Journalism junkies have been closely watching the example of Digg.com to see if the wisdom of crowds really is better than the judgment of editors. According to David Chen, it isn’t. Writing on Mashable, Chen offers a detailed deconstruction of Digg’s recent decision to jettison some of its top users, apparently for trying to manipulate the system. The weeding-out process was positioned as a routine cleanup intended to eliminate abusers of the community adjudication process, but it was actually an acknowledgment that decision-making by the masses has serious flaws, Chen concludes.
It’s been common knowledge for a couple of years that the Digg model lent itself to manipulation by a small number of people. In fact, there’s evidence that up to half the stories on Digg’s enormously influential home page were contributed by just 100 users. By taking draconian action to ban members who had, in some cases, contributed hundreds of hours of effort to building the site, Digg is admitting that it has been unable to figure out an algorithmic solution to the abuse.
The problem isn’t in programs, but in people. Individuals can attain fame within the community by contributing stories that are ranked highly by other users. Active members discovered early on that by forming “friend” relationships with many others, they could enhance their performance and popularity. In other words, the more you voted for another member’s contributions, the more the other member voted for yours. As time went on, an elite corps grew more powerful, to the point that their contributions can achieve high visibility regardless of merit.
“In the years following its creation, Digg became less a democracy and more a republic, with a select few users responsible for the majority of front page stories,” Chen writes. Digg has tinkered with its settings to try to mitigate this factor, but some members responded by writing scripts that routed around the problem. It became a giant cat and mouse game that eventually forced Digg to insert human editors at some levels to arbitrate the process. So much for the wisdom of crowds.
Chen contends that the blockade may irreparably damage Digg’s reputation, although the site will continue to be a huge source of traffic for publishers who are lucky enough to be listed there. At the very least, the conundrum points out the limits of a purely democratic model of news judgment. Even successful sites like Wikipedia rely up a small cadre of elite editors to make most of the important decisions. People with significant experience in online communities agree that a very tiny percentage of members contribute the vast majority of content. It appears that editors, whether bubbled up from the community or appointed by management, are inevitably needed to maintain order
Should this be taken as a condemnation of the community journalism model and validation for the rule of editors? Absolutely not. As Wikipedia has demonstrated, armies of ordinary people can create a phenomenal information resource. However, leaving all decision-making to a group without providing rules or oversight invariably results in the ascendance of an elite. in the case of Wikipedia, that elite is self-regulating. In the case of Digg’s more juvenile crown, it’s a frat party.