Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Think About Gawker

(This is one of those posts on the Internet where someone thinks a little too deeply about something. So please, if you aren't into that at the moment, just skip it.)

Credit where it's due: I think Gawker has been a smarter, funnier and more entertaining website that it once was for over a year now. I've been a rather scalding critic of Gawker, at times, not that I have the kind of audience where that matters much. There was a period for awhile there where the site was really quite a shit-show. The bloggers working there had seemed to have taken the criticisms from the notorious n+1 piece and decided, "Fuck it, we'll double down on empty sarcasm and cruelty." But it really has improved, I feel like, in the last year or two.

Why? It's funny, because judging by the comments, many people who comment there seem to prefer Gawker be meaner. To me, though, it's much better when it tones down the cruelty. Not just because of that whole morality deal, but also because usually it's meanest when it feels the most aggrieved, when whatever particular blogger gets it into his or her head that he or she is striking against some wrong doing or, even worse, taking someone down a peg. Please: you are not a modern day Oscar Wilde, your bloggy musings aren't a corrective for whatever minor injustice you are railing against, and nobody asked you to return balance to the Force.

And this is the thing: Gawker is at its worst, its absolute worst, whenever it allows itself to lapse into self-mythologizing. Do you remember when MTV used to run specials about the Video Music Awards every 6 hours or so? They'd create these documentaries, about MTV, made by people from MTV, and show them on MTV, over and over and over. And the content would just be people who work at MTV talking about how cool and hip and crazy MTV is. This kind of self-fellatio would be offensive even if it weren't for the fact that MTV is fucking painfully uncool and filled with employees who are exactly the kind of people who used to sit around in high school pining for the day they could work for MTV. You know, the people who think a cable conglomerate can be cool.

Anyway, that's the sort of attitude you very occasionally get at Gawker, this same sort of self-mythologizing. It's just as bad when Gawker does it. To be fair, this mostly happens when Nick Denton himself rears his head, as in the second half of this post here. But it also comes up a lot, for example, when Gawker bloggers insist on trumpeting every bit of bad news about the newspaper and magazine industry, and declaring again that (wait for it) the Internet is the future! That get's tiresome. I wouldn't be surprised if that stuff, too, came from Denton's edict; it's long since been revealed that Nick Denton is history's greatest monster. Either way, the whole "there's, like, a holy war between old and new media, and we're winning" shtick is lame and tired, and every time they trot out those cliches, my eyes glaze over and I find myself instinctively clicking over to Fleshbot. Yes, magazines and newspapers are in trouble, no, neither you nor I nor anyone knows exactly what's going to happen, no, blogs and "the Internet" are not going to replace what is dying, and no, you aren't some culture warrior valiantly flailing away at the old guard. Look, a pretty accurate gloss on Gawker would be "Brooklynite whites who would rather work for Conde Nast or The New York Times talking shit about Conde Nast and The New York Times." That's no insult; I live in Rhode Island, I write navel-gazers about post-structuralism that nobody reads and I own a Jeep that is missing its back window. This is the Internet; there's no need to stand on false pretenses.

That's the point. Gawker is at its best when its bloggers recognize this central fact: the defining characteristic of Gawker is its fundamental mundanity. Again, no insult. I'm not putting on any airs to say that. I just think that the way to think about Gawker is to say that it is a website that is often funny, usually intelligent and occasionally really insightful. It has some writers who are really quite brilliant. (Alex Pareene springs immediately to mind.) It just isn't anything to get particularly enthused about or upset over. So as much as I found that n+1 piece to be insightful and accurate, I also thought that it was a bit too heavy on the meaning of Gawker, or whatever.

Or take this piece about Emily Gould and her recent booklike product, from fellow Gawker media alum Anna Marie Cox. You can be really uncharitable with Gould, and the way she always pretends that she is expressing guilt about doing immoral things when she clearly doesn't feel guilty at all grates. But, you know, I do have sympathy for Gould. She seems smart, and I bet she can be sweet. It's a little simpler than Cox makes it: Gould has been taught by her culture that she has to be famous, but she isn't particularly interesting or good at anything. Many of us go through that, and you know, it's tough. From my angle, the way forward for Gould is to stop worrying about making everyone care about and like her a little and worry instead about making a small select group care about and like her very much. You know, care about your friends and the people around you, maybe start a family, not a weird Internet cooking show. But everybody confronts such questions on their own. Anyway-- again, on an analytical level, I can't say that I disagree with much that Cox has written, but at the same time I feel like there is this assumption that Gawker is this big important deal.

And to me, that's not the way to understand Gawker or enjoy it, and I think part of where they get into trouble is when they buy into their own press a little too much. Just give me a little Manhattan gossip, some trenchant analysis of the latest media evolutions, and the odd dick joke. Do what you do. It's enough. There's no insult in having modest goals, and none in my saying that I like you when you do you and not when you try to do more than you. Gawker is funny, sometimes. It's alright. That's how you've gotta put it: Gawker's alright.


Now, in the interest of full disclosure: I am the guy who wrote this. (Short version: I think Gawker creates divisions and ranks of commenting through its commenter approval and starring process to create a kind of velvet rope effect, flattering the egos of commenters and making them feel like a part of a kind of cool club, making them more loyal visitors.) I recently had the experience of learning how right I was. A few months ago I was "starred" in the comments. It was unexpected, but I was flattered. I knew it wouldn't last long, and being me, I was pretty quick to bite the hand that feeds, but I commented quite a bit for a couple months. I mocked John Cook, the "Gawker Investigations Editor," out of a conviction that Gawker Investigations is an absurd concept, and also because he sucks. Anyway, he destarred me. When I logged in an found out, I have to admit-- I felt a real pang of loss, and a little regret. Even though I knew just what they were up to, I fell right into it. I had to laugh. Denton, you brilliant, despicable bastard. I never thought I'd come so cheap!

Update: Please see this brief note of apology.


Freddie said...

Before anyone yells at me, watch this:

Rufus said...

This is the first time I've heard of Emily Gould, so I can't comment on that, but this: "stop worrying about making everyone care about and like her a little and worry instead about making a small select group care about and like her very much. You know, care about your friends and the people around you, maybe start a family, not a weird Internet cooking show." in general is good advice.

uncle throatbag said...

Yeah, Rufus, I thought so too. I could stand to do a little more of that myself.

Anonymous said...

sometimes I think Emily Gould is imagining her sexist critics. I guess not. Seriously, have babies instead??