Off the Media

It’s War: Scale and Intimacy Duke it Out in the Comments Section

Gawker navigates the internet's only age-old question - and gets it mostly right.

 Its War: Scale and Intimacy Duke it Out in the Comments SectionOne of the ironies of American “high societies” is that some of its most prestigious institutions were founded by members of what was, at the time, one of the lowliest professions: journalism.

Take the Bohemian Club, the private refuge of many future and ex-presidents, billionaires and captains of industry. It was started by a bunch of dirty staff writers at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1870s.

As W. Joseph Campbell details in his excellent book Yellow Journalism, it was the drive to become respectable that ultimately curtailed most of the excesses of late 19th-century journalism. Tired of being ostracized, criticized and generally worked to death, reporters formed clubs and unions, began meeting after work, and started collaborating on a set of ethics and guidelines that professionalized their profession.

I think we can all agree that that was mostly for the best.

For this reason, it was interesting to hear Nick Denton, founder of Gawker, at a small event in Soho discussing the modern push and pull of wanting to create a profitable online business but still be proud to tell people at parties you worked there. He explained it as being an issue of “intimacy vs. scale.” Intimacy being the authenticity and honesty that made blogging powerful when it was invented. Scale being the grind and chase for pageviews that makes businesses like Gawker, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed viable businesses.

As Denton put it, “Intimacy and scale are in direct conflict with each other.” It’s a statement that was just as true in 1913 as it is today.

The drive for scale is not new, just digital and faster. The circulation wars of the early 20th century contributed to the creation of actual wars; today blogs battle each other for Comscore numbers and shape the reality we live in as a result. The New York World and the New York Herald and the New York Journal fought it out through newsboys on street corners. Today, BuzzFeed and Upworthy fight each other in our Facebook feeds. Gawker fights for big scoops that steal traffic from ESPN or the New York Times.

But what these outlets all inevitably come to realize is that this arms race is mostly self-defeating. The drive for massive scale and reach comes at the expense of the brand and of the editorial voice that made us so optimistic about blogging ten years ago.

It’s not that intimacy and scale are at odds, directly. It’s that intimacy requires trust, and the things blogs do to get scale tend to violate that trust.

For instance, bloggers have long thought that the self-imposed rules that journalists place on themselves are artificial or arbitrary. Just last week, Gawker’s own editor John Cook told the Globe and Mail that he does “not think as a profession that reporters and editors need to think of themselves as bound by an additional, secondary set of ethical restrictions.” In fact, he felt that ethics were designed to keep the “hoi polloi” out of journalism.

I wholeheartedly agree that many media “standards” can feel disingenuous or in fact be a cover for less-than-honest behavior. Two examples: Lizzie Widdicombe’s piece in the New Yorker about the controversial founder of Bustle.com, Bryan Goldberg–she clearly despises the guy, but instead of coming out and saying it, dances around it for 6,000 words. Or the New York Times’ profile of charity: water, which basically set out to undermine and dig at the unusual charity all while smiling and pretending to be friendly.

But ethics were not designed to keep the hoi polloi out of journalism. They’re designed to foster trust, respect and responsibility. They were designed as a reaction against what journalism descended into when there weren’t any such governors.

At Denton’s presentation, he lamented the number of stories that Gawker sits on because of the last remnants of journalistic ethics set by newspapers. As a guy who has floated at least a half dozen utterly fake stories onto the Gawker homepage over the years, I shudder at the thought of what their writers are not publishing.

But maybe, with Gawker’s launch of the new Kinja platform, we’re seeing a change. In many ways, Kinja is a reaction against scale–harkening back to some of the blogging roots that initially bore great fruit. By retooling its comments section, allowing for curation and user context, Gawker is taking a step in the right direction. I mean that.

Or, Kinja could just be an excuse to have users post rants or gossip that the site would have never approved otherwise and then rake in even more pageviews as a result. I suppose it could go either way.

In any case, Gawker is the only site that could try to pull off such a move.

The Huffington Post gets millions upon millions of pageviews from its comments. In May, for example, the site celebrated its 250 MILLIONTH comment. The endless discussions, nearly all of which descend into black holes of idiocy, are the source of a significant amount of advertising revenue. Now, with a large parent company looking for a return on a major acquisition, accountants will be reluctant to lose that revenue stream or mess with success.

Gawker doesn’t use third party advertising networks or sell remnant inventory. Culling the comments section is a decision they’re OK making–because they have less immediate profit to lose from it and more to potentially gain. In fact, Gawker invested a reported $10 million in implementing Kinja; by increasing the standard of dialog, they make the Gawker brands more attractive to premium ad dollars.

So Gawker and all blogs are still obsessed with scale–as all businesses are–but perhaps their priorities are changing. Or perhaps, now that we are a decade into this game, people are starting to play it with a slightly longer-term outlook.

That’s a good thing. It just remains to be seen if we–the audience–step up our contributions as well.

Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands.