“When someone comes into your house and throws shit around, you get pissed,” Anna Holmes told The Observer. She was speaking in metaphor: The house was the Gawker Media women’s interest blog Jezebel, of which she was the founding editor; the someone was the blog’s commenters, a famously undisciplined crowd.
“If you open your front door to people they just act like jerks,” agreed former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson. Now the managing editor of Animal NY, he favors abolishing comments sections altogether.
Blog proprietor Nick Denton has a different plan—he’s giving them the run of the place. The commenters are creating content, after all, just like the writers. What’s the difference?
“I want to erase this toxic Internet class system,” he told The Observer in a gmail chat.
“Nick has always loved to subtly and not so subtly insult his employees,” said Gawker writer John Cook. “He thinks of us as glorified commenters.”
In some cases, the writers are glorified commenters. For years, the sections served as a farm league for the blogs’ staffs. It’s where Drew Magary (BigDaddyDrew), Richard Lawson (LolCait), and Erin Gloria Ryan (MorningGloria) launched their writing careers.
Now, with a new commenting system called Kinja, Mr. Denton is offering a set of housekeys to anyone who wants them. Gone are the old barriers to entry—the invites, the followers, the star-shaped badges—that kept the comments cliquish. Under the new order, the commenters babysit themselves, while a secret algorithm ranks their conversations by relevance. In fact, their contributions are not even called “comments” anymore. Internally, the company has instituted a $5 penalty on anyone who uses the c-word.
“These are posts,” Mr. Denton explained, reclaiming a word once reserved for professional prose. “And we intend to hold the posts contributed by readers to the same standards as those of writers—and erase the rather old-fashioned distinction between the two castes.”
Which sounds utopian, unless you’re a Gawker writer who has found his or her job description radically altered by the new scheme. Bloggers trained to fear, ignore or disdain the commenters now have a mandate to engage with them, a job that is equal parts forum moderator, lifeguard and whipping boy. Or become obsolete.
Asked if Kinja, in its fully realized form, even required writers, Mr. Denton replied, “As long as readers want to see discussions in which our staff writers participate, we’ll have staff writers.”
Not especially reassuring news for his editorial employees, who are fretting that those who fail to adapt will be fired.
“Look, it’s been hinted at,” said Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio. “I’m taking that not quite at face value.” Gawker was the first site to use Kinja, which will roll out across other sites in upcoming weeks. Mr. Daulerio is now carefully monitoring the system’s use, to see which writers are being active in the comments and which are not, and brainstorming ways of embracing the new scheme without “frustrating or incapacitating” his staff. One potential strategy for worried bloggers: keeping their heads down and praying the boss moves on to a new obsession.
“I’ve worked at Gawker long enough to know that the best way to be is to be patient,” Mr. Daulerio said.
MR. DENTON’S SUDDEN POPULISM is especially surprising given Gawker’s snarky DNA. (“Who put ecstasy in his Coke?” wondered Mr. Johnson.) But the former Financial Times journalist claims that he got into the business to build a blogging platform that would replicate real-life reporter bull sessions; the editorial was merely an afterthought.
“Remember that Gawker was a hobby,” he said.
Gawker Media has been working on Kinja since CTO Tom Plunkett joined the company in 2005, though the development was “put on ice” during the recession, Mr. Denton said. Several Gawker insiders put its price tag at $1 million, but Mr. Denton said it had cost “much more,” accounting for infrastructure. And if, as he hopes, Gawker executive director of content Ray Wert manages to cement branded Kinja discussion threads as the advertising unit of the future, the company will climb out of the lowly ranks of content providers and join the Reddits and Facebooks of the world as a bona fide tech player.
For longtime readers, this has meant a somewhat rocky transition. Some have complained that the site’s writerly wit has been an unintended casualty of the change in focus. In recent months, Neetzan Zimmerman, Gawker’s so-called traffic troll, has been charged with keeping the site moving with weird news and would-be viral videos, freeing up veteran writers to work on more ambitious pieces, as well as some that are decidedly unambitious. For instance, since Kinja rolled out, Gawker has published three posts debating the finer points of over-air conditioning.
“How do YOU keep warm in the cold office?” Hamilton Nolan asked his commenter comrades. They responded in earnest (“I’m lucky. I have my own thermostat.”). Well, except for Gawker-editor-turned-Awl-proprietor Choire Sicha and Forbes media writer Jeff Bercovici.
The Observer asked Mr. Nolan if “privileging the idiots,” which is how one writer described the new system, ever got tedious.
“It’s not annoying if there are smart commenters, but it is annoying if there’s nothing but dumb commenters,” Mr. Nolan wrote in an email message. “And a lot of the smart commenters were chased off by our various redesigns. Hopefully they come back.”
FOR ALL ITS EGALITARIANISM, THE KINJA algorithm favors the comments that in-house bloggers are willing to engage with, effectively tearing down the treehouse longtime and starred commenters had built.
Mr. Daulerio described their discontent: “They’ve helped build the site, helped make Nick Denton rich, they actually care about the quality of the site, their voices are important. Now they can’t have their little chats with the people they’ve made imaginary friends with.”
The oft-banned commenter Brian Van Nieuwenhoven (a web developer who goes by the handle BrianVan) stopped commenting on Gawker when the site abandoned its New York focus and has since soured on the whole enterprise.
“I’ve moved on from the concept of commenting,” he told The Observer. “It’s not my calling. It’s not my job.”
Mr. Van was part of a tight-knit (if largely anonymous) cadre of hard-core commenters who helped drive up the site’s traffic by swarming into the wake of every post to banter among themselves. This group has met each of Mr. Denton’s platform tweaks with indignant reproach and waves of defections—first, to The Awl, then to The Hairpin.
“God knows where it is now,” Mr. Denton said.
It may well be at Crasstalk, a popular Gawker separatist blog founded by Amy Frame, a 44-year-old charity manager, along with two fellow Gawker exiles who go by the handles BotswanaMeatCommissionFC and DogsofWar. (Its name refers to “Crosstalk,” the Gawker commenters forum where Ms. Frame says she lost many hours of her grad school years.)
“One can’t build for a small and nomadic band of wannabe writers,” Mr. Denton said.
Instead, Kinja is built for even more exceptional people: sources, subjects and experts who, Mr. Denton expects, will elevate the discourse and create conversations around each post that are every bit as engaging as the items themselves. Destroying the superstructure that separated the writers and the commenters is just the latest and most drastic move in Mr. Denton’s longstanding bid to serve as the Internet’s salonniere.
First, he tried to lure the establishment by fostering a sense of exclusivity, sending invitations to join the Gawker commenting community on printed noted cards. Invitees could extend the offer to their friends and, later, wannabe commenters could audition by submitting a comment. If it made then-intern Kaila Hale-Stern laugh, the commenter would earn a log-in.
But while the drive-by wits came to epitomize Gawker’s comments, they were hardly its platonic ideal. According to Lockhart Steele, Gawker’s former editorial director, there was one person whose participation would prove that Gawker’s comments were a success.
“We were always asking, would Kurt Andersen use this? Would Kurt Andersen comment?” he said. (The dream commenter is now said to be Brian Williams.)
But the commenting habit appears to have never really taken hold among the most desirable set. When Gawker’s commenter data were compromised by a group of hackers in late 2010, bloggers scoured them to figure out which Condé Nast editors and striving socialites were secretly commenting on every Gawker post. There were none.
GAWKER INSIDERS LIKE to cast the new commenting system as merely the latest obsession of their mercurial and adaptive boss. Remember 2010, when Mr. Denton declared text an inferior medium and said the future of Gawker was video? Or the year after that, when Gawker—having won the scalp of “Craigslist Congressman” Chris Lee—looked like the future of journalism? He changed the site’s tagline to “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” but it has yet to repeat that sort of reporting coup.
Until now, Mr. Denton’s pivoting had little real impact on his employees. No matter what he declared in his widely read memos, young, ambitious writers came to work for Gawker Media to get a little bit famous and left, mostly unscathed, for jobs at more established outlets. But in Kinja, Gawker Media writers will be central to Mr. Denton’s experiment in public, collaborative, do-it-live journalism.
Here’s how it works: Don’t worry about nailing a story down, post what you have. “The work can be the product of a discussion,” Mr. Denton said, “a back-and-forth between writers, editors, sources, subjects and readers.”
He calls it “iterative reporting,” and he believes it reproduces conversational thought and gossip as faithfully as possible, bypassing the publicists and other gatekeepers who “chew the story over so much that all the flavor is removed.”
“I want the writing to be fun again,” said Mr. Denton, who has long threatened to make his writers’ chat rooms public.
Once the comments become a “safe space” for writers, as he put it—and not the battlefield of psychological warfare Jezebel writers are sometimes advised to avoid—the tipsters and insiders will stop depending on the privacy of the email tip box.
“Everybody will do everything in public,” he said. “Just give it time.”
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did recently make an appearance in the discussion of Adrian Chen’s story about a cancer charity hoax, though he might have been laughed out of the old Gawker comments for confusing “its” and “it’s.”
And as for dream commenter Kurt Andersen, he is almost positive he never commented on Gawker. “Internet commenting, on Gawker or otherwise, is an activity I think not even Nick Denton’s genius can persuade me to take up,” he told The Observer. But he will appear in a Jezebel discussion next month, to plug his new novel, True Believers, in a Q&A with readers.
Kinja proved a useful medium for such Reddit-style Q&As when Chris Crocker, the “Leave Britney Alone” video artist, stopped by Gawker last week to promote his forthcoming HBO documentary, Me @ the Zoo. Mr. Crocker—one of the most despised people on the Internet, Mr. Denton told us—reported back that his Kinja web chat was “the most pleasant hour in a day of media interviews.”
“That was a gratifying moment,” Mr. Denton said.