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Nick Denton wants to turn the online media world on its head

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Over the past couple of months, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton has made it clear that he doesn’t like blog comments very much, and that includes the ones on his own sites such as Gizmodo and Jezebel. He said so during an interview at South by Southwest, where he called the long-held idea that comments could somehow capture the intelligence of a site’s readership “a joke.” So Gawker is remaking comments from the ground up, Denton told GigaOM in an interview in his SoHo office on Wednesday — and the vision behind the changes that will be rolling out soon is nothing less than a reinvention of what the company is about, and also an attempt to literally flip the world of online content on its head.

This isn’t the first time Gawker has tried to fix commenting: the site got a lot of attention several years ago for launching an ambitious new commenting system that was supposed to offer readers an incentive system to encourage good behavior — a little like the membership model that other sites, including the New York Times, have adopted, which awards readers benefits for posting good comments. But Denton says now that this system actually turned out to be a massive mistake, and that all it did was encourage social-media gurus and professional commenters to game the system in order to get rewards:

It was a terrible mistake. It doesn’t work because people game it — and the people who game it are the people with time and social-media expertise, and those are not the people with information or insight. What person who actually has a job and a reputation… would give a f*** about getting some little badge like they’re in high school? It’s patronizing.

Everyone becomes a moderator of their own comments

So what is Gawker’s solution? The new commenting system, which Denton has hinted about but not revealed the details of, is designed to give everyone their own platform for commentary and discussion, one in which they control who they listen to or who they dismiss. And that includes the sources involved in a story at Gawker or Gizmodo or any of the other sites. That, Denton hopes, will appeal to people who don’t currently comment on blogs because doing so feels like “asking someone to go down to Occupy Wall Street and plunge into the mob and start shouting. No reasonable person is going to do that.”

In particular, Denton hopes that handling comments in this way will encourage the subjects of stories to become involved in rebutting these reports directly on the site, instead of calling him to rant at him about them. “I want to take all of those people and I want to have them in the discussion,” he says. “I want to see the story evolve and see the rebuttal, and the rebuttal to the rebuttal.” Not only does that produce drama — something Denton admits he has a fondness for — but he believes it could also help to get at the truth, broadly speaking.

Now I can say: your rebuttal will be given as much prominence as the original piece — we will respect you, we will protect you from the mob and we will let you say your piece. It’s great because it adds drama, and it keeps our writers honest.

Denton wants to reinvent how online media works

But Denton doesn’t just want to reinvent commenting; he wants these changes to be part of reinventing online journalism itself, by turning the traditional story model on its head. While many outlets treat comments and the discussion around a story as an afterthought, something that gets tacked on once the story is finished, Denton said he sees it not only as as the beginning of the story — but as the most important part. He said he even wants to take the discussion around a story that editors at Gawker engage in via private IMs and chats and make all of that public, as a way of sparking discussion.

This was actually the original vision behind Gawker: Denton said he noticed the discussion and gossip around a story in the newsroom or at the bar when he worked at the Financial Times was often far more interesting than the story itself — and he wanted to turn that discussion into its own form of media. In a similar way, the commenting changes are designed to make discussion among writers (who he said will be encouraged to spend far more time in the comments section) and readers and sources far more prominent, in some cases to the point where they become the story.

What’s interesting about Denton’s vision is that plenty of media sites both traditional and digital-only talk about how the “conversation” is the important thing, and how engaging the reader is a valuable tool for uncovering the truth, something that has been accepted wisdom since The Cluetrain Manifesto was published over a decade ago — but very few sites actually follow through on this promise.

Can Nick Denton manage to make Gawker into a poster child for that principle, and not only save comments and internet discourse but pave the way for the future of online media? And will anyone actually take him up on his offer to spend their day at Gawker moderating their own discussion? Stay tuned.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy King

53 Responses to “Nick Denton wants to turn the online media world on its head”

  1. smilinglibrarian

    “…reinventing online journalism itself, by turning the traditional story model on its head.”
    “…engage in via private IMs and chats …”
    The issue here is it that all of this behind closed doors ‘commenting’ makes money only for the Gawker staff and Denton.

    I am very curious to see what incentive there will be for participation. Should be a really interesting coming summer to see whether this new system flies or falls.

    He took a risk by driving away some really talented, insightful, and entertaining commenters (I was never one – just an avid reader). Maybe this experiment will draw them to return … (I hope so. I miss the old Gawker terribly)

  2. Chels Clinton

    Clearly commenting is broken on most sites, especially places that use facebook as their tool. Techcrunch has devolved into a bunch of pointless noise ever since they moved over to it because the quality of the commenters drops dramatically when you open it up to something like facebook users, which are typically the bottom wrung of the internet’s intellect.

    Sites that value users input need to raise the barrier to entry and not the other way around. If any schmuck on the street can drop in and comment it’s going to be a bunch of pointless trolling.

  3. I was a commenter on Gawker for many years, and the comments Denton is making about the commenters is pure junk. In all my years there I never saw anybody actively “game” the system, and noboby was ever “silenced by the mob”. The only people who ever had the power to silence were editors and editorial delegates, who used it when they got insecure and boring (like Giz sometimes, Gawker and and Io9 now). The best comments were always brought to the forefront and if Denton wanted more moles and rats and quality sources he should have tried harder to get them instead of paying for iPhone prototypes and Brett Farve penis pictures.

    Ordinarily I wouldn’t care about comments made on the internet, but Denton is actively shitting on the people who read his sites, and decided to take part and make them real communities. I know it’s just the miasma of marketing he’s concocted around the change, but it’s antagonizing to people who actually used to like it there. Stars are patronizing? You know what else is patronizing? To give time and attention to a site only to have the owner treat you with contempt and tell you to eff off.

  4. GuestGhost

    Two things 1) If your 2 most popular stories are clips from the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, you might want to focus on improving your house-generated editorial content and then do the whole “let’s reinvent how online commenting works” thing-ee. 2) When you ban anyone from your site you comments, in effect “I didn’t like the story/the writing/your choice of subject matter/the direction your site has taken/your ongoing Stalinesque purges of commentors/etc./etc./etc.” you’re not really re-inventing anything. You’re acting like bunch of little pussies who can’t take criticism.

  5. straybullett

    Since I never understood the “star” system, nor have I heard of anyone on gawker who did understand it, I truly wonder how much “gaming” of the system there actually was. I had a hollow star for quite a while (only one I ever saw on the site, not saying it was a good thing), then got a gold star, then it went away, then it came back. And I have absolutely no idea what posts of mine warranted those changes. Least of all, how important is something that you don’t even know whay you have it?

  6. kendricksnyder

    Does Nick Denton really think that the average internet folks can handle the story behind the story about the squirrel with a bag on its head? What about the story behind that story? And then behind that one. I predict comments in the future are just tiny articles implanted in other comments via inception.

  7. I read Gawker for years for the content and never posted a comment. I have a job and try to keep informed when I can. Now I am not charmed by the current content, and am no longer going to Gawker, as all I can weave through are sub-collegiate articles, re-posts from better sites, and animal youtubes.

  8. Queencucumber

    The editors let the system be gamed by pandering to those who express affiliation to a narrow band of ideologies of which liberalism and love of homosexuality are core. If you are short on wit or writing talent, you are still starred there if the editors can imagine you at one of their Bachelor-viewing house parties. Otherwise you are shown the door. Gawker built a virtual clubhouse for the commenting section. Denton either doesn’t understand this or is being tactful, for the sake of the editors, in addressing how elitist and stupid it is.

  9. thejadedentrepreneur

    Groovy. The a-hole commenters that went around banning people who simply disagreed with them are going to be crying in their pillows when the only power they have in their lives is ripped from their lilly white hands this Thursday.

    • P.E. Thomas

      Starred commenters were only given the privilege of promoting comments they liked from new commenters, in order to draw attention to them. Only writers and Gawker staff could ban commenters, so I’m not sure what you’re going on about here.

  10. I think Gawker is fun. The current intent to link formerly anonymous, individual commenters to their google, twitter or facebook accounts is just a way for them to get your personal information and use it for gain. It’s also a decent sized coup for those sites to be able to track what you do and what you say even more than they already do.

    • Shoelaces McGee

      Hey, they know how we should respond to their articles. They know what is best, our likes and dislikes about their site don’t matter. They know they’ll get lots of pageviews and clicks once the new system is in place. It doesn’t matter that the “hey kiddies commenting is back you whiners” post will become a cauldron of vitriol. They can just not post the comments, they will still get traffic. Of course, that assumes people are willing to log in with Facebook. I think maybe they will find their readership drops. People are reading articles now, but one click versus coming back repeatedly to view the page to see new comments and reply is lost traffic. And that might be a big drop, if people don’t want to hang around the page as much as they used to.

  11. Rick Thatsme

    Gawker comments were a total fail. It was nothing more than a far-left echo-chamber more often than not. Anyone who didn’t “toe the company line” was considered a troll. Yeah, that’s a working system. If Gawker is now saying they actually want debate with this new system, we’ll see how it plays out. I won’t hold my breath, though. And when I say debate, I mean debate, not someone holding my comments up as gospel just because I said them. I don’t expect that.

  12. Amir Manaquishe

    No, sorry, Nickie, Gawker is now the site that was. Between the magnificently rampant spelling and grammar errors by staff writers, the poorly thought-out and idiotic observations by arrogant hipster blog kiddies (re: “Mike Wallace wasn’t a journalist because he got his start in television”), the obvious link baiting, the mega-embarrassing password hack, and the recent hire of Internet luminaries such as the LOLCATZ guy, it’s become quite obvious Gawker 2012 is not Gawker 2008.

    Every fourth post is a freaking cat video now, and Denton thinks that Gawker is -so- revolutionary that it’s going to turn online media on its head? Give me a break. And, sure, it’s ok to disable a commenting system for upgrades, but to rub it in to your fervent base so arrogantly by “teasing” everyone to post their remarks in the comments is rather juvenile.

    They re-post what was meant to be private letters from Brian Williams, as in “tee-hee, look how cool we are with the A-listers, but yet, tee-hee, look! Here’s a private letter he wrote, and here’s the legal team telling us to cut it out! Oh, lol, the hilarity!”

    They bring some kid in who had an 8-year job at Fox News so he can dish out such burning gossip as the condition of Fox’s restroom stalls. They couldn’t even keep his identity but for one day before the gig was up. Denton even expressed his joy in that it garnered a lot of pageviews. So that’s really what it comes down to. No matter how uninteresting the meat is, if the headline baits in the clicks, it’s a win. Well, not for long, Nickie. There is a very large community of loyal Gawker readers who have found solace elsewhere, and we will not entertain this insipid Gawker 3.0 that your entry-level tech team has up their sleeves. No thanks.

    • They had an excellent commenting system in place two editors ago. It was one of the first times I’ve seen a major re-design of a popular website that almost no one bitched about, it was so obviously a huge improvement, provided useful new features, was attractively designed, etc. Then, inexplicably, they changed it to one not half as good; I can only figure that the license turned out to be too pricy. Denton’s current strategy seems to be get entirely rid of whatever was left of the long-time Gawker commentariat by alienating everyone involved, in hopes of getting a new and better — and most importantly, bigger — one, I guess. Good luck with that.

  13. Max Gelber

    Too bad Denton refuses to understand most people go to Gawker/Jezebel/ect for the commenting community more than the posts of Cats reinacting Downton Abbey visa vie Jersey Shore.

  14. Andy Kinsey

    It is interesting, but it sounds basically like facebook “grouping” your family or friends or location together. I don’t see much new here and unless its a “you only see your friends have commented” then nothing is really going to change …
    Gix = thumbs up … gawker = crap

  15. Steve Jobs

    Its a marketing move. Isn’t this clear enough?! Gawker is constantly looking for more Dirt and Rumors… and the best way to get those is to hear from people that they dont already have as “sources.”

    if you try to comment on Gawker, you have to have a certified ID as well through a social media outlet so they can track Who you are, making anonymous comments not allowed. I wished theyd go back to Hollywood, and stop covering the Tech industry like its the Hollywood of the internet, which its not.

      • Shoelaces McGee

        The previous commenting system already had that. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. Also, the condescending manner in which Gawker handled ending stars and shutting down commenting made sure to piss off loyal readers who may not give a rat’s tooter about how kewl the new system is when it comes back. A.J. Whatsisname’s attitude in the posts about it made sure to insult and drive away regular readers.

  16. This reminds me of Vince And the defunct XFL. Let’s create drama off the field ( football players sleeping with cheerleaders) that’s more interesting than the game itself. Didn’t work then, not gonna work now either

  17. Reddit already does this. The story is *in* the comments. If reddit made a commenting plug in, it would solve all these problems. Gawker should focus on convincing Reddit to let them use their tech, not wasting time making their own comment system which won’t be as good or effective.

  18. Atillahn

    Hahahaha. Reason mag has the best comments. Completely unmoderated and they get hundreds of each post. Always fun to read the.

    Well, libertarians I guess. Don’t need to tell people what to think and how to behave all the time.

    I guess gawker et. All. Has the word of god to spread and does not want any rabble laughing in the back row. This is really important stuff they have to tell us. shut up and listen, damn you.

  19. I was a starred commenter on Lifehacker and Giz, but this last round of technical changes blew me out. Can’t log in there any longer and after numerous emails with Gawker technical staff, I have given up. I believe this is called throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (Never thought of myself as a baby before)

  20. The last round of changes at Gawker has resulted in my not being able to log in there in order to post. Gave up after numerous emails back and forth with their tech support. I was a starred commenter on Lifehacker and Giz, so I’m guessing that Denton wanted to keep me around. Funny way to show it.

  21. Wow. It all seems so complicated, doesn’t it? Who would have ever believed we would have to reinvent methods of communication — meaningful communication?

    I’d like to tell you about my own invention called gmob. It offers an easier way to share contact information. It’s simple, your gmob email address then forwards to your current email provider. It’s easy and free at

  22. Sounds like Nick Denton is trying to solve an issue that has already been solved by sites like Reddit. Most things mentioned by Nick Denton in this article is already happening on Reddit, where articles are the launchpads for discussions, and there is a system (may not be ideal, but it works for now) to bubble up the best / most informative / entertaining comments to the top. It also includes frequent participation by authors and news subjects in the discussions.

  23. All this is a bit ironic coming from Denton, who once owned but sold off Wonkette, which has some of the best commenters on the web – raucous, profane, smart, and funny. Many Wonkette posts are little more than launch pads for the Wonketteers, like suggestions from the audience at an improv show.

  24. Divergent Trend

    “What person who actually has a job and a reputation… would give a f*** about getting some little badge like they’re in high school?”

    A whole hell of a lot of people, unfortunately.

    Whether the measure is karma, likes, badges or just plain postcount the majority of the social web runs on and is stratified by some form of juvenile brownie points.

    • It’s an interesting quote, as long as you ignore Klout scores; Twitter verifieds, follower counts; Karma; Likes; producer credits; editors; Executive Director at Goldman Sachs; some ranks, committee positions and lots of meaningless office titles.

      The tiered commenting system for Gawker Media is and was one of the best implementations on a large-scale site. News has been produced from Gawker comments and for that to have happened, someone had to read. It’ll be interesting to see what he produces and how it will evolve, but without seeing it and based entirely on his hype, one has to wonder if it will accomplish any more than moderation has achieved.

      • It’s true! Far too many people, many with job and reputation, would put a lot of misplaced time and effort into gaining said badge. Often it was those who had something to gain from the internet-name-recognition that their “featured comments” would gain them in Gawker’s popular posts.