The big news in the sports blogosphere at the moment is this post from Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio discussing the upcoming "mass executions and de-starring" of the site's commenters. Daulerio writes, "There is no safety in tenure, personal relationships with editors/writers/commenters past or present, or number of friends/followers you may have. You will all be subject to unfair scrutiny and I have very little say in the matter." That last part is especially interesting, as it would seem to hint at the involvement of someone over and above Daulerio's pay grade, namely Gawker head honcho Nick Denton.
Denton's relationship with Deadspin is an interesting one. Back in November, he wrote an apocalyptic post at his own site about what the economic crisis might mean for the Internet advertising world, where he predicted a 40 per cent decline in companies' spending on online advertising. In that post, he mentioned that focusing on strong properties was the key to survival; out of 18 original sites under the Gawker umbrella, six had already been spun off or incorporated into other blogs at that point and Gawker's top six blogs were producing 91 per cent of their revenue. In my mind, that did not bode well for the network's other sites, including Deadspin, and it certainly didn't sound like Denton was high on the site.
Since I wrote that post, things have changed a bit. For one, Gawker Media has spun off The Consumerist and rolled Defamer and Valleywag into Gawker. The Consumerist was actually in the top six sites (by unique visitors), but there was a good buyer for it; Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. Valleywag was the lowest on the totem pole at that time and there was considerable synergy between its coverage and that of Gawker itself, so incorporating it into Gawker made a lot of sense. Defamer was actually outperforming Deadspin substantially back in November (1.3 million unique visitors monthly to 765,000), but Deadspin's come on strong since then and is up to 1.1 million uniques monthly by Gawker's numbers. Moreover, Defamer also had substantial cross-connections to Gawker in terms of coverage; both often cover celebrities, but Defamer did so more from a California perspective as opposed to Gawker's New York approach. Rolling Defamer into Gawker is a logical move and should expand Gawker's pull while cutting costs.
Of the eight remaining Gawker sites (not counting Fleshbot, which is run by Gawker but not integrated with the rest of their content and doesn't have pageview numbers listed at the Gawker advertising hub), Deadspin and Jezebel are the lowest on the totem pole at the moment with 1.1 million uniques monthly each. Gizmodo's held steady at 6.1 million while Lifehacker's jumped from 4.3 to 5, Gawker's improved from 2.2 to 2.7 and io9's gone from 1.2 to 1.6. Jalopnik and Kotaku have both fallen (by 600,000 and 300,000 uniques respectively to 1.8 million and 2.8 million respectively). Jezebel lost 200,000 uniques over that period while Deadspin gained almost 400,000. Given Denton's recent comments to Advertising Age that Gawker Media first-quarter sales were up 27 per cent over last year despite less Gawker titles and the recession's impact wasn't as severe as he feared, I wouldn't expect him to ditch any titles at the moment. That doesn't mean he won't tinker with them, though, and Deadspin is perhaps most ripe for an experimental approach; there is still a sizeable discrepancy between its numbers and those of the other Gawker blogs. There's been a lot of anger expressed in the comments of Daulerio's announcement, but Deadspin isn't Denton's top draw or top priority, so it isn't a crisis for Gawker Media if a few Deadspin readers are upset.
Still, readers are your consumers when you're running a blog network, and any good businessman would tell you that you never go out of your way to annoy consumers. Thus, this move presumably isn't just for the hell of it or because Denton got up on the wrong side of the bed. Denton is a very smart man and knows a lot about running a profitable media empire, much more so than the vast majority of North American newspaper publishers in recent years. Therefore, it would seem that there must be an economic rationale of some sort behind this. The question is what that could be.
The first thing to consider is the idea that comments drive traffic. They certainly do to an extent; Deadspin's Quantcast numbers state that 3 per cent of visitors are "addicts" and another 42 per cent are "regulars", and large numbers of commenters probably fall into those categories. Anecdotal conversations with some of the Deadspin readers and non-commenters I know have shown that some people read the site more for the humour in the comments section than for the editorial material, but it would be very difficult to figure out if that's happening on a larger scale or not. Moreover, Gawker Media heavily promotes its sites based on unique visitor numbers, not pageview numbers, which would suggest that comments and the repeated views they generate are not the most important elements to them. However, comments do certainly bring some people to the site, so it would be foolish to strike out against them without both having an economic reason to do so and having a plan to replace those clicks.
As for that economic rationale, a simplistic analysis would miss it. Websites are generally run on the basis that any click is a good click, regardless of if the viewer is reading the site for posts or comments. Exclusivity is generally bad for site growth, which is probably one of the reasons Gawker Media brought in the Facebook Connect program to allow people to comment from their Facebook profiles, a decision that created a great deal of angst across the network. At first glance, this would seem to be a step in the opposite direction, taking the site back to a smaller, more regulated area. However, this changes a bit when you consider the idea of brand association. I'm personally a big fan of Deadspin comments, but many of them would be considered offensive by some people, and there are certainly plenty of brands that don't want to associate with anything overly controversial. Thus, clamping down on comments that cross certain lines might make the site more appealing to advertisers.
That's the positive economic benefit of clamping down, but there's also a negative economic side that perhaps can be avoided via this method; namely, litigation. Jeff Bercovici of Portfolio.com wrote a very interesting piece last year about the potential legal problems posed by allowing certain comments to be posted on your website, and Denton was one of the people he spoke to. Here's the most interesting paragraph of the piece:
"Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, ensures that website operators and internet-service providers can't be prosecuted for libelous or otherwise unlawful statements generated by third parties (although the third parties themselves can still be held liable, provided they can be identified)."
That isn't always the case, though, and it depends on the circumstances. In the article, Bercovici references the upcoming court case of Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, et al. v. Roommates.com LLC [Martin Samson, Internet Library of Law and Court Decisions]. In that case, Roommates.com was not fully immunized from liability relating to third-party content on their site. Bercovici's article quoted several legal experts, including Thomas Burke and Jonathan Kirsch, who speculated that the way Gawker Media handled comments (and particularly the practice of featuring the best comments in editorial posts) might result in it not receiving full immunity in a Section 230 case:
"There is a threshold you cross as the editor and publisher and operator of a blog where [third-party content] is no longer immunized, because in a sense you've adopted it by selecting it out and featuring it," Kirsch said. "It's the passivity of the blog operator that is the source of the immunity," he added. "If you take something and you feature it, you boldface it, you take it out of the general run of postings and highlight it, then you're approaching a line, and you may have crossed the line."
In that article, Denton didn't sound too prohibitionist. From the piece:
"Then there's Gawker. Although its comment forums can get as rowdy as Deadwood's Gem Saloon, Gawker seldom, if ever, deletes individual remarks.
Explains Denton, 'I look at Gawker comments as a party. We don't take responsibility or credit for individual comments, but we have the right to invite or disinvite guests and throw the best party we can.'
'Just as a host isn't responsible for the vomit in the corner,' Denton adds, 'we don't take responsibility for individual comments.'"
However, read between the lines a bit there, and the picture changes. For one, Denton's discussing the right to "throw the best party" he can and invite or disinvite commenters at will. It's quite possible that his definition of what is the best party has changed since Deadspin started, or that his definition and original editor Will Leitch's definition (largely responsible for today's Deadspin commenting environment) were never quite in sync to begin with. With a smaller stable of titles, Denton now has more time to focus on each of them and try to make them into what he'd like to see. He did also link said article in a post on Gawker under the headline "Crazed commenters threaten Gawker, other sites". For another thing, Denton's practically obligated to say that he doesn't claim legal responsibility for comments on his sites; any other statement might open the door for litigation. Finally, governments and courts have proven much more willing to regulate the Internet over the last year or so (see the Roomates.com case linked above and the Pirate Bay case for examples). The Wild West is slowly being civilized, settled and tamed, which doesn't bode well for anonymous commenting that could potentially be libelous.
At first, there seems to be a discongruity between the move to open Gawker's sites to Facebook users and this announcement of coming commenter purges. However, that would make perfect sense from a legal standpoint. If people's comments are tied to their Facebook profiles, they're no longer anonymous. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; as I wrote a while ago, there are both advantages and disadvantages to commenting anonymously. Commenting under one's real name or an account tied to one's real name does encourage one to avoid crossing certain lines, though. It also presumably reduces Gawker's liability, as you might have better luck with a libel case that went directly after the commenter and avoided the whole Section 230 mess. With anonymous accounts, that would be difficult, as disclosing user identities is another can of worms. With the Facebook connection, Gawker still gets the pageviews from commenters, but there's less liability on their part. Also, removing the stars from existing commenters might be perceived as making the site more accessible and less intimidating to new commenters that come in from Facebook. There was already a big backlash against Facebook types when the program started; putting everyone (or more people) on what appears to be an equal playing field might help to reduce that.
Thus, we have an experimental strategy beginning at one of Gawker's lowest-trafficked blogs that could easily be applied to the rest of their network. If it plays out as I'd expect with mostly over-the-line comments being targeted, it could prove attractive to advertisers. If other commenters are purged for inactivity or other reasons, that could help from a liability standpoint; lowering the numbers of people who have the ability to anonymously comment on your site decreases the chances of a comment landing you in legal hot water. If they can replace the pageviews from expelled commenters with pageviews from new Facebook commenters, they get the same revenue without any of the liability.
This is all just speculation, though, as I don't have any sources inside Deadspin management or close to Denton. As such, this is just one possible rationale for their actions so far. What further steps they take and how they go about the commenter executions will tell us a lot more about what they're thinking.
If things do play out as I predict though, and Denton's rationale is along the lines I've stated, he deserves a massive pile of criticism for how it's been approached. A simple explanation that some comments could be turning away advertisers or potentially crossing a legal line would have been much better; 99 per cent of the active commenters likely would have responded well and modified their own behaviour slightly to avoid problems, and the remaining one per cent could have been banned. There certainly still would have been complaints, but not of the magnitude or in the proportions we've seen so far. Instead, there's a vague but incredibly ominous announcement late on a Sunday night that commenters will be destarred and executed without any guidelines on how to behave to avoid said executions. There's no explanation given and seemingly no logic as to why this is happening. As a result, the post's comments are (mostly) 18 pages of people logically complaining, making plans to take their comments to other sites and saying goodbyes in case the banhammer comes to strike them. That is one hell of a PR backlash, and you don't want to create that.
This line of reasoning is actually rather favourable to Denton. It invokes a legitimate economic threat (litigation, lost advertising dollars) and
comes up with a plan to deal with it (banning offensive commenters, replacing those clicks with Facebook commenters). Plenty of people get hurt in the process and some leave the site, but Denton's intentions aren't all that bad. The reasoning could be different, though, and could involve anything from returning the site to a small, exclusive club (although it would be tough to see how Facebook Connect and Denton's known desire for traffic play into that) to trying to alter the types of comments found on the site. Under those scenarios, Denton doesn't look as good.
If the plan is as I've described, though, I'm not sure where I stand on it. As I wrote in that anonymity piece, it's easier to be funnier under an alias, as you don't have to worry about who you're offending. Also, some people have legitimate reasons to stay anonymous, and that's perfectly fine. There's also the theory of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it": some current comments might go too far, but the vast majority of them are okay in my books. A lot depends on how the banning goes down. If it's just a few over-the-top offensive posts which could result in potential litigation that get people banned, I won't be overly impressed given my hatred for censorship, but I'll understand. If the bans start flying left and right, though, and it ruins Deadspin as a community, that will be a significant loss. The place has been a terrific sports discussion forum for years and a breeding ground for a wide variety of successful blogs, such as Kissing Suzy Kolber, Ball Don't Lie, The Rookies, Avoiding The Drop and Style Points. It would be a shame to see that community-driven atmosphere disappear.
In any case, I can promise you that the comments section around here does not feature executions (except for spam). Questions? Ideas? Am I way off base or on the right track? We welcome dissent and the free exchange of ideas around here, and I don't carry a banhammer. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or send them to me at andrew_bucholtz [at] hotmail.com.
Update, 9:39 P.M. June 1: You can check out a list of the banned and de-starred at The Rookies. Other posts on the matter can be found here [Sportress of Blogitude], here [Young Lefthander] and here [Luol's Dong].
Update: 9:01 A.M. June 2: Turns out it's much simpler than my theories of economics and managment pressure; it's a decision by Daulerio to try and improve the site's comments. Check out my interview with him here.