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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Disruptions: Gawker Wants to Encourage More Voices Online, but With Less Yelling

There are corners of the Internet that contain some of the most slimy and vitriolic stuff you could imagine, places where people snipe, jeer and behave like a frenzied mob. I’m talking about the comments sections of most Web sites.

While some outlets try to distance themselves from the anarchy of reader comments, it seems only natural that Nick Denton, the controversy-stirring founder and chief executive of Gawker Media, has decided to embrace and highlight them.

On Monday, Mr. Denton is set to announce updates to Kinja, a Web site his company has been building over the last few years. Kinja flips on its head the idea of comments and conversation below a story on Gawker Media’s Web sites, including Gizmodo, Lifehacker and Jezebel, which collectively have more than 36 million unique visitors a month.

When people sign up for Kinja, they are given their own Web address on the Gawker platform â€" similar to a Tumblr Web site â€" which becomes a collection of that person’s comments on stories. Kinja will also enable readers to write headlines and summaries â€" comments that have graduated from college, if you will â€" for stories on Gawker and even from other sites. Readers will then be able to use Kinja as a central hub for discussion on these stories, almost like their own chat room protected from the commenting maelstrom.

The decision to radically change comments is a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of Mr. Denton. While it allows readers to be a bigger part of Gawker’s sites within a “conversation,” it also creates a home for people to vent, which could generate lots of clicks and, ideally, more advertising dollars.

Mr. Denton said this in a memorandum that leaked from the company last year, noting that page views were slowing on the company’s sites as people chose to discuss articles on Twitter and Facebook. In recent years readers have taken their conversations to more controlled environments, like social media outlets, where they can discuss things without less chance of getting into hissing matches with strangers.

Along with the updates to the comments service on Monday, Mr. Denton is set to unveil “a manifesto” of sorts that will outline Gawker’s plan to further blur the line between reporters and readers and explain readers’ rights. Among them, there is “the right to experience legible conversations” on the site.

Mr. Denton said the seeds of Kinja were planted in the late ’90s, when he was a journalist with The Financial Times in London. “The real story was never the one in the newspaper,” Mr. Denton said in an interview. “It was the discussion between the writers afterwards at a bar when someone said, ‘So, what really happened?’

“The dream of the early blogs was that through conversation we could tell the truth, and if we could discover the truth, we could then have conversations around that truth,” Mr. Denton said.

Sadly, it didn’t work out that way. As anyone who has slogged through YouTube or an article about anything even remotely contentious online knows, commenters are often like the drunken uncle no one wants to invite to the house for Christmas, but he shows up anyway.

“People forward stories they like and comment on stories they hate,” said Clay Shirky, an associate professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University and the author of “Here Comes Everybody.” “Part of this comes from the fact that people in the media business regard comments only as consumers and they’ve never been able to accept the idea of participation.”

He added: “Nick wants to completely break that taboo by highlighting comments and placing them above the fold.”

But, as Mr. Denton said, his biggest challenge might not be helping people discover great conversation online, but rather, changing how people perceive online commentary.

A report released last week by researchers at Beihang University in China found that angry comments on the social network Weibo, which is similar to Twitter, spread much faster and farther through the network than happy posts.

Also, today’s commenting systems have a few variations. Comments may appear in chronological order or in reverse. Some sites have editors who approve comments before they are published and others allow readers to vote on comments so they can be moved closer to the top or far away from it. But no matter how the conversation is set up, nearly every site sticks the comments near the bottom of a page.

You know, where those crazies comment on things.

“Chronological lists in either direction are just about the worst form of ordering comments,” Mr. Shirky said. “Kinja seems to solve that; when it’s applied retroactively to comment threads, they have become distinctively better.”

This could, of course, all backfire. Kinja allows people to comment anonymously. Already, imitation commenters have pretended to be well-known bloggers from other Web sites. And some people, given a voice as loud as Gawker bloggers, could embarrass Mr. Denton’s employees by challenging their reported articles.

But Mr. Denton doesn’t seem too concerned. “I hope it happens,” he said in his usual, effusive manner. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, yet at the end of the process it’s going to make for much better journalism and much better journalists.”

While Mr. Denton may be thinking in page views first and truth-in-journalism second, it seems that both could profit.

“There are scandals in companies, local governments and in towns too small to have a newspaper,” he said. Kinja will give people a voice on Gawker to “help bring transparency to even the murkiest corners of corporations and government,” he said.

And Mr. Denton, it seems, is hoping that the murkiest corners of the Web, the comment sections, might be the place to solve those problems.