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August 12, 2008

The Full 'Monty'

The Montauk Monster, that bloated, seemingly decomposing corpse of some creature that washed up on a Montauk, Long Island, beach last month, has been getting a lot of attention recently—perhaps too much attention when there are decidedly more important things going on, like simultaneous wars and the return of $2 Starbucks after 2 p.m. So why is a certain part of the online world abuzz about "Monty"? It's the pageviews, stupid.

Montauk Monster on Gawker

Part of Gawker's docket on the Montauk Monster.

Coverage for the alleged Hell beast has been largely reserved to the blogosphere, hailed on sites like New York Magazine's Daily Intel as the Second-Coming, and The Huffington Post, which had even gone so far as to give the thing its own column (yes, seriously). There was some trickle down into mainstream news, as well, complete with light musings from Wolf Blitzer on the assumed origins of the devil spawn, undoubtedly driven by his need to know what it might taste like. Fox and Newsday offered similar concerns.

Yet undeniable authority on the matter belongs to Gawker.com, everyone's favorite media harpy. Gawker brought the first photographic evidence to the masses way back on July 29, in a post which has since racked over 1.3 million page views and made Sisters of the Cloth question their faith.

The site, which has moved away from its bread-and-butter roots of discharging unsentimental rage at other media, has recently been focusing its branded, caustic spotlight on more accessible issues, like Lindsay Lohan's sexual orientation.

Yet Gawker's exhaustive analysis of the Montauk Monster is special. The initial shock value is justifiable enough, but the updates, more frequent than Law & Order reruns, hardly seemed merited. Granted, it's a horrific-looking thing, but that's usually what happens when you get rolled around in the ocean for God knows how long. You ever see what that salty mother can do to a glass bottle? Not to mention what it did to Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

Gawker's standard of updating its posts with every conceivable minutiae—to the point where you've got to believe they're just sitting on their refresh button for hours, without permission to use the bathroom or get a Fresca—isn't something new. The staffers regularly reach their posts on the pillorying of one or two personalities du jour, ad nauseam, until the reader has no choice but to share in their blind hate as a kind of Pavlovian reflex. But it's taken on new, scarier proportions with the Monster.

Gawker's posts on the thing have heralded "Monty" as a harbinger of the apocalypse/sociological manifestation of the modern citizen's unfeeling heart/government conspiracy. Posts have run the psuedo-journalism gamut, indulging wild speculations about the creature's origin, claims of a new breed of viral marketing, and physiological debates about what kind of animal the poor thing once was. (At one point, consensus had narrowed it down to either a dog, a turtle sans shell, or the third Spears sister. A vole was meekly suggested, and then summarily shot down).

Of course, you could argue that all this is a credit to Gawker staffers' dedication, that the site's interest in the Monster has more credibility than most network news outlets put in to their Middle East coverage. But of course, network news correspondents don't get paid every time someone looks at them; at least, not directly.

Gawker writers are compensated, in part, by page traffic. That is, the more hits their posts get, the more cash that poster takes home, a fact recently detailed in Radar Magazine. To date, Gawker has at least 23 posts dedicated to the subject, authored for the most part by either Richard Lawson or Ryan Tate, plus a handful of completely unrelated posts that make tenuous references to the Monster, and, naturally, link to aforementioned dedicated posts.

If you ask Lawson about it, the Monster was just a good-natured attempt at old-fashioned American frivolity. "I just assumed it would get a couple thousand views, a few comments, and that would be that," he tells Gelf. "But it took off, probably because it's the summer and people are looking for something silly to distract them. The follow-up posts were done in that vein, mock-serious Monster reporting that really were just Ryan and I (and Hamilton [Nolan], too) having fun along with everyone else."

Gawker, obviously, likes to have a lot of fun. If fun means money, which, yeah, it does. Lawson preferred to log a "no comment" on the money issue, except to say, "If I'd made as much off the post(s) as some are speculating, I'd be writing to you from a villa in Tuscany, rather than my couch in Brooklyn."

Fair enough. Speculation can run high and lead to crashing house markets, so it's usually best to stow it away. But consider a recent update by Tate on August 8 at 1:23 a.m., announcing exclusive evidence suggesting that the whole thing was in fact a marketing ploy, as if to say "we told you so—kinda." To spare you from traipsing through the collection of Gawker hysterics and thus helping pay for their diamond-encrusted cereal bowls, an excerpt:

It's been fun while it's lasted, but the monstrous creature that washed up in Montauk, Long Island may have been nothing more than a prop from an independent movie about carnies, and a viral marketing scheme just as everyone initially suspected. There are enough untied loose ends in the hoax storyline to leave open the possibility that the hoax is itself a hoax, meaning the story has now entered a confusing phase where one must carefully sift the professed deceptions from the real deceptions and hard facts from intentional distortions. But one can try.

You can bet they will try. Tonight. Tomorrow morning at 3:41. Possibly after breakfast. Most likely around noon. And again at 10 past.

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