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Oct. 15, 2009, 8 a.m.

Got a #tip? Gawker Media opens tag pages to masses, expecting “chaos”

Gawker Media is unveiling an innovative and unruly twist on traditional reader forums this morning. The new feature, part of an otherwise modest redesign across the company’s nine blogs, could transform tag pages, typically little more than archives of old posts, into commenter free-for-alls and transparent tip lines.

Readers are now greeted with a text box as large as the blog’s logo, inviting them to share news, videos, links, and trivialities. Tagging a message with #tips on Gawker, for instance, automatically sends it to the “tips” tag page, where anyone can follow the stream of submissions and Gawker writers will keep an eye out for news to promote on the front page. Same for #mac on Gizmodo, #snapjudgment on Jezebel, #DUAN on Deadspin, or any other tag. (If DUAN means nothing to you, then welcome to the impassioned world of loyal blog commenters. It’s short for Deadspin Up All Night.)

Gawker Open Forums is the name of this potentially wild mix of reader-controlled news and commentary. “I’m expecting chaos,” Nick Denton, the publisher of Gawker Media, told me on Gchat late yesterday. “But as the front pages of our sites become ever more professional, it’s even more important to allow anarchy to bubble up from below. The goal is to blur the line between our editors and commenter-contributors.”

Gawker’s tiered commenting system still applies, so only those readers bestowed with stars will have their content immediately visible on tag pages. Everyone else’s stuff will be a click away and subject to promotion by starred commenters, Denton explained: “We needed the class system in place before we opened the floodgates.”

In 2007, he was already musing aloud about wanting to “reintroduce an element of anarchy” to his sites in a system that sounds exactly like what he’s implementing today. Denton is obsessive about the comments across his blogging empire, which tend to be more active, informed, clubby, and acerbic than comments at sites with similar traffic. That’s both an asset — generating discussion, news tips, and even several current staff writers — and a liability, as evidenced by an exchange Denton favorited on Twitter this morning: “I am so intimidated by those commentors; so smart and snarky!” wrote Richard Oosse, adding that he “fled” Gawker as a result.

Though the hashtag formulation is borrowed from Twitter, integration with the microblogging platform won’t happen for another month. Then, tweets that include, say, @gawker and #stalker will make their way directly to the appropriate tag page. That has nice potential for real-time news submissions beyond just celebrity sightings and beyond Gawker Media.

Denton said his writers are “a bit nervous, to say the least, afraid that competitors will see all our tips.” This is how he addressed the issue in an email to staffers last night:

And yet we’ve always insisted that tips and letters to the editor are sent in by email and mediated by our editors; that discussions stay on topics that we determine; and that our writers are the only ones who can initiate stories on the site. No longer.

Tips, particularly sensitive ones, will still be accepted by email and phone. But Denton expects news to emanate from the tag pages, too. “News and discussion have been so segregated on the web. You think of the 1990s era discussion forum software. Really hasn’t changed. Maybe we should think of journalists as the instigators and moderators of discussion.” Later he added, “News follows from discussion as much as discussion follows from news. Successful sites — and useful publishing software platforms — will bring the two together so they can feed off each other.”

Still, the predominant use of Gawker Open Forums will undoubtedly be as, well, open forums. Denton said he hoped the new feature would provide an outlet for readers who want to talk about topics that aren’t being blogged about at the moment. “Readers love chatting — off-topic, especially,” he wrote. “That’s annoying when the discussion is triggered by a post, but now readers can just head off to a tag forum.” He suggested that one active forum might be #nickdentonsucks.

In our chat, I tried suggesting that one motivation behind the new system was web traffic. “Forget about the pageviews,” said the man who pays bonuses for them. No, he said, it’s this: “I enjoy the idea that this is something that newspapers absolutely can’t do online. They’re institutionally incapable of handing so much power to readers.”

As follows, Denton attempts to explain why the chaos that’s about to break out across the Gawker Media blogs is all Mark Zuckerberg‘s fault:

Nick: btw, interesting factoid
  did you know Zuckerberg’s original idea for Facebook was rather different?
  Dark Facebook
  a page on which people could write about you
  rather than one on which you trumpet your own achievements, hot parties, and the like
  I guess Fucked Company was that dark facebook for internet companies earlier in the decade
me: so is this dark gawker?
Nick: well, gawker is always a bit dark
  in that the truth is usually shaded, too
  nobody’s quite as smart and good-looking as they appear in their press releases — and their Facebook profile pages.
  Zuckerberg kind of gave me the idea
  couple of years ago we were both invited to the News Corp executive conference in Monterey
me: what’d he say?
Nick: he told me about the original plan for Facebook — the dark facebook on which you were defined not by yourself but by others
  Imagine what the page looks like once we open it up
me: like a facebook wall populated by your enemies instead of your friends
Nick: well, a facebook wall that your friends and your enemies fight over

I can’t vouch for that story, obviously, but if you take all of Denton’s musings together — and sorry for quoting so liberally, but he’s eminently quotable — you start to see something like a pure theory of news: unvarnished truth, uninhibited commentary, free flow of information, reader as writer, writer as reader. I’m not saying Gawker Media is really there yet, and I’m not calling Nick Denton the next Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, but if those guys pioneered yellow journalism, Denton may be creating something we’ll come to know as dark journalism.

Here’s the full memo that Denton sent to the lead editors of his blogs last night:

The commenters — since we opened up our properties four years ago — have influenced our sites more than is acknowledged and sometimes more than is comfortable.

Their vocally expressed disdain has drummed out writers; their wit has preserved editorial personality even as our front pages have become more professional; they’ve steered the discussions, often way off-topic; but just as often they’ve suggested better headlines and story angles; former commenters such as Ryan Tate and Richard Lawson have written themselves into paid writing jobs; and reader-tipsters have supplied many of our best stories.

And yet we’ve always insisted that tips and letters to the editor are sent in by email and mediated by our editors; that discussions stay on topics that we determine; and that our writers are the only ones who can initiate stories on the site. No longer.

With the launch of Gawker Open Forums, we’re allowing readers to post tips, sightings, game cheats, amateur pap shots and spy photos directly from a form on the front page. Readers can also initiate discussions on any topic they choose simply by including a Twitter-style hashtag in their post. And commenters can expand on a story, or rebut a post, just as now.

We have no idea what uses people will make of these forums. But we suspect that many of them will be mischievous. And that’s fine — because we like mischief too.

POSTED     Oct. 15, 2009, 8 a.m.
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