Programming Blockheads

For those of us who follow such things, Kotaku has been very interesting since Stephen Totilo became the Editor in Chief in January. There have been a series of changes which seem designed towards changing the focus of the site and downplaying specialty content.

One of the biggest criticisms people launch at Kotaku is its continued publication of stories that are only tangentially related to videogames. One of the biggest targets is Brian Ashcraft, whose articles are not-always-incorrectly stereotyped as being inappropriately obssed with Japanese schoolgirls (because most videogames come from Japan), but Kotaku also publishes things such as reviews of comics (because both games and comics are enjoyed by geeks) and crime reports (because the criminal in question stole an XBox game or something). Not all of the stories are as egregious as my favorite article of all time–Columbia School of Journalism Graduate Owen Good’s thoughts on credit card ownership–but the connections to the videogame world are tenuous at best, and both sides of the debate are fairly vehement. Kotaku built a community around a space where geeky interests can flourish, but those panty shots are not only alienating to people who simply want to get screenshots of upcoming videogames, but they don’t really make any strides towards shedding the stereotype of gamers as creepy basement dwellers.

So in January Kotaku Core was announced. Kotaku Core is, essentially, a subset of Kotaku stories that contains only content which is directly videogame-related. You can still get stories about comic books on the main Kotaku site, but if you’re just there for videogame news, Kotaku has made an RSS feed designed solely so you can ignore certain types of stories. This is an interesting compromise in that it acknowledges that certain content has nothing to do with the primary focus (the “core”) of the site, but doesn’t really solve the problem: It pushes it to the side.

Today, an even stranger decision was announced: Kotaku will now feature “programming blocks”. The post announcing this was extremely confusing: Totilo describes this change in the language of television–he uses, among others, the words and phrases “scheduled programming”, “listings”, “tune in”, and  “interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming”, which are all drawn from the world of television. Many people believed that these programming blocks meant that this specialty content would only be viewable during the designated times, a fairly bad idea for a website with a global audience. Totilo had to update to explain that these programming blocks would only affect which stories were published.

In other words: From 6-6:30 on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Kotaku will change into the site “Sportaku”, where Owen Good will be covering developments in the world of sports games. Tuesdays from 3-4PM will feature coverage of comics. During these blocks, the visual design of the site will look different and only stories on these specialty topics will be published. But there won’t be any restrictions to what articles are accessible–you’ll be able to read videogame stories during these blocks and comics stories will be accessible at all times. So in practice, unless you’re refreshing the site or your RSS reader constantly, you’re not going to really notice any changes other than certain stories being clumped together. Even more perplexing is Totilo’s admission that Kotaku will still “run stories that could go in our new blocks outside of the new blocks. If a story is breaking and you need to know on Monday, we’re not going to sit on it until Wednesday.” I assume that the editorial team will have internal criteria to help determine which stories are significant enough to break outside of the programming block–but the fact that they need to reserve this right kind of lays bare one of the problems with the concept.

There are a lot of questions that are not addressed in the article. I don’t know what will happen during each block. Will the writers write and publish as many stories as they can during the block, or are they simply going to save up a backlog and publish every week? Will each block consist of a set number of articles and features, or will they just write as many as they feel like? But prime among the questions is this: What, exactly, is the point of this change, especially considering the existence of Kotaku Core? Totilo himself doesn’t even really list any concrete reasons, simply concentrating on a vague description on what the change is and mumbling about how new, different, and exciting this all is.

There’s a key point in an almost throwaway line, where Totilo states that the change “will make Kotaku‘s flavors more obvious, more easy to find (or avoid!), and more fun to sample.” (Italics mine.) Totilo may repeat the party line that Kotaku places just as much of an emphasis on the culture surrounding videogames as it does the games themselves…but look at what he’s just told us. One of the things about the new format that Kotaku’s Editor-In-Chief is bragging about is that it’s easier to ignore some of the content that the site publishes. I can’t picture any of the writers being terribly happy with that statement.

I almost wonder if Totilo is attempting a tricky maneuver here. See, Kotaku has a fairly specific community attached to it, one which dearly loves its articles about wacky Japanese trends and videogame thieves and busty cosplay galleries. Even if Kotaku’s editorial team wanted to scrap all of that extra content, it wouldn’t be able to easily do so without alienating a large number of readers. Creating programming blocks is an extremely unorthodox solution, one which seems almost designed to fail. It’s a convoluted way of wrangling New Media into the conventions of Old Media. Few sites have attempted something like this before–while certainly sites will schedule content, and certain livestreams have specific times when they’re broadcast, sites don’t really follow a programming block model because it’s not one which plays to the internet’s strengths.

So I’m wondering if Kotaku Core and the programming blocks are a way to self-sabotage some of Kotaku’s traffic. If enough people are reading solely Kotaku Core, those statistics could demonstrate that the large portion of the audience doesn’t want to read non-game-related content. The programming blocks might even be used to fine-tune the kind of content: If no one is visiting the site during Kirk Hamilton’s music hour, for example, I wonder if that might be an excuse for Kotaku to drop that kind of coverage.

Don’t get me wrong: I think programming blocks are an extremely stupid decision. They’re not going to really change the way people interact with the site or with blogs in general. While there are certainly problems with the blog format as a general rule, I don’t really think anybody’s ever complained that they don’t know what time they should be tuned into their computers to read new content on a site. But if this is Totilo’s attempt to show that non-gaming content just isn’t popular, then this is a diplomatically clever way of addressing some criticisms of the site that have been made for a long time.

Of course, it’s also quite possible that Totilo’s simply making a terrible decision based on a lack of understanding of how people interact with websites. Given how often I seem to find myself writing about the site, I’m not entirely sure that’s not the case.

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