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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Lord of the Flies: the Techno-Libertarian Experiment on DK4

Welcome to the Wild West, a personal Lord in the Flies Experiment in Flame Baiting and Anarchy

(PSST. Is this snark?)

This diary is a combination of several things, partly a response to Kos’ recent update on both the software developments on Daily Kos, and his comment on moderation. But it’s also a wider reflection on what’s happened to the principles of online activism, fundraising, citizen journalism and advocacy.

First off, this isn’t a gripe about the software redesign of DK4, or all the hard work put in by Kossacks and the IT team.  On the purely visual level, it’s a stunning overhaul and most of us would feel a real downgrade to to back to DK3. This is about something deeper than active tags or group functionality. It’s about the principles of civility and online citizenship.

Neither is it an attack on the site’s founder. I have no personal gripes against Kos. Hell, I spend a lot of time on his blog for free (hope he gets some ad revenues). DailyKos is certainly the best looking, most active and advanced blogging platform I’ve come across. No other site on Left Blogistan compares with it, and UK equivalents look lumbering and antediluvian in comparison.

Though I’ve heard Kos is some kind of left libertarian, this is mainly directed to a wider set of  ‘Technolibertarians’ who somehow believe that online networking will solve many of the political problems of our future.

So, no mon hypocrite lecteur,  my opening line isn’t entirely snark. This has felt like the Wild West since the launch of DK4,  like being a character in Lord of the Flies. What happened? Are there any lessons to be drawn from it? Will I get gift subscriptions? And is there any end to pie?

Techno Utopias

I first wrote about the amazing breakthroughs in internet politics during the Obama campaign three years ago for Prospect Magazine, Flaming for Obama (non paywall copy here). Though I criticised him heavily for his authoritarian hand on MYDD, Jerome Armstrong wrote a favourable review of the piece which took to heart the principles he and Kos expressed in their seminal book Crashing the Gates – that peer to peer networking, new grassroots ways of funding, organisation and advocacy would break through the special interest groups and beltway lobbying that stood between ordinary citizens and their representatives.

I now realise I was too optimistic, too naive, too futuristic too… well, wrong. I was guilty of technologism: the belief that technology determines society, rather than vice versa.

Arnold Hauser, in his Story of Art, explains the fallacy. The Gothic Arch, so redolent of the Middle Ages, was actually developed in the 5th century AD. It took another six hundred years until there was the social organisation, and the ideological underpinnings, to make the aspring buttressed arch the centrepiece of European architecture.

Likewise, even in my own lifetime, computers were, according the the model of HAL (IBM transposed) in 2001; A Space Odyssey supposed to be vast centralised computers which would evolve artificial intelligence, and device motives of their own. No one predicted computers would become personal, and mainly used for downloading porn, chatting on Facebook, or browsing LOLZ cats.  

So society determines technology, not vice versa

For all the mentions of Facebook, Youtube or Twitter in Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Bahrain these decentralised means of communication still needed educated, literate people to deploy them, people who had an interest in civil society, economic mobility, education, travel, tolerance – social media need a social base. Let’s not forget that only 60 people or so were tweeting in Iran. They couldn’t stop the repression of the Basik. For a police state, Facebook, with its interlocking friendships, contacts and faces is a secret policeman’s dream come true.

Authority and Moderation

However, the belief that peer to peer networking can replace authority (or indeed moderation) has permeated the redesign of this site. It’s a fascinating experiment. I do believe that assigning the task of moderation to one person was impractical, and the net effect of the last year has been an inverted example of the famous Medieval story of kingship: Belling the Cat. In the case of Dkos, it was more akin to ‘gaming the cat’. With one person trying to patrol thousands of comments a day, the real power lay with the courtiers and chamberlains who can command the King’s ear. So  the absolute hierarchy – MB versus everyone else – built up the tensions we now see explode today.

But the inverse, No Moderation, hasn’t worked either. As I said in Kos’ diary above.

The reality is that every group is left to work out its own moderation. But that either excludes others through their dissent being unwelcome, or rules selectively applied across different jurisdictions.

If this is an experiment in ‘left libertarianism’ can I just say?

It ain’t working. It’s just leading to more division and acrimony. Moderation, law and order, the state, might be an ‘authoritarian’ nightmare, but ever since Hobbes it’s been recognised that a monopoly of violence ends up being more peaceful than endless Balkan cantonments of violence. And it’s not as if we haven’t had the left libertarian experiment before. Hello guys. Welcome to the 60s and 70s. Special interest groups fracturing into a myriad of competing claims and separatist imperatives.

This comment was inspired by Psychodrew’s diary on Self Moderating Groups in LGBTQ diaries, which spawned several emulators (see here on Right to Keep and Bear Arms group). Though I approved of those moves, and still do, I see the problem: dissent is preemptively disabled. Anyone who is deemed a troll and doesn’t fit group rules can be ignored. Taken to its logical extreme, this is a recipe for Balkanisation.

Not for crashing the gates but erecting new ones.

Global Village versus Global City

Marshall McLuhan, that avatar of the rise of the mass media, coined the term Global Village in contradistinction to a more worthy aim – The Global City.  He saw the global village as a place of solipsism, and self confirmation, of Soap Operas and gossip, propaganda and narcissism. He worried that electrification of the airwaves and the spread of TV, radio and satellite would not result in more communication with strangers, but more people staying at home, enmired in electronic reflections of their own narcissism.

There are many indications, across the blogosphere and social networking, that rather than breaking the boundaries of mass media, MeTV, social networking and personalised information will just amplify the village effect.

Certainly, my experience of Dkos in the last two years has demonstrated certain worrying trends: the explosion of hyperbole, the echo chamber effect where, due to confirmation bias and the desire to say every more outrageous things, the rhetoric between bloggers gets more shrill and extreme. The metawars are only a manifestation of the dysfunction of this. The more worrying
trend (particularly true of Right Wing Blogs and mainstream media comments sections) is of an ever escalating card game of hyperbole, one comment trying outbid the previous in terms of rhetoric.

So the wisdom of crowds gets replaced by the idiocy of cliques.

A good model for this is city living. Indeed, it was in the city, the Greek Polis, that we first created our modern ideas of political organisation, and concepts such as tyranny, democracy, citizenship, civility and urbanity. (I wrote about this extensively in my book A Shout in the Street)

The idea of a city is that we don’t know everybody, that we have to find rules of interacting with strangers, people who may not share our filiations of blood or background, tribe or family, but are affiliated to us through rules, laws, and the remotely shared interest or affiliation of sharing the same space.

DKos is like a city. I’ve always said that. Unlike my home blog Motley Moose, which is like a friendly club or meeting house, the Great Orange Satan is like a big city, with comments flashing by, great trucks of diaries rumbling through the night past different neighbourhoods of interest, some odd settlements of craziness. You don’t know everybody. You never can. You have to abide by the laws of the road, or get run over.

Now, as so many people have pointed out, America cities are always in danger of being hollowed out. They can easily fall, mainly through racial or economic segregation, into no go areas or gated communities, ghettoes for the poor or the rich.

I fear the whole group phenomenon, combined with the lack of zero tolerance from the policing authorities, could lead this blog into a similar situation.

Instead a citizens dealing with strangers, we can become communities, immured in our own rules – i.e. suburbanites or denizens.

Instead of a thriving city of hundreds of thousands, thriving on difference, diversity and miscegenation, this blog could devolve into a fractured series of warring villages.

Identity and Personality Politics

One of the symptoms of this fracture is this emphasis on the negative side of Identity Politics – i.e. the claims, via gender, sexuality, race or creed that the personal is political, and the particular interest of the individual is in find more examples of that identical particularity. Princss8 gets to the heart of it in an excellent diary today on this On Privilege, Paternalism, and using the lack of privilege as a shield or weapon:

So while coalition building is a must, please take a step back and ask yourself, are you wielding your underprivileged position as a sword?

As I said in a comment there

I suppose another word for this is the politics of victimhood. It’s a kind of passive aggression: i.e. you have no right to speak (about your issues) because you haven’t suffered as much as me (and my issues).  It basically fractions the ultimate premise of coalitions, or as we say in Europe ‘solidarity’, between the powerless to gain power, because it says that oppression divides us rather than unites us.

Now the fractures on DKos, and on Left Blogistan as a whole, are partly about Identity Politics. This was particularly true during the 2008 Primaries where, as I wrote in my Prospect piece

With two exceptional candidates-one female, one black-with very similar policy platforms, the arguments quickly became personal. Many contributors assumed that anyone who disagreed with them was either racist or sexist, depending on which candidate they backed. On progressive websites, these accusations, even when only implied, were explosive.

I may be wrong, but if anything, I believe things have got worse since the Primaries. Just as Obama’s Presidency hasn’t solved the issue of racism, the identity politics of the last century seems to be declining into something even worse – Personality Politics.

Much of the recent flamewars can be explained by this. Of course some of it is natural and inevitable. But if the wild west of DK4 has been an experiment in a Pre Hobbesian state of anarchy, or group dynamics, or collective organisation, it still hasn’t worked yet. And though I readily use my own background when needed, I know the personal isn’t political. Yes, the personal may open up a space to talk about the wider ramifications, a politics which devolves back down to the personal and particular will end up having a constituency of one person – yourself.

“Politics begins not when you organise to defend an individual or particular or local interest, but  when you organise to further the ‘general’ interest within which your particular interest may be represented.””  Gillian Rose: Mourning Becomes the Law. page 4

Or to quote a commenter here:

Forget who you think is right or wrong and think about what is right and what is wrong.

Forgive this long and somewhat rambling assemblage of reflections. It’s probably too much for anyone to read on a blog. (It hurts my eyes to just edit it). But hopefully I’ve set down some markers or odd provocative thoughts for that great social experiment which was Unmoderated DK4.

Crossposted from DailyKos


  1. Shaun Appleby

    Is the enabler of social change.  I see the two as co-mingled.  Just for example, Obama’s candidacy would have been unlikely without his early, substantial and pioneering Internet presence for organisation and fund-raising.

    I think that what annoyed the “crashing the gate” crowd was that they imagined themselves as the “gate-keepers.”  Obama’s web strategy tunnelled right past them with a rather stunning investment in on-line campaign tools which appeared suddenly and reduced the activism and fund-raising component of Left Blogistan to mere commentary.  That has set the pattern, it seems, ever since.  Obama’s web strategy still seems to be among the most advanced but in the absence of a “grassroots” themed campaign with populist appeal remains elusive to more traditionally positioned candidates.

  2. Group dynamics can explain much of what is happening on Dkos and the larger online social community. Once groups begin to form the usual social interactions come into play. Moderators have a bit of power, which either attracts certain types or corrupts those who find themselves in a position of power.  

  3. The childhood of online communication was Fun and Free and there were castles around every corner. There were hundreds then thousands then tens and hundreds of thousands of us! The horizon stretched forever and was thick with jellybean trees.

    No, acne and elbows and experience hampering our every move we circle towards nihilism and age-inappropriate displays of wildly-ranging emotions. By and large, we really cannot picture living past twenty five or any good reason to do so. But adulthood surprisingly brings it’s own shades of optimism. Perhaps not as sparkly bright as a licorice slide to the moon, but the kinds that reward dogged determination and patience with the matured joy of putting actual boots on actual lunar regolith.

    Part of growing past adolescence is learning, as you say, some amount of City rules. Even in a small town, once beyond the safety of your yard you eventually learn that certain social skills are essential. There are quorums in the country which rival in effectiveness the marblest hall, but the structures of formalized respect necessary to hold serious discourse on seminal issues are time-tested and ubiquitous. The Blogosphere and other nascent online “Cities” will, I suspect, come to reflect those structures and ramify them back with their own unique characteristics.

    Those familiar with this pimply Niner amongst the throng of jostling hormone factories will recognize my forecast that, out of this period, there will emerge some semblance of nested forums at the ‘center’ of which will be forums within which all will be able to listen but only few who have by weight of reputation or representation will be able to speak. You will also not be surprised to hear that I think this is exactly as it should be.

    Like a nephew or niece’s adolescence, the entire saga can be summed up as well by a few short visits over a handful of years as by partaking in it every day. The details of the process are fraught with very fierce advocacy for things which simply are not going to happen, and predicting the outcome at the beginning is no great feat.

  4. jsfox

    hoping that I have followed the point. There ‘s is alway the very real possibility that I have missed it altogether:)

    I came to the political blogs and blogging for that matter, very late into the game. Hell until the primaries I had never heard of Dkos, TPM or numerous other sites. I still got my political news via Newspapers, TV and my online reading consisted of NYT, Salon and a few other more mainline choices.

    The first thing that struck me was the lack civility. People were more than comfortable saying to others things they would probably never say to that persons face. Rational conversations with someone with an opposing point of view were hard to come by.

    Then the election happened and I saw something happening on a macro scale that I only had witnessed on a micro level back in the late 60s and early 70s when I was involved with anti-war movement. Progressives/liberals/the hard left getting into a circle and firing. Once it was clear the Vietnam war was over it was if they had lost their unifying purpose and now each individual’s goals were the most important and why didn’t everyone get that fact.  I see the same behavior now, but on a much grander scale and played out for all to see.


    “Politics begins not when you organize to defend an individual or particular or local interest, but  when you organize to further the ‘general’ interest within which your particular interest may be represented.”

    as concept just doesn’t seem to exist with far too many. And to suggest that it maybe the way to look at say Obama and how he is leading gets you labeled as apostate to progressivism by more than a few.

    The number of issues where you can see this played out are legion. Be it healthcare, DADT, DOMA, the budget or immigration reform and these are just the big ones. You then have the subsets of these issues or issues that I personally didn’t even know were an issue 🙂

    And now we come back to election season again and it cranking up to an even higher decibel level. As sides get chosen and battle lines are drawn up. And the western front that is DK4 only proves once again that trench warfare is ugly.  

  5. spacemanspiff

    That’s it. People who have invested years and years of their lives into Daily Kos are finding out how irrelevant it has become as far as organizing is concerned. Kos is now trying to turn it more into a Huffington Post type online magazine. Dude is smart and know’s what is up. Look at the Community Spotlight. Look at the 12 slots on the wreck list. Being anonymous and going by handles is passe and corny if you want to be taken seriously in politics.

    The reason some peeps go after Denise is because this new shift in the DKos equation makes her style, research ability and (most importantly) original material second to none. They feel threatened by the new vision in which their clique dependent style no longer works. Peeps who have actively been there for a long time are in the bubble where they don’t see that it’s not 2004 DKos anymore. What good does summarizing a breaking story and adding a few lines of opinion do? It’s like when they speak of the 300,000 Kossacks. Uh no. We’ve got Moose numbers in the thousands but we know better than that. Spam, trolls, peeps who leave or those who make accounts and never come back. People who talk about balkanization and lack of community are the ones who miss the point. The GBCW diaries are hard to read because I am sympathetic to those who have given up so much of themselves and now see how the place they are married to is not who they fell in love with.

    The Moose is a community of like minded peeps. As in none of us has some crazy expectations on what our online personas can accomplish in the big scheme of things. We learn from each other and debate without hate. We make our opinions stronger or alter them slightly (or radically). But we don’t think we are activists or keyboard revolutionaries because our words will accomplish great things. Online activists organize on FB and Twitter as they are a lot more effective as Wisonsin proved. DKos was close to irrlevant and Kossacks proud of that place for what they did speaks to how out of touch they are. They were informed and great diaries were written. But aside from raising some cash here and there nothing on the great “activist” site accomplished anything.

    DKos is great as a place to write essays and share them with a community. It’s size helps diaries be pretty up there in the search as far as teh google is concerned. But to think it’s some kind of “tool” means you are not keeping up with the times. It’s not a coincidence that most there hate FB or speak of it in derogatory terms. Mainly because they have no idea how it works or just don’t want to admit that DKos is old school. Community. Building relationships. It isn’t the place for that anymore. Great writers. Interesting topcis. Original material. That’s the direction the site is going. It gives a lot of great writers and researchers an awesome platform to get their work out there.  

  6. spacemanspiff

    It’s the same people doing the flaming. You ban about 10 peeps and it’s over. Those that troll Black Kos are now down to 2 and we know they are getting the ban hammer soon. The person who used these poor misguided saps because of the threat Denise poses to her imaginary top dog position was called out by Kos himself in his diary.

    The trolling of the LBGT diaries was just 2 or 3 peeps. They weren’t even trolls in the normal sense of the word. Mostly Kossacks with some backwards opinions and thoughts but who are respected community members for the most part.

    Just ban the troublemakers and move the fuck on.

    p.s. Unrelated. Jerome Armstrong is a fucking tool.

  7. spacemanspiff


    (yes, I am slow like that)

    Truly and honor since I think this diary is EPIC. I’m reading it for the 3rd time now (following links and stuff this time).

    Man oh man.

    Thank you Brit!  

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