Fractured Democrats, Part 3: The Economics of DemocraticUnderground

Since I began this series, Democraticunderground.com has undergone a major change, dropping its 2.0 version–which was launched in July 2003, two and a half years after the initial launch of the site and just three months after I became active in the community–and unveiling its 3.0 version. It’s difficult for an outsider to get a bead on why this change was deemed necessary. One plausible-enough scenario I saw some long-time DUers posit is that the software the old site was built on (DCForum+ Version 1.1) is no longer supported by the the original developers who stopped making it in 2002, so all of its fixes for bugs (and there were many) had to be jury-rigged by the site’s administrators. But many DUers, both banned and active, think the software issues are an excuse for the real reason for the change, which is to stifle dissent from DU’s inherently center-right, pro-Obama, pro-Democratic Leadership Council bias.

More than a few believe greed may be a factor, as well.

Previously, the site had been supported by odd donations and quarterly week-long fund drives. These were relatively unobtrusive annoyances, marked by a banner above the forum measuring the number of donations, the goal almost always being 1,000. (A couple of times they raised the limit to 1,200, but when they missed it by a mile the second time, as I recall, the humiliation forced them to lower the bar again.) To make the drives more interesting, the week’s progress was measured by a boxing glove slowly extending toward the smug-looking face of George Bush (usually) or some other right-wing villain. You can imagine the “fun” when the thousand mark was reached and glove was freed to smack smirk over and over on the day of triumph.

When I was fairly new to the place and a little more flush economically, I made automatic monthly donations of $5 for perhaps a year or more. As my fortunes changed, but also as familiarity with DU’s administration began to breed contempt, I switched to an annual donation of $5, which still automatically put the paying member’s “star” by my name. To their credit (then), this very humble donation bought me full access to the site and its archives, the ability to recommend or unrecommend threads, my own “journal” (a rip-off of dailykos’s “diaries”) for posting any of my forum posts, and freedom from the Google ads that plague DUers without a star (i.e., those who made no donations). DUers were also able to purchase stars for others. I did that myself a number of times when I noticed someone whose posts I admired being relegated to second-class (i.e., nonpaying) citizen. A regular with no star was someone assumed to be in dire economic straits, and the recipients of these stars were almost always effusively grateful.

On November 13, the top dog among DU’s administrators who goes by the apropos handle Skinner (all you Simpson’s fans) posted a notice in the General Discussion forum titled “It’s the last ever DU fund drive! What? Why?!” It’s a very interesting and revealing post. He begins with a little history of his own, tipping his hat to Elad, the techie among the three co-founders (Earl G, a Brit, is the mind behind the Top Ten Conservative Idiots and other bits of content) and to his supposed rival site, the archconservative Free Republic:

The truth is that DU isn’t the scrappy underdog that it was when we first started asking for your support. Back in those days you could see where your money was going. Our single server would crash constantly — eventually we brought in enough money to buy a new one (we’re up to seven now). Database errors took ages to fix because we couldn’t afford to pay Elad, so whenever we needed him we’d have to call him at his job at the local health food store (true story) — eventually we were able to pay him a full time salary.

But that was then, and for a long time now DU has been the largest liberal discussion forum on the Web. Since 2005 we brought in a good chunk of our revenue by serving ads to our visitors, which is why we haven’t had to increase our 1,000 donation goal since we started doing fund drives. But as DU approaches its teenage years, we’ve decided it’s time for us to grow up too and stop asking for handouts. We don’t want this to be the future of DU.

Note the glossing over of the 1,200 goal fiasco. Must have slipped his mind. Anyway, it’s fascinating to get a Freudian glimpse into the administration’s self-perception: David become Goliath–or the son become the father? He continues (huckster-style emphases in the original):

Many of you have probably heard that we’ve been working on a big new update to the site — codenamed DU3 — for some time now. At this point DU3 is not just on the doorstep but banging on the door and rattling the handle, and as part of the myriad changes we’re making to the site we’ve decided to switch to a different fundraising model. On DU3 you will still be able to buy a star which will remove all of the ads from the site and provide you with access to special functions and features — and you’ll still be doing your part to keep DU running — but we are ending our traditional quarterly fund drives. Instead, stars (and the benefits that come with them) will be available for purchase on a monthly or yearly basis for as little as $3.50 a month. And as always, those who choose not to purchase a star will still be able to post and participate free of charge.

This is our last ever fund drive because DU3 will be launched before the end of the year. And here’s something important to know: anyone who is a DU donor when we switch over to DU3 will be grandfathered in to the new system and retain their donor star and privileges for one full year from the time they donated. So if you don’t currently have a donor star, or if you already have one but would like to extend for a year at the price of your choosing, now is the time to donate.

Act now and you can get all of this wonder for a buck, you cheap bastards! For a year, anyway, and then it’s $42 or no star for you!

The capitalist, of course, will argue that it’s mad for anyone to try to create a service as complex as DU’s without putting a reasonable, grown-up sized bottom on the premium charged for it. After all, dailykos charges $4 a month minimum for ad-free viewing. But at dailykos, the only thing a premium buys is no ads. At DU, the premium buys first-class citizenship (and the benefits that come with it). There is a crowd of stalwarts currently #occupying the “vacated” DU2 boards who have made explicit the tensions this sudden change has wrought among what’s left of DU’s community. Some don’t want to pay for the privilege of moving to a forum that they find ugly to look at and difficult to navigate. They’re plotting to wrest DU2 away and remake it as a more progressive- and pauper-friendly board.

To be clear, I should point out that there is still a sizable, and until now, steadily growing community at DU; in fact, Skinner’s bragging seems to be corroborated by this conservative site’s comparison of “left-wing” internet sites (which include CNN, Time and Politico, according to the winger!). But it’s difficult to imagine the site continuing to grow following some of the changes the administrators have made to its posting culture, changes that seem to take DU’s intolerance for heterodoxy to a further extreme.

To be continued…

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3 thoughts on “Fractured Democrats, Part 3: The Economics of DemocraticUnderground

  1. Pingback: Fractured Dems, Part 4: The Rightward Drift of DemocraticUnderground « Tragic Farce

  2. $42 a year. A lousy 11.5 cents a day. Wow!

    So the self-proclaimed smartest people in the world who have the type of care, compassion, and tolerance that all the world should model themselves after, and those to whom world leaders should lend an ear in obedience, can’t even afford a lousy 11.5 cents a day.

    And anyone should take these knuckle-dragging LW idiots seriously……..why??

    • You think giving money to DemocraticUnderground shows “care, compassion and tolerance?” Seriously? You think it’s a charity?

      Here’s some news for you: It’s a get-rich as quick as you can off a bunch of “like-minded” saps scheme on the part of administrators.

      You’d think a RW knuckledragger would have been able to figure that one out!

      PS: If you think conservative cave is a charity, wake up. You’re getting soaked!

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