Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On The Ground: Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio speaks about the recent comment apocalypse

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.


  1. Another great post. It's definitely hard to control commenters. On my site everyone seems to have found a great level. Only once have I had to ban someone and another time I had to post a warning because people were getting too comfortable with the idea of it being a closed shop. I explained my thought process as clearly as possible and everyone seemed to understand and appreciate where I was coming from.

  2. Thanks, PPP! I think SB Nation as a whole actually is one of the best examples of embracing what commenters can bring to the table; the FanShots and FanPosts really expand the conversation beyond just one or two authors writing and everyone else chiming in, especially if your lead bloggers bump good ones to the front page. There also seems to be a good sense of community at most of the SB Nation blogs and the conversations are usually constructive.

    Also, excellent point on explaining yourself; I think that's the biggest issue in any situation of this type. Not everyone will agree with you, but they'll be more willing to go along if they know where you're coming from.

  3. Andrew thanks for your fine work here. As a blogger I am obsessed with this story. OBSESSED I tell you! Finally some answers. Sort of.

    AJ seems a bit drunk with power. But I'm just an an internet commenter. What do I know.

  4. Andrew, you're doing the lord's work. Thanks.

  5. Anonymous8:02 AM

    Pete being the comment moderator is all I needed to know. I used to read and comment at DS a lot, and Pete is a racist, homophobe, and proud misogynist. If he's in charge of comments the place is not only unreadable but unsalvageable.

  6. @habsfan29 and eyebleaf: Thanks, guys! Appreciate hearing from you. It's a very interesting story to follow.
    @anon: That's pretty strong. I haven't seen any of that from Pete myself. However, the latest masthead has him removed and the "Comment Ninja Squadron" in his place, so he may not even be in charge any more.

  7. Really good post, Andrew. It helped me sort things out a little bit. Thanks.

  8. Leitch commissioned the Commenter Manifesto, but never enforced it. Good on A.J. for having the balls to do something that Leitch should have done a year or two ago.

  9. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I'm really glad to hear that someone was able to actually talk to AJ so we could know a little more than what has been posted on the site. I understand the idea of what he his trying to do, only it is being done in a terrible way. The majority of the people that have been given the banhammer were phenomenal commentors who made the site better as opposed to worse. Hopefully I'll be able to survive as I do actually value the friendships I've made through a silly little website, but if I do get the ax at least I'll be in good company. Great post though, it really shed some light on things.

  10. Anonymous11:25 AM

    Excellent post. Dalaurio screwed up big and the quicker he acknowledges it, the better for his site. What an act of arrogance and stupity.

    (nice preview button!)

  11. Anonymous11:27 AM

    Too bad I didn't use it.

  12. Anonymous11:30 AM

    You know, Ufford, you could enforce the Commenter Manifesto without turning it into the Stanford prison experiment.

    So can I take it that your "I have nothing to do with this" from a couple of nights ago was bullshit?

  13. @captain caveman: The Commentist Manifesto was a solid document, and I respect your authorship of it. You're quite right that many of its tenets haven't always been followed. Keep in mind that parts of it are subjective, though; definitions of creative and interesting comments change depending on who you ask, and I don't think it's healthy to have a site's commenters living in a state of fear as to if their comments will be found uninteresting.
    @redsox1918: I think you have a good point there. The goal of making comments funnier is an excellent one. The problem many people have is with the steps that have been taken to try and reach that goal.

  14. @acmesalesrep: And I think you just nailed why a lot of people are upset over this. The idea of a few unnamed "supercommenters" hunting down and executing the brethren they judge to be less funny by some secret standard is rather creepy, and reminiscent of that experiment.

  15. Monchhichi12:18 PM


    It's a bitch move to get on a message board as "Anonymous" and call someone a racist, sexist homophobe without demonstrating any evidence whatsoever supporting your allegations. It's one thing if you don't like him, but those are pretty damning adjectives to use to describe someone. Unfair.

  16. @Andrew -- I'm not waving around the manifesto as to what commenting should or shouldn't be, I'm just saying it was frustrating to have someone ask me (and Drew and Maj) to write something that was backed by a toothless policy.

    @acmesalesrep -- I'm not sure to what you're referring, but I don't recall issuing any denial. However, since your comment seems to be an accusation that I had some part in this: I'm flattered, but no. I don't have nearly enough time to read Deadspin posts consistently, much less sift throug the comments to ban people.

    I haven't been a regular visitor to the Deadspin comments since I started blogging full-time in October 2006. I didn't leave because I didn't like it; I left because I spend all day looking writing and tending to my own website(s). To think that I have the time or desire to enact mass commenter executions is foolish.

  17. Anonymous2:02 PM

    @captain caveman:

    I think he's referring to KOGOD, actually. But yes, I can understand your frustrations over that writing.

    You also are running With Leather and Warming Glow, along with KSK posting. So, you'd not really have enough time to do comment executions.

  18. Anonymous2:05 PM

    Ok, so who are the chosen ones? As one of the fallen (first de-starred and now gone), I have a right to know.

  19. I'm not, and never have been, a Deadspin commenter. I read the site frequently, but I'm not funny enough to even bother auditioning.

    I agree with you, Andrew, that since it's Deadspin's site, the folks in charge can do what they think is best. Still, the anonymity of these comment regulators bothers me. Is there any accountability for them after they ban someone? Is there some sort of oversight committee to tell them "Hey, I don't think that ban was necessary, why don't you explain why you did it?"

    In sports, the umps/refs/officials make mistakes all the time, and while the fans, players, and coaches can't do anything about it besides gripe, the officials' performance is being reviewed, and if they screwed up a call, or get out of line (like when Joey Crawford T'd up, then ejected, Tim Duncan for laughing, or whatever Crawford's reason was), the league lets them know about, maybe even fines or suspends them from duty. Is there anything like that for the "Ninja Squadron of Doom"? And if so, is it just comprised of the other folks dropping the banhammer, who as you mentioned, probably share similar viewpoints?

    It strikes me that a commenter has no way of being certain whether they were banned because they weren't funny, or because they said something grossly inappropriate, or if the person who banned them just didn't like them and decided to abuse their power.

  20. I don't remember the last time I was this angry about something relating to the internet. I know to some people it's ridiculous and it's no big deal. But times are changing and the internet is well, bigger and more meaningful. Thanks for keeping tabs on all of this.

  21. Anonymous2:59 PM

    @Captain Caveman: I'm an idiot -- it was Maj (actually Sussman issuing a denial on both his and Maj's part). My apologies.

    My original point still stands, though. There were ways to enforce the manifesto without giving an even smaller group of people power to abuse (anonymously, no less). Hell, if Daulerio had let Iracane and Pete enforce it to start with -- he admits that he was the one who leaned on them to loosen the standards -- he wouldn't have had a mess to clean up in the first place. The long and short of it is that he screwed up on multiple fronts and isn't man enough to admit it, let alone make things right.

  22. This whole thing fascinates me because it stinks to high heaven of big wig money grubbers coming in and trampling all over a good thing and instead of doing the work themselves, they're getting other inmates to clean up the asylum.

    Great work here Andrew, keep it up.

  23. @calvinpitt: Very good points. I think that uncertainty's a big part of the problem.
    @acmesalesrep: Absolutely. As I said, the goal isn't necessarily all that bad; it's the approach.
    @wraparoundcurl: I don't think there's anything wrong with being upset about this. Like I said, there's no point in people criticizing others' interests. We all have things that we spend too much time on (like this blog for me), and we naturally are upset if they're threatened.
    @captain caveman: Ah, that makes a lot of sense. I can understand why that would be frustrating. So you know, I'm a big fan of your stuff, and I can certainly appreciate why you don't have a lot of time to hang around Deadspin these days.

  24. @Monchhichi: Agreed, low-class comment there from anon. I have no problem with Pete, and I don't think most of the aggrieved Deadspinners do either. Making those kind of accusations without proof is not a classy move.

  25. The guy who spent a good portion of 2008 with a black girlfriend and a gay roommate is a racist homophobe. Awesome.

    I love the internet.

  26. I don't think anyone takes that guy seriously, Pete. Like I said, I've got no issue with you, and I don't think many people do. I appreciate what you've done at the site.

  27. One concept that I find interesting about Deadspin is when the news isn't conducive to jokes (Amy Mickelson's cancer, Cory Lidle plane crash) or when a post author tries to make legitimate points (Tommy Craggs' takedown of Malcolm Gladwell).

    If you read the comments on that post, they're just the most played-out attempts to squeeze Sideshow Bob jokes into a sentence. I'm not expecting Robert's Rules of Order and civil discourse or anything, but any time Deadspin tries to expand beyond its dick joke wheelhouse the commenters can't expand with the site.

    My hope was that newspapers could adopt commenting policies similar to those of Gawker sites, as those places make Fanhouse seem like a tea party. But it's obvious no one has the perfect handle on generating content and pageviews from the masses.

  28. That's an excellent point, Hank. The problem with going too much for any one niche (humour, stats or anything of the sort) is that it can be tough to go beyond that. You're very right on newspaper commenting policies; most newspaper sites' comments are barely readable and not terribly insightful, so completely open access doesn't always work out for the best either. In the end, I guess it depends a lot on what your site's going for and what system is best suited to that.

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