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Have online comment sections become 'a joke'?

Doug Gross, CNN
Gawker Media founder Nick Denton says majority of online comments have become
Gawker Media founder Nick Denton says majority of online comments have become "off topic" and "toxic."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gawker chief: Idea of positive online comments has become a joke
  • Nick Denton speaks at the South by Southwest Interactive festival
  • He said the bigger a site is, the harder it is to curate comment sections
  • One idea? Making certain stories only open to a few select commenters

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- In the early days of the Internet, there was hope that the unprecedented tool for global communication would lead to thoughtful sharing and discussion on its most popular sites.

A decade and a half later, the very idea is laughable, says Gawker Media founder Nick Denton.

"It didn't happen," said Denton, whose properties include the blogs Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, io9 and Lifehacker. "It's a promise that has so not happened that people don't even have that ambition anymore.

"The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership -- that's a joke."

Denton was speaking at South by Southwest Interactive, the annual festival here devoted to Web and digital culture.

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He said that commenting on his own sites (which he's seen make reporters cry) has gotten so bad that he doesn't engage.

"I don't like going into the comments. ... For every two comments that are interesting -- even if they're critical, you want to engage with them -- there will be eight that are off-topic or just toxic," he said.

And as sites get more popular, it's harder to control the comments, which inevitably get nastier.

"What you can manage on a small site ... the level of discussion you can have on those is not the level you're able to have on a newspaper site or one of our sites. Our smaller blogs have 2 million unique (visitors per month). ... It's hard to have that intimacy."

So, what's the solution?

When it comes to improving open discussion threads, Denton, during an interview-style discussion with blogger and Expert Labs director Anil Dash, seemed quicker to shoot down ideas that others are trying than to provide proposals of his own.

Having editors and reporters engage their readers in the comments? "The writer of the piece has to move on to the next piece. They don't have time to moderate all those comments."

Require readers to post using their real names? "My own view is that anonymity is at the heart of the Internet."

Give other commenters more power to "up-vote" or "down-vote" posts? "We don't really believe in the democratic process of decision-making when it comes to discussion," Denton said.

For example, he said, Jezebel has made lots of hay off of sexual harassment accusations against American Apparel Chief Executive Officer Dov Charney. Denton said he'd love to see Charney come into the comments section to defend himself.

"If you put it to a vote, 90% would vote to ban him. They hate that guy," Denton said. "If Dov Charney went into the Jezebel comments, he'd be torn limb from limb; his limbs aren't all that would be torn off."

The answer? Denton said his sites are planning to post some stories that allow only a hand-picked, pre-approved group of people to comment on them. That, he said, would make the comment section an extension of the story and allow people, like Charney in the above example, to have their say without fear of being piled onto by others.

"I think it's part of the answer," he said. "What I want is, I want the sources -- I want the experts to be able to comment in these discussions."

When he took questions, Denton had to do a little answering about the responsibility the tone of a site itself has in guiding its comments section.

Many of Gawker's sites aren't known for being particularly delicate (One of today's top Gawker headlines: "Arnold Schwarzenegger's Son Injures Ass Skiing, Tweets Photo").

"It's certainly true that nice sites run by nice people ... that encourages good behavior," Denton said. "But it's not as if it's entirely the writer setting the tone for the comments. Sometimes, it's the comments setting the tone for the writer."

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