I've been interested in discussing Deadspin's decision to trim its commenter ranks for a while, but have been overwhelmed by apathy and underwhelmed as to how many people would be interested in such a topic. However, a surprisingly dull Saturday has finally provided me with the impetus to happily babble.
First, the Deadspin fiasco was funny because of all the uncomfortable truths that no one seemed to want to discuss. A sampling:
1. DU!AN only worked because of the fanaticism of Deadspin's commenters. It was an awful format to have a conversation. I tried it a couple times, and couldn't stand having to wait 5-10 minutes to get a reply for each comment. AOL circa 98 laughs at that form of discussion. The only times DU!AN really worked is when there was a major evening sporting event that could be discussed. Now, if Deadspin had been clever enough to adopt CoveritLive or another form of fan discussion for DU!AN, it may have been able to duplicate the fan enthusiasm I saw on Twitter for chatting about big games. However, it never quite could pull off a decent format for game discussion. (I did like the energy of live-bloggers, but Deadspin seemed to go away from that in the last year, e.g., no live-blogs for the NBA play-offs).
2. If you were a funny commenter, you should have left Deadspin long ago to start your own blog. KSK, among others, were smart enough to realize this. An occasional "+1" from Internet strangers sucks compared to being able to control your own blog and show off all your skills. No one gets wealthy, noticed, or benefits solely on the basis of being a Deadspin commenter.
3. Based on 2, Deadspin had to eliminate some commenters eventually, because soon only mediocre commenters would be left. If you just allow everyone to sign up, over time the old commenters start to dominate. It creates a dead site, humor-wise, because the best leave, and the mediocre commenters keep trotting out the same type of humor repeatedly. If you remember the fiasco over Facebook commenters, it was difficult for any new voices to truly get a shot. I signed up with a fake Facebook name and was amused to see how people over-reacted and refused to give this "new" person a chance. AJ had to clean house eventually, one way or another. I give him props for waiting a little while to do it instead of making wrong moves when he first took over. However...that's about it for Deadspin praise on this post.
4. Merit-based commenting is dead, for now. When I first became a sports-blogger, I wasted a lot of time commenting on different sites and interacting with other commenters. However, I can't say that it ever did me much good. It took me an hour just to exchange two comments with another blogger. Perhaps Twitter offers a better way; one can be notified via cell-phone when there's been a comment response. But right now, I don't see sports bloggers being interested in the comment section any more. The trade-off between responding to 5 comments and writing a new post leans heavily towards writing a new post. And when was the last time you saw a site truly reward its hardest-working commenters? Which leads me to...
5. The gold-star idea on Gawker (and thus Deadspin) was breathtaking in its stupidity. Many sites get unpaid help from commenters, reviewers, and editers. Gawker should have done its homework on how other sites rewarded free labor. Eventually, commenters have to be rewarded or given some attention, lest they focus on other sites instead where they get more feedback or praise. Rather than come up with an interesting reward system like thumbs up/down (youtube style) or comment of the week, a lazy default mode was used to award stars. People of course took advantage of this method. Then, when Deadspin belatedly realized that the star method was being abused, people actually bewailed the loss of their star. Kindergarten-style rewards provoked kindergarten-style behavior.
6. Randomly removing people's Deadspin accounts seems like an arrogant bet that commenters can be easily replaced. They can't, and it appears that AJ's background in oddsmaking failed him here. See 4: I really believe any so-called "golden-age" of commenting is long-gone. It's too late to go back to some ideal of merit-based, survival of the fittest commenter. Those days are long gone; the blogging culture has changed since 2006. People aren't as excited about hitting the "Submit" button anymore in a major blog's comment section; they take it for granted.
It's too easy to start up your own blog or become a fan of your team's blog rather than wait for an hour for the latest Deadspin post to go up so you can make a feeble attempt at a witticism that MIGHT get a +1 if it's within the first 10 comments. Where are these new commenters going to come from? Deadspin seems to have trouble drawing in the college crowd in any large numbers for the comment section. It does gain 20-somethings bored at their first or second after-college job or grad school, but those commenters fade out after about 6 months of frenzied commenting. Kicking out mediocre commenters isn't going to bring good commenters back. Once they are gone, they are gone. Rarely do people return to their favorite web-site after the magic is gone--ask, Friendster, Xanga, or Myspace about that. Unless Deadspin truly has a plan to make commenting interesting again or to recruit talented commenters, I doubt that commenting will improve in the short term.
7. I think that in the long-term, no one will remember this decision. Deadspin will be a little more sterile, a little less user-friendly, but will still put up decent traffic numbers. Google is the true driver of hits and revenue, not comments. However, long-term I think that this creates a vacancy for sports blogs that can do a better job of managing community. For too long Deadspin has thought that comments define its fan community, instead of realizing that comments were the only way that the community could express itself. Instead of being so myopically focused on comments and commenters, why not take a truly broad look at its community of fans and find a way to increase fan support and monetize that fanaticism?
In conclusion, comments were closely connected with the start of the site. They don't necessarily have a place in the future of the site; there are many other ways to incorporate reader feedback and tips. But any site (or business) that ignores or mistreats a subset of its readers must be careful of its future. Deadspin kicked out some useless commenters, but it also unnecessarily annoyed people who consistently contributed decent content, and seems to have no plan to create something useful from the entire mess.