Gawker grew up with the web, predating social media and most major websites. It's the sort of technological success story that, in another context, would be hailed as worthy of emulation: A guy, Nick Denton, who had an idea about doing something on the web, and he did it, and it worked. Denton hired a number of aggressive writers and editors, and he and his team slowly expanded the scope of what they wanted to cover, branching out into new sites and topics as time passed.
The site itself -- that is, Gawker.com, not one of the eventual spin-offs like Deadspin or Jezebel -- was ostentatiously unconcerned about making people angry. If something was interesting to its writers or something was a secret and they discovered it: fair game in their eyes, if not everyone else's.
It's easy to view that attitude through rose-colored glasses, as though everything Gawker did was excused by their not caring about the ramifications. It's also easy to use those times that Gawker shared a secret that wasn't theirs to share as an unforgivable indictment on the entire site (or entire family of sites). Everyone who knows anything about Gawker falls somewhere on that spectrum, and it's safe to assume that the poles are crowded.
But Gawker writers can write. Elizabeth Spiers and Choire Sicha's writing during their time there helped define much of the voice of the early blog system. Alex Pareene's aggressive writing about politics was (is) hilarious and obnoxious in unequal parts. Richard Lawson's recaps of reality TV were art, even if his most-viewed post at Gawker is on a different subject. The crew there now produces a lot of great stuff that you probably aren't aware of, such as Ashley Feinberg's political essays and Keenan Trotter's hyper-aggressive media coverage. There was and is so much at Gawker that's really, really good. I know many of these people, so grains of salt and all that. But I knew them first through their writing, which consistently impressed and humbled me.
There was a moment in 2013 or so when there were two ways in which the web seemed as though it might tip. Gawker exemplified one way, putting the story ahead of the advertising budget and earning grudging respect instead of working its networks. BuzzFeed exemplified another way, building relationships and figuring out how to get sponsors to fund a rapidly-expanding ecosystem. The two sites were rivals because Gawker was being passed in traffic and funding by a surging BuzzFeed, which was smarter about how its business should and could operate.
The difference in style between the two, though, was obvious, encapsulated neatly in the "War and Peace" of writing for the web at that time: Tom Scocca's 2 million-word piece contrasting smarm (BuzzFeed) with snark (Gawker).
Over the long run, smarm (to use Scocca's ungenerous formulation) won. Denton tried, belatedly, to adopt a smarmier way of doing business at Gawker, which didn't really do much. The catalyst for the site's collapse, though, was something different: a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan (of all people) over a sex tape, funded by a tech billionaire whose sexual orientation, known since 2003 in Silicon Valley, was revealed by the site nearly a decade ago. The billionaire, Peter Thiel, set his mind to destroying Gawker for that piece and, somewhat amazingly, did so.
Gawker hadn't spent a lot of time building a Rolodex of people who would come to its defense; it often prided itself on doing the opposite. A jury in Florida decided that publishing Hogan's sex tape was a capital offense, and so that was it for Gawker.
Gawker's founding legacy was its attitude and its style, which influenced both those who loved it and those who hated it. Its final legacy will be the way in which it was destroyed, by a man with deep pockets and a lengthy grudge who backed not only Hogan's lawsuit but several others, under the theory that if one failed to decapitate the site, another might succeed. For you or me, hiring a lawyer who can defend you in court for months on end is a cost-prohibitive idea. For Thiel and other members of the hyper-wealthy class, it's not. There's always going to be a price for saying something someone else disapproves of. Thiel ensured that the price was as costly as it could possibly be. The smart money says that the verdict against Gawker is overturned on appeal, but, oh well. Overturning capital punishment sentences can be buggy.
It's interesting to consider Gawker's fate today. The Department of Justice announced that it would stop housing federal inmates at for-profit prisons, a decision that many credit to extensive reporting by Mother Jones, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars revealing how the system worked. Mother Jones, too, was nearly destroyed financially by a billionaire who opposed their coverage, but they won. In the online media world, two makes a trend, and this trend isn't cute.
So that's it. Gawker is broken and scattered. Smarm won; Thiel won. There are so many good writers out there who are better, directly or indirectly, thanks to the site's fearlessness, aggressiveness and attitude. Gawker made its opponents better. Gawker and its writers, despite some steps backward, made the web better. It made the web what it is.