Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Gawker’ Category

Sympathy for the Monster – Why we’re all gonna miss Nick Denton

The New Yorker ran a profile of one of my favorite people on Monday and the whole Internet is talking about it.

No, that’s not true. A subset of media-obsessed digerati are talking about it, and I’m following about a hundred of them on Twitter. So I have seen a thousand posts about Nick Denton this week and I expect to see people quoting this article for years.

Ben McGrath has written an awesome piece here — a (relatively gentle) biography of a transformative media figure. It’s not a puff piece or a hit piece; it’s just journalism – an honest portrait of a guy who has taken the “mean and mysterious” thing about as far as it can go.

I’ve been following Denton for years, since Gawker was just a cheeky blog about New York. I always thought he was creating the future of journalism, but this piece has showed me something else. Gawker is still the future of journalism, but that future will never quite arrive.

Any minute now Gawker will experience a perfect nanosecond where they are the world standard for digital journalism; then, an eyeblink later, some other site will leave them behind.

Nick Denton is one of those people who seemed destined to change the world; but the world does not change for nice people. McGrath’s article makes him sound like a charming sociopath, like there’s an alternate Nick Denton out there somewhere, collecting victims in the back of a white van.

Denton is an agent of change, like a forest fire burning away dead wood. And if your reputation gets caught in the blaze, well, that’s just what fires do.

A random quote from Denton reminded me of something in my favorite book. A mentor figure in “The Diamond Age” is devoted to the cultivation of subversiveness in the young. He’s worried that the children in his society have become too comfortable, too complacent, too accepting of authority.

He wants to create an educational program that will encourage the development of entrepreneurs — a new class of subversives who will create a better world by tearing the old one down. Nick Denton is the ultimate subversive – a natural subversive who revels in the destruction of old media, even as he craves attention from the giants who came before.

The most surprising thing in this piece is the sense that it’s all getting away from him. Gawker has become so successful, it can’t really be about New York anymore. Denton created this empire by pandering to his audience, giving them exactly what they want and ruthlessly rejecting anything that didn’t bring in traffic.

But Gawker’s new national audience doesn’t really care about New York anymore. The media figures that Denton loves to provoke are just a bunch of “Old White Men” to them. Denton’s latest attack on New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman got 6,000 hits. Candid photos of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got 300,000.

Nick Denton is the Rupert Murdoch of digital media, but he can’t indulge personal obsessions on Gawker anymore. The readers are in charge now, and Nick is just along for the ride.

This is the real difference between old media and new media. People aren’t afraid of Nick Denton; they’re afraid of his readers. Old media is about what readers should want. New media is about what they actually want. And what they want is so raw, even Nick Denton sounds overwhelmed by it.

McGrath says, “Denton’s own writers live in constant dread of diminishing word counts and the inevitable dumbing down of the culture.”

“How things show up on Twitter, these days, matters more than the full text,” Denton says.

Nick Denton may be a monster, but he’s not the real enemy. He was just the first guy to see the shape of this, selling news to the invading army of Internet users, hungry for snark, gossip and celebrity flesh.

Denton’s successor won’t be a ruthless Brit with a soft spot for Spy Magazine. The next Nick Denton won’t even be human. The next generation of gossip sites will be soulless collections of algorithms and keywords, sucking in readers with laser-targeted bursts of text, precisely measured to match their attention spans.

I’m tipping my hat to the monster here because I remember what really made Gawker great; the one thing McGrath leaves out of his profile. Nick Denton built his empire on voices. Gawker conquered the Internet because Nick Denton has the best “ear” for writing talent that I have ever seen.

The profiles treat them like interchangeable parts, but Denton’s empire was built on the writing talents of people like Elizabeth Spiers, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk – writers who brought the snark but kept that tiny bit of humanity that let you know you were still reading a real person. That personal touch is the difference between news and blogging and it’s that personal touch that kept readers coming back.

Denton has abandoned that strategy now. He doesn’t even measure repeat visitors anymore. There’s no time to form a personal relationship with a writer; no time for any of that sentimental nonsense, in this brave new world of big ads and unique visitors.

Nick Denton is at the mercy of his readers, and now so are we, as the “golden age” of blogging makes way for a new kind of industrial revolution.

People love to hate Nick Denton, but we’re gonna miss him, when word counts shrink to character counts and writers are replaced by blade servers running Microsoft Snark.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 11, 2010 at 04:53

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.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 16, 2009 at 15:15

Posted in Columns, Gawker

All the sad, young unemployed bloggers

Four of my favorite bloggers joined the ranks of the unemployed this month.

Alex Balk and Choire Sicha of Radar Online lost their jobs last Friday, as Radar Magazine folded its print operation and turned its web operation over to the editor of the National Enquirer.

Staffers were locked out of their computers and put out on the street so fast, they didn’t even have time to steal office supplies.

Ana Marie Cox lost her stipend for campaign coverage and started a pledge drive so she could continue on the trail with McCain.

Defamer’s video blogger Molly McAleer lost her job in the latest round of Gawker layoffs.

These are four of the best writers on the web. So why are they lounging around in their pajamas today, begging for donations and scrambling for freelance work?

Option 1 – Duff is wrong – Intellectual honesty demands that I start with this one. Maybe these writers that I love so much are only funny to me — only funny to a misanthropic microculture that only spends money on DVDs and frozen yogurt.

Option 2 – Everybody’s broke – Entertainment sites exist on the economic fringe, supported with “luxury surplus dollars” that are now being spent on mortgage payments and CEO severance packages. By the end of the year the only growth industries will be in medicine, law and canned food.

Option 3 – Advertisers haven’t figured out the web yet – The people who run companies are age 40 to 60. The people who visit these web sites are 18 to 34. Online sales professionals aren’t just facing a technology gap; they’re also facing a generation gap, trying to explain the relevance of ads that, to the uninitiated, are just pictures on a screen.

The generation gap also affects perception of content. Cutting-edge web sites are quirky, profane, intimate and mean — operating right on the legal edge. This writing style is likely to annoy, frighten, or soar over the heads of corporate advertisers, driving them to “safer” content, even if it is from the National Enquirer.

Option 4 – Bad management – As Nick Denton admitted in the Gawker layoff announcement, “Writers on all of our sites have done exactly what we asked them to: work harder than the competition and grow the audience. It’s my commercial judgment that’s been at fault.”

It’s easy to blame management for this. A lot of people resort to freshmen-level Marxism when they hear news like this. Denton and company make great villains, but I think it’s more useful to examine the fundamental assumptions that drive their business.

The Gawker sites introduced a controversial bonus system last year that tied blogger pay to popularity — granting bonuses based on the number of pageviews that their posts generated. Writers lost a chunk from their regular salaries but became eligible for big bonuses when one of their posts struck oil.

The model worked, increasing Gawker site traffic by 69% in a year. But advertising revenue didn’t keep pace with page views, forcing Denton to cut bonuses and raise base pay.

It seems like a simple formula: talent = pageviews = $$$. But now those rules are changing. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between popularity and revenue. Advertisers are running scared and site managers are struggling to keep up.

Option 5 – “Balk is a jerk” – Celebrity bloggers are a new phenomenon. Pop stars are manufactured by record companies and literary stars still work within a kind of guild system, but blogging isn’t a true art form yet. Bloggers have made great strides, but the Internet is still a media ghetto.

In a just world, bloggers like Balk and Sicha would be rock stars, but the powers that be don’t respect their medium yet. Mainstream pundits vacillate between contempt and hyperbole. They know the Internet is important, but they don’t understand why. Contempt for the Internet is so ingrained, even their Internet hype stories sound condescending.

This climate makes it hard for bloggers, even great ones, to charge what they’re worth.

Huffington Post vlogger Jason Linkins described Radar Online as “an island of misfit toys.” Brilliant people who didn’t really belong in traditional media found a home there. Radar picked up a handful of Gawker castoffs (alternately referred to as Gawker Exiles or Gawker Survivors) and hosted a little utopia online. And like most utopias, this one was short-lived. Ana Marie Cox calls this crew “the Typhoid Mary’s of media.”

Cox said, “We are not good employees. No one will hire us. The world is too square. We are a bunch of round things.”

Maybe these folks really are too quirky for corporate media. But I prefer to believe Option 6.

Option 6 – Superstar bloggers are ahead of their time – To paraphrase John Edwards, there are two Internets. First we have the mainstream, casual, prime-time Internet. These folks think of the Internet as a supplement to TV and radio. They get their news from CNN and the Today Show and visit web sites they see on TV.

They surf major news sites and circulate kitty pictures in email. They use Google to check movie times and look up trivial pursuit answers, but they don’t really belong to the Internet. Their tastes, their lifestyles and their media expectations froze in 1996.

The other group has adopted the Internet as a fundamental part of their lives. They host blogs, use RSS feeds and keep up with friends on Twitter. These people are connected 24/7. They send text messages while they sleep and check email before they put their pants on.

They are young, smart and upwardly-mobile, but there aren’t enough of them yet. They’re hyper-literate, hyper-critical and hyper-connected. These are true alpha consumers. They want to be first with a new gadget, first to review a great book, first to complain about a bad movie and the first to celebrate when an old brand does something new.

They’re sick of the old media paradigm and are desperate to see something new. The key to attracting this group is subversion. You can’t just sneak your commercial onto YouTube three days early and call it “viral.” You can’t just put your marketing copy on Twitter and pretend you’re 2.0.

You have to change the way you talk to them, and the quickest way to win them over is to slaughter a sacred cow. It’s not enough to put a young model in a hot new dress. You have to pan the camera over and show the ripped jeans that she changed out of.

You have to establish a context of subversion in your ads and on your web site, to prove you’re not taking yourself too seriously. The Internet generation rebels against anything that smacks of pretension or self-importance.

These people know all the standard PR tricks and are violently allergic to corporate boilerplate. That’s why sites like Gawker and Radar are so popular, even when they’re raw. Generation Y is sick of committee thinking and committee writing. Blogging is the antidote to this. In this context of subversion, sloppy links and strange word choices can actually work in your favor, adding to the raw, intimate appeal of your site.

This style goes against 50 years of advertising guidelines and a century of professional journalism.

I think these bloggers are suffering because they got it right too soon, giving Internet alpha consumers what they wanted before advertisers were ready to pay for it.

Our economy is contracting right now. Everybody is holding on to their cash, scaling back and preparing for the worst. But the downturn won’t last forever. Internet alphas may be turning to cheaper luxuries, but the fundamentals are still the same.

Maybe you’ll be selling frozen yogurt instead of iPods this year, but the cool kids still need their snark fix, and you can’t catch smart readers with lame writing.

I think this is where Denton went wrong, and where Radar is about to go wrong. Denton changed the focus of his site, alienating his core audience and casting a wider net. Gawker sites dominated the Internet alpha market and hit a ceiling. Denton’s consumers were high-loyalty and high-value, but there weren’t enough of them to keep his numbers up.

He tried to expand his appeal and bring in the TMZ crowd. It worked. Pageviews went crazy but these new visitors had no particular loyalty to Gawker or its community. They were just clicking on shiny things, killing time between Lolcats.

That’s what happens when you cast a wide net. You get more fish, but quality suffers. Gawker pageviews skyrocketed, but the quality of its product and the cachet of its brand went down.

I’m not trying to bash Denton here. Commercial blogs are not vanity projects and they are not charity. Publishers have to strike a balance between quality and quantity of users.

Focus too tight and the audience will be too small to support you. Cast the net too wide and your loyal readers will leave. It’s a delicate balance and no one has it right yet.

All I know is that a dozen of the best writers on the Internet are facing unemployment this month. The future of journalism is strung out in a series of New York apartments right now, ready to work for a fraction of what they’re worth.

What happened to all those obnoxious Internet millionaires? Does anybody have any money left?

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 29, 2008 at 14:42

Posted in Culture, Gawker, Gossip

Why I like Keith Gessen

You remember how things ended during every 80’s sitcom? When Dad and the kids would sit around at the end of the show and recap what they’ve learned?

It’s time for one of those.

Yesterday I tried to make a lame inside joke in Keith Gessen’s blog, referencing Alex Balk and Choire Sicha. Alex, Keith and Choire are three of my favorite writers, and I love them all for different reasons.

Choire is an outstanding journalist, in the big-J sense of that word: get the story, nail down quotes and throw in some snark to make it 2.0.

Keith writes an utterly sincere literary mag called N+1. Keith is a Writer, in the big-W sense of that word — devoted to digging up intensely personal, emotional material and wrapping it up in a bow of universal truth.

Balk is a Blogger, dishing out everything in quick bites, serving up sharp, funny bits of gossip in micro-paragraph chunks.

I expect credit for these labels, by the way, when somebody finally makes a tarot deck based on Internet celebs.

I made a joke in Keith’s blog yesterday, based on the assumption that these three men were friends, recently reconciled after a series of blog feuds. Turns out the term “reconciled” was a bit optimistic.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of that feud. VGI sums it up here, if you care.

A lot of people in the blogosphere hate Keith because he doesn’t play by the same rules that everyone else is using. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for him because I know exactly what he’s doing wrong and exactly where it’s coming from.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 2, 2008 at 13:59

Posted in Culture, Gawker

The Overshare War

I loved the word “overshare” the first time I heard it. Now, six weeks later, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again.

Emily Gould popularized the word in a May 25 article in the New York Times Magazine. That column sparked a massive public debate, with a small army of bloggers trying to judge the value of intimate personal blogging. Call it “The Overshare War” — the battle between fans of artistic personal disclosure and the people who hate it.

The emergent champion of the overshare “movement” is a writer named Rex Sorgatz. There is no movement, of course, but I think this debate is important and I want to link it with big important words.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 5, 2008 at 01:36

Posted in Columns, Culture, Gawker

Gakwer survivors form microfame posse

Everybody who knows me knows that I love the concept of online cliques. I’ve wasted a ridiculous amount of time trying to follow the blogrolls of people in the Gawker network, convinced that whatever flaws Nick Denton may have, no one can match his eye for talent.

Denton finds the best young writers on the Internet, “turns them out” in a matter of days, wrings out their youthful energy like an old man trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out of a tube, and eventually leaves them as cynical burned-out shells of their former selves,

The pattern repeats, over and over, as the victims emerge from obscurity, fumble through their charming awkward phase, reach an apex of creativity and snark, and then, right on schedule, they develop a conscience and leave for greener pastures.

Then, after they leave, the Redemption Phase. They struggle for a while, move on to other jobs, and slowly come into their own as writers and editors.

Call me naive, but I believe in the ultimate triumph of talent over greed, and the ultimate superiority of substance over flash.

Whatever you may think of Denton and his recent missteps, no one can fault his eye for talent, and Gawker is the ultimate boot camp for Journalism 2.0.

I don’t have all the pieces yet, but I think the revolution starts with this list:

Microfame is an ecosystem, a collection of fans who contribute and invest themselves in the brand called you. The best current example of this esprit de corps in action is the diaspora of former Gawker editors who have picked up microblogging. Alex, Doree, Choire, Jess, Elizabeth, Emily, and Josh each have their own sites, but their cross-references and incestuous linking have created a blogger’s version of Entourage. The posse—or as media theoreticians call it, the network—creates influence that grows exponentially with its size. If fame is an investment, the members of your posse are the stockbrokers keeping your wealth properly distributed.

So, the Gawker Rat Pack is:

Alex Balk
Choire Sicha
Doree Shafrir
Elizabeth Spiers
Emily Gould
Josh Stein

To this I would add:

Alex Pareene
Ana Marie Cox
Lindsay Robertson
Maggie Shnayerson

and a dozen others that I haven’t identified yet.

Collect the whole set!

UPDATE: Unbelievable. I spent 20 minutes rounding up links to supplement Balk’s quote of this, then I locate the original source and find that Rex Sorgatz had already done it for me. Epic Stalker Fail.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 21, 2008 at 00:09

Posted in Gawker

Jessica Coen doesn't really love you

I need to take a moment and cackle over Jessica Coen’s Myspace profile.You will never see this tongue again.

Her regular blog is here, but the real masterpiece is on Myspace. This profile is the most succinct commentary on male desire and female enabling that I’ve ever seen.


Result? The most artfully-crafted NO TRESSPASSING sign on the Internet.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 19, 2008 at 12:46

Posted in Gawker, Humor

Another Alex Balk Quote of the Day

I seem to be stalking Alex Balk today. The best writing on the web these days is being done by gay men. Certainly the smartest. In terms of sheer wit, you really can’t beat the bloggers at Radar or the commenters at Gawker.

This quote isn’t particularly witty, but it gets to the heart of what’s wrong, and right, about politics right now:

Who’s more annoying: the idealistic kids who think Barack Obama will bring us into a brave new world of transparency and change, or the hardened adults who think they’re speaking truth to power when they remind you that Barack Obama is just as cozy with corporate interests as anyone else who’s ever been in the position to be elected president? — Alex Balk, 6-9-08

Sigh. I guess I need to add Alex to my stalking tag.

12:01 a.m.: I’ve been Balked.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 15, 2008 at 11:55

Posted in Gawker

Molly McAleer takes 'overshare' to a whole new level

Defamer didn’t know what to make of this, and neither do I.

The only one who came close was friendslikeJimRome who said, “What hath God wrought?”

I didn’t want to watch it, but I couldn’t really stop. Sure it’s degrading and demeaning and sad, but when she’s done, you can’t help but be a little bit in love.

I mean, what choice do you have?

P.S. For any 40-something newspaper people who might be reading, this is why you don’t get us. This is why we’ll never make sense. This is, ultimately, the face of the new world. And no, I’m not ready either.

UPDATE 9-30-08: Molly McAleer forgives me …and perhaps, by extension, all of us.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 5, 2008 at 22:21

Posted in Gawker, Video

Gawker commenters rebel against new direction

Back in November, I made a special effort to praise Nick Denton's Gawker site and the suite of publications that sprang up around it.

I praised Gawker for having an outsider ethic, for showcasing sharp writing and for spawning a vibrant community of commenters. I said Gawker was the antidote to traditional entertainment journalism, and before the ink on my column was dry, Denton started a chain of events that unraveled everything I had just praised.

On Nov. 30, two of Gawker's editors, Emily Gould and Choire Sicha, announced their resignation. A day later, Josh Stein followed.

Gawker lost half its staff in 48 hours. The list of possible reasons goes on and on: the tone of the site had gotten meaner, the pace of work was brutal, commenters had taken the spotlight off the main content and Denton was getting ready to change the entire direction of the site.

From 2002-2007, Gawker's popularity came from the quality of its writing – a witty, acid tone inspired by the old Spy magazine.

Gawker may have been a gossip site, but it was also a blog. It used an intimate first-person style that put readers and contributors on the same level – as if the editors were just another set of spurned media wannabes, making fun of elites on the inside.

It didn't sound like a news site, it sounded like a personal journal. In the beginning, that's exactly what it was. Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers arrived in New York as a complete novice and took her audience on a real time tour of New York – taking the audience step by step through her New York education.

Gawker editors kept their outsider tone all the way through 2007, when fan-favorite Alex Balk gave Gawker a taste of its own medicine. It seemed like fair play at the time. Gawker cut its teeth chewing on arrogant media personalities, so on Sept. 5, Balk took a bite out of his boss.

Denton was considering a new pay system that would reward writers based on the raw popularity of their posts. Where they used to get paid by the post, now they would be paid by the page view. Gawker critics (myself included) fear that system will create a “race for the bottom” as hungry editors replace witty commentary with YouTube videos of babies getting kicked in the face.

Balk posted some internal chatter between himself and Denton and got roasted for it in public. Balk quit soon after, and the fans have been pining for him ever since.

Now it's a new year and Nick Denton has taken personal control of his site. With the flip of a switch, Gawker lost its sense of humor and became a rather ordinary blog.

The army of commenters, courted so carefully by Denton in 2007, have been marginalized and insulted by this change in tone. A group of frequent posters have launched a rebellion against the new site, boycotting new threads and staging protests in old ones. Last week they started moving high-traffic events off site, beyond the reach of Denton and his advertisers.

It's a classic underdog story, but Gawker is a real business, and it's hard to measure how much power these commenters have. Gawker is still a dominant presence on the Web, still a vital part of New York. Regular visitors may be repelled by YouTube videos and Julia Allison guest posts, but a dozen new readers are waiting to take their place, clicking in from email forwards and social networking sites. These visitors won't care about the tone of Gawker or the culture that it came from. They won't be as loyal or as clever as the old readership, but there's more of them, and advertisers won't care where the hits come from.

I'm afraid Gawker '08 will look more like a ghetto than a dinner party, as the masses take over and smart young writers leave for greener pastures. I hope readers will rebel against Denton's new model and force him to bring the old Gawker back, but the Web tends to reward quantity over quality, and nobody ever lost money appealing to the lowest common denominator.

You don't have to live in New York to care about this. Gawker is an industry leader. If Denton's experiment works, hundreds of publications will follow his example. Paying writers by the page view could change the whole structure of Internet journalism, crowding out quality writing as everybody races to post pictures of Britney in her underwear.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 11, 2008 at 10:29

Posted in Gawker