Nick Denton was taking on all comers. Late on a Thursday morning in April, the 45-year-old head of Gawker Media debated a group of media types, techies, and assorted droppers-in about value on the Internet. The discussion was tense, but reasoned and mostly respectful. One by one, Denton's guests—among them, former Gawker Media employees—fired questions at him, often in successive bursts, as he patiently answered all the inquiries worth answering. The focus and weight of the talk would lead one to think it were being conducted in a Gawker conference room. Instead, it was taking place in an arena not known for focused, substantive discussions: a thread in a comments section on gawker.com. This one was being held below an April 26 post entitled "Why Anonymity Matters," and was facilitated by Kinja, the new proprietary commenting platform Denton and his team launched earlier in the month.
Over the past few years, the historically lawless comments frontier has been experiencing a sea change. Everyone from startups like Disqus (which has had its platform integrated into more than 1.4 million sites) to Facebook Comments (used by 400,000 sites) is attempting to reboot online conversations. (Even Google is rumored to be working on a commenting system; safe money is on Google+ being involved.) But as Denton evinces, the grandest ambition belongs to Gawker, whose platform could inject added editorial potency to comments and even supercharge the business generated by them.
With online advertising set to reach an estimated $40 billion in 2012, comments have obvious value: The swirl of perspectives can lead to discussions that build a community and, subsequently, loyalty. That's attractive to companies that want to reach those readers. "There's no clearer data for me to show advertisers," Andrew Gorenstein, Gawker Media's chief advertising officer, says of the 30,000 comments the company's sites receive per day. "Not only are people reading, they are engaged. You can't force that." That's why, despite the racism, sexism, jingoism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and bad jokes endemic to comments sections, publishers still provide the forums.
What Disqus and Facebook Comments angled to do when they debuted in October 2007 and March 2011, respectively, was curtail unsavory discourse with a blend of incentivization and good ol' shaming. Facebook Comments offers sites a Wall-like forum that requires visitors to use their real names if they log in with a Facebook account. The thinking was that transparency would tamp down bad behavior; that hypothesis is still unproven.
Disqus allows users to create aliases but calculates a reputation score based on commenting history. "Allowing anonymity or pseudonymity doesn't mean you can't be held accountable," says Ro Gupta, Disqus's VP of business development. The platform, which is free for basic users (clients who pay get enhanced analytics and support), assesses contributors by evaluating each comment an individual has posted across all Disqus-enabled sites, as well as the likes and flags those comments earned. An admin can see the rank, recent comments, and history of each commenter, which can help with moderation.
As indicated by the nearly 2 million sites using either Facebook Comments or Disqus, many publishers think shining a spotlight on commenters will keep them in line. Denton, however, sees value in anonymity. He designed Kinja to help some people stay in the shadows.
"The most interesting things on the web tend to come from people who are disguising their identities," he says. Denton believes articles should be catalysts for discussions involving not just readers but also the writer, subjects, and sources. In his mind, the real story is the aggregate of these voices. Of course, the people with the most interesting things to say aren't always in a position to do so. To protect these sources, comments can be posted using anonymous, untraceable "burner" handles.
Denton says the system, named for the prepaid phones drug dealers employ, makes anonymous commenting "ridiculously easy, almost scary." To counter potential burner abuse, Kinja makes a "dismiss" button available to the creator of the thread, which allows them to cast away malicious, or simply annoying, comments. What will remain when the jetsam has been excised is a clean, on-topic thread that reads like a conversation. To maximize the value of this feature, Kinja's divergent branches are modular: Each discussion thread that breaks off the main one can be independently linked to or embedded. An algorithm will evaluate the threads and highlight the best ones.
It's not just the readers of Gawker that stand to benefit from the innovation. Previously, brands were smart to look away if they were being disparaged in comments sections. Engaging critics would only incite a flame war. But with Kinja, a rep from, say, RIM, could start a thread in Gizmodo's comments to explain the nuances of its new BlackBerry operating system, or explain an outage. The dismiss function would enable the rep to control the ensuing conversation in a way that keeps it positive. "It would be a different audience than the people marketers reach via Twitter, who are already fans," says Casey McGovern, associate director of interactive media strategy at Compass Point Media. "Advertisers would want to be a part of that." Recognizing that opportunity, Denton tapped former Jalopnik editor Ray Wert to sell brands on the idea.
For all the promise of Kinja, it's a bespoke solution. It relies on moderation to an extent that makes it untenable for a site like nytimes.com, which has a staff to review 56,000 comments per week but "not enough to open comments on everything," according to Sasha Koren, deputy editor of interactive news. A site like espn.com and its 7.2 million comments per month has no prayer. But viewed as part of a larger movement, the Kinja platform—which Denton doesn't plan to license out—advances the idea of the Internet as a network of real people learning real things by having real conversations.
Of course, there is a chance that commenters just want to antagonize. Near the end of the thread below "Why Anonymity Matters," Denton fielded a question about his idealization of comments, responding, "Sure, I enjoy the game of Internet gotcha. But it's infected so much of the discussion. And I do think people will welcome some kind of alternative. Even if . . . they're rightly skeptical that Gawker's system will be any different."
Though, even if they are, at least there's a better place to discuss it.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.