the thing with Gawker comments right now

So after GifGate Gawker has re-instituted greyed out comments across Gawker Media, and instituted a system where you have to be followed by one of the blogs themselves for your comments to appear in black automatically. Otherwise, your comments have to be rescued by members of the Gawker media staff or (I believe) someone who has been themselves followed by that particular blog. The new system seems to be having its immediate intended effect— eliminating or at least hiding the offensive comments, which given how disturbing they were to many, has to be seen as the most important win. Otherwise, the system works OK I guess. Speaking as someone who is followed by a couple of the blogs, I know that I theoretically have the ability to rescue other people's comments, but I'm not really sure how. (Full disclosure: I am dumb.) Some commenters have complained that there's a "ghost town" effect going on at some Gawker Media properties; that is, not enough commenters are followed, so lots of posts get tons of grey comments and no featured ones and it feels like you can't have a conversation.

Kinja got a recent aesthetic upgrade that is a big improvement, imo, although judging by the opinions of some Gawker Media employees , the enduring question about Kinja is what it's supposed to be. I'm personally less interested in Kinja as a platform than I am Gawker as a publication, and what this says about the new reality of online publishing. (True fact: Richard Blakeley brags on his website about being "the founder of Internet's biggest annual party," teeheehee.)

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Lots of commenters want to bring back the starred commenter system. It's not clear to me what they think they get from being starred that they don't get from being followed, other than having a little gold star next to their names. Besides, I think it's important to recognize how the industry has changed from the old days. Evil genius that he is, in the starred commenter era Nick Denton really brilliantly leveraged a velvet rope effect early on with the starred commenters thing. How do you get reader loyalty? One way is to make them feel like you're giving them some sort of special status, like they're getting into a VIP club. Starred comments accomplished that. Even if you're the type to look down your nose at that kind of reward on an intellectual level, on a primal level it works— it's just classic operant conditioning. I mean Gawker was literally giving out gold stars like a teacher in class. Which is fine; commerce always involves a little bit of psychological manipulation. People were really invested in that star. I was the classic example of someone who thought of himself as too cool to care about it, but when John Cook destarred me, it sucked. Denton got me. It wouldn't have worked with just any publication, but for a New York-based website with sexy young writers and a lot attitude, in the Mountain Dew sense, it worked for Gawker.

The problem is that a nightclub has a maximum capacity. The velvet rope effect is useful because it can create demand, through the appearance of exclusivity. But a nightclub can only serve so many people in a night. The most important assumption about web publishing economics is that capacity is essentially unlimited. And because of declining per-click and per-impression ad revenues, the kind of audience you need to achieve meaningful revenues just grows and grows. It's hard to simultaneously be a cool, elite space where only the select few get to weigh in and also get enough eyeballs to make money. Besides: it's the Facebook era of online publishing. Getting a passionate commenter base that is really invested in your site may have been a viable path back when you navigated online by going to specific pages, but it makes much less sense when Facebook directs traffic. The whole paradigm where the whims of Facebook's algorithm determines which posts generate money and which don't pretty much renders the very concept of reader loyalty an anachronism. Besides: when everyone is forced by economic necessity to write the same exact aggregated garbage as everyone else, who cares what site you go to to get it?

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In a lot of ways, the laments of the old school Gawker commenter are like the constant angina about Big Twitter. Many of the loudest and most passionate of Twitters users are unhappy about how the service has changed. There's the rise of other people's favorites in your feed specifically, but also the broader sense that Twitter is wrenching open your "private" conversations to the mob. Depending on whether or not you want to be charitable, you can see the love of media types for Twitter as a matter of wanting to engage in high-quality conversation with other thoughtful people, or as a matter of making tangible the mini-Hollywood status competition that has always been a part of media culture. Really, it's both, and both are threatened by the service becoming more and more open and accessible to the uncool. But from the perspective of Twitter, it's no contest: the (free) service has to grow if they're ever gonna make the billions. Twitter's shareholders do not care if the cool kids still think Twitter is cool. There's nothing in it for them, financially, and the service belongs to them and not the Twitterati, no matter how much that may piss off the passionate few. Chris Anderson just looks wronger and wronger with time.

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I'm sure there's an editorial dictate for Gawker Media bloggers to rescue more comments from being greyed out, but beyond that, why would you want to follow anybody as a Gawker writer? Sure, you might get a few more thoughtful comments on the margins, but you're also sure to get more people with the ability to poop on your work. And if Facebook is bringing (or not bringing) the lion's share of your traffic anyway, why bother? I don't know what Gawker's internal research on the relationship between comments and traffic says, but on an intuitive level, it seems likely to me that there's not much economic incentive there. So the question for Denton and his crew is, why do you want comments? And what kind of comments do you want, anyway? Right now, it's a strange hybrid that seems not to please anybody. A platform can only be as good as its purpose, and I'm not sure that anybody at Gawker is entirely sure what they want Gawker comments to be.

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