Relegating online comments to the bottom of an article seems so old-school newspapery in retrospect, doesn’t it?
Long the default for many news organizations online, the message is that reader comments are an afterthought, a footnote, less important than the story itself.
Gawker Media wants to change that perception. Founder Nick Denton has been obsessing over how to reinvent online commenting for going on a decade now, and it seemed as though the publishing-and-discussion Kinja platform his sites unveiled last year was finally approaching his ideal.
“We’re building a truly interactive news platform,” Denton told me over Gchat. “Readers should be able to contribute stories, get them on the front, determine headline and image size that their friends see, rebut stories, etc.”
So Denton’s making another revision to his dream platform: Tonight Gawker is rolling out a new kind of reblogging functionality to Kinja so that readers can top the articles they share with their own headlines and introductions. (It’ll first enable Gawker Media staffers to re-top stories; that power will roll out to all readers soon.) “Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers,” Denton told the Lab earlier this year. “And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”
Anybody can create her own Kinja page, which is a personal micro-site meant to enable constructive conversations “without fear of trolls poisoning your comments,” according to the Kinja front page. (Kinja’s front is a place where Gawker editors will feature the most popular stories and discussions from across all Gawker Media sites and Kinja.)
The idea is to give anyone the ability to reframe an existing article for any audience. Think of it like super-aggregating: You can share an entire article rather than just quoting excerpts or linking to the original, but you can also top it with your own headline, lede, and commentary. “For instance, say a story was written for gamers — they can translate it for a more general audience,” Denton said. “And, if that URL is shared, it is shared with the new headline and intro.”
So a reader gets to repurpose and share an article in whatever context she chooses, with the original article appearing in full below her headline and introduction, but the original story gets the traffic. Gawker editors can also snap up original reader contributions to Kinja, reframe them, and share those reader-generated posts with the wider Gawker network. Staffers can aggregate commenters; commenters can aggregate staffers; at some point, the distinctions start to dissolve.
Here’s an example. Gawker’s Cord Jefferson wrote this quick post on a Canadian man caught swimming across the Detroit River to the United States on a dare. But Jefferson’s colleague Jesus Diaz decided to put a new top on it with new art. (Consider this more a proof-of-concept, since the new angle isn’t particularly interesting here.) Here’s what the shared version would look like:
For contributors who are happy for the exposure and a media company that can freely share user-generated content, it’s a win-win. (“It’s particularly useful for stories contributed by readers,” Denton says. “Any user can have the benefit of professional packaging.” That’s not too far off of the pitch for Medium.)
The reframing functionality could also serve as simple A/B testing because it allows several versions of the same story to circulate under different headlines. So where one reader might write the headline “Cat Neckties Are Things That Exist; Are Popular,” another could share that original post but reframe it as “Nutty cat owners forcing pets to wear ‘cat neckties.'” An original post with the headline “The Truth About Being Broke” might be reframed as “How to survive being totally broke.” (Upworthy has a similar strategy and often shares the same content under different headlines.)
“The whole point of Kinja is to turn the conversation into news — on a grander scale than we do already on the Gawker blogs,” Denton said.
Gawker has already made reader interaction a prominent part of how stories are displayed. Image annotation gives commenters high visibility — most often via quippy one-liners — by taking comments outside of the comment section and integrating them with photos. On Kinja, that level of interaction will help personalize content, too.
“If your friend recommends an image, it shows big,” Denton says. “If your friend annotates a particular portion of an image, that’s the bit you see in the thumb. If your friend recommends a story, the headline shows big to you.”
Wresting this kind of editorial control from the professionals may make some journalists uneasy, but it’s already how people are interacting with content (and with one another) on other platforms. Denton calls Kinja “by far the most significant tech investment” that the company has ever made, with 30 tech staffers working full-time on the project for the past year.
For Kinja to work, people will have to want to be part of the Gawker network. They have to choose Kinja as a place where they share and contextualize. Gawker is already known for its robust and dedicated base of commenters, and its comment section is the place where plenty of Gawker staffers got their start. But it’s tough to measure how many people are already using Kinja, Denton says.
“All the existing Gawker Media commenters automatically have Kinja accounts, so the global number is muddy,” Denton told me in an email. “But you can see the unique trend here.” (Denton says growth is actually stronger than it appears in the graph below because some Kinja sites like Groupthink have been moved under Gawker domains.)
For a media company whose former editor once described its comment section as a “tar pit of hell,” encouraging meaningful discussion is no easy feat. But ignoring the discourse that a story generates doesn’t mean a conversation won’t happen — it just means the conversation will happen without you.
“Interactive news: I’d like to bring some meaning to the phrase,” Denton said. “And by ‘meaning,’ something more than volume of comments.”
Photo by Peter Rukavina used under a Creative Commons license.