With two posts this morning, Gawker, the bête noir of American online reporting, articulated a new direction for their popular comment section.
The first post described how the new commenting section would work. After starting a discussion, commenters are empowered to approve or deny replies to their original comment and each comment can be isolated to an individual branch.
Users can navigate through comments by the categories of Featured, Latest, and Inbox (which contains personal comment notifications).
The second post, by founder Nick Denton, described the reasons behind Gawker's new anonymous login system, Burner.
Denton aligned the fortunes of his company with the anarchic forces of 4Chan and Wikileaks when he wrote:
While other outlets are doing away with anonymity, we've built anonymous accounts into our new comment system. We'll accept some disorder if that's the price of freedom in one's personal life, in politics and the press.
To get a Burner commenting profile, users merely need to enter a pseudonym. Their IP address is logged, but that’s it. A randomly generated key is provided which allows them to log back in to their burner account, but accounts no longer accrue stars or other badges of belonging that ensure they are seen. A proprietary, automated mechanism called Powwow determines (with some manual assistance) which comments become Featured.
The goal of this system is to break the regular commenting cliques that grew to dominate the service. As Denton told Anil Dash at SXSW:
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.
Denton was active in the comments section this morning to explain his creation. Early questioners asked if the power to approve or deny replies would be abused – used to hide minority opinions, or for people to ignore their critics. Denton didn’t seem to think that this would be a problem, and emphasized, “Discussion, especially if writers and sources can participate, is the thing that distinguishes news stories on the internet.”
Though Denton doesn't spell it out completely, certain behaviors can be incentivized by the Powwow algorithm - and presumably ignoring criticism is one that can be penalized. As commenters become more familiar with the interface, the behaviors that are rewarded by the algorithm will become culturally encoded.
Time will tell what those behaviors will be, but hang tight for the "top ten ways to write a featured comment rebuttal to a negative article on Gawker" article that will inevitably appear.