Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 22 2008 6:11 PM

The Wisdom of the Chaperones

Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy.

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This isn't the kind of people-working-together image that Digg and Wikipedia promote. Of course, Wikipedia requires some level of administration—otherwise, the site would crash under the weight of additions and deletions to the George W. Bush page. But that doesn't explain the kind of territorialism—the authorial domination by 1 percent of contributors—on the site's pages. Is this a necessary artifact of operating an open-access site? Or is it possible to build a clearinghouse for high-quality, user-generated content without giving too much power to elite users and secret sauces?

The moderation system at the tech blog Slashdot is perhaps the best example on the Web of a middle way. Slashdot, which draws on links submitted by readers, ordains active contributors with limited power to regulate comments and contributions from other users. Compared with Wikipedia, which requires supreme devotion from its smaller core of administrators, Slashdot makes it easy to become a moderator. Giving large numbers of people small chunks of responsibility has proven effective in eliminating trolls and flame wars in the comment section. Still, the authority any one moderator commands is small, and the site's official poobahs maintain control over which stories are featured at the top of the site. "These things are far from utopian," says founder Rob Malda, aka CmdrTaco. "Slashdot tends to have a lot of 'Microsoft does something bad' stories.  If I let the community run the whole thing, we'd have a lot more. But I don't want Slashdot to be the 'Microsoft Sucks' page. It's just one of many subjects."

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Another compelling model comes from Helium.com, a Wikipedia-like repository of articles and editorials. Its founder, Silicon Valley veteran Mark Ranalli, compares his site to a capitalist version of Wikipedia. On Helium, contributors compete to have the top-ranked article on a given subject. As soon as you write an article, you're invited to pick your favorite of two articles on a similar subject. Requiring someone to write before he or she rates creates a more stable system: Rather than create a caste of creators and a caste of peons, Helium encourages everyone to do everything.

Every model has its drawbacks. Unlike Wikipedia, Helium doesn't lend itself to comprehensive articles drawing on many sources. Nor is Slashdot free of moron commenters, though its quotient is significantly lower than on any unmoderated message board. It's refreshing, though, that these sites acknowledge that Web 2.0 isn't a fairy-tale democracy without letting themselves become dictatorships. Digg and Wikipedia would do well to stop pretending they're operated by the many and start thinking of ways to rein in the power of the few.

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Got a better model for how to make democracy work on the Web? Let me know about it. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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