Oxdown Gazette: some initial reactions

oxdown gazette logo

cross-posted on Oxdown Gazette

The conversation in the blogosphere is — I sincerely hope — about to change.

— Jane Hamsher, And the Big Announcement Is…, Firedoglake, July 2008

I’ve spent a bunch of time at Firedoglake’s Oxdown Gazette this last week, regularly checking the home page and recommended stories, commenting here and there, as well as making eight posts of my own starting with Hiiii (waves) — enough to form some definite impressions.   So I thought it would be interesting to share them and see what others have to say.

Different people are on Oxdown for different reasons; so let me start with a bit about my perspective.   I’m currently engaging in a lot of online activism while working on a book about social networks (professional bio here).  I started my blog Liminal States last year with a goal of mashing up discussions about computer security and software engineering, social networks, politics, critical theory, psytrance, and personal stuff.  As an activist, though, it’s important to have a base in the progressive blogosphere as well; with Get FISA Right, for example, OpenLeft played a critical role.   My style is very collaborative, and a community-oriented site like Oxdown has a lot of appeal; and so for the Voter Suppression Wiki I decided to experiment with cross-posting there as well as Pam’s House Blend.

My first reactions in terms of the user experience reading and posting are almost completely positive.  I like the layout, and cross-posting from my own blog (also WordPress-based) is easy.  The summaries make the front page or individuals’ diaries very readable.  Also, I find the way FDL displays comments very effective for longer threads involving multile conversations — the “reply-chaining” is done quite nicely — and that’s useful here as well.  Of course I have a few quibbles (why isn’t the < center > HTML attribute allowed?) but generally they’re pretty minor.

Oxdown doesn’t disclose the algorithm they use for recommendations,* but it seems to do a pretty good job of getting a wide array of voices while keeping quality high.  Of the ten articles, there are usually at least one or two by Teddy Partridge or other high profile FDL-ers, but the majority are from names I don’t recognize.  The front-page stories, by contrast, are largely by Ari, along with a handful from community members — including some realllly big names, such as Zack Exley’s cross-post of The New Organizers.**  My guess is that this ratio will change over time as the flow of stories from the community increases; right now, Ari’s putting waaaaay more time into than anybody else.

FDL’s home page very prominently features the recommended diaries, which could potentially lead to a lot of traffic — one of Oxdown’s biggest potential advantages.  Lemme tell you, when DaveJ’s Announcing the Election Protection Wiki and my TWO wikis, saving democracy? were both up there on Monday, we were stoked.   FDL gets over 100,000 visitors a day, so this is potentially a big deal — even the vast majority who don’t click on either link now know that there’s an Election Protection Wiki and another wiki as well that also has something to do with democracy.***  Talk about getting our message out …

I still don’t have a feel for what kinds of stories are most likely to be recommended.  FDL as a whole is often very action-oriented, and the vibrant discussion on Zack’s post reflected that; as I write this, TobyWollin’s Urban Gardening is on the recommended list.  On the other hand, most of the recommended diaries seem to be news summaries and analyses: of Republican politicians and tactics, the bailout, and so on.  My own action-oriented posts haven’t in general gotten a lot of traction with recommenders; two of them did make it to the recommended list, but in both cases I had sent links to several friends and asked them to rec, so this doesn’t necessarily reflect the broader community’s opinion.  Of course, it’s hard to know how much to read into this; it might just reflect me being an unknown quantity on FDL, and not yet having had a chance to participate all that much on others’ threads.  We shall see.

Unsurprisingly, mixed in with these overall positive impressions, there are also a few areas for improvement.  An obvious one is the lack of a WYSIWYG editor.  Another is the rather mystifying decision to close comments on a diaries after a couple of days.  Some conversations flow more slowly; and it often takes a while for links to percolate through the blogosphere.  By the time a lot of people saw to my request for input on Meet the Bloggers on FDL, it was too late for them to comment here.  Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but I’m not sure what purpose is served by shutting off conversation.

facebook logoThere’s also a problem with how diaries look when you post them on Facebook.  In WordPress’ default configurations, Facebook typically does a surprisingly good job of extracting useful text to post — the first paragraph or a quote.   For Oxdown diaries, posted items just say “Just another Firedoglake weblog”.   (Post it yourself to find out!)  As Kevin Bondelli’s Generational Differences in Online Political Engagement on Future Majority discusses, Facebook is increasingly important not only a notification mechanism but a discussion mechanism.  FDL already shows more awareness of Facebook than any other big progressive blog I know, with one-click access to people’s Facebook profiles; it would be great for Oxdown to build on this.

Finally, there’s the lack of trackbacks.  Trackbacks are a way of automatically notifying any pages that you’ve linked to in the story that hey, somebody’s talking about you.  Take Kevin Bondelli, for example; I have no idea whether he reads Oxdown, so unless I take the time to track down contact information for him and send him mail that gets past spam filters, he might never know that I just referenced his article.  Trackbacks automate that.  And for those like me who approach blogs as narrative, trackbacks are also valuable for weaving together different threads of long-running, interlocking stories — the comment stream here is a good example.  So it would be really valuable to provide this functionality.

Hopefully these last three paragraphs focusing on areas for improvement haven’t given the wrong impression — stuff like this is only to be expected for something as new as Oxdown.  What’s encouraging is that all of them seem likely to be easy to address if others also see them as important.  Oxdown has a real advantage in building on top of the solid WordPress platform, rather than rolling their own the way Soapblox had to a few years ago, and so they’re likely to be able to make changes relatively easily.

So on the whole, at least from the perspective of my first week, things look very good for Oxdown Gazette: I had a good first experience, it’s a solid platform, and (probably most importantly) the big carrot of being able to get a link from FDL’s home page is indeed accessible to the community.  Of course, it’s early days yet, but it seems to me that the initial results are very promising.

What do others think?


Facebook graphic from AJC1’s flickr site,
licensed under Creative Commons

* their FAQ makes the “security-through-obscurity” argument that this would lead to people gaming the system

** one of my posts was front-paged, which somewhat strangely seemed to take it out of eligibility for appearing on either the recommended list (and hence FDL) or the “recent diaries” on the right.

*** In retrospect, I probably should have put something about Voter Suppression Wiki in the title as well; in advertising terms, why pass up a chance for free brand impressions?  Ah well, live and learn.