Archive | July, 2009

Building Online Communities: A Chat with Markos Moulitsas

As we work towards the upcoming launch of the Mozilla Creative Collective, a site dedicated to building our visual design community, I’ve begun reaching out to experts in various fields to learn from their experiences. Since the topic of community is always a hot one around Mozilla, I thought I’d share the conversations on this blog. For the first installment, I’m pleased to present a chat with Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos.

Moulitsas evokes strong feelings among people who follow U.S. politics: to those on the left, he’s a hero who galvanized the progressive movement and has helped get dozens of liberal candidates elected, and to those on the right he’s pretty much the worst guy around.

Whatever your political persuasion, however, there’s no denying that he knows more than a thing or two about building online communities. The Daily Kos attracts around a million visitors every day (much more during election season) and is an undeniable force in modern politics, and SB Nation – the network of sports blogs he co-founded – now includes more than 200 successful sites dedicated to practically every team in every sport.

Our recent conversation (held over IM) is below, with my questions in bold. Read on and enjoy…and many, many thanks to Markos for taking time out of his busy day to share his knowledge.

I read an interesting quote from you about open source: “Open source politics, open source activism, open source journalism — the aggregation of thousands on behalf of a common cause. Bloggers and their opinions might be mildly interesting, but the ability to pool our efforts on issues that capture the collective imagination is what really gets me excited.” That was back in early 2005… how has the open source movement changed things in the last 4 years?

We have a black president with the middle name of “Hussein.” That was kind of big.

Do you think that would have been possible without open source and the culture around it?

Nope. On Daily Kos, my copyright notice used to be “steal what you want” until someone pointed out that they could steal my trademarked name “Daily Kos” and get away with it. So I had to tighten my copyright notice a bit, but it still allows people to use whatever they want from the site for any reason. I don’t care about attribution or compensation, I just care about getting the word out. I think it’s an ethos that has allowed our little movement to grow exponentially at a time that traditional media, and their closed system, is atrophying.

You see that mostly in people’s desire for aggregation. The old media propensity for hoarding its content, and refusing to acknowledge or reference that of their competitors, made them vulnerable to people like me and Google News who are about giving people what THEY want.

It’s interesting how you see that same pattern repeating itself in so many areas – you could say the same thing about Microsoft and Mozilla, for example.

Of course. I wonder if anyone would choose a MS browser if it didn’t already come pre-installed on their PCs.

When you started the Daily Kos site, the whole notion of blogging and even building communities online was still pretty new. What were your expectations when you started the site?

None. The biggest liberal blog at the time I think was Atrios, and it was getting maybe 600 visits a day. There were some other “big” liberal sites like Media Whores Online, but they didn’t have traffic stats or comments. So, those of us writing at the time couldn’t possibly have expectations of anything. There just weren’t any examples of anyone striking it big with the medium.

What prompted you to start it, then?

Frustration that liberal voices were completely absent in the traditional media. As much as conservatives whine about “liberal media”, the post-9/11 media environment was one big infomercial for George Bush and his pet war in Iraq. For anti-war voices, they would purposefully find marginalized figures, like Janeane Garofalo. “Serious” people knew Bush was right and had to have unfettered power to do what he needed to do. And people like me scratched our heads and wondered where all the sanity had gone.

At what point did you start to sense that the site was moving from you just publishing blog posts to a genuine community of people? And was that something you had set out to do, or did it just happen organically?

Kind of instantly. I watched other political communities self-destruct. First was Delphi forums during the 2000 prez race, then a dude named Olivetti who quit. Then Taegan Goodard’s Political Wire which had comments at the time, then MyDD…and all of these sites were overrun by flame wars between partisans of both sides to the point their proprietors shut down the sites in frustration (well, not Delphi, they just became obsolete). When MyDD shut down its comments in late 2002, I think it was, everyone rushed over to Daily Kos.

Having learned from the failures of the others, I immediately announced that dKos was a progressive community, and that conservatives would be on a short leash. There was a lot of crying about “free speech” and whatnot, but I made clear that cons had plenty of places to go online – Free Republic, Lucianne, etc – and liberals didn’t, and that Daily Kos would be a safe haven for progressives. I aggressively cleaned out the conservative troublemakers, and what do you know, liberals liked their little safe haven

Having been through the process more than once now – both with the Daily Kos and the SB Nation sites – what would you say the keys to building a community online are?

A safe community environment, and patience. Like a city, if you grow too quickly, it fractures the community. The best growth is organic. Of course, the Huffington Post might prove otherwise, but I still believe very strongly in organic growth.

Can you explain by what you mean by ’safe’?

A place where like-minded folks can get together and discuss and argue about whatever their passions might be. For Daily Kos, that meant creating a place where liberals could gather without being harassed by people who wished them ill. For Sports Blogs, that means Red Sox fans talking and debating their favorite team without dealing with heckling from Yankees fans…and vice versa.

What about disagreements among people in your community? People who might be in the same general ballpark politically, but start name-calling or causing trouble over smaller matters. Or, in my case it might be a matter of someone saying something like “Your design sucks…you don’t know what you’re doing.”

That’s an entirely different problem. At Daily Kos, we’ve sort of ignored that stuff, though now we have a “director of community” — a longtime trusted editor — who is becoming more proactive in engaging in such disagreements before they spiral out of control. But yeah, people are ruder online than they’d be meeting in person, and it’s certainly a challenge for any community.

Do you have any general tips or advice you’d give to people looking to build communities online? What should or shouldn’t they be doing?

That’s a tough one, since I’m not sure how much of my success has been luck, and how much has been skill, but finding a niche that isn’t oversaturated is key. At SB Nation, we’ve been more successful in markets without well-established players. If someone has the juice, it’s tough to come in and build success. Even in 2002, when I started, the Bush-bashing blogosphere was full enough. My niche was elections, and I did that well enough that it kick started the site.

Second, look for a spark that will kick you off. For me it was the Iraq War. I was a rare vet in the political scene able to intelligently speak about military matters from personal experience, so I benefited from my informed commentary at the time and people gave me respect due to my military background.

Three, (and there aren’t in any thought-out order), be patient. Unless you are Arianna Huffington with a few tens of millions to throw at seo services marketing efforts (and an amazing ability to get booked on every show imaginable), things will take time. At SB Nation, we’ve found a 1-2 year ramp up period for our successful sites, and that’s with kick ass community-centric software driving those sites.

Four, have good technology. Lots of off-the-shelf tech will get you off the ground, but at some point, you may want to think about how to best serve your own unique community. Originally, I thought about trying to save on the development of the next version of Daily Kos by borrowing heavily from development work on the SB Nation platform, but then realized both types of communities had HUGELY different needs.

Five, despite what I’ve said about my importance vis-a-vis community, you have to have a strong commanding voice that makes people want to return and hear more. People originally came to Daily Kos because I offered combative electoral analysis with an edge, and eventually stayed because of the community.

And lastly (I think), the way your site looks is important. Brand. When I started, I’d go to a site, read something interesting, and then forget what it was so I couldn’t return. All the sites looked the same, blue, using stock templates, etc. With Daily Kos, I had memorable imagery — the flag guy, the vivid oranges, etc. Lots of people hate the site’s coloring, but damn if it isn’t memorable. Daily Kos looks like nothing else on the web, and that strong branding has been a huge help in not just building my intitial audience, but building the credibility and respect that has helped grow it.

That’s really great advice! Going back to the concept and ideas of open source, what happens next? In terms of cultural, political, social impact, that is.

It just happens. I know old media is desperate to try and find a way to halt their decline, and have all sorts of crazy ideas and strategies, but in the end, the world changes and if you don’t adapt, you perish. Since open source is in essence a reflection of the popular will (people are directly engaging, bypassing traditional gatekeepers), it will always remain relevant. It’s up to other institutions to adapt to changing norms to try and stay relevant. Apple has been very good at this, Microsoft not so much.

I’m in the midst of a grounds-up redevelopment of Daily Kos that will hopefully be even more empowering to my community. If it was just about me, the current site gives me all the pedestal I’d ever need. But, the community can always do more if it has the right tools, and so I’m embarking on this major (and dangerous) project to try and give them even more ability to shape the direction of the site.

Care to share any hints on what that’s going to be like?

People want to be empowered, and open source allows that. It’s why we’ve seen so many successes in that realm. I can either try to ignore that trend, stand in its way, or embrace it. Currently, community members are limited to just a single diary a day, everyone shows up on the front page, even if just a few minutes, and they’re unable to work together without using outside tools (like Google groups, etc).

DK4 (the new version, due out in Q4) will allow people to host their blogs on Daily Kos (like blogspot), create group blogs, and there’ll be tools for internal communications and collaboration. So, no limits on writing, but at the cost of front-page access — the recent diaries list would scroll faster than a stock ticker. So we’ll have tools to find the best material and feature it on the front page (and some of that stuff in even more prominent positioning than is currently the case). Some of those tools will be software, others will be human editors.

It’s a very community-centric upgrade, which makes me excited. I long ago learned that my success doesn’t stem from my own writing, but from my acknowledgment of the power and importance of community.

This has been really interesting stuff, and I appreciate it a lot. I know others will really enjoy reading this as well – thanks for all the other words of wisdom.

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