Our tale this week starts in times long past. Well before Facebook, well before Twitter. Even before the war in Iraq. 2002 was a strange time, but in Web 2.0’s rocky infancy British journalist Nick Denton found opportunity. Thus began Gawker Media, a collection of blogs covering everything from New York gossip to video games.
Why is Gawker in our news, you may ask? Well, it seems that sometime in the last month Mr. Denton (or one of his nameless advisers) decided that his sites needed some sprucing up. Where once was a grayscale homage to Twitter is now a shameless appeasement of the iPad. The hashtagged pseudo-RSS feed is gone, replaced by a vaguely categorized Facebook wall. I suppose the old design was acceptable for 2010, but in 2011, when “social media” is the biggest game in town, Nick Denton needs to be a star player.
The old design thrived on minimalism. Where other sites stumbled over superfluous text (I’m looking at you New York Times), Gawker found a balance between sparse and informative. The single, chronologically ranked column perfectly suited the 24-hour news cycle. The ads, however overt, relegated themselves away from the functional part of the page. Blogger names, when appropriate, had prominent placement on the page, allowing readers to hunt for their favorite familiar tones.
Gawker’s old layout wasn’t my favorite by a long shot, but Denton’s design indicated a fundamental understanding of the blogosphere.
Call me a cynic, but I don’t like where Gawker is heading with this redesign. Granted, I tolerate it much more today than I did last week. I may even come to embrace it in the coming months. Right now, however, it looks like Denton took a gamble and lost. His new layout might be blazing new trails when it comes to interface, but it doesn’t function well when it comes to doing its job as a blog.
The most obvious problem is the new newsfeed. The old newsfeed embraced the childish, but useful habit of putting pictures with the majority of its posts. I appreciated this because it made the “rapid down scroll” blog-checking strategy beautifully effective. When an interesting picture caught my eye, I would read the post. Even when pictures were scarce, the politely bolded headlines were easy to skim. All in all, I didn’t need to spend too much time on any of the Gawker blogs to read a couple interesting stories.
Gawker’s new newsfeed does away with most of my favorite features and builds on the aspects I didn’t care for. The bolded headlines are gone, making the newsfeed harder to skim. This would be permissible if Denton had opted for including more pictures, but he hasn’t (I would even err on the side of him cutting pictures, but this might just be my jaded perception).
The new design also inflates the old, useless hashtags into self-important categories. Before, the hashtag idea’s ridiculousness was cushioned by their relatively subtle use. There were too many different tags for them to ever be useful, but readers like myself didn’t care because labels like “endofanera” and “violence” were brushed to a non-imposing corner.
Now, Denton has given these labels a celebrity treatment that they don’t deserve. The pound sign typical of a hashtag is gone, replaced by an eye-catching red font. The once-quiet tags now have better screen real estate than each story’s headline. This would be fine if these categories actually helped guide a reader’s browsing, but they don’t. In fact, many of them seem to be made up on the fly. Are “smoking,” “housewives” and “sour grapes” serious sections? What about Libya? When there’s a category for every niche, then there’s no use in every browsing categories. You may as well just browse the headlines or (more likely) just stop checking Gawker altogether.
Of course, the old hashtags weren’t any more organized. With the old layout, however, Denton had an excuse. Nobody in their right mind would ever mistake the sometimes-goofy tags for legitimate organizing tools. I always assumed they were meant to be playful jabs at Twitter’s oddly specific trending topics. Now it turns out Gawker meant these useless categories to be labels even more important than the headlines.
Gawker’s new newsfeed makes filtering out interesting news more difficult. While this wouldn’t be feasible for even a Gawker-caliber news site, the sting might be assuaged by an attractive interface. Sadly, Denton has also missed the target in the cosmetic department.
My first gripe is that the design was clearly made for tablet computers. I understand that news outlets have poured countless resources into the tablet-friendly sites, but if you access the New York Times from a laptop, you still get the traditional homepage. I don’t expect to get smart phone versions of webpage when I’m browsing on a traditional computer, even if there is a huge smart phone market. Most news outlets have been wise enough to develop multiple versions of their sites for different methods of browsing. Denton has completely bypassed this courtesy and messily lodged a tablet format onto a standard webpage. The “active” portion of the new design sits messily in the middle of the screen, leaving a deserted wasteland at the page’s borders. The result is a painful reminder that I am behind my grandmother when it comes to consumer hardware.
The redesign is especially off-putting on Gawker Media’s flagship blog. Gawker’s old-fashioned logo doesn’t mesh well with site’s new, techie atmosphere. I’ve always had fixed feelings for the Gawker logo – it has some homegrown charm, almost as if it came out of some housewife’s craft fair. For a blog that focuses on Manhattan culture, this artsy edge might be appropriate. It never felt cutting edge, however, and I always felt like that discordance went against Denton’s forward-thinking attitude towards journalism. The redesign makes this misstep all the more apparent. It’s like putting a Jack Daniels logo on a Voss water bottle. Both designs may work well independently, but they pull their charm from separate ideas. Jack Daniels targets the rugged and American while Voss water is going for the “cutting edge” angle. I assumed the fuzzy, irregular Gawker logo was always going for a hip, artsy, or maybe even nostalgic angle. Other cosmetic complaints aside, the new redesign doesn’t target the same sympathies as its blog’s logo.
That being said, the new look does work a lot better with Denton’s other blogs. Gizmodo, Kotaku, and io9 all incorporate the redesign into their identities well. Even if the logos aren’t the most genius items on the market, they are at least harmonious with the cutting edge angle that Denton is going for, even if that angle has been poorly executed.
The final, and most befuddling shortcoming of Gawker’s new design is its disregard for other blogs in Denton’s “family.” On the old layout, Deadspin, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, and Denton’s other projects all had respectable, top-of-the-page treatment. Now, they’ve been relegated to the very bottom of the page, practically out of the viewer’s site. I discovered Lifehacker through Deadspin, thanks to the layout of the old site. The same wouldn’t happen today unless I went through the trouble of reading through a whole slew of benign Gawker comments in order to reach the bottom of the page.
The worst part about the site’s issues is that they would all be easy to fix. If Denton had the site fit a browser window then it wouldn’t be such an eyesore. If the headlines were more pronounced than the useless “categories” then the newsfeed would be easier to skim. If the Gawker logo were updated to look cleaner, it would mesh better with the rest of the site. If the other Gawker Media sites were simply moved to the top of the page, then there would be more cohesion between the blogs. Hopefully Nick Denton will tweak his new design over the coming months to address some of these issues. Judging by what Gawker deems important (i.e. Justin Bieber’s “thickety” new haircut), these changes won’t be coming any time soon.