Monday, September 11, 2006

The Wisdom of Digg from Crowd to Mob Part 1

In recent days a controversy has arisen over steps taken by to reduce the influence of its top contributors. The algorithm that moves stories to the coveted front page of the site is being altered to reduce both the weight formerly given to top diggers, as well as to reduce the effectiveness of reciprocal digging by require a greater diversity in the participating users. Top users have not only let loose with a torrent of blog articles criticizing the move, but are also "resigning" from the site in protest. The question this controversy has left the community is just how important are top contributors to the web 2.0's social production formula. The answer, a resounding "not very", can be found in two of web 2.0 's seminal works.

When one scours Amazon for the popular intellectual origins of the social production movement that has recently culminated in "web 2.0", one's search eventually and inevitably lands on James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki's work presents a compelling case for the effectiveness of social collaboration in achieving any number of goals. His arguments have since been employed repeatedly by bloggers, pundits and academics to justify an apearent infinity of new online collaborative tools. What is often lost in this evangelising of group power is that the book also serves as a warning that the wisdom of the crowd can very quickly devolve into the irrationality of the mob.

Surowiecki outlines three preconditions necessary for a collaborative project to succeed: diversity, independence and decentralization. Groups lacking in even one of these traits fail miserably at producing even passable results. In the case of Digg, having the top users in control of the front page violates not one, but all three of Surowiecki's tenets. The reciprocal digging that has been growing increasingly common among diggs top users has resulted in behaviour more akin to that of a cliques then a collection of independant netizens. Diversity disappears as the closer the group becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to move into. Finally, one can already see decentralization disappearing as leaders and personalities emerge from among the top user ranks. The recent debate further illustrates this last point, with the digg community looking to see what a select few individuals will do. In fact, if the top users succeed in driving traffic from digg, it will only serve to prove how little independence and diversity their is within the community.

Next post to come soon just think "long tail".



Fiacre said...

Perhaps Surowiecki's book should be read alongside Charles Mackay's "Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" for some added perspective.

"The object of the author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes." (Mackay 1841)

maximum_access said...

Surowiecki actually writes briefly on the subject of Mackay in his introduction. Unfortunatly Surowiecki never directly addresses any of what Mackey has to say. He also includes a number of interesting qoutes including one from American philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

"The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contary degrades itself to a level with the lowest"

He also mentions briefly another critic of the crowd mentality, French writer Gustave Le Bon, who wrote "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind" in 1895.