a single word: “Scam.” The second and third lines of Swider’s Twitter biography read, “ALL Twitter resellers=scams. I’ll never SELL u a console.” Swider’s reputation for trustworthiness has made his name itself a resource for scammers, who impersonate him with fake accounts. Others have tried different tactics. Recently, Swider received a phone call. “Is this Matt Swider?” the voice on the other line asked. “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill your entire family,” he said. The caller wanted Swider to unblock him on Twitter so he could target the thousands of people who clamor for advice in Swider’s mentions. Swider refused, and changed his voicemail message to a false name.
Every viral media career fades, but almost no viral media career comes with as obvious an endpoint as Matt Swider’s: the moment when supply meets demand. Sony estimates that will happen sometime in 2022. Swider hasn’t made a killing off of his fame: He got a raise at work, and that’s about it. There are affiliate links in some of the deals he posts, but that money goes to Future Plc, the British company that owns TechRadar. Meanwhile, he’s still writing for the site and driving enormous amounts of traffic when he tweets links to its stories, including a piece on the best way to get a PS5 that he updates daily.
“They call it the Matt Signal,” he said, of the traffic boost from his Twitter.
When I met Swider at a coffee shop in Union Square after a rare recent in-store restock at Best Buy, he didn’t seem to have any overly ambitious plans for leveraging his audience or his personal brand. He has a YouTube channel, where he mostly posts about how to find a PS5. He has a newsletter. He was thinking about doing trivia on Instagram. It seemed unusual to me that someone with such a huge and devoted audience wouldn’t be doing something, anything, everything, to scratch and claw to keep himself in the light. Instead, he was obsessing about Black Friday, which had the potential to be the biggest day of his career. He really wanted to get it right.
“There’s going to be so many deals going on all at once that I’m really going to have to lean on my sources,” he said.
When I arrived at the Best Buy a few hours earlier, Swider had been standing under the big orange countdown clock representing the time left until climate change becomes irreversible. He had a tripod out and was taking photos of the 130-person line that he had helped materialize the previous night by sending a tweet. There were people dozing in camping chairs, and others having a breakfast joint. Swider pulled out his phone to show me similar lines around the country.
Eventually, the doors opened and the line started moving. Swider pointed out which people there were going to mark up the consoles and resell them online — he recognized them from other restock events. Someone asked him which game to start with; he advised them to try Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Other customers came out and took smiling photographs with Swider.
“Thank you so much, man,” a tall teenager with long, thin brown hair said to him. A PlayStation clearly meant a lot to him. “This is all because of you.”
Meanwhile, four months later, Ronan Farrow still didn’t have a PS5. Last month, he DMed Swider to tell him that he kept getting bounced from Sony’s digital line, even after waiting for several hours. That puts him squarely in the category of people Swider calls “lovable losers”: people who follow his advice and just have bad luck. (As you might imagine, Swider’s inbox is full of sob stories, some of which are plausible.) And Farrow had come so tantalizingly close. In an email, Farrow told me that his partner, the Pod Save America host Jon Lovett, had given away a console to a friend, thinking Farrow — Ronan Farrow! — would be able to find another one easily enough.
“That’s not up to me,” he recalled saying to Lovett. “That’s up to a global supply chain in crisis.” ●