A Blogosphere Built for Two (or Three or Four or Five…)
Updated, 11/19. Please also see my response to James Hanley in the comments for some additional thoughts. * See also postscript dated July 13, 2013.
Intertubes Intelligence Agency World Factbook Entry for the League of Ordinary Gentlemen
Date of Independence : January 20, 2009
Flag: Black Bowler hat on white background
Long form name: The League of Ordinary Gentlemen *
Short form: The League or LoOG *
Denonym: LoOGers or Leaguers *
Geography: The League is an archipelago of 9 small floating islands currently in the Northern Blogospheric Ocean, slightly off the coast of the Continent of the Great Political Tribes on the border of the Sea of Ponderous Musings and the Bay of Conventional Wisdom. The main island and capital, Bowlerhat (colloquially, “Front Page”), is located at the center of the archipelago. The archipelago is subjected to poorly understood geological and tidal forces that leave its physical geography in a constant state of change.
Introduction/Origins: The original LoOGers are believed to have been the denizens of several small and now mostly abandoned independent city-states scattered within the Continent of the Great Political Tribes who departed that continent due to disillusionment with the constant state of tribal warfare and aristocratic dominance on that continent. Those city-states are believed to have been called Politics of Scrabble, Indiepundit, Publius Endures, L’Hote (since rebuilt), and Indistinct Union. The denizens of these city-states united as a result of separate mutual alliances with President John Schwenkler of the medium-sized but well-regarded city-state Upturned Earth and with the small, short lived multinational empire Culture11 (which also briefly annexed Upturned Earth). It is believed that upon the devastating breakup of the Culture11 empire a mere week after the League became recognized as an independent state, many of the refugees from Culture11, particularly those within Upturned Earth’s sphere of influence, emigrated to the League. Nearly all of those who participated in Upturned Earth’s government exchange (“Guest Blogger”) program have spent significant time as prominent residents of the League’s Front Page.
Population: 2,000 (est.) regular residents, with a temporary population soaring as high as 35,000 during peak tourism seasons.
Type: Communitarian Federalism, technically subject to the whims of a secret and mostly dormant Founder’s Council, whose membership has varied between 1 and 5 members.
Constitution: January 12, 2009; effectively amended in or about June 2009 and again on February 5, 2011. The original draft of the League’s constitution (which also served as its Declaration of Independence) was in the form of a manifesto written by Scott H. Payne entitled “A Blogosphere Built for Two (or Three or Four or Five…)”. Payne, Erik Kain, and Mark Thompson were the original signatories to this constitution, with Freddie deBoer and Chris Dierkes also recruited to sign by January 15, 2009 and Thompson’s co-bloggers at Publius Endures, “Dave” and Kyle Moore, effectively coerced into doing so.
Though virtually all of the substantive written elements of the original draft have been lost to the sands of time, the fundamental outline of the original document is expressed in oral history passed down from the original signatories. The document expressed frustration with the atomized and polarized devolution of the blogosphere, particularly but not exclusively the political blogosphere, in which actual dialogue between differing worldviews appeared rare, restricted even amongst those with similar worldviews to a handful of elites, and rarely sustained, lasting only as long as a given newscycle. The constitution drafted by Payne sought to create an insular but intellectually diverse mini-blogosphere allowing for in-depth and sustained (and mostly inexpert….hence “ordinary gentlemen”) conversation not driven by the news cycle. Despite Payne’s formal departure in June 2011, the League’s unwritten constitution continues to seek to embody this concept as the community’s primary objective.
Originally, the concept was achieved through a mechanism whereby the primary contributors would respond to each other in formal within the framework of formal “series” of posts. Although this mechanism served its purpose well, it eventually fell into disuse as it devolved into little more than a glorified tagging system while the comments section evolved with the rapid growth of readership and commenters who intuitively understood what the community sought to achieve, resulting in the comments section serving the same purpose as the “series” system, but in a more organic fashion. By around June 2009, the “series” system was formally abolished.
Subsequently, in February 2011, the site’s format was more radically changed with the introduction of sub-blogs, beginning with Not a Potted Plant. The sub-blog addition was the unintended outgrowth of nearly a year and a half of discussions by the secretive Founder’s Council that were originally aimed at expanding the site and indeed turning it into a blogospheric empire, but eventually returned to the far more modest and appropriate goal of strengthening the League’s community. The idea was in response to the dark days of December 2010 and January 2011, when tensions within the community were running unusually high, and the roster of primary contributors was proving especially volatile. The concept was to create a more friendly environment for new contributors, to be drawn from the site’s existing readership, and who had an established history of reasonably frequent writing. Previously, new contributors were not necessarily drawn from the existing readership, and, where they previously had established blogs of their own, often found writing exclusively for the League to be burdensome and constricting. With the sub-blogs, contributors would be able to write primarily for the audience with which they were most comfortable but would also be free to place pieces they felt appropriate for a larger, more general audience or hoped to use to spark conversation on the League’s main site. After nearly 10 months, this format change is widely viewed as successful, and the League now hosts 8 sub-blogs. However, as has been the case since June 2009, the League’s success in fulfilling its Constitutional objectives derives solely from the consent and thoughtful participation of its commentariat.
January 12, 2009: Constitution drafted. See above.
January 12-15, 2009: Initial League roster created, with two unabashed liberals, two libertarians (cosmotarian variant), a Canadian liberal, an American theologian living in Canada, and neocon cum crunchy conservative Erik Kain.
January 12-20, 2009: Hundreds of e-mails exchanged amongst original LoOGers with dozens of proposed site names rejected. Eventually “League of Ordinary Gentlemen” is proposed and unanimously agreed to on grounds that it properly described the original group’s nature (no plans for expansion existed at the time) as a bunch of mostly inexpert males hoping to create a reasonably dignified community. Kain obtains domain name and builds and designs site, deciding to use bowler hats in conjunction with the site’s title header. Public announcement of League’s formation planned for January 25, 2009.
January 20, 2009: Independence accidentally declared and announced by Culture11 empire when Conor Friedersdorf (or maybe it was Poulos?) discovers Freddie deBoer post to test “series” system linking back to Culture11.
January 21-23, 2009: Frantic – and mostly successful – efforts made to establish diplomatic relations with other, more prominent, blogospheric city-states and nation-states. Numerous announcements of recognition follow, allowing League population to grow quickly.
January 21-March 2009: League contributors repeatedly and personally attacked from afar by well-known internet troll on a near-daily basis. Contributors internally nickname said troll “The Straw Man” for his unique ability to completely miss the fishin’ point and make blatantly false accusations. Over the following year, even as the volume of said troll’s attacks gradually decreased, being on the receiving end of one of his attacks becomes an initiation ritual for newly-minted Front Pagers.
January 22, 2009: First link from the Daily Dish. Several more follow within the next two weeks creating rapid readership growth.
January 28, 2009: Culture11 empire disintegrates overnight. Refugees stream in to League.
February, 2009: The beginning of the interminable liberaltarianism debate for which the League is perhaps best known. Debate results in links from Jon Chait, Will Wilkinson, Ross Douthat, and others, increasing League’s reach.
February, 2009: League placed on the Daily Dish’s blogroll, which will ultimately prove to be the most consistent source for the growth of the League’s community.
March 2009: Original LoOGer Kyle Moore, one of the unabashed liberals, retires from blogging for personal reasons.
April 2009: William Brafford and “Will” become the first of countless additions to the League’s roster of Front Pagers. Both had guest-blogged for Schwenkler with Thompson in late 2008 along with JL Wall, who would also eventually join the roster (and remains part of it).
April 2009: League first begins soliciting guest posts from its readers. Birth of expression “Write a guest post!” as a stock response to complaints about the site’s coverage.
April-June 2009: Commentariat takes shape and rapidly makes the “series” system of posting around which the site was originally formatted obsolete. Epic debates rage between the likes of Jaybird, Greginak, Michael Drew, Mike at the Big Stick, and, yes, resident crank Grandpa Cheeks, amongst others who remain just as much part of the site as ever.
June-September 2009: Health care debate rages, introducing tension into the League community for the first time.
July, 2009: Erik Kain, a former neoconservative cum anti-interventionist yet anti-free trade Red Tory, undergoes his first of several major ideological shifts at the League, effectively declaring himself for Team Libertarian. As a result or Erik’s status as most prolific contributor, the League’s ideological balance starts to tilt libertarian.
August 2009: Liberal Jamelle Bouie recruited, significantly slowing, but not stopping, the libertarian shift.
October 2009: Payne interviews Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs for a remarkable series of posts on the Evolution of Blogging. Interview discusses Johnson’s messy divorce with the American Right and immediately become most-read substantive post in the site’s history, a title which it holds until February 2011 (Jason Kuznicki’s post on one’s responsibility for where one’s taxes go). Around this period, the Front Page is described as something akin to “friends talking in a booth at the bar, with the people in the neighboring booths happily chiming in.” (H/T Jaybird).
December 2009: Erik Kain, already developing a sizable fan base and blogospheric network and writing a separate blog for True/Slant by this time, explodes.
December 2009-January 2010: Freddie deBoer, having struggled with the site’s increasing libertarian tilt for months, departs. Bouie follows soon thereafter, though for different reasons. With Payne and Dierkes’ output down and Kain still waving the libertarian flag, the libertarian tilt becomes a full-fledged onslaught. Numerous attempts to find prolific liberals to balance the shift fail. Ability to meet the site’s mission of providing an intellectually diverse forum for discussion thrown into doubt.
February 2010: Jason Kuznicki, Rufus, Matthew Schmitz, and David Schaengold join the roster. Kuznicki immediately competes with Kain for title of most prolific contributor. Despite Kuznicki’s libertarian credentials, the libertarian onslaught slowly begins to reverse, as Schaengold and Schmitz, social conservatives but economic liberals (more or less) add some dissent. The addition of Rufus helps even more by providing a much-needed respite from all-politics and political philosophy, all the time. Also helping is that Kain begins to move away from libertarianism and Payne picks up his level of contribution despite also developing a Canadian-focused site.
March 2010-October 2010: Several new additions are made, none remotely libertarian. Unfortunately, none ever write with the hoped-for frequency except for some all-too-brief and most enjoyable spells from Lisa Kramer, the first and – unfortunately, thus far – only lady Front Pager. None of these writers survive the Great Divorce of December 2010. However, they are collectively able to slightly help with the site’s overall balance.
August 2010: Erik Kain accepts an invitation to write for the prominent liberal site Balloon Juice. Balloon Juice’s John Cole promotes Kain as a “sane conservative,” though it’s not clear how well this label applies by this point. Kain’s relationship with the infamous Balloon Juice commentariat is rocky, but the move has an important lasting effect on the League by introducing the site to a huge number of liberals, bringing in a goodly number of new commenters with dissenting voices. The result is a still libertarian-leaning front page, but a decidedly left-of-center commentariat. This also unfortunately would include a fair number of trolls, but these were mostly of the hit-and-run variety. As always with the League, the commenters interested in dialogue would be highly likely to stick around; those not so interested would not stick around.
September 2010: With Upturned Earth mothballed, JL Wall accepts an invitation to join the League as a Front Pager.
October 2010: The remnants of Kuznicki’s old site, Positive Liberty, merge with the League, and Barrett Brown also accepts an invitation. Neither of these moves works out well for anyone involved. Merging two medium-sized readerships with very different perspectives overnight creates high tension, and occasionally outright hostility, exacerbated by the occasional presence of the Balloon Juice mobs. The in-your-face style of most of these new Front Pagers, whatever its qualities (and there are many), proves to be a huge culture shock to much of the established readership and several of the Front Pagers. Readership, however, reaches a new high during this period, so some of the warning signs are ignored. The only lasting positive side effect is the introduction of Tom Van Dyke as a commenter, a reliably conservative and challenging voice of dissent.
December 2010: Black Saturday as Brown’s hostile relationship with some of the commentariat comes to a most unfortunate head and he is asked to resign from the site. The League and the Positive Liberty crew formally divorce,
albeit on more amicable terms.(NOTE: see response to James Hanley in comments for more on this). All of this is too late to prevent the departure of Schmitz and Schaengold, as well as, most sadly, longtime Leaguer William Brafford.
January 2011: The League attempts to recommit itself to its original mission, starting around a smaller roster but recognizing that its greatest strength was still its commentariat, and indeed that the site at its best was commentariat-driven. Non-contributing or highly infrequent-contributing Front Pagers are culled from the roster. Of the numerous additions to the site’s roster in 2010, only Kuznicki, Rufus, and JL Wall remain with the site. By this point, Dierkes had also left the site due to time constraints, and Payne was semi-retired from the site for similar reasons.
February 2011 – Sub-blogs created, to be drawn from the existing readership and commentariat. See above. This turns out to work better than anyone had envisioned.
March 2011-present – Roster of Front Pagers increases exponentially, drawn entirely from the readership and commentariat. Few new Front Pagers other than the sub-bloggers are prolific, but are fully engaged with the site and collectively help to ensure that the site hums along. The libertarian stranglehold on the site eases dramatically and permanently. Front Pagers write when they want to and because they want to, not because they feel like they have to – just as Payne had hoped on January 12, 2009.
Site gradually becomes a political site that doesn’t discuss politics. (H/T: Mike Schilling). In October and November 2011, site pageview records are shattered by orders of magnitude due to posts from Tod Kelly and Russell Saunders, the former uniquely beautiful and the latter uniquely fun and enjoyable, but neither having a thing to do with politics. The League again becomes a real community, not terribly different from the community that existed amongst the 7 original OGs in February 2009, except with many, many more members.
I love this place.
Postscript: On July 17, 2013, the site underwent a significant transformation to become “Ordinary Times.” Relics of the former nomenclature and culture continue to appear periodically.