Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

April 26 2012

13:59

Gawker: We want to elevate the discourse about frogs who sit like humans [CHART]

Most news organizations would kill for Gawker’s commenters, but Nick Denton is messing with them again.

Denton describes the failure of comments like an economist. It’s a tragedy of the commons, he told Anil Dash at SXSW, or rather, “a tragedy of the comments.”

The idea that without fences, without any delineated rights and responsibilities, that a discussion area gets overtaken. And the larger the sites, the more it will get overtaken, overused. No one really feels ownership, particularly as you get lots of participants and the quality of the environment deteriorates to the point at which it becomes a complete wasteland.

Gawker Media’s smallest site attracts more than 2 million unique visitors a month. It’s a problem of scale. You can switch to Facebook Comments or outsource moderation or encourage journalists to jump into the threads, but at the end of the day Gawker (and plenty of larger newspapers) just can’t scale.

New data we got from Gawker CTO Tom Plunkett demonstrates that scale, though you might be surprised to see how much smaller it has gotten. Comments, like traffic, dropped dramatically with Gawker’s controversial two-pane redesign in early 2011. Plunkett said 40 percent of that drop was in Gawker’s forums, which were de-emphasized in the new design.

Comment volume for all Gawker sites, 2005 to present

So far in April, Gawker’s network of eight sites has attracted 1 million comments on 7,500 posts from 130,000 active commenters. Their database contains almost 50 million comments.

The company has reinvented its commenting system again and again, never satisfied. The latest approach — a proprietary system they’re calling Powwow — was just rolled out this morning on Gawker.com. Gone are the elite cliques who ruled the threads with star badges; now every individual has a role to play.

Commenters are supposed to own their own threads. A new inbox focuses attention on all replies to a user’s comments, and the original commenter must explicitly approve a reply to allow it into the conversation. Ignored or rejected replies are cast away to their own islands, split off into new threads.

And now, instead of depending on humans to promote comments to “Featured,” a computer will do it. Powwow’s secret algorithm parses comment text for length and quality and automatically tries to push the good stuff to the front, the part most everyone sees. (Human editors can intervene, too.) A new URL structure also makes it easier for individual comments or subthreads to be shared on social networks.

Also new: Commenters can sign in with temporary and anonymous Burner accounts, a reference to the throwaway cellphones drug dealers use (greetings, fans of “The Wire”). To create a Burner account, select a user name and system generates a long password — once. Lose the password, lose the account; it can’t be recovered because it doesn’t exist on Gawker’s servers. Burner accounts are Gawker’s way of saying it takes security seriously, after hackers compromised the company’s database of user names in passwords in December 2010 and published the list.

Denton believes strongly that anonymous comments add to, not detract from, online conversations, but there is no system in existence that lets those comments rise to the top. That’s where the Powwow algorithm comes in. Said Denton to Dash: “The most interesting comments, they don’t come from people with Klout scores, they don’t come from people who actually have a long history of commenting on our sites or any sites. Often it’s a first-timer. Often it’s anonymous. Sometimes they’re moved, they’re so outraged by what you just wrote, that they want to set the record straight.”

Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio warned of the change last week and announced, to much outrage, that Gawker would disable comments sitewide during the upgrade.

Denton himself got involved. Needless to say, the comment thread inevitably devolved into a battle over the merits of Gawker itself, an ironic caricature of a Gawker comment thread. Half of people think Gawker is diluting its high-quality material with Chinese goats; the other half think Gawker should stick to Chinese goats and stop trying to do real journalism. Gawker’s best days are always behind it, if you believe the commenters, and Richard Lawson (a former commenter turned writer) should always be re-hired at once.

Daulerio told me he wants comments to be seen as DVD extras, footnotes, an important part of the work itself. He wants the conversations to be about the stories, not about what people hate about Gawker. (“It’s our party; we get to decide who comes,” Denton once said.)

“The hope is over time…people will soon realize, yeah, it’s going to take a little bit more than just seniority in order to have comments be part of the featured discussion,” he said.

“It’s going to take on different forms each post, obviously. It’s going to be tough to really add some high-brow commentary to a video of a frog sitting on a stoop. Let’s be realistic here,” Daulerio said.

For his part, Daulerio has described Gawker comments as “a tar pit of hell.” I asked him if the last several days’ peace and quiet made him secretly want to turn comments off forever. He said no. “In some ways, of course, it’s freeing,” he said. Daulerio has not really read the comments for a long time, he admits, because he said he would just get consumed by flame wars.

“I always felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time. I think in this case it’s obviously going to become more and a part of my day for it to actually work. So I have to change my attitude a little bit.”

Daulerio’s own experience at Deadspin, the Gawker Media site he used to edit, perfectly sums up the “tragedy of the commons” conundrum:

They absolutely built up a strong army of readers who absolutely added to those posts. They were hilarious. And they were very, very loyal. I think they got the tone of the site…There was an outgrowth of another bunch of people who were just trying to mimic these people. The more and more it grew, it became a lot more watered down. It also became, it’s almost like they became stockholders of the company. There was this sense of entitlement that these commenters had. It became a little bit strange to come in — I mean, I’m basically coming into this new situation at Deadspin and I have these people saying, Oh, you’re doing it wrong. Oh, this is not how it used to be. Oh, people aren’t going to like this. Blah, blah, blah. The handful or the 50 people that were used to having Deadspin their way were very upset.

At Gawker, the editorial conversation about how to fix comments is one in the same with the technical conversation. Maybe the only way to do commenting right is to build it yourself. “[Denton is] trying to change the culture of comments not just on Gawker but to have it kind of impact the way other editorial organizations handle their online comments,” Delaurio told me. Powwow will be deployed to the other Gawker sites after some public tire-kicking; the company is pondering whether to make the tech available to other organizations.

September 14 2010

20:00

More growth for Gawker comments, and more power to elite commenters

We’ve written before about the commenting system at Gawker Media’s family of sites, which for my money strikes the best balance between complexity and simplicity, between encouraging good behavior and policing bad. (I also just like that Gawker’s a company that really thinks about comments, that doesn’t just treat them as an expected annoyance/pageview driver.)

The chart above shows the growth Gawker comments over time; I’ve highlighted the section on the right that represents the continued increase since I last posted these numbers in April.

So it’s noteworthy that Gawker announced today a couple small tweaks to their commenting system.

First, they’ve added a few more gradations to the kinds of discipline available to wayward commenters. Before, commenters could be banned, and individual comments could be disemvoweled (rendered less legible by removing the vowels — although some would argue disemvoweling does more to draw attention to the bad behavior than it does to punish it). Now, commenters can also be officially warned for straying from proper behavior (with a link to official commenting policy) or suspended for a week. I’d imagine that these lesser punishments might discourage bad commenters from going through the bother of creating a new false identity and continuing to stink up the joint. And it could also help people who genuinely don’t realize they’re being bad.

Of note is that these power don’t just rest in the hands of Gawker Media staff: These tools are also available to the army of starred commenters who have impressed Gawkerites with their work. So here, for instance, Gawker user morninggloria has warned a commenter for daring to say Lady Gaga looked like John Lennon in drag. (I’d like to thank morninggloria for giving me an excuse to create a “John Lennon in drag” tag here at the Lab.)

That kind of decentralization makes it tenable to govern the huge crush of comments these sites get, and it also sets a goal that encourages good behavior: write enough good comments and you’ll get a gold star and some authority to shape the site you love.

The second major change is what they’re calling thread moving. Here’s an explanation from Gizmodo’s Jason Chen:

Then, there’s thread moving. That’s what we do if we think a comment is so egregious that it deserves both a warning and a moving to a tagpage, so it’s not cluttering up the discussion. Here are the main five tagpages we’ll be moving to.

• #trollpatrol. Originally we used this tag for identifying trolls, but we’ll throw actual trolls in there as well. But please, continue using that as a place to show us where the trolls are.

• #fanboys. Another obvious tagpage. This isn’t for people who use and enjoy products, it’s for people who lose their damn minds over a brand or idea and are blind to any other options or dissenting opinions. You should know who these are.

• #timeout. A place where we send commenters that need a little time away from typing words into boxes in order to think about whether or not this is the right place for them. This goes with a 7-day suspension—something milder than a ban, but still serves the purpose of telling them that we don’t like what they’re doing with their comments.

• #phantomzone. If you make uninformed, stupid or otherwise lousy comments, this is where that comment will be. Say hi to Zod.

• #whitenoise. Offtopic discussions go here. If a post is about keyboards and you talk about picking out new curtains, we’ll escort you over here.

• #dev/null. I just came up with this one, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it quite often.

Essentially, it’s a way to apply tags to individual comments, have them detach from their native post, and live another life in the Gawker Media forums, which are tied to the tags. This could separate off-comment topics without killing them off completely; one suspects the bad-behavior tag pages will have their own regular denizens. And the change could work to liven up the tag-based forum pages, which it appears have gained traction in only a limited number of cases. (See Deadspin’s #iwasthere tag page, or Gawker’s #tips page.) I love the concept of comment tag pages — treating the comment as an independent unit of content, opening up new avenues for involved commenters to create and contribute — but I’m not sure how well it’s worked in practice. It may be the point where the system grows too complex for most users.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the above chart today and added this about the changes:

At Gawker Media, comment growth continues to be strong — both in volume and quality. It’s good to see validation of the processes we’ve introduced.

This week we’ve rolled out new features that will allow us to further improve the experience. It is now possible to move comment threads from posts to forums (think “off topic” threads: we’re happy to let you keep the conversation going, but it’d be better to continue the discussion in a forum appropriate to the subject). We will utilize thread moving for many situations (off topic, inappropriate comments, bannable offenses, etc.), and think it will only improve our platform.

If you are paying attention to beta.gawker.com or beta.jalopnik.com, you will see more improvements we plan to roll out in the future. Remember – these sites are beta (alpha may be a more appropriate description)! Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all of the time!

So if you want to see what Gawker’s thinking about for the future, the beta site features a more magazine-like front page (as opposed to straight blog hierarchy — the most popular recent story gets top billing), non-standard fonts via Typekit, a wider story well, smooth page transitions, a stationary sidebar, and a more prominent footer. We’ll see how much of that reaches the production sites of one of the more adventurous new media companies around.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl