A few years ago, Gawker Media went through their own mythical period. When online public shaming was still praised as “callout culture” and righteous “internet rage” by activists, Gawker was out in front, leading the charge.
Gawker mercilessly destroyed the careers of its targets, many of whom, such as Justine Sacco and Pax Dickinson, were guilty of nothing more than off-colour jokes on social media. They were the shamers-in-chief of the internet: all the more frightening because the sins they punished were so ubiquitous and mundane. Former Gawkerite Adam Weinstein portrays this period as a kind of golden age for the blogging network.
The world has changed rapidly. Public shaming is no longer cool; John Ronson resoundingly won the argument against it with his new book, despite vain attempts of activists to (you guessed it!) publicly shame him. Attempts to portray Ronson as hostile to the”historically powerless” fell flat, as commentators eagerly embraced a mainstream author willing to speak out against the new mob mentality.
Gawker Media, which relied so heavily on the practice to grant itself the veneer of righteousness, has now become one of the most derided publications on earth. Their botched attempt to out Conde Naste executive David Geithner as gay caused outrage across the media and political landscape. Meanwhile, their long history of violating celebrities’ privacy is swiftly catching up to them in the form of Hulk Hogan’s $100m lawsuit, filed against Gawker for the release of a sex tape involving the wrestler.
Throughout history, great empires, states, political movements and institutions have all fallen victim to the myth of invincibility. From the Romans at the Battle of Teutoburg to the British Empire in the Boer war, the destruction of these myths is all the more painful due to the triumphs that preceded them. Few would call Gawker invincible today. Its reputation is on the rocks, as the company plans to relaunch itself later today. The Geithner story has proved to be disastrous for the company, triggering a string of editorial resignations in addition to the storm of external condemnation.
But the story doesn’t strike me as a case of imperial myth-shattering. In the major historical examples – the Boers, the Vietcong, the Germanic tribesmen – great powers were humiliated at the very height of their glory by poorly-equipped, underdog opponents who should have been walkovers. The Geithner story, where Gawker had to fight the entire media establishment by itself, doesn’t fit this pattern at all. So what does?
Gawker vs Gamergate
When a few thousand gamers started to draw attention to poor standards in video games journalism last September, no one predicted it would grow into a year-long movement that spanned the globe. Nor did anyone predict the damage it would do to Gawker Media. Gamers had no track record as campaigners or great organisers, nor as social media activists. When #GamerGate emerged, it was a bolt from the blue, and some predicted it would be over in a week.
But gamers were determined. They had a laundry list of complaints against the gaming press, and they had Gawker in their sights from the beginning. The name of Gamergate’s hub on Reddit – “/r/KotakuInAction” – is revealing. (Kotaku, for those of you who don’t know, is Gawker’s video games vertical.) The near-ruination of game developer Brad Wardell by Kotaku’s poor reporting, a steady stream of outrage-mongering on the topics of race and gender, and perceived conflicts of interest on the part of Kotaku writers meant many gamers had gone sour on the site by the start of Gamergate. One supporter of the hashtag described Kotaku as “yellow journalism and tabloid gossip brewed into a foul, brain-killing mess.”
Twitter in 2014 was the land of #YesAllWomen and #CancelColbert, a haven of politically correct outrage. The emergence of a culturally libertarian, anti-censorship, anti-narrative hashtag like Gamergate was unexpected, to say the least. Progressive journalists in the games and tech press reacted with instant hostility and released a string of articles branding gamers as reactionary, sexist “hyper-consumers.” As Slate‘s David Auerbach argued at the time, games journalists had essentially declared war on their own audience.
Gamers used the attacks to their advantage, sending a deluge of complaints to companies that advertised with their antagonizers. Gawker, with its long history of unethical reporting, was particularly vulnerable to this strategy and lost its first sponsor just days after Gamergate began its campaign. They had already locked themselves in a losing battle — but their Quinctilius Varus had yet to enter the field. That came later.
If there is one feature that unites the imperial downfalls of history, it is the moment of hubris. The moment at which an opponent’s strength is wildly underestimated, or one’s own is wildly overestimated.
In October 2014, Gawker writer Sam Biddle did both. He no doubt intended to do to Gamergate what he had done to Justine Sacco — publicly shame them, or “degrade them into submission,” as he put it. But his tweets — posted, disastrously, during national bullying awareness month — caused a PR calamity that would lead to one of Gawker’s most visible humiliations. The shamers were about to be shamed.
Gamergate’s boycott campaign pivoted, focusing all of its firepower on Gawker Media’s advertisers and sponsors. Within a day, Biddle had taken to Twitter to issue a public apology — an act that would become a feature of Gawker in the months to come. Editorial director Joel Johnson reiterated his apology on the front page of Gawker — another sign of the future. Johnson also sent a memo to Gawker’s writers warning them to watch their words on social media. A publication whose writers were famed for their recklessness was beginning to show signs of caution.
Even Gawker couldn’t hide the extent of their defeat. Editor-in-Chief Max Read summed up his feelings in a headline: “How We Got Rolled by the Dishonest Fascists of GamerGate.” A few months later, the full extent of the damage was revealed — Gamergate had cost Gawker seven figures in lost advertising revenue. The myth of invincibility was over.
Gawker vs Gamergate had all the features of a historic humiliation. On the one hand, there was Gawker, one of the web’s Great Powers. A well-resourced, New York-based “internet bully” with a reputation for destroying people. On the other hand, there were gamers — disorganised amateurs. It’s hard to find a better underdog story.