If reader comments aren’t one of the worst things on the internet, they are probably pretty close, which is why many mainstream media outlets seem to have given up on trying to save them — or have turned them over to Facebook, which amounts to the same thing. Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, however, continues to see them as having a lot more value than most publishers are willing to admit, and is rolling out new comment-filtering features that he says will take the collaborative aspects of Gawker’s Kinja platform to a new level.
In a nutshell, the new feature — which is already live on Valleywag, and will be expanded to the other Gawker Media titles over the next few weeks — gives both Gawker authors and readers the ability to filter comments based on the writers and commenters they follow, or whose content they have “liked” or given a star to. So readers can click on Denton’s name and see not only the posts he has written, but also a specific selection of comments that he has chosen to show, from commenters he follows via the platform.
Readers get their own view of the comments
Denton said in an interview on Monday that what Gawker is offering is something similar to Twitter’s “conversation view,” where readers can easily see the back-and-forth between people they follow, and thereby cut through the noise of miscellaneous trolls or attention-seekers. In a way, the site is enlisting its readers as comment moderators, and giving them a chance to curate their own view by choosing the ones they see as valuable:
“It’s a bit of a balancing act, but we’re trying to allow for intelligent discussion to take place more easily — to make it possible for people to have an intelligent conversation without being distracted by smart-asses or general trolling.”
Although Denton is often portrayed as a ruthless operator interested only in juicing traffic to his sites, he said the larger point of the new Kinja feature — and of the platform as a whole — is to help level the playing field between “professional” writers and the informed sources that their posts are based on, something he has been trying to do since he started Gawker. The end game is to ultimately arrive at the truth about a specific topic or issue, in part through the back-and-forth discussion by writers, readers and participants.
“It’s not just about levelling the playing field between commenters or readers and writers — we want sources as well, we want them to be able to participate in these discussions. And the principle is that in order to be able to achieve the potential of the internet we need to harness the collective intelligence of the readership.”
A network of blog neighborhoods
Earlier features that were added to Kinja gave readers their own blog on the Gawker platform, with their own custom URL, where they can repost content that they like from Gawker blogs — and even allows them to rewrite the headline and description on those posts, or add new images. In some cases, Denton says, this remixing process produces better content: so a Gawker post about Bryan Goldberg’s new venture was reblogged with a better photo, and that version wound up being republished on Valleywag.
In an ideal world, the Gawker founder said, the re-blogging function — which was modelled in part on the way Tumblr functions — and the comment-filtering function combine to create a “city of networked neighborhoods” in which both staff writers at Gawker and readers set up their own streams of curated posts and comments, and other readers can choose where to put their attention (BuzzFeed has also given readers the ability to post their own content that sits alongside that from its staff writers.
It’s not just for readers, however: Denton said that this new approach could also change the way that Gawker itself functions, allowing editors to sort through both staff content and reader-contributed content and filtered discussions and select the best. And the higher-signal the conversations are, the more appealing those posts will be for advertisers — not to mention the fact that advertisers can use the Kinja reblogging to publish their own content as well.
Comments can be saved, says Denton
Denton admits that in addition to his other motives for making these changes — the desire to improve the quality of online discussion, and the desire to drive more traffic and revenue to Gawker’s network — he feels compelled to try and fix internet comments because so many people have said that it simply can’t be done, and have given up on comments altogether:
“I love doing things that people think are quixotic and pointless — there is no greater joy. People thought the same thing about early blogging, all my journalist friends said it was pointless. It gives me the greatest satisfaction to prove people like that wrong.”
Denton said that what he is really trying to do is incorporate the lessons and innovations produced by non-media or alternative outlets like Twitter or Instagram or Medium. And while Kinja has cost about $10 million to roll out over the past two years, the Gawker founder says he has the luxury of being able to experiment with such features because the company is privately held and is “significantly profitable.” Denton said the new platform was financed completely out of Gawker’s operating cash flow.