Digg Setback Calls 'Wisdom of Crowds' Into Question

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.

Tech PR War Stories podcast offers new social media advice

Over at the Tech PR War Stories podcast, David Strom and I have been busy interviewing some fascinating people about social media marketing. Here’s a roundup of recent activity. You can subscribe to the podcast feed on the site or by clicking here.

Tamar Weinberg44: Internet Marketing Superlist Author Shares Secrets
At the end of 2007, Tamar Weinberg assembled an amazing assortment of blog entries about everything from headline writing to linkbaiting to becoming a Digg.com power user. Tamar will give you a twentysomething’s perspective on social media. If you’re trying to really understand this phenomenon, listen to what she has to say.

Four great trade show tips

Evan Schuman (TPRWS 39) of StorefrontBacktalk.com has spent a lot of time at trade shows lately and he sent us these four tips for getting the most out of media contacts.

45: The social media skeptic

Jennifer Mattern calls herself the “social media Grinch.” But that doesn’t mean she’s down on social media. It’s just that she thinks the focus on social media can distract PR people from their real work, In this interview, she outlines her cautionary advice about social media and stresses the fundamentals that PR people still need to employ.

46: How to find influencers

I’m writing a how-to book about social media marketing and one chapter is devoted to hands-on techniques for finding influencers online. It isn’t as simple as it sounds. In this episode, I talk about what I learned conducting influencer searches on behalf of a mythical Quebec resort. Step one: master advanced search.

47: Twitter magic

Many people’s first reaction to Twitter.com is that they just don’t get it. It looks like barely controlled chaos. But Twitter has inspired a passionate following. Laura Fitton is a poster child for a service that is revolutionizing the way people interact with their social networks. In this interview, she describes what’s unique about Twitter and how it can be useful even to people who don’t use it that often.

Knol's greed appeal will make it a winner

In the two weeks since Google announced plans to unveil a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia called Knol, the blogosphere has been buzzing about its potential impact. Is this the Wikipedia-killer? A nefarious attempt to undermine media companies? A market-share play by a near-monopoly?

In my opinion, it’s none of those things. Knol is just a good idea that fills a gap in the market and that is likely to become a rich and useful alternative to Wikipedia. If Google and its contributors make money in the process, what’s wrong with that?

Knol will succeed because (for lack of a better term) it exploits the greed factor in community knowledge-sharing. Think of Wikipedia as public television or radio: it’s a public information source that is endearing, in part, because it’s so free of commercial interest. Sure, some people do use Wikipedia for business benefit, but most do so for the sake of sharing knowledge and contributing to the public good. Wikipedia’s anonymity is a virtue in that respect. There will always be value to that model and an audience for it.

Knol is a commercial play. According to sketchy details provided so far by Google, users will be able to attach bylines and profiles to their contributions and submit to community ratings. Articles will move up the popularity stack based upon a Digg-like process in which visitors identify the most useful content. Contributors could also see some financial reward if their work is heavily trafficked.

The fact that Knol promotes the identity of its contributors will give it significant commercial appeal, particularly for experts who don’t have the benefit of a big forum for their knowledge. I’ve written the past about an experiment called Wikibon that is a precursor to Knol. The creator of Wikibon, David Vellante, spent many years in market research and understands both the power and limitations of that model.

Market research firms charge high fees because they have a reputation for quality. The analysts who work there command big salaries and enjoy considerable influence in their markets. It’s the think-tank model and it’s tried and true.

The problem with think tanks is that they shut out the vast majority of potential experts. In most business-to-business markets, there is a huge body of knowledge locked up in the minds of practitioners, consultants and small businesspeople who don’t have the wherewithal to become part of the giant research firms. Their expertise is available only to the small number of people they can reach through whatever means they have available.

Wikibon is a long-tail experiment that tries to tap into that knowledge and create a quality information resource at a cost that’s potentially much lower than that of the think tanks. The idea is to remove all of the organizational overhead and just let people showcase their own expertise. If they do it right, they can grow their professional profile and improve their chance of landing good jobs or consulting assignments.

The same factors will apply to Knol, and that’s why it will be so successful. Few Web properties have Google’s capacity to showcase individual experts. There are many blogger networks out there, but Knol should quickly become the biggest blogger network of them all.

For individuals with the time, skill and savvy to promote themselves through a vehicle like this, the payoff could be significant. That’s why I say that Knol appeals to the greed factor. People will continue to contribute to Wikipedia because it reaches a vast audience. They will contribute to Knol because it promotes their personal interests. There will be a place for both models on the Web. There’s no reason that either has to be successful at the expense of the other.

Daily reading 11/26/2007

Make Money Online with Etienne Teo: 56 Resourceful Blogging Tips And Tools For The Young & Old

  • Here’s a great list of resources for the serious blogger. It includes advice on choosing a blogging service, where to get free templates, how to build traffic, search engine optimization strategies and fundamentals of social media.

Molson pulls plug on Facebook photo contest – Toronto Globe and Mail, Nov. 25, 2007

    • Molson’s case dramatizes the state of confusion that still exists over how to leverage social media for marketing. It includes top-line results of a survey by Pollara Strategic Insights that found that, among other things

      • 26% of business and marketing leaders say they’re less familiar with social media marketing than their own customers;
      • 46% say social media tools are becoming more important than traditional mass media; and
      • 85% say social media is now an essential component of the communications mix.

    Update 11/27/07: Veritas Communications, which conducted the survey referenced above, has posted more information about the research, including a PDF with detailed results.

Response to a skeptical review

IMedia Connection published the first less-than-positive review of The New Influencers today. It’s written by Phil Gomes, a veteran blogger who’s often cited as the first PR professional to practice the craft. In my view, Mr. Gomes’ review can be summed up as follows: New Influencers is a useful, if flawed attempt at putting into context a rapidly changing market in which decisions are frustratingly difficult to make. The book is full of good stories and makes a solid case for why corporations should pay attention to social media. However, it is marred by some factual mistakes and advice that is occasionally off-base. It’s a decent early attempt at putting social media in context, but it needs to be baked more fully.

I would call the review modestly positive, although the headline, “Does ‘Guide To The New Social Media Mis-Guide?’” implies otherwise. I don’t completely agree that the headline accurately represents the review, but I’ve written enough headlines in my time to know that it’s a judgment call and reasonable people disagree.

I have enormous respect for Phil Gomes and don’t quibble with any of the flaws cited in his review. I would like to respond to a few of them, though, if only to point out sources and motivations.

Mr. Gomes notes disapprovingly that I recommended that readers vote for favorable stories about their own companies on Digg.com. He’s right that that was bad advice. Digg was still fairly new when the book was submitted to the publisher last October, and time has demonstrated that my recommendation was misguided. He has a good point.

He takes me to task for using statistics from Alexa and Technorati to validate the significance of trends and the influence of blogs. He notes accurately that Alexa relies upon a limited universe of users of its toolbar to estimate traffic statistics, which skews the results. This is true; however, the Alexa toolbar is used by millions of people, and should give a representative, if not statistically valid view of traffic performance. Alexa is open about the limitations of its approach, and I should have cited this at least in a footnote. However, in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king, and Alexa is the best we’ve got.

The same can be said of Technorati, whose blog popularity ranking has been both hailed and reviled. I cited Technorati rankings generously in the book, mainly because it is the measure of popularity that bloggers overwhelmingly told me they use. Blogpulse has a similar ranking, but its universe is much more limited. While Technorati has its flaws, bloggers pay attention to it and I think that has merit.

Mr. Gomes comes away with the impression that I lavished too much attention on the Technorati A-list, thereby downplaying the importance of less prominent bloggers. If this is the impression the book leaves, then I did a terrible job of making my case in Chapter 4, titled “Measures of Influence.” The whole point of that chapter was to emphasize that A-list bloggers are influenced by many others, and that any campaign that focuses exclusively on the A-list is ignoring the sophisticated patterns of influence that work in the blogosphere. As noted in that chapter:

“Most A-list bloggers actually select at least half the items they choose to highlight from tips sent in by their readers, many of whom are small-time players. So the supernodes actually get their energy from satellites of much smaller influence who have their ear… [E]ven small players in the blogosphere can exert an unusually high level of influence depending on who is reading them. It is a modern version of the six-degrees-of-separation model. The blogger without much influence may actually be a link between two bloggers who have significant influence.”

He points out that I incorrectly identified Steve Rubel as head of Edelman‘s new-media consultancy. I stand corrected. I did send Steve an earlier version of that material for his review, but I evidently introduced errors after he had seen the early draft.

Finally, Mr. Gomes chides me for claiming that entertainment and celebrity blogs “don’t generate much cross hyper-linking activity.” In fact, that statement was attributed to a researcher at Nielsen BuzzMetrics in the context of a discussion about patterns of influence. While that doesn’t absolve me of blame, I did not present the statement as being my own.

I offer these comments solely in the spirit of giving my perspective of these issues. In reviews of any kind, perception is reality, and Mr. Gomes’ perception of my misfires are my responsibility to correct, hopefully in a second edition. He says he’d be willing to read it :-).

My new blog chronicles the decline of newspapers

I’ve started a new blog, Newspaper Death Watch, to monitor and comment upon the disintegration of the American metropolitan daily newspaper industry. If you keep an eye on this blog, you know that I have strong opinions about this topic. I believe that the collapse of this American institution will be stunningly swift and broad, with perhaps no more than a dozen major metros surviving until 2030. There’s more detail in this essay.

I take no pleasure in this turn of events. On the contrary, I love newspapers. But I find this process to be a fascinating convergence of subjects that fascinate me: publishing, technology and transformational change.

If you have any suggestions for topics or news items I should be aware of, please don’t hesitate to send them along.

Dell attack-dog tactics backfire in the blogosphere

A story has been playing out at Dell Computer this week that illustrates vividly the clash of cultures that must be going on in many companies over blogging.

Last Thursday, Consumerist.com posted a list of tips submitted by a former Dell sales manager that told, among other things, how to get the best deals and even get a free laptop replacement at the end of a warranty cycle. This kind of stuff is Consumerist’s bread and butter – and Dell one of its favorite targets – so the site gleefully ran the secrets, along with commentary from a current Dell rep.

Dell must have been ripped, but it then threw gasoline on the fire. On Friday, Dell sent a corporate lawyer after Consumerist with a cease-and-desist notice. What a boneheaded maneuver that was. Naturally, Consumerist posted the lawyer’s threat along with a response. The exchange made the Dell lawyer looked clueless, particularly since she never disputed the accuracy of the Consumerist information.

Meanwhile, readers were having a field day. Along with more than 300,000 page views, the Consumerist story on was dugg more than 3,600 times, making it one of the most popular technology news items of the last week. In trying to bury the offending item, Dell actually created a magnet of publicity

On Saturday, Dell’s Lionel Menchaca posted a thoughtful and somewhat extraordinary account of the whole incident on the Direct2Dell blog. He admitted that Dell had dropped the ball and should never have asked for the information on Consumerist to be taken down in the first place. He also addressed many of the flaws in Dell’s pricing, promotion and support system highlighted by the original post. What was extraordinary was the links to photos on Engadget of unannounced Dell products. People used to get fired for leaking news like that. Now they link to it on the company blog!

Needless to say, commenters have been all over this story. Consumerist comes out smelling like a rose, and it should because it published accurate, useful stuff. You have to wonder what kind of troglodyte at Dell thought it was a good idea to sic the corporate lawyer on Consumerist. In the professional media world, these kinds of disputes take place in the background and outside of the view of the reader. There is no such discretion in the blogosphere; in fact, many bloggers actually rejoice in tweaking the noses of those whom they offend.

The contrast between the corporate lawyer’s truculence and the corporate blogger’s openness are really a microcosm of what many organizations must be dealing with right now. There’s a command-and-control side of Dell’s business that attempted to apply decade-old containment strategies to a medium that simply laughed in its face. At the same time, you can see in the Direct2Dell experiment that a culture is emerging at the company that values a new form of interaction. You just wonder why the lawyer never asked the blogger for advice before going on the offensive.

David Weinberger's comments provoke thought and debate

David Weinberger gave a great talk to the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council’s Social Media Cluster today. David has great insight about the dynamics of social media. In his role as a scholar, he is free from having to worry about the commercial implications of these phenomena and to focus on the social dynamics they create. His views echo mine in many ways: human beings have lived for a million years in an environment in which information was scarce. Now we’re moving into an age of information abundance, and this will challenge our institutions fundamentally.

Many people, including David, refer to Wikipedia.org as an example of how much things have changed. Encyclopaedia Britannica used to market itself as the comprehensive source of human knowledge. Wikipedia makes no such claims, yet it is far more comprehensive and scalable than anything Britannica ever imagined. Yes, Wikipedia has its faults, but it is at least honest about its shortcomings, and this paradoxically makes it more credible. Ironically, the historical tendency of media and publishing institutions to build an aura of invulnerability around themselves has actually made them less accessible to the audiences. That makes their mistakes all the more glaring. Put another way, the degree to which you define yourself as infallible creates a disproportionately negative backlash when your fallibility is revealed.

This hasn’t ramifications for the future of our information institutions. In the past, people and institutions could define themselves as experts because no one could conveniently challenge their expertise. But we’re moving into a world in which expertise is constantly challenged. In fact, experts can maintain their status only by consistently discussing and defending their expertise. They can no longer claim to be the oracle of information on any topic because other people can access information on that same topic so easily. This means that the role of the expert evolves into more of in an aggregator, pulling together different opinions from different souces and drawing conclusions from them.

This is a dramatically different definition of expertise, and it will be uncomfortable for many people in business, politics and academia. But I agree with David that this is the way the world is going. In an atmosphere in which information is freely available to everyone, the expert can no longer claim to be the final word on anything. He or she must admit to fallibility and derive influence from the ability to assimilate many facts and arrive at the most informed conclusion

Murdoch sees media power fading

Rupert Murdoch on the new world:

“It’s so pluralistic. We all have less power, much less.”

“Government now has to be much more open” because of the Web.

On what media should do: “We just have to let this go. We can’t reverse it.”

He advised media organizations to look at social media as an opportunity, though he wasn’t specific about how to do that. I don’t think many media organizations will ever see this as an opportunity.

This is an interesting article because of the blunt language it attributes to Murdoch: media power is sliding away and it isn’t coming back. Get used to it.