Earlier this spring, Gawker unveiled a shiny new comments system that was clearly a labor of love. Someone -- or, rather, a group of people with Gawker's Nick Denton at the top -- had put some real thought into this new system, trying to solve the problem of designing a system that fosters intelligent conversation among multiple parties. The answer, it seemed, involved diffuse human moderation from thread "owners," a tree-like structure for conversation branches, and an algorithm that would hunt down comments for high-quality text and promote them.
When I first read about the new system, I was cheered. Comment sections are notoriously the red-headed stepchildren of online journalism, but also the greatest unrealized potential. Creating a high-quality comments section tends to be seen as too costly, either in terms of capital or time, with too little financial return to merit the investment required. But a great comments section could make a good site really sing, giving writers important feedback and enticing them to produce smarter content, with the result being a positive feedback loop that would benefit the site and the readers together. Is this why Gawker was putting comments at the heart of its new strategy?
That's what it seemed like initially. In a memo, Denton discussed his plans:
We plan to make the new discussion areas civil enough to encourage authors, experts and celebrities to come in for open Web chats. But writers should feel the comments are a place that you can develop your points with your sources, tipsters and friends. You should be looking forward to seeing the reaction to your article, not avoiding toxic commenters. So we'll radically overhaul the comment system technically to keep interesting conversations from being derailed.
This is some serious forward thinking. But, as Felix Salmon reports in Reuters, this was only part of the story. Gawker is going to take these intelligent conversations and figure out how to "to turn them into dollars." A new unit will work with marketers to figure out how they can engage with potential customers directly in the comments sections of Gawker's sponsored posts. Because of the functions Gawker has created for thread owners in the platform, companies will have "quite a lot of control over which comments in that thread will get featured."
It's a fine line to walk. Bringing marketers and giving them so much control could itself dampen or shape conversation. But if Gawker manages to pull it off (and right now it's not looking too good for online ad-revenue-supported content in general), perhaps more companies will invest in commenting platforms that will make online journalism -- and the experience of reading it -- better. And, of course, the revenue won't hurt either.