On Sunday, I interviewed Nick Denton at SXSW about Gawker Media, commenting culture on the web, and a good bit of the history of professional blogging.
In advance of the conversation, I began a conversation with Elizabeth Spiers, Choire Sicha, Lockhart Steele, Jake Dobkin and Gina Trapani asking whether comments on the web have “failed”, as the SXSW session‘s title proclaimed. Their responses, as expected, were both insightful and hilarious. Gawker naturally picked up the conversation and posed the same question to its commenters. I quite enjoyed the results!
Then to the main event. We had a terrific turnout within the room, and responses to the interview started almost immediately. Within the room, Andrew Federman was illustrating our conversation for Ogilvy’s visual notes series:
Tom Lee also started documenting the interview while it was still going on. And Owen Thomas summed up much of the spirit of the conversation while also watching us from the first row. Adweek offers up some straightforward coverage, as did Now Toronto, CNN manages to cover the interview without mentioning that I was doing the interviewing, Liz Gannes at All Things D focuses on comment moderation, and perhaps most interesting was Doree Shafrir’s take at Buzzfeed, which was informed by her stint at Gawker:
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.)
But all the hand-wringing aside, and regardless of whether Gawker’s new experiment in commenting succeeds, the thing that excites me here is that Nick is still experimenting, still trying new things. For too long, the fundamental assumptions and format of blogging have been stagnating, and the technology has barely been advancing. At the same time, there’s been almost a casual acceptance of the shoddiness of conversations on and between blogs.
Worse, those who used to decry the incivility and snarkiness and, well, unproductive nature of much of what passes of comments on the web today are instead just participating in that culture themselves:
Gawker’s Nick Denton ruefully announces that most blog comments are off-topic and toxic.In related news, Cinnabon says you’re really fat.
— Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) March 13, 2012
It’s not enough for us to decry the worst things about the web. We have to actively work to change them. For my part, I think encouraging the conversation about these issues, getting those who have influence about them to publicly commit to making changes, and then working on promoting those experiments is the most productive thing I can do. Because if the web we have today isn’t the one we always imagined we’d be working on, then we have to make the web we want.
- My post about Gizmodo’s launch, from 2002
- Gawker’s 2009 look at its own history
- And my own post claiming if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault, which I’m proud to say has become something of a reference for a lot of people who care about these issues