Gawker's Media's blog network has helped define the professional weblog style, both for words and web design, since the launch of its namesake site in 2003. Monday morning, Jalopnik editor-in-chief Matt Hardigree introduced a redesign of Gawker's auto enthusiast site with a sleek, single-column scroll replacing the busy noise typical of Gawker and other blogs' right rail. But Hardigree says the real action is under the hood.
A new commenting and posting platform, called Kinja 1.0, debuts on Jalopnik, but if it does well, expect to roll out to the rest of the Gawker Media network, which includes Gawker, Gizmodo, io9, Lifehacker, Jezebel, Kotaku, and Deadspin. "Yesterday, you were a reader and a commenter," writes Hardigree. "Today you can be a writer, an arbiter, an editor, and a publisher."
"Giving control of the network to its users is the only logical choice."
Essentially, the commenting platform now works much more like a personal blog. Every user gets their own subdomain at yourname.kinja.com where they can see a stream of their posts, follow or block other users, tag and upload content — the works. Users can also create themed blogs of their own, on any topic they wish; some of the existing forum features within Jalopnik are being migrated to sub-blogs of this type. Each of these blogs can, in turn, repost articles from Jalopnik (and eventually) all Gawker Media sites.
Jalopnik also promises to hoist the best user content onto the main site. "If we do republish something you created you'll get the byline, the credit, and it'll be clear where it came from," writes Hardigree. "To paraphrase Valve co-founder Gabe Newell: Giving control of the network to its users is the only logical choice."
"Want to create a site devoted to Starfox Cosplay? You're strange, but go ahead and do a barrel roll!"
Opening up Gawker's sites in this way, beginning with Jalopnik, may change much or nothing for the typical reader, depending on how much community content gets pulled to the top sites. But it's likely to change these sites' relationships with their core communities tremendously. The incentive for readers producing their own content under a Gawker Media masthead is first, to the see their names in lights; second, to gain from the audience of other readers; and third, to have a chance to get called up to the big show: "When we look for the next generation of writers for our site, and other sites," writes Hardigree, "we'll be looking at who does well in Kinja."
It's guaranteed to produce a mix of the good, the bad, and the mediocre. Gawker has scrapped redesigns before. But maybe that doesn't matter. It turns what in online media we call a vertical (a site or sub-site devoted to a specific topic) into a platform. Hosting is cheap, content management systems can scale, readers with strong opinions are plentiful, and some have real gifts. Gawker's advertising network has to love any additional volume it can produce at a fraction of the cost. It makes Gawker more like Tumblr or Facebook, as opposed to AOL's network of blogs. In media, the platform play has generally proven to be a good one.
However, there are real risks. Opening yourself up too widely to unvetted, poor-quality content can damage the reputation of the brand. This is a particularly thorny problem when you're dealing in news. Forbes, for instance, has fairly successfully transitioned to a mix of in-house and externally-created content, with outside contributors vetted by editors and being paid according to the audiences they attract. It's a solid business, and there are many Forbes contributors I respect greatly and read regularly — but I know I don't look at blind links to that site the same way any more. If you fracture the professional tentpole keeping the tent in the air, you may just wind up with a mess of canvas on the floor.