The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University has just released a comprehensive report on the differences between the two sides of the political blogosphere and the approaches and technologies they embrace. The entire report is worth a read (58 page PDF), but this graph sums it up very nicely:
(click for larger view)
The most interesting finding is how the left embraces more technology and community driven features, such as comments and diaries:
Notably, we find evidence of an association between ideological affiliation and the technologies, institutions, and practices of participation across political blogs. Sites on the left adopt more participatory technical platforms; are comprised of significantly fewer sole-authored sites; include user blogs; maintain more fluid boundaries between secondary and primary content; include longer narrative and discussion posts; and (among the top half of the blogs in our sample) more often use blogs as platforms for mobilization as well as discursive production.
So what’s the reason for this?
A look back at the history of the blogosphere, especially from the technical side, is needed to understand this. For years there was only one platform out there that could really handle diaries. That system was Scoop, and is the same system that powers Daily Kos and used to power MyDD. Scoop was built to be a diary type system. When you build a system with a specific purpose in mind, then you can achieve your goal a lot better and with much less overhead.
Scoop has its problems though. The biggest problem is trying to get it up and running. The Scoop project has been mostly unmaintained for the past several years. It is built in PERL, which is a language not for the faint of heart. To get a Scoop site up and running can take days.
Not long after Scoop hit the scene, so did WordPress. WordPress is a great blogging system, but that is pretty much all it is – a blogging system. You can do some really neat stuff with WordPress, but for things like diaries, you are looking at some serious programming. As matter of fact there is only one diary site out there powered by WordPress and that is at Firedoglake. That system was developed by yours truly, so I know how much work went into developing it. Overall though WordPress wins out when it comes to ease of setup and maintaining. I can teach my mother how to setup a WordPress blog in about 20 minutes. It’s just that simple.
After WordPress you started seeing Drupal gain a bigger presence on the scene, and today it is one of the fastest growing systems out there (and also the system that powers this site). I make it no secret that I love Drupal. The versatility of the system is mind boggling. Out of the box you can setup Drupal to handle diaries without any addons. Drupal has one downfall though – it’s steep learning curve. To setup a decent site in Drupal takes some work and with the power of Drupal comes a lot of options you have to learn about. I’ve been doing work in Drupal for five years now and I still learn new stuff all the time.
So now that you understand the three big players out there, how does it fit into this report? Well it takes us back to technology. If you look around at the blogosphere, you will see something in the footers. The right wing blogs are more out to hire actual shops to develop and maintain their sites. Web site development is extremely costly, and when your dealing with ever changing technologies, the price can quickly add up. Compare the to the blogs on the left. Most of the larger blogs have individuals doing their development. These individuals generally do the work for little or no cost. It becomes a work of passion for them, or more so a hobby that they can also use to further their careers.
A great example of this is the right wing diary site RedState. Back in 2008, Redstate started a fundraiser to build a new platform. Here’s part of a post that the owner editor of Redstate posted at that time:
When we started RedState in May of 2004, we used a website program called Scoop — the same program a lot of similar sites on the left used. But, as the number of visitors to our site grew, Scoop kept crashing on us.
If we’d been a liberal website, we would have been able to fix the problem quickly and relatively cheaply. The online left loves Scoop. Unfortunately, there weren’t really any conservative Scoop developers out there to help us. We kept crashing and were out of money. We had to close down or take drastic action.
Well, we didn’t close down. We ditched Scoop and moved to the best alternative at the time, a program called Drupal. But, in accomplishing the switch, budget constraints forced us to sacrifice some popular site features in order to alleviate the strain on our overused servers.
Part of this is very true, and mimics what I said above – there are far more developers on the left. That’s to be expected. Web development is a young person’s field and young people are generally more liberal. But there’s also a big false going on in there, and one that could have been corrected if Redstate had a person with the proper knowledge managing their site.
At the time of that posting Redstate was seeing about 30,000 hits a day. They also weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary with Drupal. Now compare that to Crooks and Liars, a Drupal site I maintain. In the fall of 2008, shortly after I moved Crooks and Liars from WordPress to Drupal, we had a hard drive go out on our database server. That meant running the web and database servers off of a single machine. Well as Murphy’s Law would have it, we got hit with one of our busiest traffic days ever during that. At one point we were seeing over 60,000 visits in an hour. At the same time that single server never once went down or even showed serious load. Crooks and Liars also runs a lot more custom code than Red State does. It might not look like it on the outside, but I have spent countless hours developing powerful management features for our team of writers and moderators. All this adds to the overhead of running a site.
Knowing Drupal and the kind of traffic Redstate got back then, they could have easily stayed on Drupal, added all the features they turned off and even put in more features if they had someone available to tune their installation and servers. In terms of racing, you need a pit crew to keep that car humming. But again, we are presented with the problem of the lack of people to do that kind of work on the right.
So this all leaves us with the grand daddy of all questions. How can we keep a more balanced blogosphere when the required assets are more out to be on the left by nature? That’s a hard one to answer and one I seriously hope can be addressed. The right blogs and left blogs need each other. They help out one another in terms of traffic and content, but can the right find developers and system administrators that would be willing to work more out of passion for their politics than love of their checking account? I certainly hope so.
(Cross posted at HollyIT)