I am an avid longtime reader of Gawker. However, something has gone fundamentally wrong at Gawker. Very, very wrong. Horribly wrong. And I suspect it is already too late to fix it.
The problems started when they got hacked in 2010, and the hackers not only stole login information, they also posted conversations between the writers, which angered many commenters when they saw that writer Richard Lawson referred to them as ”peasants”. As if that was not bad enough, Gawker then had to roll out its new format early, since the hackers had stolen their source code as well, and many readers hated it. It has only gone downhill from there, but the latest problems are completely self-inflicted.
They replaced well-liked editor Remy Stern late last year with AJ Daulerio, editor of Deadspin (a related blog which covers sports). Yet there is absolutely no comparison between Gawker and Deadspin, other than that they are owned by Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media. While Deadspin did occasionally make some interesting posts – all sports-related, obviously – the audiences for the two sites could not be more different. In other words, what worked great on Deadspin would never work on Gawker.
That was the beginning of the end for Gawker. It was not long before Dauliero started posting some very, very strange stuff which seemed intended to provoke ire from the commentariat. For example, he would make posts which said merely not to comment there, left the comments open, then banned everyone who commented. He even banned many of the respected starred commenters who had been on Gawker for years.
Thinning the herd, perhaps? Or was it more along the lines of ridding himself of those who would not accept him as the new sheriff in town, since many had questioned whether he was an appropriate choice as editor? Then again, perhaps it only amused him, but it infuriated the commentariat, and many longtime Gawker fans stopped reading the site as a result.
Soon thereafter, Nick Denton gave an interview in which he bemoaned the triumph of mediocrity in internet comments, and embarked upon creating a new commenting system for Gawker, which he believed would be unlike any other commenting system in the history of the world.
That decision was the final death toll for Gawker.
The old Gawker commenting system was based upon starred and non-starred commenters, with the starred commenters taking a type of restricted moderation role; for example, they could approve comments from new commenters, but they could not delete or move comments, or ban commenters. Most importantly, though, the old commenting system required new commenters to audition. To become approved as a commenter, and thus be allowed to post without moderation, readers had to post something which caught the fancy of a starred commenter. The rule was that it had to be not only interesting, but also grammatically correct, no misspellings, etc. The idea was to keep the conversation on a higher level than other sites, and it worked.
The truth is, Gawker is far more respected for its great comments, than for its articles. Certainly some bad commenters got through from time to time, especially after Gawker editors started starring commenters for specious reasons – such as agreeing with their personal opinion on issues like gay marriage – but for years, the system worked exactly as it was intended.
Personally, I thought it was a great system because it kept out the trolls, the spammers, and those who could otherwise not be bothered to take the time to make a good comment. If the system became a problem because too many people were starred who should not have been, the fix was easy: Just unstar everyone, and start from scratch. Simple.
Rather than becoming more restrictive in starring commenters, thus ensuring that all comments maintained a minimum level of credibility, Denton decided to do the opposite. He starred every single user, plus some, by allowing commenters to dismiss responses they did not like. This allowed the comments of spammers and trolls – even if they were posting a site with malicious code, and even if they were posting nothing but lies – to stand unchallenged.
Not only do they now have trolls spewing lies and disinformation without fear of being challenged, which is bad enough, but they also now allow completely anonymous comments under disposable, untraceable Burner accounts. Boy oh boy, was that ever a mistake. While Denton thought it would get people to comment who otherwise would not – the example he used was that Dov Charney of American Apparel (a regular Gawker target) might comment under a Burner – all it really did was give the trolls and spammers free reign, and they took over the site almost overnight.
The weekend after the new commenting system went live, Gawker was inundated by comments which included images of child pornography, bestiality … you name it, if it was vile, it was posted. Though Daulerio deleted them and responded in the comment section to concerns about that problem – the most serious of which is that being on a page which has child porn posted can cause you to have child porn on your computer – he actually got annoyed that people were so upset. Even after Gawker disabled the ability of Burner accounts to post links, photos or videos, they are still getting hit by spammers. Worse, extremist political trolls have literally overtaken the site, spewing their venom even in threads which are unrelated to their comment.
Gawker still seems unable (or unwilling) to control or fix the troll problem.
This problem with the new commenting system was completely predictable to anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the internet, and why Gawker did not foresee it or plan for it is something of a mystery. Needless to say, there have been no comments by the likes of Dov Charney – far from it, in fact. The truth is that neither the subjects of their posts nor would-be Deep Throats are going to leave comments on Gawker like Denton envisioned, even if they can do so anonymously without leaving a trace, when the comment section is now overflowing with obvious trolls.
There is also the question of whether any Deep Throat would ever trust Gawker to maintain their anonymity as long as Daulerio is at the helm. He posted a private email to Denton from NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams, without any consideration for how doing so may harm Williams, and without asking permission from Williams first. He also inexplicably called Williams a ”gossiping secretary”, by the way. He then refused to take the post down even after contacted by NBC, which pointed out that it was private correspondence between friends which was never intended for public viewing; instead, he then posted the NBC email as well. Yet the email from Williams was just him talking about how bad the Lana Del Ray performance had been on Saturday Night Live, as well as a few suggestions for the site – and it was clearly an email between two friends, just as NBC had stated – so there was certainly nothing newsworthy in it.
At that point, Daulerio proved that he cannot be trusted with information from anyone, because what he did was more akin to what one might expect from a teenage girl, than what should be expected from the Editor In Chief of a successful internet media site.
Without insiders commenting as hoped, and with trolls overtaking the site, the new commenting system seems a complete disaster. The problem is that, as an aggregator, Gawker is really not telling us anything we cannot find elsewhere in far more detail, nor do they add anything of import to the story itself. Even when they post original long-form posts, the posts are not any better than something one might read on a personal blog (and in many cases, it is worse).
So the truth of the matter, as much as I hate to admit it even to myself, is that there is no longer a reason for anyone to read Gawker.