After I wrote my initial post on the commenting apocalypse over at Deadspin, I got an e-mail from site editor A.J. Daulerio stating that Gawker head honcho Nick Denton wasn't involved. I asked Daulerio to elaborate on the rationale behind the move and his wording that seemed to suggest a Gawker Media management conspiracy, and he just got back to me with his responses. They illuminate much of what has gone on so far, so I recommend reading on for the interview if you're at all interested in the situation. I'll have my own thoughts on his comments at the end.
Andrew Bucholtz: "What's the goal behind the process you mentioned [on Sunday]?Reducing the absolute number of commenters and starred commenters, getting rid of certain kinds of lazy comments or jokes, removing people for offensive jokes, or something else completely?"
A.J. Daulerio: "The goal of this bloodbath -- we'll call it that, I guess 30 or so people does constitute a bloodbath -- is to do all of the above. So yes. Did I do it in the most polite, business-like, pr-friendly manner? Not even close. And in hindsight that was probably too dickish. Did I have a little fun with it? Sure. It's still a blog post. But anytime there are changes it results in a certain level of protest. Of course this particular change affects some of the long-time readers, though, and that sucks and I totally understand why they would be upset with me for how I handled it."
A.B.: "What's the reasoning for this?"
A.J.D.: "Because some of the best commenters (in my opinion) on the site were starting to feel a little pushed out and thought the quality of the comments had deteriorated. They volunteered to help rejuvenate it. To be fair, most of the deterioration happened under my editorship. Part of that was due to my insistence that the commenters were their own separate entity and so let's not worry about them. I eased up on the whole "Commenter Manifesto" thing, and told our comment moderator, Pete Gaines (and Rob Iracane before that) to let more people in. The reason for that was, with Facebook Connect already set to launch, it seemed silly to keep certain people out or have them go through a lengthy audition process
if total randoms could just pop in anytime.
A.B.: "How long will this process take?"
A.J.D.: "As long as it takes."
A.B.: "Does Facebook Connect play into this, and if yes, how so?"
A.J.D.: "Not at all."
A.B.: "Sunday night, you wrote, "You will all be subject to unfair scrutiny and I have very little say in the matter." What did you mean by that if Denton isn't involved?"
A.J.D. "As I mentioned up top, this little commenting committee (Or Ninja Squadron Of Doom or whatever they're called) that stepped up would be doing most of the slash-and-burn/de-starring stuff. I asked them to stay anonymous just so they could be objective about it and establish their own system of comment grading. Is it a little creepy and off-putting to do it this way? Sure, but it's worth a shot. And besides, after seeing what Pete and Rob went through in dealing with certain individuals, I think it might make the job a little less of a nuisance and more enjoyable for this crew. Pete did great, even though he was pretty much in charge of thankless cat-herding, and he deserved a lot more of a heads-up than I gave him about how this was all going down. And, no, Nick Denton did not have any involvement in how I handled any of these situations."
A.B.: "Why is this happening now?"
A.J.D.: "It was just time."
Okay, so on to my thoughts. First, thanks to A.J. for taking the time to answer my questions. He's obviously taking a fair bit of flack over this and busy enough as it is, so I certainly appreciate his time.
From his comments, it certainly sounds like this isn't a big Gawker Media plan of the sort I first envisioned. However, it would accomplish a couple of the same goals; it decreases the absolute number of commenters, gets rid of some offensive comments and has people become more careful about their comments, all of which would go along with the idea of decreasing liability.
What's interesting is that this doesn't appear to have any positive economic benefit other then that, though. My initial thinking was that the banhammering would get rid of some of the most set-in-their-ways and the star removal would put everyone on the same tier, opening the door for Facebook commenters to come in and replace the pageviews generated from those dismissed at a lower liability threshold. Daulerio doesn't appear to envision any rapid influx in commenters of any sort, which would appear to hurt the site's traffic.
However, that's not necessarily the case. As I mentioned in the last post, the key advertising metric Gawker Media appears to promote is unique visitors, not pageviews. As website managers know, both often come from different approaches. Many of your pageviews come from the same dedicated cast of regular readers, while your uniques are often driven by a few big posts that get picked up by outside sources and draw readers who have never looked at the site before. Some of them might come back, but they won't read every post when they do. Unique content with a wide appeal works well for bringing in these types, and that has been a Gawker Media focus of late. Thus, a decline in comments and regular readers might not necessarily translate into a decline in revenue if unique visitors go up. Also, as mentioned last time around, good comments can drive traffic as well, and that's both commenting and non-commenting traffic. Daulerio clearly thinks this move will increase the quality of the site's comments; if the general public agrees and more of them read Deadspin as a result, it could work out just fine for them.
Anyway, disregard the economic implications for a moment. They're tough to predict in any case, as they depends on the backlash from commenters, the backlash from readers, how many people stop reading the site and how many new readers drop in, and they don't appear to play a key role in this in Daulerio's mind. He's treating this as a content problem, so let's look at it from that point of view, starting with his comment about why he made this move:
"Some of the best commenters (in my opinion) on the site were starting to feel a little pushed out and thought the quality of the comments had deteriorated. They
volunteered to help rejuvenate it."
Okay, so we've got a few building blocks here. There's a group of commenters Daulerio values, and they become unimpressed with the direction the site's comments are going. Daulerio appears to agree from his comments later in the paragraph about the deterioration occurring thanks to the lessening of commenting standards. These commenters volunteer to start destarring and executing other commenters, and are given the authority to do so. This is reasonably logical; the comments produced by this group are clearly closer to the ideal Daulerio's striving for, so putting them in charge of this process gets rid of those who don't fit that mould at all, keeps those who already fit it and moves the middle group closer to the desired mould. This is one area where the secrecy and lack of firm standards given actually helps, as people will figure out what isn't working by who gets banned and start tailoring their comments to be closer to the desired goal and avoid the banhammer.
There is a fundamental problem with this logic though, as it depends on a certain standard of what's funny and appropriate. It isn't a pure absolute standard, as it's the combination of the standards of the individual members of this "commenting committee" (and presumably Daulerio himself), but it does draw on a like-minded collection of people, which leads to the potential for groupthink. This potential is further increased by simple psychology and politics; in small, powerful groups like this historically, the members have usually found themselves drawing closer together in ideology in order to create definite standards of what is acceptable and what isn't (and make sure they all fall within the acceptable range). Thus, you are quite likely to arrive at a pretty specific idea of what kind of comments you're looking for given this model, resulting in a pretty narrow standard. It becomes black or white; certain ideas and jokes are acceptable, while other ones aren't and there's no middle ground.
The problem is that humour, like so many other things in life and sports, falls into the shades of grey I'm so big on. There's a reason we all have different tastes in it; some of us find Monty Python hilarious, while others prefer Paul Blart or Borat. It's not just personal preference as to which is better, either; a joke might crack one person up but do nothing at all for a second. Humour is not universal, and that's a good thing. We all bring our worldviews and our experiences to it, and that's why we each regard it differently. It does make it very difficult to draw absolute standards as to what's funny, what's acceptable and what isn't, though. That's not to say that Daulerio and co. can't draw such standards; it's their site, so it's up to them to make the rules. It does mean that any strict set of rules (or even just any shared impressions of what kinds of comments are funny) will undoubtedly result in some forms of humour and the commenters who practice them being cast out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In my mind, that's too bad; not only does it lessen the forms of humour available (and thus the commenters who use them, the readers who laugh at them and the pageviews arising from both), but it results in more groupthink from those who remain. It's often the outliers and the unpopular who challenge our assumptions and expose us to new ideas. You don't usually learn anything from a conversation with a like-minded person. I also don't see why you'd ever want to lessen the amount of commenters on your site (unless they're causing you legal problems or being jerks to others), as that goes against the whole philosophy of Internet writing. On the Internet, you provide content for free to draw eyeballs and clicks to your site. Commenters generally keep their eyeballs there more than anyone else, so they're investing their time in reading your work. You can then sell those stats to advertisers, which rewards you for putting the work together in the end. Essentially telling committed people who would like nothing better than to spend their time on your site to shove off doesn't seem like a great business move to me, and it's not a great move from a content perspective either; who would ever want to write something for as small an audience as possible? We all dream big, but most of us achieve only little; in my mind, we should be grateful for what traffic we get. It's easier to keep that in mind when you run a two-bit blog than a major one, though.
In any case, though, it's not the decision itself that's the most troubling, but rather the process. First there were vague announcements of impending doom, then comments about abusing the privilege and criticism of people for taking it too seriously, and then halfhearted invitations for the banned to try out again, none of which provided any real details on what was going on. In my mind, Daulerio would have been much better off just posting the responses he sent me; they're far more detailed and instructive as to what's going on than any information on the site. To his credit, his comments to me suggest that he'd approach it more constructively if he was to do it again. Still, having secret squads of people covertly execute commenters without public guidelines or explanations doesn't strike me as a particularly productive way to approach the matter.
One final thought on the contrasting views of the importance of the Deadspin commenting community: it means different things to different people. For some, it is just the comments section of a sports blog; for others, it's led to great discussions, joint ventures and real friendships. Neither view is necessarily superior, as there are vast numbers of distinct personalities involved. I'm not going to argue that it's the most important thing in the world, as it clearly isn't. However, one thing I've really picked up on from my time at Queen's is that almost everyone has at least one obscure club, group, forum or other place where they invest a lot of their time, and those connections mean a lot to them; trivializing them is somewhat foolish, as you've probably invested your time in something that seems just as silly to them. The conversations had at Deadspin and friendships formed do mean a lot to significant numbers of people, as can be seen from the comments over at The Rookies' post last night. Maybe Deadspin isn't the best place for that any more, but many of those people have invested a lot of time and effort into promoting the site over the years; writing them off with little explanation and then downplaying their concerns doesn't seem like the wisest strategy to me. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.
By the way, just to clarify the personal bias involved: I am a Deadspin commenter, but have only been so for a couple of months. I enjoy the site's community and sports discussion, but I don't have a problem with it if they do decide to ban me (they haven't yet); I'm certainly not one of the funnier people there by any means, I'm one of the shorter-tenured members and I definitely don't feel I have any God-given right to display my opinions there. I'm not writing about the issue to try and affect my personal standing there in one way or another; I'm addressing it because it's an interesting topic, because it's relevant to the sports blogosphere, because it fits in with several of my theories about writing, communities and absolutes and because I know a lot of very talented commenters who are affected by it. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Concerns? Leave them in the comments below, or e-mail me at andrew_bucholtz [at] hotmail.com.