02 September 2010

Angry Diggers and the Death of the Author

Veteran users of Digg are upset with changes to the site aimed at reducing their influence. They have begun gaming the "voting" system

What is interesting about this is:

When I first encountered and thought about sites using voting systems to surface desirable information, I understood that all algorithms for voting can be gamed.

That to deter gaming, very sophisticated and arcane algorithms were required. That these discourage contribution because contributors never know where their work will rank nor why it ranks low or high (this is similar to authors puzzling over Amazon's ranking system).

I was surprised when sites based on user voting systems began to succeed by simplifying their voting to the thumbs up/down basic counts or other simple and easily gamed voting systems.

I believe that when users are satisfied with outcome of their vote, which for Digg means, contributors get their links or comments surfaced and readers feel that the surfaced content is useful, there is no reason to game the system. A little childish game playing might go on, but as long as Digg was a useful tool to most of its contributors and readers (perhaps the same individual, but I would guess the standard 2% participate as contributors and the rest are readers), the system was in equilibrium, running on "social balance."

Only a minority of pranksters might want to game the voting system. Until the contributors become dissatisfied.

I think it shows that simple voting systems can work, which was something I believed was unrealistic when I first encountered them. But through good social engineering, strict controls are not required, sophisticated and opaque voting algorithms are not necessary and the "helpful/unhelpful," "interesting/uninteresting," "thumbs up/thumbs dn" type of voting system is transparent and intuitive, and robust as long as users are happy with the results.

The controversy also reveals the differences in "publishing" model. Digg operated as kind of newspaper edited by a small group of contributors, who were opinion makers or controlled mindshare of an audience, gatekeepers, more like traditional media. It may appear democratic, but in reality was a traditional publishing model where a small number of contributors and editors create a filtered flow of content, like publishing or broadcast media.

The opposing model is the "grapevine" or social model, in which information flows organically, laterally, potentially exponentially, through social connections.

Authors do not like readers having a "custom experience" because it reduces the influence of authors. It makes their work pointless. I would not describe a customized information flow, such as provided by software agents or through user personalization, the same as a social information flow. Social media may reduce the influence of gatekeepers, authors, editors, publishers and broadcasters, but that is probably beneficial. I would not call that customized, but social. The social flow does reduce the influence of authors, but also makes everyone an author and the more influential authors will build social audiences, as they already do with followers on Twitter or through posts to pages on Facebook.

Authors won't go away, because they put time and effort into understanding something others don't have the time for or are unwilling, unable to put in the effort to learn. Authors generally notice things going on, and have something to say about events. Writers like Michael Pollan, for example, are not going to vanish because your Facebook friend told you all you need to know about humanity's divorce from nature and how important local food is at restoring your connection to the natural world. That friend probably isn't noticing, isn't thinking about things going on in the world in a careful way, that's what authors do for a living. And they often become evangelists for their point of view, something few people are going to become.

That's all I've got to say for now, readers.

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