We Are Worse Off Without Gawker, But Theirs Was No Idealistic Revolution

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We Are Worse Off Without Gawker, But Theirs Was No Idealistic Revolution

If Gawker can be said to have had a manifesto, it came not from founder Nick Denton, nor the website’s first editor, Elizabeth Spiers, but from Tom Scocca. He called it “On Smarm.” Writing more than a decade after the launch of the “Manhattan media news and gossip” blog, during which time it had morphed into a publication of national prominence, Scocca signaled his real purpose—the defense of “snark,” and therefore of Gawker—from the start:

Stand against snark, and you are standing with everything decent. And who doesn’t want to be decent? The snarkers don’t, it seems. Or at least they (let’s be honest: we) don’t want to be decent on those terms…

What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?

It is reacting to smarm.

Note the “we,” snug against the close of the parentheses: “We” as in Gawker, “we” as in “the snarkers,” “we” as in the opponents of smarm, opponents, to be specific, of Buzzfeed, Dave Eggers, David Denby, Lee Siegel, American political culture, Michael Bloomberg, Google, Joe Lieberman, the chief executive officer of AIG, CNBC, Upworthy, Malcolm Gladwell, plagiarists, three films from 2009-2010, personal brands, and, on occasion, Gawker itself. But it’s the return of the “we” in Scocca’s conclusion that suggests the relationship between Gawker and the voice of the Internet, in other words the process by which Gawker helped create, develop, disseminate, and popularize the way we now talk to each other online. “We are exactly the same size as you are,” Scocca wrote. “Everybody is.”

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In this sense—though the age of Gawker came to an end this week, the flagship site shuttered and the remaining Gawker Media properties sold to Univision for $135 million—it will live on like the heroes of myth, sung about by the bards of the once-and-future blogosphere, whatever shape it may take. This is not an appreciation, not of the sort that’s been written time and again since it became clear that we were indeed witnessing Gawker’s demise—orchestrated by thin-skinned Trump supporter and Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel, with an assist from noted racist and general embarrassment Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan. In truth, I often despised Gawker: Its simpering, pit-of-snakes commentariat, with their pidgin idiot of ”+1”s and hurt feelings; its holier-than-thou staffers, hobbled by the belief that theirs was the one true path; its dispiriting obeisance to a particular, New York-centric view of the world as a constellation of ill-kept satellites desperate to remain in the city’s orbit.

I often adored Gawker, too: Rich Juzwiak’s lovely portrait of his life with editor and roommate A.J. Daulerio; Camille Dodero’s beautiful obituary for the Boston Phoenix; J.K. Trotter’s astute disquisition on the mediated nature of the footage of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino; Trotter’s almost thrillingly extensive interview with Buzzfeed honchos Ben Smith and Jonah Peretti. I could go on. I could add that the Gawker’s journalism—mired in lawsuits and capable of inconceivable lapses in judgment — more than once mistook “information” for “news.” I could weigh its controversies against its contributions in order to determine whether we’re better off without it (we’re not). But I won’t, because the fact remains that Gawker, love it or hate it, has been perhaps the most influential media outlet of the digital era. It has even shaped those of us who’ll miss it the least.

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Full disclosure: Gawker Media once cut me a check. It was for a 6,620-word report I filed for Deadspin on the future of golf, and the first comment I remember seeing was, of course, “TL;DR.”

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Too long; didn’t read: This was, at Gawker, the unforgivable sin, the fear at the heart of the house style. The writing that appeared on the site, from Real Houswives recaps to searing dispatches on race, class, and gender, always seemed to be driven by a certain dread—of being ignored, bypassed, overlooked. Even the name “Gawker,” meant to suggest rubbernecking, might have referred to the staff’s insistent claims on our attention, from provocative headlines (“Fuck Boston”) to tabloid tactics (“For Sale: A Video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Smoking Crack Cocaine”), as if publishing an unpopular story were a fate worse than death.

During the years in which I visited Gawker’s homepage every few hours, this resulted in a constant, near-crushing churn of material, a search for the perfect marriage of subject and depth; presaging the now-common use of estimated reading times to optimize traffic, one could be reasonably confident that any given Gawker post was short enough to be read before the toast popped up or the commercial break bled back into the show. I remember opening a slew of stories in new tabs, shotgunning the brief items and bookmarking the others for later, learning to consume the Internet in small enough doses to fit inside the interstices of my day.

This is, of course, both where we are going and where we have been, and if Gawker was neither the first blog nor the only one, it was, as Jeet Heer writes in the New Republic, the ne plus ultra of the form. Choire Sicha, Emily Gould, and the other starlets of its ever-changing ensemble wrote as if their posts might be read on a mobile app, scanned while waiting in line at Starbucks or standing at a urinal, and I mean that (mostly) as a compliment. Long before the proliferation of smart phones and the emergence of the social web, Gawker understood that the Internet was about speed, sizzle, and a sense of humor. It was the evolutionary link between the copies of US Weekly and the National Enquirer near the checkout counter and the numbered tweet storm, squeezing into your brain space by any means necessary and then squeezing back out before you knew it was there.

Much of Gawker’s writing was, by extension, disposable, by which I mean that it left no lasting impression except in the aggregate; it’s notable that the same handful of stories from the site’s 13 years has reappeared in one after another reflection on its most memorable contributions to the era’s oeuvre. This, too, has become a central feature of the Internet, whether in the form of infinite feeds or verticals teeming with viral content: No specific listicle to appear on Buzzfeed stands out in my mind, and yet The Listicle, writ large, is at the core of the site’s identity. No uplifting slice of 21st century life defines Upworthy for me, but the term “clickbait” most certainly does. In retrospect, “snark” functioned in much the same fashion for Gawker, the broad label under which its writers’ varied work seemed to fit, and as such it risked being reduced (or reducing itself) to stereotype. To wit:

Gawker was the one with the most powerful personality, the most extreme expression of the rebellious writer’s id. It absorbed the century-old tabloid cynicism about human nature, reinforced by instant data about what people actually wanted to read. As a group of journalists who had grown up on the web, it also subscribed to the internet’s most radical ideology, that information wants to be free, and that the truth shall set us free. This was a potent but dangerous combination.

In his, and Gawker’s, final post, Denton delivered both an articulate defense of the site’s place in the culture and its smarmiest sales pitch, run through with the misplaced faith that his project was “rebellious,” “radical,” “dangerous,” changing the world instead of distilling it to its digital essence. The latter is no mean feat—in capturing the zeitgeist of the past decade-plus, Gawker joins The Saturday Evening Post, Rolling Stone, and Esquire of yore on the list of publications that might be said to crystallize a particular moment in American life—but it’s no revolution, at least not of the idealistic sort Denton imagines.

What Scocca ignored, or failed to see, is that snark, like smarm, is also “a kind of performance,” that Gawker was, first and foremost, the pioneer in a new form of theatre. One need not venture far into the Internet’s reaches to see the site’s dashed-off, I-don’t-give-a-fuck élan in the mass-production of smarm, rather than the reaction to it: It’s in the fey, all-lowercase musings of online humorists; in the breathless pantomime of writers responsible for little more than collating and captioning GIFs; in Twitter’s laziest turns of phrase. By the time Gawker itself banned “Internet slang” in 2014, its once-refreshing breeziness had become a stylistic tic in its own right, aped by writers taught to see Gawker as the epitome of opposition, criticism, the pitched battle of the authentic against the artificial. But if the earnest can be twisted into the ersatz, as Scocca argues, so can the flippant, the rude.

The death of Gawker at the hands of Peter Thiel—its murder by gaslight, per Scocca—is sure to have a chilling effect on American journalism, conscious or not; when it’s possible for a billionaire to sue a publication into submission, or out of business, there’s no doubt that certain punches will be pulled, certain leads left dangling. But the site’s closure is also disheartening for the evolution it cuts short, the maturation it precludes—for the voices of the Internet’s next iteration that we won’t hear, much less come to adore, or perhaps despise. The Internet that Gawker leaves behind was made, for better and for worse, in its image, albeit with one regrettable point of departure from Scocca’s salvo against smarm. As it turns out, we’re not all the same size, and the powerful are as willing as ever to silence the rest of us.