The "Kostroversy" Context
Just a thought from 5 April 2004 about , , .

Something interesting happened this weekend. But it's not interesting for all the reasons it seems interesting at first.

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is a political blogger. He maintains a site called the Daily Kos, where he writes thousands of words a day about Amercian politics, especially Bush and the war in Iraq. His politics are left of center, but not all that radical by San Francisco standards.

On Thursday, April 1, Markos posted a comment on his site: "I feel nothing over the death of merceneries. They aren't in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them."

The response was swift.

Right-leaning political bloggers emailed the comment to his advertisers and three pulled their ads. The Kerry blog de-linked the Dail Kos, and made sure the door hit him on the way out with a very public announcement. Markos made a clarification of his intentions, but stayed indignant.

Each additional action just added to the momentum of the story. Today, other bloggers are calling for codes of ethics, giving up candidate ads, de-listing Kerry, and generally staring deeply into their navels.

I applaud naval-gazing in all its many forms, of course. And I think the relationship between politicians, journalists, and webloggers is all interesting new territory that could stand more scrutiny. But none of that is really the point of the story.

This story is really about social software.

Since October, Markos' site has been powered by Scoop, which is an open source content management system that was born from a community site called Kuro5hin. It's a multi-user system, where many people can post (like Slashdot or MetaFilter). Scoop creates a site in a weblog-like format, but it has other features appropriate to a multi-user system. Like Diaries.

A Diary is a place where someone can post entries to their own little sub-section. As its name implies, a Diary is a private space. In Scoop-powered sites, the Diaries are not subject to the usual rules for story posting. There is no review process or voting, for example. The poster can just post whatever they please. And, usually, the posts are more personal, more intimate. It's called a "diary," after all.

Though Markos is the main administrator of the Daily Kos, he is not the only poster. In fact, anyone can create an account and post to their own diary (after waiting through a one week warm up period). Diary entries are not posted to the home page - instead they appear on the Diaries page. Why? Because Diaries are not news - they're a different kind of content.

This matters because Markos' original comment did not appear as a story on the main page of Daily Kos. It didn't even appear as an entry in Markos' Diary. It was posted in response to a Diary entry by another user altogether.

Daily Kos user "gregonthe28th" posted a Diary entry on Thursday April 1 about seeing the photos of charred corpses on the cover of the local paper. The Diary entry said: "Now I'm not squeamish about the realities of war. But I find this over the line. I assume the logic is that because they were 'civilians' or 'contractors' it's ok...it's not like they are soldiers. except these are soldiers. they may be a private army, but they are fighting the same war."

It was this to which Markos was responding. Markos grew up in El Salvador and knows a little something about living in a war zone. In his clarification post, he said, "I was 8 years old, and I remember stepping over a dead body, warm blood flowing from a fresh wound. Dodging bullets while at market."

Forgive me for playing armchair psychologist, but I don't think it's a huge leap to say that Markos has some residual anger. Who wouldn't? So when he read that those dead bodies were not soldiers but "American contractors," he saw the same war mercenaries from his youth and posted hastily, without even stopping to spellcheck.

His comment was harsh, sure. Casual conversation can often be outlandish. But that's just the point: This is casual conversation. This was a comment in a Diary thread. It's inappropriate to take the comment out of context and hold it to the same standards as a front page story. But that's just what happened.

I can relate. I speak at a lot of conferences about web design and virtual community. And up there at the podium, I know what I'm saying is being held to a high standard. So if you asked me about, say, Friendster, I might say that it's taking on an interesting problem, but not 100% successful. I might offer a critique and list some things I think they should work on.

Later, at the party, when we both have drinks in our hands, if you asked me again, I might tell you how I was sick of those damn invites and how I heard that a friend of mine once put the founder of Friendster in a headlock at a party. And then we'd laugh and laugh.

Context, as always, is everything.

Did Markos say something impolitic? Sure. But it's not like he made a speech. What he did is more like Kerry forgetting his mic is on and saying the the right is "the most crooked, lying group of people I've ever seen." Or Bush saying "There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole" into a forgotten mic. These are off the cuff comments, intended for one audience and accidentally brought to a larger one.

For Markos' foes to take this comment out of context and email it to his advertisers is just dirty pool. They know the social difference between a comment in a Diary and a front page story post. But it's safe to say that the advertisers who pulled their ads didn't.

As for the Kerry campaign bloggers, their public de-linking reeks of political opportunism or blogging naivete or both. It did nothing but fan the flames and create a fake issue that they could use to look tough. To me at least, the whole thing makes them look like bush league bloggers.

But the real problem is communicating the right context next time around. I'm a designer, so I see design solutions here. It would help if the visual/information design of Daily Kos' Diaries made the social structure more clear. Diaries don't read like newspapers, so they shouldn't look like newspapers. (This criticism could be applied to Kuro5hin as well, and would suggest some tweaks to the overall Scoop system.) If the visual design of the Diary pages made it more clear that this is not the newsroom, it would be easier to take Markos' comments there as different from his more serious front page posts.

As for Markos, I offer my most bittersweet congratulations. You've reached the big league, where the sharks are waiting for any statement, in any context, they can take and run with. It shows just how much your influence has grown. I wouldn't trade places with you for anything.

» More like this: Design for Community.

This section is called Just a Thought. It's a blog where I post little pieces of what I'm thinking about at the moment. This page is an individual entry called “The "Kostroversy" Context” that I wrote on 5 April 2004.

Before this, I wrote a little something called “Thank You, Movable Type” on 1 April 2004. After this, I wrote “New in {fray}: Making Leta” on 11 April 2004.

Thank You, Movable Type
I remember when the web wasn't powered by Movable Type. Those were quaint, sepiatoned days, when we had to walk...
1 April 2004

New in {fray}: Making Leta
The best part about running a collaborative site is being able to mix and match all of the talented people...
11 April 2004

The Fine Print

Working the web since 1995, Derek Powazek is the creator of many award-winning websites, a couple of which still exist. Derek is the cofounder of JPG Magazine and the CCO of 8020 Publishing. Derek lives in San Francisco with his wife, two nutty Chihuahuas, a grumpy cat, and a house full of plants named Fred. More »

Join the POWlist to receive the occasional note.


Thoughts by month:

Thoughts by subject:

Search with Technorati:

Search with Google:

In Print
My CaliforniaMy California
Contributor (Story)
We DoWe Do
Contributor (Photos)
Design for CommunityDesign for Community
Author (Tech)
San Francisco StoriesSan Francisco Stories
Author (Stories)
We've Got BlogWe've Got Blog
Contributor (Essay)