A More Perfect Cacophony: Building Daily Kos

Kos’ lead site designer on the search for the ultimate digital community.

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Markos Moulitsas—the ‘Kos’ behind Daily Kos, the online community where I am a contributing editor and site developer—has a rule of thumb that has generally been borne out by statistics, at least in rough orders of magnitude. Of every ten people who read Daily Kos on a regular basis, about one will sign up as a registered user; of every ten registered users, one will turn into an active commenter; of every ten active commenters, one will choose to write longer and more detailed stories and essays, in the form of “diaries;” of every ten such diarists, one will become one of the top diarists, posting regularly and becoming widely recognized in the community.

These proportions seem to have stayed relatively stable over the last few years, even as the size of the community has increased. Currently, Daily Kos has over 100,000 registered users, of which perhaps a tenth or so can be considered “active participants” during any given week. Around a thousand of those each week will write a story themselves. As for total readership, the number can only be guessed at—despite popular Internet assertions to the contrary, measuring discrete visitors to a website is an extremely inexact science—but we roughly estimate the number as hovering around one million.

The trick from both a social and technology standpoint, then, is to meet the needs of each of those disparate groups of constituents. Both the technology and social dynamics of Daily Kos are dictated in large part by the sheer size of the community: the central philosophical effort is to maintain the broadest possible coalition of progressive and liberal voices, so as to create a community with real-world import and clout, while the central technological effort is to devise ways to make sure all those disparate voices can be heard.

Any community as large and relatively diverse as Daily Kos can be chaotic, to say the least. The social dynamics on the site range anywhere from quiet and personable to apocalyptic, depending on personalities and circumstances; a hard news story or call to activism within the diaries can exist alongside angry polemic, heartbreaking personal anecdote, or on occasion, truly spectacular examples of rhetorical self-immolation.

Moderate This!

Kos’ tech tricks for traffic, trolls, and threads that won’t end

By Mike “Hunter” Lazzaro

Comments on Daily Kos have presented a unique problem, as they do in nearly all online communities. Too few comments and the conversation is stagnant or insular; too many, badly presented, and any conversation becomes convoluted, tangential, and more (ironically, perhaps) socially isolating: a too-large community cannot coalesce, and individual voices cannot be heard.

Due to the steady growth of the community, the threat of running aground on the “too many” problem has been with Daily Kos almost constantly. Threaded comments (the ability to respond to other comments directly) are nearly mandatory for prolonged conversation, and were introduced early on. Recently, we introduced AJAX-based commenting to let users more quickly filter through increasingly large conversations.

The central principle behind the switch to AJAX (an acronym meaning “Asynchronous Javascript and XML,” a willfully opaque phrase if there ever was one) based commenting was the sheer volume of comments. Two years ago, 200 comments would be considered exceptional: today, threads containing more than 300 comments are commonplace, more than 500 are less frequent but regular, and having even more than 1000 comments attached to a single story is becoming increasingly common.

The AJAX based commenting system provides a single simple but necessary salve against that kind of sheer noise, in a conversation—a visual immediacy that allows readers to filter information more quickly. Popular threads can be seen at a glance via “title only” views, and specific portions of the conversation may then be expanded; conversely, entire threads of responses can be collapsed and ignored. Just as recommended diaries provide a shorthand filter of popular topics within the larger site, this technology provides some modicum of assistance for the—inherently social—decision on what parts of a large conversation a reader chooses to follow.

Behind the scenes, the most favored approach in managing the community is whenever possible not to. Community members themselves do a great deal of the moderating, primarily via the ratings system that allows them to express support for a particularly good comment or choose to hide a bad one. Previous versions of the software provided for more nuanced options than the current “recommend” or “troll” ratings but such nuance proved to be of limited value and were dropped in favor of an intentionally simplistic, but satisfying system.

The only value of the ratings system is to provide some crude measure of accountability: to hide malicious or inflammatory comments, and to define which users are probably most in tune with the general zeitgeist of the site, and can therefore be trusted to decide what “malicious or inflammatory” means, within the community. Only “trusted” users—those who have spent a certain amount of time on the site, comment regularly, and have comments regularly uprated by others—have the power to hide, or “troll-rate,” comments. They are encouraged to use this power to keep the comment threads clean of particularly disruptive posts (spamming, factually incorrect arguments, extremely personal attacks, and the like) that tend to short-circuit more effective and productive conversations. Posters whose comments are very frequently hidden—typically, a dozen or more hidden comments in a very short period of time—are automatically banned from further posting.

Like all systems of moderation, it is imperfect. It is often impossible to judge the true motivations of a poster; satire can be misjudged, motivations can be misread, and unpopular opinions can, in heated arguments, be taken as evidence of maliciousness where there is none. For this reason, users are strongly discouraged from rating the comments of anyone they are in direct argument with.

The dangers of squelching legitimate disagreement are serious: as the community has evolved, the automated algorithms that decide both “trusted” status and bannings have been adjusted frequently to be more forgiving. It is now very difficult to run afoul of it simply because of one or two arguments, barring a truly spectacular level of hostility.

The core premise of the site is one that, while directly responsible for the site’s success, frequently makes community management a challenge. Daily Kos is in general a progressive Democratic blog, and there is a hard and definite emphasis on achieving a broad-based voting coalition, in numbers large enough to push the national debate productively to the left of where it is today.

This emphasis on inclusion and shared goals between various progressive and liberal groups allows community members from many backgrounds and devoted to many individual issues to feel welcome, and is quite directly responsible for the size and continued robustness of the community. It also results in the predictable clashes between groups. The broader the coalition, the more chance for daily conflict on one issue or another: individual members sizing up “how liberal” other community members are on particular issues, how liberal they should be, and asserting what opinions and priorities they should therefore adopt is a common and acrimonious preoccupation.

Community size poses more pressing issues than simple civility, though. The other central design objective of Daily Kos is to be a true community-based effort, as opposed to simple blog or even group blog—a site for the creation and encouragement of “open source,” community-based reporting, advocacy, and activism. Markos and the contributing editors may produce the most regular and visible content, but much of the material on the site comes from individual contributors.

As the community using Daily Kos has grown, the technology has of necessity grown with it. “Diaries”– self-published stories for others to read and comment on–was added several years ago as mechanism for users to express agendas or organize around their own topics, allowing the community to expand past whatever a handful of site editors felt was worth writing about during any given period of time. The notion took off, and as the community grew, the sheer number of diaries became daunting to any but a truly obsessed reader, requiring the addition of a section devoted to “Recommended” diaries, a place where the stream of one hundred or more diaries each day would be filtered, entirely by community vote, into a list of the “best” diaries currently on the site.

With contributions being added at a prodigious rate—now between 200 and 300 stories a day—even more filtering is necessary to find the true gems, including a dedicated effort by community members themselves to “rescue” and categorize exceptional but otherwise overlooked diaries: this nightly list of “rescued diaries” has become an extremely popular site feature.

Our next redesign will focus on providing more social intimacy and immediacy in a now-gigantic flood of user-provided stories, essays, and conversations. For community members, Daily Kos is part town hall, part living room, part street corner and part corner bar: trying to serve all those needs, and for readers with a wide variety of agendas and expectations, will continue to prove challenging.


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