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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.
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.