I was on vacation at a leadership convention when the news broke that Gawker.com was dead. The ensuing logistical nightmare found me calling into an all-hands meeting from the rooftop of a bombed-out building on the Syrian-Israeli border while the sound of machine gunfire cracked in the horizon. At the time, our tour guide was trying to impress upon our group the notion that the state of Israel was more than just a place; it was also an idea. I think you know where I’m going with this.
I came to Gawker as a night writer when I was in my second year of law school. That background, perhaps, is why a small detail in Gawker’s slow march to legal ruin stands out to me. One of the reasons why we’re here, today, dead, is because of a rule of civil procedure that requires diversity of citizenship in federal court. The site was never supposed to be in state court in Florida before the most reversed judge in Pinella County, because a federal court decided in 2012 that the Hulk Hogan sex tape was a matter of public interest. This was not a ruling on the ethics of the post, but a decision based on the laws of this country. But when Hogan refiled in state court, this time joining his sex partner—Florida resident Heather Clem—as a co-defendant, the procedural laws worked against the site. Typically, a defendant would simply remove the case back to federal court. But in this instance, Hogan got a second bite at the apple by filing against Clem, because federal courts won’t accept cases when any of the plaintiffs and defendants reside in the same state. So the case remained in Pinella County, and it was that judge’s decision to uphold a Florida state law, which requires a defendant to post a bond of up to $50 million pending appeal, that ultimately drove the site into bankruptcy.
The idea of Gawker was, as founder Nick Denton often repeated to interviewers, the story that journalists talked about in the bar after filing their pieces. It was the rumors they didn’t print, the opinions they withheld on the high-minded notion of impartiality or decorum, the dumb ideas their papers had no space for—to put it bluntly, the stuff people actually want to read. In practice, Gawker was a place where the funny, the savants, the nut jobs and the geniuses alike could write whatever the hell they wanted, resulting in a daily dump of brilliance and stupidity and humor and, yes, snark. It was a place of experimentation, where things didn’t always work and takes weren’t always fully baked, where writers had a platform to blow up institutions, or blow up themselves if they so pleased. That’s what made possible both those moments of sheer brilliance referred to by those who lament Gawker’s demise, and those moments of viciousness cited by those who celebrate it. Both story extremes were to the credit of their writers, and not the site that hosted them, because Gawker was the sum of its whole. The site isn’t the first place like that, but it may be the last, because no one—especially not the insurers of digital media properties—wants to chance the possibility of offending the wrong rich person anymore.
The appeals aren’t done, but whether the Hogan ruling is ultimately overturned, or reduced, or even upheld, will make no difference to the fate of Gawker.com. It’s simply too expensive and too arduous to operate a platform like this anymore when one dedicated billionaire can bleed it dry through endless litigation, regardless of the final outcome.
Gawker was more than just a place, which today will cease operations. It was also an idea. It turns out you can kill both.