Gawker.com as a Harvard Business School case study

Gawker One of the joys of teaching at the Harvard Business School was watching 80 students take on a problem, chew through the data, and work their way to clarity.

What would they do with "Everybody Sucks"?  This is an exquisitely interesting article in the current issue of New York Magazine.  It treats Gawker, the gossip column that has attracted so much attention recently on the web. 

I propose to treat "Everybody Sucks" as if it were a case study tossed into the Piranha-filled waters of HBS classroom.  I don’t say that I will do as good a job as 80 HBS students.  But I’m going to try. 

Extracting the issues

1. the tone of the article is agonized, and it doesn’t take long to see why.  The author, Vanessa Grigoriadis, is caught in a contradiction. She is a member of a journalist class that has long enjoyed the pleasure of playing the outsider, telling truth to power.  For someone who belongs to this class, Gawker comes as a nasty surprise.  It is a website that treats journalists as they treat the rest of New York. Gawker has scorned Grigoriadis herself, "dragging my family," she says, "into [a] foul, bloggy sewer…"

2. Grigoriadis’ discomfort is something more than a personal problem.  It is something more than a sociological switcheroo.  It is an technological and economic issue in so far as it represents the disintermediation of a marketplace.  The internet makes possible another lawyer of journalism, a new medium for public discourse, and the participation of a new generation of individuals, as a result of which journalists matter less than they used to.  They do not control our access to the news, as once they did.  They do not shape our understanding of the world, as once they did.  They do not play gatekeeper, as once they did.  This elite has lost power. (And this is a special injury for journalists.  Badly paid, and shabbily treated, power was the best of their compensations.)

3. How old is Gawker?  Not very.  (I can get away with this sort of thing on a blog.  In the HBS classroom, everyone would have extracted this from the article.  Ok, it was 2002.  I looked.)  In this brief history, Gawker has undergone a disintermediation of its own.  In the early days, comments on site were an "embarrassment," to use the language of Gawker owner Nick Denton.  But they are now, he says, a strength.  Post comments introduce what Denton calls an element of "anarchy" Gawker was beginning to lose.

4.  Here we could depend upon a student to observe the rise of "commenter value" and to say that even the disintermediators are now at risk of being disintermediated.  The Gawker bloggers who challenged New York journalists are now being challenged in their turn by Gawker commenters. 

5.  And this latter-day change suggests the possibility of another business model, which Grigoriadis sketches in the following way:

Gawker as an automated message board, with commenters generating exponentially greater numbers of page views as they click all over the site to see reactions to their comments, could be the dream.  There would then be no editors to pay…  (135)

This is extraordinary.  I am not sure we would want to call it an exercise in the wisdom of crowds.  It’s spleen soaked discourse, as if the body politic has lost all bladder control.  But the idea of journalist-free journalism, this is interesting.

6. Some debate would surely turn on how how very disagreeable Gawker is.  It is a "foul, bloggy sewer."  It specializes in the ad hominem attack. Indeed, it has turned this into the exclusive stuff of its "journalism."  We might argue, in its defense, that this is what we ask of journalism.  Doubting people’s motives, puncturing their pretensions, seeing past their self serving accounts of what they do, this is what the press is for.  But Gawker takes this to an extreme so loathsome, it diminishes the reader as much as the victim. 

Not a week goes by when I don’t want to quit this job, because staring at New York in this way makes me sick.  (Choire Sicha, Gawker managing editor, p. 42)

It is finally, I would guess, the person who works at Gawker who pays the highest price.  If you doubted and diminished motives 12 posts a day, surely an accumulated cynicism must eventually render you incapable of participating in contemporary culture in any other way

7. There is a larger way to make this argument and surely someone in the classroom can be relied upon to chime out this: Gawker is merely the latest symptom of a cultural decline, further proof that Western Civilization is going to hell in a handbasket, incontrovertible evidence that politesse is dying and civility is dead.

8. Another student else could be relied upon to respond that this is perhaps the essential truth of capitalism, that we live in a culture shaped by what people want, not what we think they should want.  The success of Gawker tells us that people want to read this stuff.  This doesn’t make Gawker right, or true, or just.  But it does mean that it has a constituency, that it represents a market. Finally, it’s not about us.  It’s about the reader.  And this, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely what makes markets responsive, and, yes, unseemly.  But if you have to choose…and we do.

9.  There is an anthropological observation to make here, and this kind of thing is notoriously difficult to get into the HBS classroom and culture.  And that is that people have been declaring the decline of Western civilization for some hundreds of years.  And I think it’s fair to say that even by the most typical Victorian standard, even the most conservative among us looks slovenly and vulgar, a lawless wretch incapable of probity or finer feeling.  We are horrified by what we see there, but our children and our children’s children may will wonder what the issue was. 

10. We are reacting to the reformation of our culture and the not very dangerous decline of old sensitivities.  Most everything that has happened in the last 100 years tells us that these sensitivities may be "reset" without actually damaging the moral core on which restraint and civilization depend.  Western civ will survive even this.   (Why do we think it’s so delicate?) 

11. What we are hoping for is that someone has picked up a stray sentence buried in the middle of the article, dropped into the article by Grigoriadis without further comment. 

Denton…gives free reign to editors to attack anyone they’d like (only ex-employees get a free pass).  (43)

Case studies are sly creatures.  They hide the best things, the better to give the clever students a chance to identify themselves. 

12. Let’s begin with the disagreeable contradiction.  This "fearless journalism," "anti-media," "friend of the people" stuff only works when no one is protected.  The moment you exempt your own is the moment you become yet another special pleader, a vested interest, and a perfect scoundrel. 

13. But, hey, this is a case study…in a business school…searching out opportunity, and as opportunities go, this is an absolute beauty.  In my classroom, it would have been someone like Charles Hale, Yen Liow, Neil Houghton, students who would have surveyed the problem, spotted the opportunity, and schooled us with 40 well filled seconds of observation and a new map of the problem.

The moment Denton exempts his staff, he opens a competitive opportunity.  Why not a Gawker watcher website that catalogs the real and imagined life failings of people who once worked for Gawker? 

Let’s calculate the number of people Gawker has offended, the depth of the offense, and their wish for revenge.   Small number, big offense.  (What would these numbers look like?)

We want three things for this group:

1. we want them to come to our "Gawker watcher" website
2. we want them to supply content for the website by remarking on the lives of ex-Gawker employees
3. we want them to act as early adopters who spread the word of our website

Gawker victims have been deeply, publicly wounded.  The need for revenge must run deep.  And it is not as if they do not control the means of production.  They are talented writers equipped with research skills, and they occupy a proximate professional and social world. They know who the ex-Gawker writers are.  They know where they live.  Failing that, they know how to find them.  Failing that, they will feel themselves to have a license to just make stuff up, the more damaging the better.  We can rely on Gawker watcher to make up in creative writing anything it happens to lack in investigative reporting.

14. Classroom debate will  center on whether a little website like "Gawker watcher" could ever scale up.  If it remains a local New York enthusiasm written about a tiny world by a world that isn’t much bigger, I mean, really, who cares?  But that’s the point about small enterprise and the classic start up.  All you really need is the beachhead, the place from which to start.  Once that’s in place, we can add on additional content, new targets, bigger audiences.  We can bootstrap it upwards.  The question is this: is there enough here in the first instance to give us purchase in the marketplace, to carve out a little niche in a world where, frankly, Denton now controls the waterfront with the powers of a mob boss or a union head.

15. The business opportunity aside, I wonder if the presence of a Gawker watcher website would have a salutary effect on Gawker itself.  If I were a present Gawker writer, such a thing would give me pause.  The knowledge that my victim is now supplied with the opportunity to defame me, this might change what I say.  The Gawker proposition depends on the fact that it is the only credible player in the ad hominem game.  Surely, it is only a matter of time before the marketplace responds to evident demand with interesting supply, and it will be interesting to see what difference that difference makes.   

In any case, our case study turns on someone spotting the fact that Gawker has made a mistake.  Nick Denton has given someone an opening, a way to steal a march.  See the opportunity, take the opportunity, scale up the operation, make a name for yourself in the process, sell early, buy a house in the south of France.  It’s what an MBA is for.

References

Grigoriadis, Vanessa.  2007.  Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the rage of the creative underclass.  New York Magazine.  October 22, 2007. 

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