Nick Denton on the ‘Tragedy of the Comments’

Gawker to revamp site's comment strategy, hopefully elevate the conversation

Once upon a time, in the early days of blogging, Gawker founder Nick Denton said, publishers hoped that the Web would help them “capture the intelligence of the readership.”

But now? “That’s a joke,” he said.

“That didn’t happen,” Denton said at South by Southwest, in a conversation with blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash. “It’s a promise that has so not happened that people don’t even have that ambition any more.”

The hope was that the Internet would boost the quality of public conversation and let writers and readers collaborate on stories, but instead, he said, there’s been a “tragedy of the commons…or tragedy of the comments.”

“For every two comments that are interesting, there will be eight that will be off-topic or toxic,” Denton continued, adding that some have been so toxic that he’s seen comments bring some writers to tears.

So, to fix the problem, he said, Gawker will launch a new commenting program in six weeks that will turn an elite cadre of Gawker-selected commenters into moderators.

“The core of the Gawker idea,” Denton revealed, “is that everybody owns the thread that they start…and the discussion that they trigger.”

He didn’t disclose too many details about how the new approach will work but said it gives the first person who comments on a story responsibility for the quality of the resulting conversation. The new system, he hopes, will bring out interesting and juicy comments from first-time contributors and relevant experts and personalities who might otherwise be too intimated to participate.

He acknowledged that it's not a democratic process, but it still allows people to comment anonymously, which he said is “at the heart of the Internet and discovery of truth on the Internet.”

Denton's conversation also drew out an early member of the Gawker commenting community.

While the Gawker founder may have been disappointed in the quality of the online conversation, one audience member, who was once a Gawker "commenter of the year," stepped to the mic to challenge the impression.

"We did have a feeling that we were part of an enlightened conversation," he said. "I think it’s sad, in a way, that you think it never happened."