Blog Post

Has Nick Denton really reinvented comments?

Gawker Media and founder Nick Denton got a lot of attention earlier this year, including some from us at GigaOM, when the blog network launched a new commenting system called Kinja. At the time, Denton said he had grown dissatisfied with the state of comments — both at Gawker and on the internet in general — and wanted to reinvent them as a form of communication between a site and its users. In effect, the Gawker founder said he hoped to turn traditional publishing on its head and make comments the primary feature of a story rather than an afterthought. After a few months of operation, Denton has told the Nieman Lab that he is happy with the way the new system is working. But has he really reinvented comments?

In an interview with me just before the launch of the new platform, the Gawker founder and media gadfly said that his previous attempt to reinvent comments on the network — which awarded regular commenters points and virtual badges for good behavior, similar to the “karma points” that Slashdot gives to readers — was a failure. Why? Because it encouraged exactly the wrong kinds of commenters, he said. Instead of professional social-media users, Denton said he wanted to appeal to the actual subjects of stories, so that a critical post about someone like Dov Charney of American Apparel might see Charney himself wade into the comments. Said Denton:

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.

As far as I can tell, Charney hasn’t shown up in the comments section at Gawker yet, but Andrew Phelps at Nieman Lab says there have been at least a few incidents that have come close — including a recent post at Jalopnik, in which the author of a review of the Tesla S electric sports car at the Wall Street Journal showed up to address the criticisms that Jalopnik’s editor-in-chief had. It apparently took a private Facebook message from the editor to get the WSJ writer to actually show up at the site, but at least he provided an extensive rebuttal to the Jalopnik post, and other readers weighed in with some fairly thoughtful and intelligent responses.

In an email to Phelps, Denton also provides some other examples — including one that saw Gizmodo readers do a live Q & A session with the pilot of a top-secret U.S. spy plane called the A-12, another question-and-answer session with two game developers on the gaming site Kotaku, and a post that saw Gawker writer Max Read wade into the comments to debate a reader about the relative wealth of people living in the East Hamptons, after Read criticized some lame interviews that rich people gave at a Mitt Romney fundraiser.

Has Denton reinvented comments? Not really

So is this convincing evidence of the reinvention of comments? In some ways, perhaps. It’s certainly a positive step to see writers responding to readers in the comments section of a post (although Denton has apparently outlawed the use of the term “comments”). This is something we try hard to do with every post at GigaOM, because we see those comments as an important way of interacting with — and learning from — our readers, or what journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to call “the people formerly known as the audience.” Some have dismissed comments as cesspools filled with bile and not worth their time, but we disagree, and it’s nice to see that Denton does too.

That said, however, much of the evidence that Denton provides consists of Q & A sessions with interview subjects like the game developers and the A-12 pilot — events that are very similar to the “Ask Me Anything” features that the web community Reddit does regularly, but don’t seem to work quite as well because of the way that Gawker’s system threads (or doesn’t thread) replies to comments. And is hosting the occasional question-and-answer session proof that comments have been reinvented? Not really.

There are plenty of other attempts to reimagine what a discussion platform for the web should look like: the comment platform Disqus has been rolling out enhancements and adding features, and so has competitor Livefyre, and many sites such as Talking Points Memo have chosen to go with Facebook-hosted comments (although I’ve argued that doing so is a double-edged sword). Then there are newer experiments like Branch, the New York-based startup that is trying to host invitation-only discussions, and all-in-one social comment inbox experiments like Engagio.

If there’s one thing that new media and traditional media players can agree on, it’s that comments on the internet can be an incredibly frustrating experience at the best of times, and no one really knows how to fix them. Denton should get some credit for trying (repeatedly, as Phelps’ post at Nieman Lab notes), but the real solution has yet to be found. And the only thing that seems to work in the interim — as media blogger Anil Dash has pointed out in the past — is for writers to own the comments on their stories and blog posts, instead of seeing them as an afterthought.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Tony Margiocchi and Gawker Media

20 Responses to “Has Nick Denton really reinvented comments?”

  1. Tell it like it is

    Thank goodness someone is addressing the outrageous state of the comment. How seldom I see the issue discussed at all. Meanwhile, a huge site like Topix is manipulating the comment in all forms of lawlessness: slander, extortion, harassment, bullying, disinformation. Don’t hear much about Topix either… the ridiculous corruption of certain new media which is based on the coveted Opinion, is a huge media issue which the soft-minded and spineless are avoiding. Good for you, Nick Denton.

  2. With nearly five years of Gawker history, I think it is accurate to say that each time the commenting system has undergone a major update, it has become dumber and more difficult to use.

    One of stand out features at the time I discovered Gawker was the level of commentary discourse. Articulate, readable, mostly polite, often hilarious, sometimes moving. The community was largely self monitored and self policed. It was vibrant, witty, and unafraid of sarcasm. The commentary display system was a marvel of clarity and usability. What, at first glance, seemed to be a heaped pile of messages was actually a tapestry of interactions between users that could be picked apart to see exactly who replied to whom about what and when.

    I would often browse stories I didn’t care about just to see what people might be saying in the comments below.

    The Feb 2011 transition from Classic Gawker to NuGawker was a monumental disaster of both design and implementation. The best thing that I can say about it is that months later it became mostly usable. Now we’re two months into the Powwow/Kinja phase, which has become more of an ongoing design experiment than an implementation.

    It’s been like watching a dear friend get a lobotomy, and then go back for seconds.

    The stated design goal of Powwow/Kinja is improving commenting by algorithmic curation, controlling spam and trolls, while ranking entries for display without user input. It fails on all accounts.

    Removing the approval system while implementing burner accounts caused trolls and spam to skyrocket. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the jackasses outside than to develop robotic pooper scoopers? Changes in the display layout made interacting with the commenting system more difficult and enormously more tedious than previous iterations. In other venues, Mr Denton has claimed this as a design goal. Weeding out bad actors by punishing everyone.

    Kinja fails as a discussion display system because it cannot display a discussion. A conversation is a serial exchange of comments between two parties, one to one. A discussion is a mesh of overlapping conversations between multiple parties, one to many and many to one.

    Kinja displays a simulation of a conversation by trying to guess which forks in a discussion the viewer most wants to see. If you’re not logged into the site, it shows whatever ranks best by its internal standards. If you are logged in, it modifies this plan a bit with a tendency to show your own content to you more frequently than it displays it to other viewers.

    Bottom line is what gets displayed as a single thread is an arbitrarily selected serial string of loosely related comments which is definitely not a discussion and usually not even a conversation. Kinja creates pseudo-conversations. Is that the goal? Pseudo-conversations of a pseudo-community?

    My apologies. I suspect I’m already well past the tl;dr mark. I would not complain so much were I not so much a fan.

    I tend to regard news sites and blogs as service organizations. One interesting question about Gawker is how long can a service organization last when it’s owner and number one hireling are both self-indulgent bad boys who’d rather shower spite upon their core constituency than listen to their concerns and suggestions?

    ps – One thing Gawker did get right with their Twitter authentication scheme is that it does not ask for permission to post as the user. Kudos for that, and I wish other sites would follow that example.

  3. William Mougayar

    Thanks Mathew for continuing the conversation on this important social web topic. I’m sure that Gawker’s solution is helping them, but their approach may not apply across the board to other sites.

    The ultimate goal and benefits of a commenting platform is to a) add valuable content to the author’s point of view, b) allow the formation of a community of commenters who end-up knowing each other and even connecting in real life.

    According to a recent Engagio survey, when it comes to social gestures, Commenting is more important than Sharing.

    • Tekwiz

      And Nick Denton doesn’t care it seems. It’s all about his personal choices, not what the site’s readership wants. He’s made it clear time and time again. If he hasn’t already, he’s going to screw it up completely and turn it into a dead site like Digg…and I say “dead” compared to what it used to be.

  4. Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Sorry about last comment ‘test’ – I was having problem signing in with twitter.
    A great article and nice review about the changing commenting landscape

  5. Paul Quigley

    Matt, have you emailed Nick to see if he’ll come join the discussion?

    (I kind of find it hard to imagine him wading into the comments on other people’s sites when he’s the subject of the story.)

  6. Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    Gawker Media and founder Nick Denton got a lot of attention earlier this year, including some from us at GigaOM, when the blog network launched a new commenting system called Kinja. At the time, Denton said he had grown dissatisfied with the state of comments — both at Gawker and on the internet in general — and wanted to reinvent them as a form of communication between a site and its users. In effect, the Gawker founder said he hoped to turn traditional publishing on its head and make comments the primary feature of a story rather than an afterthought. After a few months of operation, Denton has told the Nieman Lab that he is happy with the way the new system is working. But has he really reinvented comments?

  7. formerGawkerreader

    I am a former Gawker reader. Just want to note that the new system is boring. The only reason for reading any of the Gawker articles was for the follow-on joy of the intelligent and funny commenters. I stopped by a couple of times since the change….I just don’t get it. It’s boring. So I stick to the Atlantic Wire where the incredible Richard Lawson landed. (, I don’t know any of these people. I’m just an average web time-waster)

  8. Sebastian Horn

    Thanks for your review, Mathew.

    At first, I was hopeful that Gawker really has found a way to improve comments. I was especially intrigued by the idea that users can moderate replies to their own comments. However, I then spent some time reading through some of the threads and I still found insults and such.

    On a more positive note, I’m happy that there’s some discussion again that may lead to more innovation in the field of online comments.

  9. Sunshine1970

    I cannot figure out their commenting, or whatever they want to call it, system. I like to be able to read what others are saying in a list, skip over the ones I’m not interested, and read as far as I want to. Instead, it seems I have no choice but to click through each and every…’notation,’ and if it’s an article that has a lot of ‘notations’ then it can take forever to get through them. I’ve read a few comm–notations (whatever) where other readers have the same frustration as mine. It’s made me stop commenting and made me stop reading the ‘notations.’ And that makes me sad. I do still read the articles, though.

    • Tekwiz

      Just a heads up, I share in your pain, there is a kotaku fix chrome extension that will make it like the old system. It works on all their sites.

  10. Simon Cohen

    The biggest problem with Gawker’s comments (or whatever they’re now called), especially on Gizmodo, is the ongoing practice of banning commenters that are critical of the site’s content. There seems to be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to readers taking these sites to task when they post content that are deemed off-topic, poorly written, biased etc, which is disappointing. Any site that has the courage to dish it out should have the courage to take (and respond to) criticism.

    • That’s a fair point, Simon — although any site has the responsibility to maintain a civil discussion as well, and sometimes strong action is required. I can’t really say whether Gawker crosses that line or not because I’ve never commented that much on their sites.

      • Simon Cohen

        In my experience, and despite their claims to the contrary in their comment policy section, where they say “…the community policy of Gawker Media is forgiving. If your criticism is articulate, it will likely get through. We dole it out; we can take it. What do we mean by articulate? Support your point with argument, facts and citations. Good grammar and spelling also help,” they remove comments and ban readers over nearly any critique. I had some good examples of this, but they’ve been obliterated since the commenting system changed :-|

    • Tekwiz

      Well according to their “new” system, they don’t ban anymore period. How well they stick to that remains to be seen but I and most of the other regular users really despise the new Kinja comment system. It is one of the worst, NON thought out, crappy pieces of shite we have ever seen. No logical way to follow threads, having to click on every single comment to read it, or get a cut off version via mouseover. It honestly completely sucks and there aren’t enough words to describe what a complete POS it is.