Monday, February 25, 2008

Is Digg Authentic?

As a late early adopter, I tend to get into technologies after the hardcore geeks but before the mainstream crowd. I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of this blog, which I'm pretty excited about. Over the three years or so, as I've followed the rise of social media and the PR industry's struggle to understand and leverage it for our clients, I've tried to remain somewhat realistic about the sometimes messianic claims made about blogs, wiki's, etc.

As a PR person, I can sometimes see beyond a company's messaging and notice when the reality of its situation differs from its public face. All the talk about the Wisdom of Crowds and the revolution of participatory, democratic communities is an age old dream from the Levellers, to the Sans-Culottes to the hippies. The social media sites Wikipedia and Digg have positioned themselves as the virtuous online version of this vision of truth, justice and equality.

But we know that the Levellers failed and was followed by Cromwell's invasion of and genocide in Ireland, the Sans-Culottes begat the Terror and the guillotine, and the dream of Woodstock died at Altamont. Human societies are naturally hierarchal. These hierarchies can be a little unequal or a lot unequal. All attempts at developing complete equality have not lasted, as those communities eventually developed hierarchies, with all the consequences that come with that.

This story in Slate today started me thinking about all this ("The Wisdom of the Chaperones"). Here is some of what Chris Wilson wrote:

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.

The same undemocratic underpinnings of Web 2.0 are on display at Digg is a social-bookmarking hub where people submit stories and rate others' submissions; the most popular links gravitate to the site's front page. The site's founders have never hidden that they use a "secret sauce"—a confidential algorithm that's tweaked regularly—to determine which submissions make it to the front page. Historically, this algorithm appears to have favored the site's most active participants. Last year, the top 100 Diggers submitted 44 percent of the site's top stories. In 2006, they were responsible for 56 percent.

It's clear that the "wisdom of crowds"messaging that Digg and Wikipedia have developed and communicated to the market isn't quite accurate, given the unequal levels of participation. This messaging has served them well and helped Wikipedia especially position itself as the virtuous alternative to paid websites like Encyclopedia Britannica. But as they mature as organizations, they are either going to have to change their positioning or alter the structure of their communities to bring them more in line with the ideal.

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