On the Gawker Redesign

Posted: February 7, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, crushing genius
Tags: , , ,

That Gawker was redesigning has been known for a while, as has the new format. Denton made it public some number of months back, and people were complaining even then. But, to be honest with you, I’ve been expecting something like this for a lot longer. Undoubtedly, this is due in large part to pessimism on my behalf, but just because I expect the worst from the universe doesn’t mean I won’t get it.

One of the things I like about madman/social theorist Hakim Bey is the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone:  that, in social groups, people periodically arrange themselves in productive but self-governing ways.  These things are, as their name implies, temporary; either the need for the Zone dissolves, and the people separate and go do their own thing.  Or else the need persists, and organizational policies are put in place, and the Zone becomes an institution, which by definition must be outpaced by its society, falling into an eventual death and decay spiral.

So, to put it clearly, the fact that Gawker and Jezebel and io9 were pretty rad places to hang out was always a temporary condition, and one bound to be reinvented as either a) rules were put in place, or b) Denton reinvented his site.

The reinvention was always in the cards, and the way that this reinvention was going to happen I think was always pretty obvious.  It may not seem as crazy to io9 readers — as SF/F fans, we’re used to the idea that our identity markers are essentially consumption markers.  Yes, we are what we like, but the things that we like are primarily things that are bought and sold:  books, movies, TV shows, Doctor Who memorabilia.

This probably comes as more of a shock to Jezebel readers, and to a lesser extent Gawker readers, but the painful fact is that, for however much we enjoyed spending time on those sites, we were never actually the target audience.

See, Jezebel is nominally a place where issues of feminism can be discussed, where women can feel safe to talk about those things that are relevant to them, where they can enjoy the humor of the like-minded, &c.  That is how it’s structured; what it actually IS is a tool that is meant to make Nick Denton a huge pile of money.

Here are things that people liked about Jezebel:  smart, articulate people; a supportive, strong, and communicative community; a specific, clear “niche” kind of material.

Here are the things that interfere with Nick Denton’s advertising sales:  smart, articulate people; a supportive, strong, and communicative community; a specific, clear “niche” kind of material.

Now, I maintain that Jezebel has missed some huge marketing opportunities as far as revenues are concerned, but the fact is that posts that garner a million page views because the same thousand people keep refreshing them to read the comments don’t actually translate to dollars.  Denton has often talked about the need to stop chasing pageviews, and he’s absolutely right:  pageviews only matter insofar as they affect sales, and the more pageviews are the result of people snarking at each other in comments, or being supportive of each other, or talking about Doctor Who, the LESS THEY ARE BUYING THE THINGS THAT ARE ADVERTISED.

There’s no question that the core of Gawker Media is based on its commentariat, but there’s also no question that there’s a ceiling on it.  The fact is, Gawker has probably reached a market-saturation point when it comes to the kind of people that it first appealed to:  relatively smart, funny working stiffs who wanted an Every-15-Minutes Bullshit Channel (as Warren Ellis described it) up during the work day, so they had something to do between the hours of mind-numbing tedium.  When you look at the advertisers on Gawker, for instance — well, sometimes its books and movies, but look where the big money is:  Vodka.  Sky Vodka bought huge chunks of advertising space on Gawker, and think about what that means when you have a core group of regular readers.  Think about how you purchase vodka:  sure, you can be swayed by advertisements, but there’s a certain point after which no matter how many ads you see, you just DON’T WANT SKY VODKA.

Advertisers don’t want to by ad space on sites that cater to the same ten thousand readers; they want to buy ad space on sites that are going to hit a HUNDRED thousand different readers every day.  So the value of the ad space decreases the more that an audience is made of readers just hanging around the site, and it increases the more that the site is composed of high-profile stories that get nationwide attention.

The fact is, there’s more money to be made chasing the big stories than there are serving the community; Denton stands to get more eyeballs stealing TMZ’s moron viewers than he stands to lose by alienating Gawker or Jezebel or io9’s more clever ones.

The reason that none of this is particularly surprising to me is that the Gawker Media sites haven’t been trying to serve their commentariat basically forever, as far as  I can tell.  I first started reading…I guess it must have been 2007, I think, right when I started my new job after graduate school.  I came to Gawker later, but Jezebel, in my opinion, hit its peak around 2008.  And every change, every editorial decision, every new rollout, was met with anger and consternation by the commentariat, and that anger and consternation never had any effect.

And of course it wouldn’t, because as much as I LIKE Jezebel and Gawker and io9, the fact of the matter is that, as commenters, we are not the consumers at Gawker Media.  We don’t put the dollars in, we aren’t buying anything.  As with television, the readers of Gawker are the PRODUCT, sold to advertisers by the tens of thousands.  Our opinion of the site is material only insofar as it reflects on those tens of thousands.

Anyway, it’s hard for me to judge, really.  Gawker Media doesn’t have any implicit obligation to be useful to society, and while I should think that Denton might feel bad by participating in the destruction of something that at least had the potential to be good, I imagine his pain will be assuaged by the many millions of dollars that it makes him.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    Well, I can’t speak to the adspace issue – I tend not to notice ads unless they’re awkwardly laid out (see: the AV Club) – but as far as the layout goes, between the story selections on the right AND the top news at the bottom, all of which you have to scroll to, it feels incredibly counterintuitive.

    Then again, I’ve always maintained that the iPod’s clickwheel was a baffling mystery while the Zune could be easily navigated by a toddler, so maybe it’s just me having a left-handed moment or something.

  2. braak says:

    It’s only counter-intuitive if you think of it as a site that’s meant to give a few people access to a lot of information, as opposed to a site that’s meant to give a lot of people access to one or two really important pieces of information.

  3. Casey says:

    I think one other interesting thing, and one we didn’t get into when we talked about this, is the fact that the Gawker sites are now much more mobile (iPad) friendly. My technology and marketing class actually talked about these sort of mobile site redesigns tonight. If viewed on a tablet, the new design is probably much more user-friendly. I wonder how much that factored into the redesign as Gawker is, more or less, a constantly updated and interactive magazine. Especially Jezebel. Personally (and you know this) I dont like the new layout. But I view it on a computer ALL DAY. I wonder if part of the switch is due to targeting those who read while commuting or briefly at lunch on a tablet. Just a thought. And naturally I say this while updating from my phone.

  4. braak says:

    Yeah. And, interestingly, concomitant with that is the idea of: if a LOT of people are only checking Gawker once or twice a day, how does the layout hold out? Compared to if a smaller number are looking at it every twenty minutes?

    I don’t really like the new layout, either, but I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that Denton doesn’t care.

  5. Ryan Crutchfield says:

    Well, I think I can speak to that. I read io9, Kotaku, Deadspin, and Gizmodo all day long…. from Google Reader. I will only click through to the actual site if the story is interesting enough. Then, once I have read the story, I exit out of the site. I think the new layout is a little strange, but I spend so little time on the site that I hadn’t paid it that much attention. That is just me though.

  6. I’m on an iPad, and I just loaded jezebel. It auto-loads m.jezebel.com which is just a test list of headlines with no images until you pick a headline. So unfortunately the redesign doesn’t make sense from any perspective. Except braak’s.

  7. Elliott Harwell says:

    One of the editors, commenting about the terrible video auto-play that took place for several days after the redesign, said it was a corporate mandate inspired by Denton’s desire to make Gawker more like television.

    “Let’s copy the most obnoxious features of a failing medium, while ignoring the strengths of the medium we’re actually using! This will be novel! What could go wrong?!”

    That said, I’ve been sing io9’s ‘classic’ view — it isn’t perfect, especially because page views and comment numbers are almost completely grayed out, but at least I can, you know, find things.

  8. Mary Anne says:

    Look at Jezebel’s stats for this week – http://www.sitemeter.com/?a=stats&s=s37jezebel&r=35 – that’s a huge drop-off in pageviews. Which, on some level, don’t pageviews correlate to advertising revenue?

    Additionally, my biggest problem with the redesign is that they totally got rid of tags. I’m not hugely into sci-fi, but I do love Doctor Who, and would, on a near-daily basis, check io9 to see what posts had been tagged as Doctor Who-related. That option is no longer available, and the “search” function is nowhere near as specific. I haven’t been back to io9 since the redesign. And Jezebel (where I’ve been commenting since they launched, I have a star, several hundred “followers” and everything!) has been steeply declining in quality for quite some time now – they’ve become the thing they used to mock. They’re losing their smart, funny commentariat quite quickly these days – many of those commenters are using the redesign to give the site up for good. I know I haven’t been back all week.

  9. braak says:

    These are fair points, but there are a couple things to bear in mind:

    1) I’m talking about the principle behind the re-design; however it may not work in practice, the idea of chasing large numbers of readers at the expense of a loyal, but small, group of readers, is financially sound.

    2) We’re only in the first weeks of the redesign. Whenever you make a decision to change your audience — and there’s no question that in this case, the new is coming at the expense of the old — there’s going to be a period where you lose your old readers but haven’t gotten your new ones yet. So, it could be indicative, but it’s not sure evidence.

    3) They definitely implemented the site badly. Look at this piece about the Gawker hashbang system, and then consider what just happened with the Chris Lee story. Now, I’m pretty sure that they’ve been sitting on that piece specifically for the purpose of using it as a flagship story for their redesign — but what happened? Because of how the site is coded, the story could aggregate or link properly. So, even though by all rights Gawker SHOULD have been at the top of the Google search results for “Chris Lee”, it wasn’t even on the page.

  10. Jezebel reader says:

    The redesign is awful. It is harder to read the stories, it is harder to find them, it just doesn’t make sense. It does not make me want to click through and read more, it makes me want to leave. Reading Gawker and Jezebel is supposed to be fun, people. I visited the sites for the first time today since the redesign and won’t be back unless they fix it to a format that makes more sense! The old one was just fine!

  11. Meg9 says:

    I have an iPad, and each gawker site looks terrible on it. There is a grey navigation bar frozen in the middle of the screen that covers several lines of text (and is not scrollable) a story on jezebel this week about a four year old who walked in a snowstorm to get help for her parents was unreadable on my iPad. The three lines that explained how she did it or where she went were completely blocked out. I miss the old Jezebel, and I don’t see myself checking it out more than once a day, and quickly cutting that to once a week and then not at all. It is very difficult to navigate and e commenting community has nearly dissolved.

  12. emily says:

    Changing audiences is fine i suppose, but what other audience out there would visit it? Seriously? Especially when you think of jezebel?

    Anyway doesn’t matter who the audience is the problem is usability, searchability etc etc does not work well.

    I have left until the change the design and I will no longer tell others that I read this site.

  13. GoLikeHellMachine says:

    I’m late to the party here, but it seems that Gawker Media’s designers ignore the very first rule of design–usability. I help design, test and release mobile devices for a living, and I’ve yet to find a single mobile device that lives up to Denton’s claims of “great on iPad”. Further, Gawker’s search engine is unforgivably bad, and always has been–something else that makes the site utterly useless for mobile. Ultimately, I think the redesign, and the commitment to keeping it hell-or-high-water is a pretty serious misstep, but one Denton will be loathe to correct, if for no reason other than pride (see also: editorial control/content for virtually every one of the “brand” sites).

    They may be (temporarily) more attractive to advertisers, but as the day-to-day hits continue to drop (as they have been), he’ll have many more commenters, editors and competing sites pointing to this as an example of tone-deafness. All of them are right.

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