Wisdom of the crowd control?

February 24th, 2008

Slate has an interesting article, The Wisdom of the Chaperones — Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy, that explores who controls some of the popular social media sites. It turns out that the social web is more hegemonic than we thought.

wikipedia hegemony

“Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site’s edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.” (link)

The work cited is by the Augmented Social Cognition research group at PARC. See, for example, their post on the behavior of the most active Wikipedians. Very interesting.

I think it’ even worse, in many ways, on Digg, which the article also discusses.

“The same undemocratic underpinnings of Web 2.0 are on display at Digg.com. Digg is a social-bookmarking hub where people submit stories and rate others’ submissions; the most popular links gravitate to the site’s front page. The site’s founders have never hidden that they use a “secret sauce”—a confidential algorithm that’s tweaked regularly—to determine which submissions make it to the front page. Historically, this algorithm appears to have favored the site’s most active participants. Last year, the top 100 Diggers submitted 44 percent of the site’s top stories. In 2006, they were responsible for 56 percent.” (link)

Will rule by the few always be the case? Who knows. The article does point out that the moderation system used by Slashdot helps to broaden the elite and also describes a simple “write one, rate two” policy used by Helium, a site new to me. Helium is a community for freelance writers that helps them connect with publishers who will pay for articles on their topics. The publishers are vetted, so students seeking to buy term papers will have to look elsewhere.