Spies Like Us
When we signed up as a Gawker commenter ten years ago, we needed a persona — a screen name and avatar. Our own name is terribly dull and terribly common, so we chose an in-joke nickname we had been using among friends. And for the avatar, we cropped a low-rez webcam photo showing us wearing old-school 3D glasses while leaning over a battery hamster. The combination pleased us.
Gawker was already on its third blogger by the time we discovered it — Elizabeth Spiers and Choire Sicha were gone, leaving Jessica Coen to toil in their wake — but what attracted us to it was the feeling of yet another attempt at reviving Spy, the satirical magazine we had called Mad for grownups. Like Spy, Gawker covered the Manhattan media scene with a jaundiced eye and healthy wit. And like Spy, Gawker would stray outside those bounds if something sufficiently amusing merited the attention.
It was during that period that “Gawker Stalker” was introduced — a feature, tied to MapQuest, that listed celebrity sightings around town by time and location. It was intended, we imagine, as a corrective to Society photos you might see in the Times — instead of everyone dressed to the nines at a swanky function, here’s That Actress haggling over smokes at a bodega.
Gawker Stalker was not universally welcomed by Gawker readers. Some certainly enjoyed it, but others thought the Stalker name was too clever by half, invoking a very real danger faced by American celebrities on American streets — an idea so familiar that both Martin Scorsese and Stephen King had based famous works on it.
Not that owner Nick Denton minded. A transplanted Brit with Fleet Street in his blood, he thought American media was much too tame, compared to the tabloids he grew up with. For him, Gawker was a corrective not just to the Times, but everyone else.
Denton didn’t always get what he wanted. Defamer, Gawker’s Hollywood offshoot, appealed to us as the blog version of Spy’s old “The Industry” column, full of insider gossip that never failed to demonstrate the stupidity of powerful people with high self-esteem. Denton regarded Defamer blogger Mark Lisanti as one of the best writers on the Internet, but he had really wanted TMZ, not Spy: pulpy tabloid trash, the more the better.
We enjoyed the Gawker style — the Gawker voices — so much, we were probably reading six Gawker blogs every day. (Including Wonkette, but we all know that story.) This included the new Valleywag, which aimed to do for Silicon Valley what its mates were doing for New York, Hollywood and D.C. We’re a Geek by trade, after all. Why not?
As it happens, Valleywag never quite worked for us. Maybe its voice wasn’t distinctive, maybe it was trying too hard to make a splash, but we ended up indifferent to it. So we don’t know whether we were still reading Valleywag the day blogger Owen Thomas outed investor Peter Thiel.
You may have heard of Peter Thiel before now. He’s one of those Geek Libertarians whose understanding of human nature rivals Ayn Rand’s, and who seriously proposed building an offshore mechanical island so heroic independent people like him could live outside the Lilliputian herd laws that only hold down greatness.
Yeah, he’s the guy who funded Seasteading. Good to see we’re all on the same page.
That Thiel wasn’t a breeder was something of an open secret at the time. He was plenty out to his friends, but officially undeclared in public. And he would have preferred to remain so.
You’re familiar with the Rules of Outing. Tie goes to the Closet: Absent a compelling reason otherwise, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell applies. If Thiel wants to keep his private parts private, that’s his call.
But what might count as a compelling reason? Outrageous Hypocrisy is the canonical example: If you’re a Bible-thumping preacher or politician who sticks your dick where you command others not to put theirs, you’re fair game. The Good Lord didn’t create Cocktober for nothing.
Anything short of that, however, don’t expect the public to come rushing to your defense. When Gawker later outed a magazine exec whom nobody had heard of and who committed no hypocritical transgressions, there wasn’t any celebrating. Denton himself may be Out & Proud, but that doesn’t give him the moral right to drag everyone outside with him.
In any event, Thiel continued to hold a grudge over his outing, and being Ridiculously Wealthy, set out on a Revenge-Served-Cold plan to bankroll high-profile libel suits against Gawker — including Hulk Hogan’s.
Hogan won. The jury assigned $140 million in damages, much more than Gawker Media is worth. And on Friday, Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, looking for a suitor to take over the business but leave behind the debts.
We drifted away from Gawker sites once the writers who attracted us moved on, and especially after we became preoccupied elsewhere. Gawker today is not the Gawker we read a decade ago, and there would be no difference in our life if Gawker disappeared tomorrow.
But whatever the messiness of the example at hand, the lesson everyone is drawing is that media companies aren’t safe from Angry Oligarchs. Peter Thiel never bothered to sue Gawker over his own outing — he would have lost — but by funding a planned series of lawsuits by others, he could have drained Gawker dry just by forcing it to defend itself over and over again.
Outlandish? Far from it. Just ask Mother Jones.