Russell Davies
Russell Davies
A view from Russell Davies

Writers and serious commenters saved from the angry mob

I've been doing this column longer than many of you have had careers so, occasionally, someone will ask me for advice about writing.

I generally tell them three things. Be on time with your copy. Don't start too many sentences with "and". And never look at the comments.

The last one is really from the heart. I remember the golden era of comments, when everyone blogging seemed to know everyone else and the comments were full of affirming chat and self-congratulation. That was a happy place. But then, pretty quickly, the bottom half of the internet seemed to fill up with bile and idiocy, and comments became some sort of weird joke in the media world. A weird joke that provided lots of the traffic and revenue. A weird joke that everyone depended on. It was, well, weird.

Personally, I completely understand writers who find it hard to look at comments. I'm thin-skinned enough to find it impossible and I feel especially sorry for those writers told by their editors to dive in and get involved. But the disdain some people show for commenters does feel oddly "old media" and anti-democratic - this kind of top-half/bottom-half talk was not what the internet was supposed to be about.

So I'm always interested when someone does something new with comments, and Gawker Media is currently embarking on such an experiment. It publishes blogs such as Gawker itself, Lifehacker and Gizmodo, it is an expert at a traffic-inducing headline or stunt, and it is continually trying to make the comments section a more valuable place to be. Its latest experiment pushes most comments off the main page of the story, so they're still there, but you have to dig to find them, and it only puts the most relevant, useful responses alongside the original piece. That's the idea, at least. It doesn't always work flawlessly, but Gawker Media does seem to be getting somewhere - it's a more interesting read, I'm sure the writers will feel like they can usefully engage with comments and it's probably going to encourage more coherent responses and rebuttals.

Nick Denton, the man behind Gawker Media, was interviewed a while back on the GigaOM blog and obviously hopes that it won't be just his writers who gain from the system. Serious commenters will be supported too.

He said: "Now I can say: your rebuttal will be given as much prominence as the original piece - we will respect you, we will protect you from the mob and we will let you say your piece. It's great because it adds drama, and it keeps our writers honest."

It's good to know that people are still trying to push bits of social media forward, and if they can fix comments, they can fix anything. But enough of my yakking, what do you think?