Gawker Media founder Nick Denton has been wrestling for years with the scourge and blessing of online commenters, and the takeaway from his interview yesterday seemed to be: can't live with commenters, can't live without them — except that we have to live with them, begrudgingly. At a talk yesterday at SXSW, Nick Denton showed that he still hasn't fully solved the Commenter Problem to his satisfaction. It's possible he never will.
To Denton, internet commenters are an unruly mob of agenda-driven troublemakers who stifle innovation, and pointed to Gap's capitulation on its new logo in October 2010 as an example of commenting and Tweeting run amok. "What was so bad about that Gap logo?" he asked. "Was it a crime?"
But of course, Denton had a hand in creating a class of commenters with an overinflated sense of self-importance. Gawker (where I worked from 2006-2007) didn't have comments until 2005, three years after it launched, and the first commenter system was completely invite-only. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake, because it immediately created an environment where the commenters felt part of an exclusive clique. It gave them a power that turned out to be impossible to rein in, even when the controls were loosened.
"A huge mistake was the gamification of comments," Denton said. "The approval process, VIP status, banning — it led to way too much drama." Soon, he said, Gawker's commenting system will be overhauled, allowing everyone to own a comment thread within a post and "curate" the conversation. "Our main focus is fixing problem of discussion and comments on the web," he said.
I wouldn't say we exactly lived in fear of the commenters when I was at Gawker, but they were always there, looming, and no matter how many times we told ourselves not to look at them, it was impossible not to. The tone of a comment thread was set within 30 seconds of your post going up, and more often than not, what you wrote — particularly if it was personal — felt like an attack by a thousand spikes all piercing you at the same time. (That said, I think working at Gawker at the height of the obsessive Gawker commenter gave me a much thicker skin than most people who write online, so, thanks, everyone!)
The Gawker commenters had their own community, their own inside jokes. They knew each other by their handles. At yesterday's panel, a former Gawker commenter got up to ask a question, and informed the crowd that he had
once been named Commenter of the Year around the time I was there. (Former Jezebel editor Irin Carmon and I had simultaneous and similar responses, which were basically: Oh my god.)
Even though the commenter system at Gawker has been democratized, it's still a problem on many sites (the only Gawker sites that Denton said have a consistently productive, friendly relationship between writer and commenter are Lifehacker and io9), particularly on Jezebel and Gawker. "There are stories our writers are afraid to write because they're afraid of jeers from the commenters," Denton said. But if a large part of the Commenter Problem stems from anonymity, why won't he use Facebook comments? "Anonymity is at the heart of the internet and discovery of truth through the internet" — and Facebook comments actively work against that. People would be more reluctant to leave tips in the comments if they weren't anonymous, and he doesn't want to take that risk: "Anyone registered as a regular commenter is less interesting than someone who wants to leak a photo of a celebrity in flagrante."