October 15, 2007
I've had the chance to follow Gawker Media since before it launched, really, and so it's been interesting to see a couple of items pop up recently about the direction of some of its titles and practices. The big story, of course, is New York Magazine's piece, which is appropriately petty, self-indulgent, and honest, as any piece about Gawker should be.
A lot of the complaints in the article seem to boil down to "but they're not nice!" and I have to say -- I think that's a completely fair criticism. Not that media has to be nice, but because journalism in many of its forms aspires to having a sense of social responsibility. I've had enough friends or acquaintances who've had their day (or week, or reputation) ruined by one of the Gawker blogs that I've gotten a lot less willing to say "oh hey, they're just trying to drive traffic". I'm all for snarky-smart assed blogging, I just think that emulating traditional media's willingness to destroy people who aren't villains isn't a strategy for long-term success.
From the New York mag story:
It’s long been known to magazine journalists that there’s an audience out there that’s hungry to see the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful (“douchebags” or “asshats,” in Gawker parlance) put in the tumbrel and taken to their doom. It’s not necessarily a pleasant job, but someone’s got to do it. Young writers have always had the option of making their name by meting out character assassinations—I have been guilty of taking this path myself—but Gawker’s ad hominem attacks and piss-on-a-baby humor far outstrip even Spy magazine’s. It’s an inevitable consequence of living in today’s New York: Youthful anxiety and generational angst about having been completely cheated out of ownership of Manhattan, and only sporadically gaining it in Brooklyn and Queens, has fostered a bloodlust for the heads of the douchebags who stole the city. It’s that old story of haves and have-nots, rewritten once again.
The problem with this conveniently simplified narrative about Gawker's sites, particularly its flagship namesake blog, is that it's always accompanied by assertions that this sort of sniping is what blogs are about. This isn't just inaccurate, it's the kind of assertion that is easily disproven both qualitatively and quantitatively. But whether it's Gawker in NYC, Wonkette in DC, or Valleywag in the Bay Area, people who have loud mouths want to believe that news about them must truly be all the news that matters. Therefore, if the blog that talks about me and my friends is snarky, all blogs are snarky. Which is, you know, kinda obviously horseshit.
This hoary-but-false chestnut makes its requisite appearance in the NYMag piece in reference to Elizabeth Spiers and Nick Denton: "They didn’t exactly invent the blog, but the tone they used for Gawker became the most important stylistic influence on the emerging field of blogging and has turned into the de facto voice of blogs today." (Personal note to those who follow in the steps of Vanessa Grigoriadis: This is false. Stop saying it.)
The misrepresentation of blogging is especially tragic because not even all Gawker blogs are snarky. Case in point is the excellent Lifehacker, the best-written of all Gawker blogs, helmed by Gina Trapani. Since they're public, I don't feel too wrong pointing to her recent Twitters, one in praise of a recent attempt by Gawker editors to object to advertising encroaching on editorial on the site, and one celebrating Lifehacker's omission from the recitation of snarky Gawker sites in the NYMag story.
I'm not sure one of the best editorial talents at a publishing company should be reduced to celebrating such small victories. Don't get me wrong: Gawker gets a lot right. There's absolutely a value in speaking truth to power, and there is truly something noble in deflating the self-importance of the various industries that the Gawker sites poke holes in. My contempt for those who insult journalism by pretending it shouldn't evolve remains as strong as ever. At the same time, there should be a sense of social responsibility to the community of bloggers, if not to the traditional media. And to my mind, that means highlighting the humor, incisiveness, and lack of favoritism that made sites like Gawker such a breath of fresh air when they started. Put more simply, tearing apart the innocent bystanders in these industries isn't just bad journalism, it's boring blogging.
And really, as long as print magazines like New York Magazine are still quoting the likes of Julia Allison as an authority on blogs, there will be no shortage of material to poke fun at. But these points of reckoning should serve as useful milestones for making sure we're not becoming the worst of the legacy cultures we're trying to criticize.
Disclaimers, such as they are: I've got a million little connections and biases about this story. I'm an unabashed blog promoter, even after all these years, so I'm protective of the medium. I don't read many posts from Gawker blogs, but still have an inexplicable affection for them, and am quite pleased that at one point years ago, I think I knew almost everybody in the Gawker organization. I like Nick Denton, both personally and professionally, even though he exasperates me regularly and antagonizes my friends almost constantly. (And I certainly admire Nick's diplomatic abilities, which allow him to maintain friendships with people even as he's paid others to publicly embarrass them.)
I've known Liz Spiers for a few years socially, and may even have introduced her at Nick, at a MetaFilter meetup, of all things, and think she's underrated as a blogger. I consider Gina Trapani a friend (which will now be particularly awkward if that's not mutual) and I think indirectly had a hand in her meeting Nick as well. Gina is perhaps the most underrated high-profile blogger in the world. I'm a fan of Gawker editor Choire Sicha, and have a genuine affection for both his talents and charm. I pitched a fit earlier this year at Valleywag editor Owen Thomas because I think some of his pieces on the company I work for were full of shit, though we've since sorta made up and Valleywag continues to publish wacky and wrong articles about our work. I also like New York Magazine, though I only read it when someone sends me a link to a story. And both Gawker and NY Mag use Movable Type for parts of their publishing, which I work on and means I probably indirectly get paid from some of these sites. Batteries not included, your mileage may vary, my name is Anil Dash and I endorse this message.
Update: Can't believe I missed linking to this one, but Nick Denton weighed in, going predictably meta with the absolutely accurate assessment that traditional media has to stop using "bile" to refer to bloggers. I always use "unkind" -- it feels satisfyingly quaint.