Saturday, July 09, 2005

Meta-Blogging 17: Purges

Maybe it's the summer, maybe it's that pervasive feeling, a strange mixture of impending doom and slow unravelling, that's haunting the news these days, maybe it's a sign of the blogosphere's having finally plateaued, but I'm noticing a lot of purges and bannings. Even such a jolly bipartisan, non-scoop blog as Obsidian Wings has been slowing sinking into a flamewar quagmire this summer, and ever since the London terrorist attacks, posters have remained stuck on the same thread, repeating the same arguments. But that's my personal sorrow at seeing what I think is the decline of a fine site expressing itself; perhaps ObWi isn't really relevant to the trend I'm trying to trace right now.

Mike Krempasky over at RedState posted on July 8th this warning to "Lefties" that
we here at RedState are going to spend some time purging y'all.
Some commentors suggested that the diary function of Scoop was allowing users to post left-wing material that was diluting the message and mission of the site. (Since the mainpage features a more or less random RSS scrawl of the diaries, some of this material would inevitably show up where it could be confused with the site's more, um, accepted community.)

The same day, Markos, the founder of the enormously influential DailyKos and designer of the Scoop software, announced his own "purge":

I made a mass banning of people perpetuating a series of bizarre, off-the-wall, unsupported and frankly embarassing conspiracy theories.

I have a high tolerance level for material I deem appropriate for this site, but one thing I REFUSE to allow is bullshit conspiracy theories. You know the ones -- Bush and Blair conspired to bomb London in order to take the heat off their respective political problems. I can't imagine what fucking world these people live in, but it sure ain't the Reality Based Community.

So I banned these people, and those that have been recommending diaries like it.
Since the DailyKos is a truly huge community, one that has trumpeted its democratic organization, this purge is a Big Deal. Some of the commentors expressed relief ("those lunatics were damaging our reputation"), others shrugged ("well, it's your site"), and many expressed a feeling of betrayal ("you're changing the rules on us," "I can be banned for recommending a post?!" or "sometimes conspiracies are real").

Discussion boards have always had ways of dealing with trolls and trouble-makers. Bannings are usually individualized processes, though, and despite Kos's assurances that anyone who's been "purged" can make an email plea, Friday's shots across the bow do indicate a change of direction for political blogging.

So what's going on? In general, I'm thinking of these purges as a data point in the rapid professionalization of the blogosphere. More below the fold.

1. More and more people are actually making a living from their blogs--not many, mind you, but more than was ever plausible to me when those PayPal buttons first started mushrooming up. And many of the new wave of professionalized bloggers spun out of the big group blogs. Steve Gilliard is the example that first leaps to mind (he's having a fundraiser this week, BTW).

So the hardcore bloggers are starting to think of themselves as serious people, rather than as serious online geeks, and some of them are starting to police their domains. Some, on the other hand, have given up disciplining their domains entirely: Atrios lets his comment threads go nuts, Billmon let his fans build separate sites for comments, and most of the elite right-wing bloggers (with the exception of the Little Green Cesspool) do not allow commenting at all.

Most of the bigger and some of the better bloggers are now being cited by journalists--and not as circus freaks any longer. Now a blogger who gets mainstream credit for a story will often have his or her url cited. Newspaper readers interested in finding out what this newfangled blogging thing is have been pouring into the blogs; readership is increasing exponentially. With this attention, however, the bigger bloggers are seeing the weirder comments from their boards being held against them; newspaper journalists tend to name the mainpage poster and then pick any anonymous quote from the thread that they care to use for their angle. With great power, etc.

2. Back to the money issue. Whenever an argument about banning someone comes up, somebody inevitably makes the bandwidth defense, which can also be phrased as the hosting defense: since it is my site, in that I set up this space and pay the bills, I have the right to have the kind of site I desire. Eugene Volokh put this rather nicely recently in a post clarifying his (admittedly bizarre) comment box warning and disclaimer: "to me, a comment thread on our site is like a party to which we're inviting you."

This argument gets a little trickier when the readers are putting up cash for the bills or when readers wait a little longer on every click-through because of all those ads bringing in revenue. It gets even trickier when the personal-site element of the blogosphere disappears under the institution: Kossacks were a bit shocked to be reminded that DailyKos is Markos's party.

But where the private party argument gets even more twisted into knots is when the blog is a registered 527 organization, as RedState is, or when the site is openly advocating and raising money for political candidates, as pretty much every site was in the 2004 race. The jolly party metaphor gets rather less apposite when the cold hard cash of political campaigning is involved. Money is supposed to confer respectability--as all the commentors at RedState urging participation fees seem to believe--and bloggers able to hand bags of swag to political campaigns would like their issues taken seriously. So they're disciplining the message--and tightening the tents.

3. Back to the increasing readership question. Success really can ruin a good thing. With more and more linkage between blogs, with more people online than ever before, with more newspapers pointing to blogs with their handy blogrolls, anybody, with any crackpot ideas or irrelevant adolescent angst, can set up a diary at Kos, Redstate, TPMCafe, or any Scoop-powered site. And they're doing so.

At the same time, the number of blogs is also exploding Free, idiot-proof blogging software and even hosting is widely available (as per this here site). The blogosphere no longer needs to be nourished, to put it mildly. Established blogs are adjusting their priorities and identities within this new landscape; less charitably, one might describe this adjustment as "branding."

The easier way to control borders and brands, easier than wholescale ideological purging, that is, is to make commenting slightly more difficult, to force readers to go through a couple of steps before posting. More and more sites require registration, even sites that wouldn't fit the normal profile of a registration-only site. LiveJournal and Blogger blogs will make your comment "anonymous" unless you have an account; bloggers using this software can also choose to keep these sites closed, open only to trusted users, and so forth. It seems that we'll see fewer really open--and actually frequented--sites in the future.

A registration-only site as popular as Kos, though, if it's to keep up with the above trends and remain serious, well, it's going to end up fighting some nasty internal wars. RedState? I think they're overreacting. Or over-enthusiastic for purges. Whichever.


Post a Comment

<< Home