Today, the staff of Jezebel posted an open letter to its parent company, Gawker Media, detailing the constant barrage of vile messages and graphic images that pop up in the comments sections beneath Jezebel posts, and begging the bosses, who have so far apparently been unmoved, to do something about it. “For months, an individual or individuals has been using anonymous, untraceable burner accounts to post gifs of violent pornography in the discussion section of stories on Jezebel. The images arrive in a barrage, and the only way to get rid of them from the website is if a staffer individually dismisses the comments and manually bans the commenter,” the Jezebel staff wrote. Once banned, the commenters create new accounts and escalate the abuse. “This weekend, [the comments] have escalated to gory images of bloody injuries emblazoned with the Jezebel logo,” the staffers wrote. “It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.”
The comments section of a women’s website is a magnet for sexist trolling, harassing personal attacks, and—in Jezebel’s extreme case—images of rape and violence. These comments are “profoundly upsetting to our commenters who have the misfortune of starting their day with some excessively violent images” and “to casual readers who drop by to skim Jezebel with their morning coffee only to see hard core pornography at the bottom of a post about Michelle Obama,” Jezebel wrote. Moderating those comments is a necessary step for fostering an online community where women actually want to hang out. But moderation creates another problem for the women who work at these sites: Because Jezebel staffers “are the only ones capable of removing the comments,” the burden of reading (and shutting down) these vile comments shifts to the writers themselves, who are, as the post puts it, “now required to view and interact with violent pornography and gore as part of our jobs. None of us are paid enough to deal with this on a daily basis.” (Full disclosure: I co-wrote last year’s Jezebel-branded book The Book of Jezebel.)
Jezebel’s problem speaks to a larger failure in the concept of moderation: In order for a horrific comment to be removed from public view, a staffer has to see it first. Just deleting a vile comment or an abusive account from the internet—which is how Twitter, for example, currently deals with its worst users—doesn’t magically erase its effect on its target. Sexist harassment that occurs online isn’t any less tangible than words shouted on the street; as Jezebel’s staffers put it, “We’re here, we’re real, and we matter.” And the problem is compounded in an era when engaging with the masses is part of the online journalist’s job description. The typical advice doled out to female writers—“just don’t read the comments!”—is not a possibility at Gawker, where writers are required to participate in the community section of its publishing platform, Kinja, to interact with readers and find story ideas. Even readers who hope to work for Gawker Media in the future are encouraged to join Kinja as a prerequisite for getting a job. (Like good Gawker employees, Jezebel staffers are now taking to Kinja to write further about their experiences sparring with their bosses over offensive comments.)
Jezebel is calling on Gawker to increase the site’s moderation power by allowing staffers to ban commenters’ IP addresses, instead of just shutting down individual accounts, which are swiftly and easily replaced. (According to Jezebel, Gawker Media has previously rejected the idea of tracking IP addresses in the hopes of attracting more anonymous tipsters to Kinja.) I’m not sure banning IP addresses is an overarching solution; the same trolls who mock up gory videos with Jezebel’s logo are also likely adept at hiding under fake IP addresses. But Jezebel’s open letter does reveal a serious rift between the women’s site and its parent company in how seriously to take the issue: Jezebel says that “Higher ups at Gawker are well aware of the problem” but haven’t taken steps to resolve it after several months. (I’ve reached out to Gawker founder Nick Denton and will update this post if I hear back. I will also keep an eye on Kinja in case he weighs in there.) Update, Aug. 11, 2014: In an email, Gawker Editorial Director Joel Johnson said: “We hadn’t completely brushed the problem aside; on the other hand, the people making the decisions about prioritizing a fix weren’t having to deal with the reality of the terrible trolling every day, either. As for specifics, I don’t have anything yet. But expect a response within the next couple of days, even if it’s just a provisional step.”
So what should Gawker do? Another women’s site, Bustle sidesteps the moderation issue by not hosting comments at all, but Gawker is unlikely to follow suit: Comment functionality is just too central to its business model. While some sites, like BuzzFeed, are making bids to migrate their content onto other platforms, Gawker is doubling down on attracting outside content producers to its own platform. Meanwhile, Slate’s approach— the site doesn’t allow videos or photos in the comments section; readers can flag inappropriate comments, which are then assessed by interns—manages to keep only the most obscene harassment off the site. (While most Slate stories publish a “top comment” alongside the article text, the feature is simply disabled on Double X articles, because, unfortunately, the most-talked-about comments on those pieces are more likely to be offensive than interesting.) That’s fine for Slate, where writers are free to stay above the fray. But Jezebel’s female commenter community is integral to its success—hardcore Jezebel fans call themselves “Jezzies” and solidify their bond with in-person meet-ups around the country—and the site needs to engage in much more aggressive moderation in order to keep its commenters and staffers chatting.*
So Jezebel is faced with a unique problem: It needs aggressive moderators who are just as invested in the site (and tuned to its sensibilities) as its writers are, but who won’t be personally affected by wading through sexist garbage day-in-day-out. That seems like an almost insurmountable challenge. But if Gawker wants to be seen as an innovative platform as well as a media company, it’s about time it hired full-time moderators and figured it out.
* Update, Aug. 11, 2014: This post originally linked to a tag for Jezebel commenter meet-ups that has since been changed by the admin. The link has been removed.