Most news organizations would kill for Gawker’s commenters, but Nick Denton is messing with them again.
Denton describes the failure of comments like an economist. It’s a tragedy of the commons, he told Anil Dash at SXSW, or rather, “a tragedy of the comments.”
The idea that without fences, without any delineated rights and responsibilities, that a discussion area gets overtaken. And the larger the sites, the more it will get overtaken, overused. No one really feels ownership, particularly as you get lots of participants and the quality of the environment deteriorates to the point at which it becomes a complete wasteland.
Gawker Media’s smallest site attracts more than 2 million unique visitors a month. It’s a problem of scale. You can switch to Facebook Comments or outsource moderation or encourage journalists to jump into the threads, but at the end of the day Gawker (and plenty of larger newspapers) just can’t scale.
New data we got from Gawker CTO Tom Plunkett demonstrates that scale, though you might be surprised to see how much smaller it has gotten. Comments, like traffic, dropped dramatically with Gawker’s controversial two-pane redesign in early 2011. Plunkett said 40 percent of that drop was in Gawker’s forums, which were de-emphasized in the new design.
So far in April, Gawker’s network of eight sites has attracted 1 million comments on 7,500 posts from 130,000 active commenters. Their database contains almost 50 million comments.
The company has reinvented its commenting system again and again, never satisfied. The latest approach — a proprietary system they’re calling Powwow — was just rolled out this morning on Gawker.com. Gone are the elite cliques who ruled the threads with star badges; now every individual has a role to play.
Commenters are supposed to own their own threads. A new inbox focuses attention on all replies to a user’s comments, and the original commenter must explicitly approve a reply to allow it into the conversation. Ignored or rejected replies are cast away to their own islands, split off into new threads.
And now, instead of depending on humans to promote comments to “Featured,” a computer will do it. Powwow’s secret algorithm parses comment text for length and quality and automatically tries to push the good stuff to the front, the part most everyone sees. (Human editors can intervene, too.) A new URL structure also makes it easier for individual comments or subthreads to be shared on social networks.
Daulerio describes Gawker comments as “a tar pit of hell.”
Also new: Commenters can sign in with temporary and anonymous Burner accounts, a reference to the throwaway cellphones drug dealers use (greetings, fans of “The Wire”). To create a Burner account, select a user name and system generates a long password — once. Lose the password, lose the account; it can’t be recovered because it doesn’t exist on Gawker’s servers. Burner accounts are Gawker’s way of saying it takes security seriously, after hackers compromised the company’s database of user names in passwords in December 2010 and published the list.
Denton believes strongly that anonymous comments add to, not detract from, online conversations, but there is no system in existence that lets those comments rise to the top. That’s where the Powwow algorithm comes in. Said Denton to Dash: “The most interesting comments, they don’t come from people with Klout scores, they don’t come from people who actually have a long history of commenting on our sites or any sites. Often it’s a first-timer. Often it’s anonymous. Sometimes they’re moved, they’re so outraged by what you just wrote, that they want to set the record straight.”
Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio warned of the change last week and announced, to much outrage, that Gawker would disable comments sitewide during the upgrade.
Denton himself got involved. Needless to say, the comment thread inevitably devolved into a battle over the merits of Gawker itself, an ironic caricature of a Gawker comment thread. Half of people think Gawker is diluting its high-quality material with Chinese goats; the other half think Gawker should stick to Chinese goats and stop trying to do real journalism. Gawker’s best days are always behind it, if you believe the commenters, and Richard Lawson (a former commenter turned writer) should always be re-hired at once.
“It’s going to be tough to really add some high-brow commentary to a video of a frog sitting on a stoop.”
Daulerio told me he wants comments to be seen as DVD extras, footnotes, an important part of the work itself. He wants the conversations to be about the stories, not about what people hate about Gawker. (“It’s our party; we get to decide who comes,” Denton once said.)
“The hope is over time…people will soon realize, yeah, it’s going to take a little bit more than just seniority in order to have comments be part of the featured discussion,” he said.
“It’s going to take on different forms each post, obviously. It’s going to be tough to really add some high-brow commentary to a video of a frog sitting on a stoop. Let’s be realistic here,” Daulerio said.
For his part, Daulerio described Gawker comments as “a tar pit of hell.” I asked him if the last several days’ peace and quiet made him secretly want to turn comments off forever. He said no. “In some ways, of course, it’s freeing,” he said. Daulerio has not really read the comments for a long time, he admits, because he said he would just get consumed by flame wars.
“I always felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time. I think in this case it’s obviously going to become more and a part of my day for it to actually work. So I have to change my attitude a little bit.”
Daulerio’s own experience at Deadspin, the Gawker Media site he used to edit, perfectly sums up the “tragedy of the commons” conundrum:
They absolutely built up a strong army of readers who absolutely added to those posts. They were hilarious. And they were very, very loyal. I think they got the tone of the site…There was an outgrowth of another bunch of people who were just trying to mimic these people. The more and more it grew, it became a lot more watered down. It also became, it’s almost like they became stockholders of the company. There was this sense of entitlement that these commenters had. It became a little bit strange to come in — I mean, I’m basically coming into this new situation at Deadspin and I have these people saying, Oh, you’re doing it wrong. Oh, this is not how it used to be. Oh, people aren’t going to like this. Blah, blah, blah. The handful or the 50 people that were used to having Deadspin their way were very upset.
At Gawker, the editorial conversation about how to fix comments is one in the same with the technical conversation. Maybe the only way to do commenting right is to build it yourself. “[Denton is] trying to change the culture of comments not just on Gawker but to have it kind of impact the way other editorial organizations handle their online comments,” Daulerio told me. Powwow will be deployed to the other Gawker sites after some public tire-kicking; the company is pondering whether to make the tech available to other organizations.