Nick Denton wants to turn the online media world on its head

Over the past couple of months, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton has made it clear that he doesn’t like blog comments very much, and that includes the ones on his own sites such as Gizmodo and Jezebel. He said so during an interview at South by Southwest, where he called the long-held idea that comments could somehow capture the intelligence of a site’s readership “a joke.” So Gawker is remaking comments from the ground up, Denton told GigaOM in an interview in his SoHo office on Wednesday — and the vision behind the changes that will be rolling out soon is nothing less than a reinvention of what the company is about, and also an attempt to literally flip the world of online content on its head.
This isn’t the first time Gawker has tried to fix commenting: the site got a lot of attention several years ago for launching an ambitious new commenting system that was supposed to offer readers an incentive system to encourage good behavior — a little like the membership model that other sites, including the New York Times, have adopted, which awards readers benefits for posting good comments. But Denton says now that this system actually turned out to be a massive mistake, and that all it did was encourage social-media gurus and professional commenters to game the system in order to get rewards:

It was a terrible mistake. It doesn’t work because people game it — and the people who game it are the people with time and social-media expertise, and those are not the people with information or insight. What person who actually has a job and a reputation… would give a f*** about getting some little badge like they’re in high school? It’s patronizing.

Everyone becomes a moderator of their own comments

So what is Gawker’s solution? The new commenting system, which Denton has hinted about but not revealed the details of, is designed to give everyone their own platform for commentary and discussion, one in which they control who they listen to or who they dismiss. And that includes the sources involved in a story at Gawker or Gizmodo or any of the other sites. That, Denton hopes, will appeal to people who don’t currently comment on blogs because doing so feels like “asking someone to go down to Occupy Wall Street and plunge into the mob and start shouting. No reasonable person is going to do that.”

In particular, Denton hopes that handling comments in this way will encourage the subjects of stories to become involved in rebutting these reports directly on the site, instead of calling him to rant at him about them. “I want to take all of those people and I want to have them in the discussion,” he says. “I want to see the story evolve and see the rebuttal, and the rebuttal to the rebuttal.” Not only does that produce drama — something Denton admits he has a fondness for — but he believes it could also help to get at the truth, broadly speaking.

Now I can say: your rebuttal will be given as much prominence as the original piece — we will respect you, we will protect you from the mob and we will let you say your piece. It’s great because it adds drama, and it keeps our writers honest.

Denton wants to reinvent how online media works

But Denton doesn’t just want to reinvent commenting; he wants these changes to be part of reinventing online journalism itself, by turning the traditional story model on its head. While many outlets treat comments and the discussion around a story as an afterthought, something that gets tacked on once the story is finished, Denton said he sees it not only as as the beginning of the story — but as the most important part. He said he even wants to take the discussion around a story that editors at Gawker engage in via private IMs and chats and make all of that public, as a way of sparking discussion.
This was actually the original vision behind Gawker: Denton said he noticed the discussion and gossip around a story in the newsroom or at the bar when he worked at the Financial Times was often far more interesting than the story itself — and he wanted to turn that discussion into its own form of media. In a similar way, the commenting changes are designed to make discussion among writers (who he said will be encouraged to spend far more time in the comments section) and readers and sources far more prominent, in some cases to the point where they become the story.
What’s interesting about Denton’s vision is that plenty of media sites both traditional and digital-only talk about how the “conversation” is the important thing, and how engaging the reader is a valuable tool for uncovering the truth, something that has been accepted wisdom since The Cluetrain Manifesto was published over a decade ago — but very few sites actually follow through on this promise.
Can Nick Denton manage to make Gawker into a poster child for that principle, and not only save comments and internet discourse but pave the way for the future of online media? And will anyone actually take him up on his offer to spend their day at Gawker moderating their own discussion? Stay tuned.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy King