Social Anxiety: What’s Really at Stake in the Jezebel vs. Gawker Affair?

Emilie Friedlander reflects on how cyberbullying, freedom of speech and page views share an uneasy relationship in the digital age.

August 14, 2014

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

Earlier this summer, I got my first taste of something resembling cyberbullying. I’d published a piece on Yung Lean for this column, and one of the members of his Sad Boys crew, unsatisfied with my take on the Swedish rap collective’s work, posted it to his Twitter with the comment that it “could be the single most idiotic article I’ve ever read about us.” Hoards of pseudonymous Sad Boys devotees swarmed in on the update, favoriting, retweeting and responding in the affirmative that it was in fact the most idiotic article ever. “He just doesn’t get it,” one of them wrote, mistakenly presuming that the author of the article was male; “fuck that guy,” said another. When the producer, realizing the mistake, jumped in to point out that I was a woman (“it’s a stupid girl, actually”), another Sad Boys fan took the opportunity to post a picture of me he’d found on the internet, captioning the link with some words that still make me shudder a little bit whenever they randomly decide to pop into my head: “You just need to look at her. And…”

The commentary about my appearance didn’t go any farther than that, though the fact that it didn’t was almost the part that grated the most; an infinity of possible criticisms of my person (my face? My hair? My choice of shirt on the day that photo was snapped?) seemed to reside in the open space of that ellipses. I didn’t really know what to do with that thought, so I decided to stuff it away, insulating myself against it with the sorts of arguments that people who regularly put themselves out there publicly have to remind themselves of: Haters gonna hate. If people have a strong reaction to what you do, that means you’re doing a good job. Always remember that all publicity is good publicity, and that people responding negatively to your work simply means that more people are going to read it. That’s the thing about living in an age where transmissibility is everything: you can shrug off a lot of things that happen to you on the internet with the rationalization that it’s simply increasing the “reach” of the things you put out into the world. It’s as though life itself has become some abstract trajectory toward maximum exposure—of your work, of your personal brand, of the company that you work for—driven along by the unquestioned assumption that the end result will be a desirable one, even if no one can quite articulate what that end is. More money? Some tangible reward stemming from the somewhat intangible idea of being an “influencer?” The satisfaction of knowing that more and more eyes are on you with every passing moment?

This week, the editors of Jezebel surprised the media community when they published an open letter to Gawker Media, their parent company, demanding that the publishing giant re-consider its practice of allowing readers to anonymously comment on stories. Kinja, the company’s custom publishing platform, enables commenters to create and post from an unlimited number of anonymous “burner accounts,” and Jezebel, a women’s interests site, has been experiencing a nasty spate of “rape GIFS” and violent pornography of late, presumably due to the lack of personal accountability built into the platform’s commenting infrastructure. It wasn’t exactly “cyberbullying” in the way I experienced it (ie, a directional attack against a specific person) but Jezebel’s editorial team experienced the gory bombardments as a daily source of psychological trauma, arguing that “Gawker’s leadership is prioritizing theoretical anonymous tipsters over a very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel’s staff and readers.”

As if it had tapped into something that was already in the air, the open letter coincided with a Guardian report on the uptick of misogynistic comments on the British newspaper’s own women’s interest articles; still, there were two things that made the Jezebel open letter particularly exciting. First, there was the heartening fearlessness of the stunt itself, with the blog’s editorial staff using Gawker Media's online real estate to publish a grievance against Gawker Media itself, in such a way that the media company had no choice but to comply (not doing so would look pretty bad). Second, in its suggestion that the Gawker leadership was privileging anonymous tipsters over its own staff, there was the feeling that there was something more at stake than a mere CMS technicality.

When Gawker Media unveiled it to the public last fall, Kinja seemed a smart solution to the pretty industry-wide objective of increasing reader engagement. Rather than merely comment on individual articles, readers of the company’s many editorial properties sign up for their own Kinja web address, which compiles all the comments they post into a unique, user-specific web page. This transforms readers into surrogate site bloggers, simultaneously “engaging” with pre-existing content and providing Gawker Media’s editorial teams with a never-ending stream of new story ideas. This is ostensibly where the anonymity factor comes in: readers might not feel comfortable tipping a publication off to stories if they knew that it could put their personal safety or employment status at risk, and in protecting “tipsters” in this way, Gawker Media blogs stand to get better scoops.

More importantly, though, Kinja seems like a brilliant way to monetize. Creating a culture of readers who obsessively log on to your website to throw in their own two cents without having to worry about the consequences of what they say can do wonders for your traffic, and consequently, your ad revenue. That’s why, though the authors of the letter tastefully side-step this foremost, bottom-line function of Kinja, the matter of the porn GIFS is—ultimately, I think—a matter of economics. I didn’t allow myself to get upset about the commenter who posted my picture because I rationalized the negative attention as more traffic for my post. The higher-ups at Gawker didn’t make solving the porn GIF problem a priority after Jezebel’s editorial staff approached them about it, presumably because worrying about the distress it was causing to Jezebel’s staff and readers could only mean throwing a conceptual monkey-wrench in Kinja, the company’s near-perfect content-monetization machine.

After the open letter went live, however, something pretty amazing happened. Gawker responded—very quickly and very publically—with editorial director Joel Johnson offering up an apology in the comments section and asking Jezebel’s staff “to give [him] about 24-48 hours to figure out some sort of fix.” The following day, he tweeted that Gawker Media would be disabling “all image uploads on comments while we figure out a better long term solution for image trolling,” additionally clarifying that “the primary accounts uploading the rape images, etc. are not Kinja Burners, just throwaway twitter acct[s].” Whether or not making Jezebel rape GIF-proof will require a significant tweak to Kinja’s infrastructure, the development seemed a coup for the cause of a greater conscientiousness about the perils of anonymous online commenting. As the authors of the letter themselves suggest, it’s a matter of freedom of speech—or the phenomenon whereby certain kinds of free speech, left unchecked, can paradoxically put constraints upon the kinds of free speech that ostensibly matter to us most. “Gawker has always been a place that would really go to the mat for its writers, a place that offered unmatched freedom to smart people with something to say,” reads the article’s concluding paragraph. “It’s time that Gawker Media applied that principle to promoting our freedom to write without being bombarded with porn and gore.” In asking that Kinja place restrictions on users’ ability to comment anonymously (or at least not make anonymous commenting the website’s default option), I don’t think the editors of Jezebel were trying to say that their free speech is more valuable than that of the unpaid commenters that flood the site everyday; I think they’re trying to say that the conversation benefits all around when publications encourage staffers and readers alike to use that right responsibly.

So the story of Jezebel’s open letter to Gawker is one that has a happy ending, but there’s also a footnote in that tale—one I haven’t yet mentioned—that really blows my mind. For that matter, it may even change the meaning of the entire thing. As Business Insider has reported, there is reason to believe that Joel Johnson was aware that Jezebel was going to post the letter prior to its publication; in fact, one Jezebel employee has said that amidst internal discussions of the rape-GIF matter, Johnson “suggested that maybe a public call out would help move things along.” That Jezebel’s feat of online activism might have been actively encouraged by Gawker would certainly be in keeping with the company’s reputation for encouraging editorial transparency; just last month, editor-in-chief Max Read announced that moving forward, the company’s employees would be required to post any stray thoughts without "a direct editorial function" that they might normally share via internal communication app Campfire to a new public Kinja vertical called Disputations. The thing is, I can’t tell if this revelation means that Gawker Media is the most forward-thinking publishing company around—one that allows for dissent within itself, even encourages it—or if it means that we’ve been reading too much into Jezebel’s actions from the get-go. Is it possible that Jezebel’s public gripe against Gawker is, at bottom, just another run-of-the-mill example of all publicity being good publicity? I obviously don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but if the number of pageviews and second day news stories the letter has generated is any indication, it’s that it would take a lot more than a barrage of rape GIFS to destruct Gawker’s content-monetization machine. Somehow, its construction is so ingeniously and immaculately considered that even when Gawker screws up, Gawker still wins.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: What’s Really at Stake in the Jezebel vs. Gawker Affair?