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Digg: The Wisdom of the Crowd Debated

Recently, a blog, Evoling Trends, was smacked with a ton of traffic from and elsewhere. The resulting hulabalu is discussed in Diggs Biggest Flaw Discovered, and while there are a few exagerations, it speaks well of the “wisdom of crowds” mentality that often concerns me with “Web 2.0″ thinking.

The bigger problem, however, and what I believe to be the deadliest flaw in the digg model is the concept of the wisdom of crowds.

Crowds are not wise. Crowds are great as part of a statistical process to determine the perceived numerical value of something that can be quantified. A crowd, in other words, is a decent calculator of subjective quantity, but still just a calculator. You can show a crowd of 200 people a jar filled with jelly beans and ask each how many jelly beans are in the jar. Then you can take the average and that would be the closest value to the actual number of jelly beans.

However, if you were to ask a crowd of 200 million to evaluate taste or beauty or whatever subjective quality, e.g. coolness, the same averaging process that helps in the case of counting jelly beans back fires in this scenario. Averaging in the case of evaluating a subjective quality means choosing the lowest common denominator.

Thus, in the case of evaluating the subjective quality of a post submitted to digg, the crowd has no wisdom: it will always choose the lowest common denominator, whatever that happens to be.

If you are seeking massive traffic attention, this is an article worth reading. If you are involved in social bookmarking and part of the “wise crowd”, I also recommend this post. It will give you plenty to think about as you choose your next popularity victim.

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network

Member of the 9Rules Blogging Network

9 Comments

  1. Posted June 29, 2006 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    So here are my thoughts.

    I think this poses an interesting question with a somewhat paradoxical answer. It can also be extrapolated to apply to governments and democracy.

    Hmmm . . . what to do? What to do?

  2. Posted June 29, 2006 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Hi Lorelle,

    Thanks for linking to this. I refined the intro a bit.

    The problem turned out to be much bigger than the wisdom of crowd (or lack thereof.)

    The bigger-than-biggest flaw I’ve just discovered is the fact there is no way to know if digg manipulates the system or if they leave it up to groups of fanatics to do the dirty work for them. Both are possible, so neither can be excluded as a possibility.

    If abuse of power is possible with no consequence, which is the case in the digg model, then you can bet that there have been many instances of such abuse of power. People are no angels, especially someone who’s trying to score a $100M+ exit valuation. A lot is at stake, so manipulation and abuse of power becomes forgiveable in the view of those who commit it.

    Dvorak’s thoughtful analysis of Digg 3.0 weaknesses as well as my post which you’ve referenced here have been both buried (or censored) by either the fanatic users or digg itself, but as I explained above if I can’t exclude the latter possibility then it remains valid, i.e. I believe it’s possible that the digg staff manipulates the system.

    It’s easy for digg to create a million fake account that they could then use to bury (or censor) stories. But they don’t need to do that. They control the system and they can easily make it look like users buried/censored the story.

    In the Update section of my post, you’ll see a snapshot of all the censored stories and they are mostly bug reports, reports of flaws, and serious analyses of digg’s pros and cons. Basically, anything that could hamper a successful $500M exit valuation.

    Please see the Update section at the bottom of my post. Last updated at 5am EST June 29, ’06.

    Marc

  3. Posted June 29, 2006 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Marc: Don’t you think this is the case with any system of information dissemination?

  4. Posted June 29, 2006 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s the case with any software-enabled rating system, including electronic voting machines, but I am not implying that the latter kind of systems have been rigged. Those are operated with much stricter oversight.

    As far as informattion dissemination systems, you can point to Google’s Chinese version as an example of rigged, biased content.

    But digg and social bookmarking sites in general have leveraged, intentionally or inadvertently, the false notion of “wisdom of crowds.” That is what I’m attacking in specific, i.e. that such systems/models don’t lead to better judgment than that of an individual blogger or a newspaper/TV/radio editor. They lead to a much worse judgment mainly because they employ the false notion of “wisdom of crowds.”

    Not saying that CNN or Fox News are not rigged, but I’m saying that a New York Times editor, Lorelle, yourself, myself have opinions that are infinitely better in quality than the opinion of any random crowd. I also should make the distinction between a crowd of scientists and a random crowd. The crowd on digg is a random crowd. However, in general, even a crowd made of rocket scientists is bound to produce the lowest common denominator opinion for that crowd. Individual rocket scientists may have a far better opinion.

    Marc

  5. Posted June 29, 2006 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m really interested in how this all turns out over the next month. The minute by minute or even day by day flux of Digg traffic, in fact any blog traffic, is fickle. So I’m intrigued by the investigation you are doing and look forward to what you have to say in a month. To see if things stay the same, jump up and down, or soar through the roof a few more times.

    Evaluating crowd mentality, and crowds are manipulated all the time, is a tough job. Your insights are well written and thought out. This is all fascinating to me, so I’m eager for the long term results of what you learn through the whole process. You have got people thinking and talking, which is wonderful! Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  6. Posted June 30, 2006 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I guess I have to ‘Tor’ my way back into Digg and Reddit as well as use some URL masking for the blog.

    I’ve been banned. Reddit had already set all my submissions to ‘hidden’ as they were not digging any of the stuff I was posting.

    Interestingly, I’ve already had several startups pitch me solutions to digg’s model, including a startup that is launching very soon.

    So it’s about more than just traffic, yet the traffic angle is one of the things I’m trying to understand in the context of hype as a system.

    We’ll see how it goes. I’m also pretty busy with the geek fund and other obligations.

    BTW, I published a follow up article on Web 3.0 vs Google. I’m getting excellent reviews via email from Semantic Web reseachers. Also, I found this incoming link, which is from a government agency pointing to the fact that they’ve already started implementing Semantic Web technologies.

    http://wraptinweb.blogspot.com/2006/06/is-semantic-web-end-of-google.html

    I’m actually very much into the science and the traffic experiments are also viewed from a scientific perspective.

    I’ll have more on that later.

    Thanks a lot for your review and interest.

    Marc

  7. Posted July 1, 2006 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Well, they did not ban my IP address so I was able to get back on and try one more experiment: AI Matrix vs Google and Web 3.0 vs Google

    Neither worked. They were both about Google and some virtual thing that people can’t relate, too.

    Obviously, no one is going to digg “Wikipedia vs Google” again.

    As you said, it’s almost like trying to control the ocean’s waves. The only thing we can do is to anticipate a wave (in this case people’s fascination with Wikipedia vs Google, which I’ve used up already, inadvertantly) and then surf the wave.

    I did have a strong second wave when I went out and explained how rediculous the whole “digg” process is. So I got traffic from people who were into “Wikipedia vs Google” and I got traffic from people who were into trying to learn from what I did (i.e. those who wanted to see an honest analysis, not an attempt to twist the facts)

    hope this helps

    Marc

  8. Posted July 2, 2006 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    OK, I wrote a detailed and accurate analysis of how I generated 55,000 hits in 5 days (using chained memes and digg) that produced a double-dipping long tail that contrasts with the experience of other massively dugg bloggers who have reported a sharp pulse (or a sting.)
    :)

    Marc

  9. Joseph Evers
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Firstly, your article is brilliant. It couldn’t of been said any better.

    Not only that, but sites with satire against digg and kevin rose have been censored. A true website of “the people” would allow this. People make videos criticizing steve chen on youtube all the time, but on Digg, it gets you IP banned.


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  1. […] but this is something worth thinking about that Lorelle brought to my attention. Basically if you’re a strong supporter of individualism over horde mentality then this would be something along your lines to read. […]

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