In October of last year, a man named Leon H Wolf published a post on the front page of influential conservative blogging community RedState titled, “Attention, Ron Paul Supporters (Life is REALLY Not Fair).” One of a handful of bloggers who run the site, Wolf and his blogging colleagues decided to virtually ban all promotion for then-presidential candidate Ron Paul “in any way shape, form or fashion. Not in comments, not in diaries, nada.” The only exceptions to this, he wrote, were for people who had accounts that were more than six months old.

“Now, I could offer a long-winded explanation for why this new policy is being instituted, but I’m guessing that most of you can probably guess,” he wrote. “Unless you lack the self-awareness to understand just how annoying, time-consuming, and bandwidth-wasting responding to the same idiotic arguments from a bunch of liberals pretending to be Republicans can be.”

RedState is one of the earliest examples of so-called “diarist” blogs, where virtually anyone can sign up for a free account and write for a blog hosted on the site. Some have labeled such sites “mullet blogs,” in that they each have a small number of administrators who are able to post entries to the front page and a much larger number of back-end diarists who have to struggle much harder to get any wide recognition.

The open community function of such sites begs the question of whether they should allow the community to decide what material is ideologically appropriate (similar to the philosophy of social news site Digg), and what role the diarists play in relation to the front-page posters. Recently I spoke to several diarists at the more popular sites to gain an understanding of what motivates them to spend hours of their time writing for them (after all, they don’t get paid) and what effects they have on influencing public discussion compared to the powerful front-page posters.

This medium is dominated by the left-of-center Daily Kos, which has thousands of active diarists and during this election year has received millions of page views every day. But in recent years the diarist format has spread to state level blogs, creating a string of microcosm communities that have become immensely close-knit and influential.

Back-end diarists rarely receive anywhere near the same amount of attention that the front-page administrators do. To counter-balance this, many of these blogs mine the back-end diaries to promote interesting posts to the front page. And each diary also has a “recommend” function, where readers can vote for the entries that they feel should get the coveted front page exposure. In theory, “recommended” stories should reflect the voice of the wider community, but in the case of RedState’s ban of Ron Paul supporters, a minority of vocal enthusiasts infiltrated the community to push a message contrary to the ideologies of the site’s founders.

Filtering and Motivating Diarists

Soren Dayton is a relative latecomer to blogging — he entered the blogosphere in 2006 — but it wasn’t long before he was invited to become a regular front-page contributor to RedState and the popular media watchdog site Newsbusters. (From what I understand, this is a relatively rare occurrence). Dayton had worked on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign for about three months before joining the public affairs department of New Media Strategies — the company where I currently work — in May.

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Soren Dayton

Last week, I sat down with Dayton to talk about the nature of RedState and the diarists that populate its back end. During our discussions, we segued into his thoughts about why or how a community member should be banned, and this is when he mentioned the Ron Paul incident as an example of when users crossed the line. Dayton had been involved in the email discussions with other front-page posters prior to the universal ban, and he denied that the “Paulites” were booted because of their political ideology. Rather, he said, many pro-Paul diarists were also pushing other, wildly offensive material.

“There were posts saying things like ‘I smell Hebrews, I smell Jews,’” he told me. “Clearly racist, clearly anti-Semitic material. We made a decision that you couldn’t do things like that, and it happened to be that this kind of stuff was almost exclusively from Ron Paul supporters…We were getting so many people who would get shut down and so they would get a new IP and a new email and do the same thing again. So we made explicit Ron Paul advocacy — unless you were a long-standing community member — banned for a short period of time. It might have been overly harsh, certainly we got criticized in a number of places. I’m not sure if it was the right solution, but the problem that was being solved was real.”

In addition to his work on RedState and Newsbusters, Dayton also co-founded a diarist site called The Next Right. In its relatively short existence, The Next Right has gained a readership in the thousands, becoming incredibly well known within the conservative blogging community. I asked Dayton how one goes about building up such a site. What is it that attracts that initial influx of people signing up for diaries?

“For one, it’s the same level of access to write a comment as it is to write a diary,” he replied. “If you sign up for an account, you can do either one. Because people will usually sign up to comment on one of our posts, it doesn’t take much effort to start writing diaries if they’ve got something to say.”

There’s also a constant flow due to recruitment by the administrators; if a reader writes in to suggest a blogging topic, the administrator will encourage that person to create an account and blog about it, essentially trying to pull the person into becoming more actively engaged in the community.

“How often do you promote stuff to the front page?” I asked.

“On The Next Right, it’s whenever we find good stuff,” he said. “Sometimes people have to bring it to our attention, sometimes we notice. Sometimes we are working with the writers or soliciting.”

The Trajectory of Diarists

Many of the diarists I spoke to followed similar trajectories in writing for the sites: They started out as mostly casual readers, eventually signing up for accounts to comment, and then later transitioned into writing full-fledged posts.

A person who posts under the user name “Dansac“ (he asked me not to use his real name) began “sporadically” publishing at Daily Kos as far back as 2003. Like most others, he became a more active user once his personal hot-button issue became a popular topic in the site’s public discussion. In addition to his postings to the community, he and several Kos diarists splintered off and created their own group political blog, Strategy 08; many diarists have used the mullet blogs as a launchpad for their own efforts.

Dansac told me that like most social media destinations, a hierarchy has emerged within the Kos diary community, resulting in a small number of more powerful users that are able to consistently make it to the “recommended diaries” list.

“I wouldn’t say I’m one of the more obsessive members of the community,” he said. “I’m not on there 24 hours a day, but yeah, if you spend enough time on Daily Kos there are a few diarists whose stuff follows a more patterned tone, and generally you start to trust them as a source. You’ll see among recommended diaries that the same names pop up almost every day. I mean there are thousands and thousands of diarists, but there are really about 20 to 30 who post and resonate more than others…There are so many bad diaries, there’s so much garbage, and when you find the people who make good stuff, it’s pretty clear.”

Like Dansac, Dennis Stathis was a lurker within his community — in this case, the liberal MyDD — before being hooked in as a diarist largely because of the presidential primaries this year.

“I felt the need to get engaged because I was a former Hillary [Clinton] supporter on the Democrat side,” he explained. “And I just felt that some of the treatment I saw toward her was unfair, so I decided to express my voice, and MyDD was a platform to do so.”

Stathis doesn’t feel that it is particularly hard for a new writer to get noticed despite the multitude of new entries constantly being posted. And in some cases, he argued, the diarists can generate more of a response than those who have front page access.

“I think the subject matter will determine the quantity as well as the quality of the response,” Stathis told me. “And it appears that the more emotionally charged a diary is, the more of a response it will generate. I can’t really say that the front pagers can be contrasted to the diarists, because I’ve seen front page postings have little traction and participant blogs have significant traction.”

Success of a Convert

Mike DeVine is one of those who has made his way up through the hierarchical ranks to become one of the more influential diarists at RedState. He posts under the handle Gamecock. DeVine was a trial lawyer for over 14 years and has written columns for several major newspapers. He told me last week that one of the reasons his writing — both within the blogosphere and elsewhere — has been embraced by the conservative community is because he writes from the point of view of someone who experienced a recent ideological shift to conservatism.

“I have the story of a convert from Democrat to Republican, so it gives me some credibility,” he explained.

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Mike DeVine

DeVine said he began reading and commenting on RedState in 2003 or 2004, but didn’t begin posting diaries until around 2005. As his blog at RedState became more popular, he was invited to contribute to other blogs. He now lists his experience writing for these sites when pitching freelance columns to newspapers. But this was only a very small part of the incentive for publishing his thoughts each day.

“Bloggers tend to be a lot more passionate, informed and obsessed with politics than the average voter,” he told me. “They’re also a lot younger, I find. One of the reasons I blog is to teach. I feel like I have a lot of real world experience I can bring.”

At a few points during our conversation, DeVine expressed his desire to become one of the few to permanently cross over and become a front-page poster at RedState. Many mullet blog administrators constantly mine the sometimes unruly back end, searching for provocative and engaging voices for possible front-page recruitment.

“I’m in maybe the next group of people who may be given front-page privileges there,” he said. “But then again, maybe not, because I might be a little bit too provocative to them. And they understand that I’m going to be who I am, and I’m not going to conform to anything. I’m going to do my thing, and I’ve gotten where I am today doing that, and sometimes it ruffles some feathers.”

Given the previous actions of RedState’s administrators, as long as DeVine doesn’t begin stumping for Ron Paul anytime soon, he just might have a chance.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate blogger for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at]