Some may already have left without reading this post because of the headline: how on earth could notorious gossip merchant and rumor-monger Nick Denton of Gawker Media possibly have the same motivation as Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia? The answer might require a broadening of our definition of “truth” — not to mention a more democratic view of how it is ultimately determined — but there’s no question that Denton’s goal is truth, in all its messy virtue.
Denton talks about his pursuit of the capital T truth, among a great many other topics, in a recent interview with Playboy magazine. In particular, he talks about the motivation behind Kinja, the revolutionary discussion platform Gawker launched in 2012, and how — as he described it to me in an interview before the launch — the purpose is to level the playing field between readers and reporters. As Playboy puts it: “Gawker’s reliance on journalists is, he believes, a fatal weakness.”
Denton’s purpose has been the same since he first started Gawker over a decade ago as a former reporter for the Financial Times: to get at the story behind the story, the details that only emerge when journalists are gossiping amongst themselves at the bar or in the newsroom after the official story has been written:
“The version they tell over a drink is much more interesting — legally riskier, sometimes more trivial, and sometimes it fits less neatly into the institution’s narrative. Usually it’s a lot truer… it’s the essence of all meaningful gossip. That’s why this discussion system, Kinja, is so important. It actually allows us to fulfill our original objective, which is to treat everybody equally.”
A return to a time when we had no privacy
Admittedly, Gawker’s stock in trade — Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend, Brett Favre texting pictures of his genitals, etc. — wouldn’t make the cut at Wikipedia. And Gawker often gets criticized for trivializing important issues or sacrificing truth for viral hits (as I discussed in a post about a debate between former Gawker writer Neetzan Zimmerman and Denton). But when it comes to the belief that the “crowd” can produce verifiable information better than a group of experts, they are both on exactly the same page.
One of the fascinating things about Denton is that he is committed to this idea even when it conflicts with his own desire to keep certain things about his life private. He says one of the lightbulb moments for him was before he started Gawker, when he was running a previous company called Moreover, and there were rumors that he had used company money to pay for eye surgery for a young employee whom he fancied. That was only half true, Denton says — and part of him wanted the truth to come out, even if the resulting story made him look bad:
“It’s out there. Half of it’s right. Half of it’s wrong. You don’t know which half is which. What if we could develop a system for collaboratively reaching the truth? Sources and subjects and writers and editors and readers and casual armchair experts asking questions and answering them, with follow-ups and rebuttals. What if we could actually have a journalistic process that didn’t require paid journalists and tape recorders and the cost of a traditional journalistic operation? You could actually uncover everything.”
Denton’s view of the future means an inherent loss of privacy, which not everyone is enthused about. But he argues that — like objectivity in the media and other inventions — “privacy has never really existed.” Before mass media came along, the Gawker founder says, we were all accustomed to knowing each others’ business because “people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on,” and somehow society continued.
“We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.”
The communication revolution continues
Denton holds forth on a number of other topics in the interview, including whether companies like Amazon (s amzn) and Google (s goog) have what are often called “natural monopolies” due to network effects, and what should be done about that (he thinks there will eventually be some kind of monopoly tax on Google and others). He also talks about the benefits of the web as a whole, and how the collective pursuit of information is fundamentally good.
According to Denton, there is an argument to be made that Tim Berners-Lee and others who were involved in the development of the web have done “more good than all the foreign aid workers and all the liberal military interventions over the past 50 years,” a view that verges on techological determinism. But Denton says he’s convinced the internet is the biggest revolution in some time.
“The internet is it for this century, maybe the next one too. People ask what comes next too quickly. To the extent there is some kind of message in the valuation that the market has given Twitter, it is that communication, information and media are at the heart of this phase, this cycle, and it’s a long, long cycle that could last 50 or 100 years.”
And what of existing media like the New York Times? The Gawker founder says some will likely figure out how to adapt to the web, and will manage to survive, although perhaps in a different form. “Dinosaurs survived and became birds,” he says. “Maybe that’s the future of The New York Times: It will be the survivor of the dinosaurs, the little tweeting thing you see flying around.”
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Marius Bugge for Playboy magazine and Thinkstock / Digital Vision