“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.