Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Are all comments created equal? Gawker says no.

Americans love the idea of free speech, but in practice, we don’t understand it very well.

Most people interpret “free speech” as the freedom to say whatever you want, whenever you want, whereever you want, without regard to context, obscenity or property rights.

Too many people interpret our constitutional right of free speech as something that puts an obligation on strangers: “I have the freedom to speak, so you can’t remove me from this porch, this street corner, or this microphone stand I’ve set up in front of your house.”

But of course, the Constitution wasn’t written to impose obligations on citizens; it was written to put restrictions on government, to make sure the government couldn’t silence voices that disagreed with people in power.

Most people can grasp this difference when a conflict arises in real life but it’s harder to see property lines on the Internet. Everything comes through the same web browser on the same pipe, so it’s easy to forget that these packets of information belong to different people, and that each person who sets up a web site on the Internet owns that site just as much as you own your porch, your patio or your front yard.

Now Gawker Media is putting that concept into practice in a way that is drawing praise from Internet experts and rival publishers, even as it threatens to alienate its user base.

Last Thursday, Gawker Media announced a two-tiered comment system. Tier 1 commenters are selected by the editors and given permanent gold stars to indicate their status. Tier 2 includes everybody else.

By default, when you pull up a story on any of the Gawker Media sites, you will only see Tier 1 comments. You have the option to show the Tier 2 comments for any particular thread or to set your preferences to show all comments.

Tier 1 commenters can promote certain comments to Tier 1 status by selecting them or replying to them, but any way you slice it, Tier 2 commenters are now second-class citizens on the Gawker sites.

If you want your rants to be seen by the public, you have to prove yourself worthy of a commenter slot.

Back in 2007, Gawker tried a completely restricted content model. Anyone could submit a comment, but only comments approved by editors would appear. It became a great game, to try and think up a comment that was clever enough to be selected, and to do it often enough to get a permanent commenter slot.

Then Gawker founder Nick Denton realized that comments equal pageviews and pageviews equal ad dollars, so by restricting comments on his sites, he was actually hurting traffic and revenue.

I got my much-coveted commenter slot about a week before they opened the floodgates and let everybody in; proving that I was elevated, not by any awesome comment I had submitted, but because they had just lowered their standards.

I jumped in with both feet and started posting like a madman, convinced that I had been selected to be part of some elite club. When the euphoria wore off, I realized that my style didn’t quite fit with the writing style I admired so much in the comments.

The snarky, world-weary humor of the place made it fun to read, but my comments were too bland, too earnest, too fundamentally self-conscious to fit with the tone of the site.

I took a hard, objective look at my writing style and realized that if I was working the door at this club, I wouldn’t let myself in.

Then Gawker opened the doors and let everybody in. The quality of comments declined even as the spirit of the community (and the quantity of page views) grew.

It’s an odd feeling to realize that your comments are contributing to the deterioration of a site that you once loved — to admit that your favorite Web site would be funnier, smarter and more fun without you.

So while commenters are hammering the Gawker sites for their decision to create a caste system, I’m going to try to look at it like an editor and make the Devil’s case for him.

Are comments part of the essential content of a site or are they simply a reaction to content produced by editors? Do you visit Web sites because of what the editors provide or because of how the audience reacts to that content?

In the early days of Gawker’s “elitist” commenting experiment, I remarked that the comments had become more fun than the posts themselves. Everyone was trying so hard to gain (and keep) commenter status, they went out of their way to edit themselves, making sure that they submitted only the smartest, funniest and shortest of their witty remarks.

Denton achieved a brief “golden age” of quality commenting, then he decided quantity was more important than quality and let the extras swarm the stage.

The truth is, most comments on the Internet are crap. The bigger a site gets, the less likely it is to attract good comments. And make no mistake, bad comments drive out good ones every time. Don’t believe me? Pull up a random YouTube video.

Once a site gets dominated by a gang of aggressive posters it becomes an echo chamber of people who love to hear themselves talk. The comments you want — the shy, thoughtful opinions of people who only speak when they have something to say — are drowned out by kooks, flame wars and tired political arguments.

New visitors have a very low threshold for this stuff, so it doesn’t take much to drive them away.

Most Internet discourse is high-volume, low-quality stuff — the same people arguing the same points over and over again. When’s the last time you saw an Internet comment shed genuine light on a subject? When’s the last time you saw a comment legitimately change someone’s point of view?

Denton is trying to serve both groups. The Tier 2 commenters can have their flame wars and grind their personal axes all day long, but the general public doesn’t have to see it. Remember, Tier 1 commenters aren’t just enjoying extra privileges, they’re also expected to hold themselves to a higher editorial standard. They’re volunteering to contribute to the quality of the product.

This principle, obvious to people who run web sites, is highly offensive to people who comment on them. This is because the concept of free speech comes with an assumption of value.

Along with the idea that we can say whatever we want is the democratic notion that all speech is of equal value; that any given comment on a post is as important and as worthy of publication as any other.

Gawker’s new comment system flies in the face of this unspoken assumption, daring to declare that some speech is more valuable than other speech and that some speakers are more valuable than other speakers.

I’m sure this change will cut out a lot of irrelevant chatter and improve the quality of discourse in the short run, but it could also inspire groupthink and suppress the opinions of infrequent visitors.

Ultimately I think the success of this depends on how frequently Tier 2 comments are promoted to Tier 1, and how the system deals with polite people who offer unpopular opinions.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 16, 2009 at 15:15

Posted in Columns, Gawker

5 Responses

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  1. Comment censorship has been the rule on most websites for some time. An interesting proof is to post a decent comment on an international (non-American) news website with a local (to the website) hometown listed. It usually is posted. Next attempt a decent comment, with your location as Berkly, Boston, LA or NYC – you may or may not be censored as a know-nothing American. Lastly attempt a comment with your hometown somewhere in Texas. It is guaranteed never to be posted and you are not only assumed to be an incoherent know-nothing, but an insufferable bigoted,intolerant, racist leper who is unappreciative of diverse views. Irony? Try it someday and see.

    Lightbulb Jones

    July 16, 2009 at 17:12

  2. Very scholarly article, despite the red. Prediction: excerpts will appear in lawyers’ briefs and judges opinions on the inherent constitutional issues. Very impressive for a geek or, say, a supreme court justice.


    July 17, 2009 at 09:12

  3. I don’t speak Lawyer but I think there was a compliment in there.

    Thanks, Paul. Welcome aboard!

    Michael Duff

    July 17, 2009 at 13:45

  4. My name is Jess, and I’m a frequent commenter at gawker media sites, though I’m rarely promoted to tier 1. I know this article is several months old at this point, but I wanted to give you an update. Dissenters are not promoted. If you’re not barking up the same tree as the post author, you might as well scribble your comment on a sheet of paper and stuff it into your DVD drive. It’s frustrating when issues warrant a good old fashioned internet debate, and no one wants to talk to you because you disagree.


    October 6, 2009 at 08:37

  5. The real problem is that it’s made comments un*readable* by casual (or even regular) readers.

    Bad enough when Javashiat was required to read any comments.

    But 2.0 made it even worse. First, there’s no longer any way to sort/thread in ascending order. Second, and more importantly, the settings for “read all comments, not just the Starred ones”, and “Read *ALL* comments, not just paginate the 10-20 most recent” aren’t persistent.

    One should not have to register for an account at a blog just to read comments. I’ve stopped visiting Gawker Media sites as a result of the fact that it’s no longer worth the effort (multiple clicks) to follow the discussions on *any* of them.


    October 22, 2009 at 18:47

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