In attempting to build a vibrant community-of-interest, every political blog faces a policy choice of sorts: what kind of commentary will we allow. Some of the basics are easy to sketch out and universally applicable. Disagreement is good, but flame wars are bad. Don’t engage in ad hominem attacks. The site owner/moderators reserve the right to take away posting privileges if you are obviously just there to antagonize the community. The low transaction costs of the internet make it very easy for a hostile liberal or conservative to jump onto the comment boards of their ideological opponents and start acting obnoxious. Whether this ideological diversity is supported when polite is an open question. There aren’t a lot of Republicans on DailyKos or Democrats on RedState, but that could either be because they get banned or because they eventually get bored and give up.
A trickier policy choice can perhaps be summarized as “how do we deal with our own crazies.” On either end of the political spectrum, there exist a tiny minority of tinfoil hat-wearers. The most radical offline leftists set fire to auto dealerships and ski resorts. The most radical offline conservatives start militias and shoot up churches. Online, how are we to distinguish them, and what are we to do about them?
Conveniently, online crazies tend to grab hold of a popular conspiracy theory and not let go. On the left, these are the “9/11 Truthers” and, post-2004, the “Ohio Fixed Election” folks. On the right, we have the “Obama birth certificate” fanatics.
I raise this because I’ve started to think recently that Markos Moulitsas made a particularly important policy decision in the early days of DailyKos. Wanna see how fast you can banned from DailyKos? Post a 9/11 conspiracy diary. Same with the 2004 election conspiracy theory. Kos took a hard line on this talk and said that it would have no place on his site. You want to help build a progressive majority? Welcome to dKos. You want to talk about statistically variations between exit polls and final results, or the spookiness of Diebold? Banned.
The conservative blogosphere is currently experiencing a surge in traffic, as online conservatives have something more to complain about than all the liberals on tv (this supports a deeper theoretical argument about “political opportunity structures” and innovative campaign technologies, but I don’t want to give away the ENTIRE dissertation on this blog…). From what I can tell, they haven’t drawn the same policy stance (I haven’t conducted a large-scale content analysis yet, so feel free to correct me in the comments). Want to claim that Obama is a foreign-born Manchurian candidate? Welcome! Gateway Pundit, in particular, has soared up the conservative rankings in the past few months, all while exhibiting a type of borderline hysteria that cannot be too attractive to mainstream conservatives (you may not like Obama’s tax proposal, but that doesn’t make him Mao or Stalin).
My hunch is that this policy choice serves as sort of a path dependent critical juncture in the development of online political communities. When a new visitor drops by the site, what is the tenor of the conversation like? DailyKos has made a series of policy choices in support of their goal of being a “reality-based community.” Whether you like them or not, the tenor of the conversation bears little resemblance to the caricature presented by Bill O’Reilley, and a reasonable argument for why dKos has gotten so large is because Kos chose to lop off the most extreme-left commenters, making the tenor of the conversation better reflect the preferences and opinions of the much larger population of less-extreme, but less outspoken, progressives. Which conservative community blogs will take a similar policy stance, and how will it play out in the development of online conservativism? Anybody have a good guess or two?