Nick Denton has a bit of a sinister reputation. His websites have ruined careers, toppled leaders, sparked lawsuits and criminal investigations and made Steve Jobs very angry.
Up close, however, Denton’s evil aura disappoints. The Gawker Media founder is, it turns out, the furthest thing from a curdled, malevolent misanthrope. He is, rather, a cheerful, earnest humanist, one who — improbably, many would say — sees his life’s work as contributing to the betterment of the species.
I spent many hours in conversation with Denton last summer and fall while conducting the March 2014 edition of the Playboy Interview. (For the uninitiated, Playboy publishes a wide-ranging 8,000-or-so-word Q&A with a notable person in every issue; past interviewees have included Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan.) Following are some excerpts from the published interview, the full version of which is available here.
While I’ve known him for nearly a decade (and, disclosure, discussed employment with him on a couple occasions), I was struck nevertheless by Denton’s optimism about the future and conviction that technology — from blogs and social media to surge pricing and clean energy — are making for a more tolerant and prosperous world.
On a societal level, he sees the work that Gawker, Gizmodo, Deadspin and the rest of his sites are doing as being of a piece with the effects of social platforms like Facebook and Twitter: They’re all uncovering information about the way people actually live, information that historically has been obscure. That, he says, can only be a good thing:
When people take a look at the change in attitudes toward gay rights or gay marriage, they talk about the example of people who came out, celebrities who came out. That has a pretty powerful effect. But even more powerful are all the friends and relatives, people you know. When it’s no longer some weird group of faggots on Christopher Street but actually people you know, that’s when attitudes change, and my presumption is the internet is going to be a big part of that.
You’re going to be bombarded with news you wouldn’t necessarily have consumed — information, humanity, texture. I think Facebook, more than anything else, and the internet have been responsible for a large part of the liberalization of the past five or 10 years when it comes to sex, when it comes to drinking. Five years ago it was embarrassing when somebody had photographs of somebody drunk as a student. There was actually a discussion about whether a whole generation of kids had damaged their career prospects because they put up too much information about themselves in social media. What actually happened was that institutions and organizations changed, and frankly any organization that didn’t change was going to handicap itself because everyone, every normal person, gets drunk in college. There are stupid pictures or sex pictures of pretty much everybody. And if those things are leaked or deliberately shared, I think the effect is to change the institutions rather than to damage the individuals. The internet is a secret-spilling machine, and the spilling of secrets has been very healthy for a lot of people’s lives.
One thing that separates Denton from earlier gossip barons is his willingness to turn his principles on himself. A few years ago, he says, he had reason to believe someone was about to publish private “sex pictures” stolen from his phone. Rather than try to squelch their publication, he wrote a blog post about the episode — one he never ended up needing to publish, as the whole thing proved to be a hoax. “It would have been mortifying, but every infringement of privacy is sort of liberating,” he says now. “Afterward, you have less to lose; you’re a freer person. Shouldn’t we all want to own our own story?”
It’s tempting to see Denton’s whole career — or at least the chapter of it that began with his 2002 founding of Gawker — as a form of owning his own story. Closeted until after college, he knew from a young age of the power of secrets and the complications involved in keeping them.
DENTON: If you’re not out to your parents, then you have to maintain this protective zone around them. Gay guys spend a lot of time and effort coming out. There’s a lot of calculation involved. You have to be aware about social networks and who’s how many degrees away from somebody else, and you have to be aware of the speed with which gossip will be transmitted. You have to maintain a proper buffer around the people you’re trying to protect.
PLAYBOY: Is that what got you interested in the mechanics of gossip?
DENTON: It’s possible. It’s a hypothesis.
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In keeping with Denton’s philosophy that there’s no secret that’s not worth exposing, his sites have made a practice of outing public figures whenever possible. In particular, they’ve made numerous claims about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s sexual orientation. I asked Denton why he’s so keen on the subject.
“I think it would be useful,” he said. “It would be socially useful for the most powerful man in American business to be seen and widely known as being gay. People would see that if you’re gay, you don’t have to be a fashion designer or a closeted actor. There are other courses available to you.”
Gawker Media’s sites have also been aggressive in calling out the many supposed sins of Uber and its CEO, Travis Kalanick. But Denton has praise for the car-summoning service — high praise indeed. “Uber may do more for the world than foreign aid workers in Mozambique because at some point some version of Uber will allow for more efficient use of resources and a better standard of living,” he says.
If the company has a lot of haters, it’s only because they’re thinking about it emotionally, not rationally, he says:
Any economist will tell you surge pricing is eminently sensible. If you cap prices, you stop a market from working the way it could work. But it offends people’s sense of fairness because surge pricing basically means we are rationing supply of this commodity, transport, at peak times to rich people, people who can afford it. It takes notional inequality and turns it into something concrete, the poor person waiting in the rain for a taxi that will never come, and the rich person has a black Mercedes come scoop them up. But it’s inevitable. It will happen everywhere, in every market.