Changing a Metrics-driven Culture Can be as Difficult as Changing a Legacy One
The centrality of metrics to Gawker’s organizational culture meant that behaviors that were hard to quantify were also hard to incentivize. This came across most clearly in discussions of Kinja, Gawker’s publishing platform. Kinja, which allows users not only to comment on posts on Gawker sites but also to publish independent posts of their own, was born out of Denton’s vision of collaborative journalism—the idea, in short, that the best stories emerge not from the dogged efforts of a lone reporter but from the collective work of a writer and her devoted audience, which provides tips, serves as valuable sources, engages in spirited debate, or moves the story forward in other ways.
For Denton’s vision to be realized, Gawker staffers had to be highly interactive with their audience in the comments section of each post. But this presented a major problem for Gawker’s management. Over the years, employees had been conditioned to use numbers as an important gauge of their job performance, yet interactions on Kinja were not easily quantified. There were attempts to do so: During my time at Gawker, then-editorial director Joel Johnson emailed each site’s editorial staff about a new policy that writers were expected to participate in the comments section of at least 80 percent of their posts (and called out, by name, those who had failed to meet the target). However, there was no systematic way to measure or quantify the quality of these interactions, and some writers told me it was easy to hit the 80 percent target by responding to comments with, “great point!” or a similarly superficial contribution. To spend more time engaging with commenters, they said, would decrease their post count, which could, in turn, depress their number of unique visitors and their site’s chance of getting a bonus.
To address these tensions, Gawker executives introduced a “Kinja bonus,” modeled after the uniques bonus, in an effort to boost writers’ engagement with the comments. But there was no transparent, mathematical way of allocating the Kinja bonus, which led writers and site leads to question its legitimacy and fairness. As one site lead explained:
Every site gets 1 percent or 2 percentx or maybe 0 percent of their monthly budget if there’s been good Kinja participation, which, how is that judged? Well, they don’t actually have a way to count this yet. So this metrics-driven company is in this position where they value this thing because, in theory, it will lead to greater health for the platform and the company, but they have no numerical proof for it.
Even if Gawker managed to make the expectations and incentives around Kinja interaction more straightforward and transparent, my interviews indicated that staffers would continue to resist the shift from a focus on mass traffic to a focus on interaction. Many writers and site leads had fraught, if not downright hostile, relationships with commenters. Said one editor when asked about commenters: “I hate them. So much. I fucking hate them. I’ve always hated them. They’re the worst.” Writers and editors alike complained about finding themselves on the receiving end of a daily onslaught of negative or critical comments—and for female employees or employees of color, these could veer into harassment and threats. Some writers coped by avoiding comments altogether. This group was particularly dismayed by the new focus on Kinja interaction; they felt as though they were being told that enduring daily harassment was now a part of their job.xi
Interestingly, some employees turned to metrics as a way to counter the psychological toll of negative comments. As the editor lead who has “always hated” commenters put it:
We broke 9,000 [concurrent visitors] earlier today, so that was awesome. I take screen cap[ture]s of that. That is a reminder that I can do this …It doesn’t matter if I have someone screaming at me [on Twitter] at 7:30 in the morning. I’m good at my job …And if [my site] was really downhill, more and more people wouldn’t be reading it!
For writers facing the hostility of online commenters, traffic numbers can operate as a source not of stress but of solace and validation.xii For them to function in this way, however, there must be a high correlation between popularity and quality: If a story (or a site) draws a large and growing audience, something about it must be good. Staffers, especially those looking to traffic to bolster their morale in the face of negative comments, bought into this line of reasoning, but only to a certain extent. For instance, they saw Gawker as having more editorial integrity than sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed, both of which draw enormous audiences, often characterizing them as shameless and cynical traffic-panderers. A writer who had previously worked for The Huffington Post decried the tricks that site uses to get people to click on headlines. I asked him if by this he meant the kind of search-engine optimization tactics for which The Huffington Post is famous. He replied:
SEO type stuff, but more like headline tricks, tweet tricks, [all of which were a] precursor to the awfulness that is Upworthy. Like all those tricks work and they’ll get you traffic, but more mature sites, Gawker media sites, realize that there has to be a balance between playing to the numbers but also paying attention to quality, and having some really simple rules in place as to what you will and will not do for traffic.
In his much-discussed post “On Smarm,” Gawker.com editor Tom Scocca argued that Upworthy and BuzzFeed, both top Gawker competitors for social traffic, epitomize smarminess online, defined by Scocca as “a kind of performance, an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance.”22his 2013 year-end memo, acknowledged that Gawker was “not completely averse to crowd-pleasing,” but called BuzzFeed and Upworthy “the most shameless” in their ploys to get traffic, adding “the crowd will eventually choose the juicy truth over a heartwarming hoax.”23These efforts at organizational differentiation and self-definition lay bare the lack of profession-wide standards of conduct and ethics regarding efforts to draw traffic: terms like “clickbait” and “shameless” are vague enough for rival actors to apply to different behaviors in the digital media landscape.