How the Kossacks conquered America

Computerworld discovers the challenges of running liberal activist blog Daily Kos during the lead up to the election of US President Barack Obama.

Daily Kos CTO Jeremy Bingham

Daily Kos CTO Jeremy Bingham

Fresh-faced US President Barack Obama is, like his campaign maxim, an emblem of change. The traditional vehicles for the dissemination of information and influence on the public — the mass media and old-style campaign letter-boxing — changed in the years leading up to the 2008 election, as political Web sites received unprecedented popularity from wider audiences.

Daily Kos, a grassroots Democratic Web site, and its Kossacks (as the members happily call themselves), has come to symbolise the new power of political blogs, evidenced by the influential US politicians, including former president Jimmy Carter and Senator Harry Reid, who drop by to connect with its burgeoning list of activists and potential campaign volunteers.

The Internet has fundamentally changed the way political messages are disseminated, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas told MSNBC.

“Technology absolutely has an impact [on politics]; it has allowed the Obama campaign to speak directly to its supporters without the need to go through media filters,” Moulitsas said.

“When John McCain selected Sarah Palin as a running mate, Daily Kos community ran into action, and [disclosures about] her membership in the Alaskan Independence Party stemmed from this open source grassroots reporting that occurs on Daily Kos and other sites like it.”

As the site's burgeoning popularity thrust Moulitsas into the US political spotlight, including multiple appearances on major television networks, Daily Kos chief technical officer Jeremy Bingham had to deal with soaring traffic loads and fluctuating peaks. Daily Kos grew from a humble blogging site in 2002 running on a single shared server to a formidable hub for liberal activism with more than 180,000 registered users.

Bingham spends most of his time checking code and server status, responding to e-mails and researching ideas to improve the open source architecture of the Web site. “It's certain that someone will need help with something,” he told Computerworld.

The lead-up to the 2008 presidential elections saw big improvements to the site's back-end code, which ironed out inefficiencies and reduced server load.

“The site didn't hold up very well at all in 2004; it crashed constantly, and I had to scramble around a lot trying anything I could to keep the site up,” Bingham said. “Still, I was able to learn from that experience and … was able to keep the site humming on [congressional election day in] 2006.”

“By 2008, I was able to take the lessons learned, along with improvements made during 2007, and get the site tuned up to the point that it ran without a hitch on Election Day,” he said.

Daily Kos served up more than nine million pages on the day of the US general election, amazingly without a hitch, although Bingham concedes there were a few errors with its election map.

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