The Hidden Persuaders, a best selling book from the 1950s by journalist Vance Packard, popularized the idea that our beliefs and desires were being consciously manipulated by advertising agencies and the media. Having become a meme, everyone now agrees that itâ€™s part of modern life and much more so now that it was fifty years ago. Itâ€™s a depressing idea, though, which no one really likes, except when the techniques have to be used to promote oneâ€™s own ends. The evolution of the Web, and of social media in particular, is thought to offer an antidote to the hidden persuaders. If all of us are empowered to develop and publish content, then maybe the crowds, in their wisdom, can filter out the hype and marketing and identify the authentic content. Well, human ingenuity knows no bound.
Yesterday’s WSJ has a feature article, The Wizards of Buzz (no subscription required), on social bookmarking sites like Digg and del.icio.us along with a podcast interview with one of the reporters, John Jurgensen.
“A new generation of hidden influencers is taking root online, fueled by a growing love affair among Web sites with letting users vote on their favorite submissions. These sites are the next wave in the social-networking craze — popularized by MySpace and Facebook. Digg is one of the most prominent of these sites, which are variously labeled social bookmarking or social news. Others include Reddit.com (recently purchased by CondÃ© Nast), Del.icio.us (bought by Yahoo), Newsvine.com and StumbleUpon.com. Netscape relaunched last June with a similar format.”
What makes the article interesting is that it is more than just an overview piece; some real investigation was done.
“To find the key influencers, The Wall Street Journal analyzed more than 25,000 submissions across six major sites. With the help of Dapper, a company that designs software to track information published on the Web, this analysis sifted through snapshots of the sites’ home pages every 30 minutes over three weeks. The data included which users posted the submissions and the number of votes each received from fellow users. We then contacted scores of individual users to find which ones are tracked by the wider community.”
Revelations that social bookmarking and tagging sites are subject to corruption and collusion not new, if course. See Gaming Digg: the KoolAidGuy saga (December 2005) and Is Digg being subverted by some sort of spamming? (April 2006), for examples.
But it’s always good to have some careful studies. Here’s what the WSJ reported:
“Though it can take hundreds or thousands of votes to make it onto the hot list at these sites, the Journal’s analysis found that a substantial number of submissions originated with a handful of users. At Digg, which has 900,000 registered users, 30 people were responsible for submitting one-third of postings on the home page.”
Of course, what makes the article fun to read is that it profiles twenty of the “hidden influencers” it found, including this young man.
“On Reddit, one of the most influential users is 12-year-old Adam Fuhrer. At his desktop computer in his parents’ home in the quiet northern Toronto suburb of Thornhill, Mr. Fuhrer monitors more than 100 Web sites looking for news on criminal justice, software releases — and the Toronto Maple Leafs, his favorite hockey team. When Microsoft launched its Vista operating system this year, he submitted stories that discussed its security flaws and price tag, which attracted approving votes from more than 500 users.”
Reading the capsule descriptions of the twenty influencers profiled, I can see why my own occasional efforts to shamelessly promote our research group on Digg have been complete failures. Most of the profiled influencers spend several hours every day looking for content to push.