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

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Feb. 22 2008 6:11 PM

The Wisdom of the Chaperones

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

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

It's getting harder to be a Wikipedia-hater. The user-generated and -edited online encyclopedia—which doesn't even require contributors to register—somehow holds its own against the Encyclopedia Britannica in accuracy, a Nature study concluded, and has many times more entries. But even though people are catching up to the idea that Wikipedia is a force for good, there are still huge misconceptions about what makes the encyclopedia tick. While Wikipedia does show the creative potential of online communities, it's a mistake to assume the site owes its success to the wisdom of the online crowd.

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.

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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.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Digg—a site meant to "collectively determine the value of content"—is largely run by 100 people. The influence of these members was particularly apparent last month. After Digg tweaked its secret sauce, top contributors noticed a decline in influence—fewer of their submissions became top stories. The super Diggers published an open letter of grievances and threatened to boycott the site. The changes in the algorithm, the Digg execs said, were meant to bring a more diverse set of stories to the site, and they begged for patience from the top Digg contributors. (Thus far, a shaky truce has endured.) The takeaway: Digg's brass believe that the site, which purports to be the product of a broad-based community, will cease to run smoothly if a microscopic percentage of its user base stops participating.

At both Digg and Wikipedia, small groups of users have outsized authority. In the case of Wikipedia, this authority is both organic and institutionalized. A small segment of highly active users author the majority of the site's content; there are also elected site administrators who have the power to protect pages, block the IP addresses of problem users, and otherwise regulate Wikipedia's operations. At Digg, active users have more of a de facto authority over the site's goings-on (though there are persistent rumors that the site has "secret moderators" who delete content). But officially speaking, while the site's algorithm seems to favor devoted users, no individual Digger has the power to unilaterally delete a post.

While both sites effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. Digg and Wikipedia's elite users aren't chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They're the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn't feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it's curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they've sought to supplant.

This top-heavy structure of social-media sites isn't news to researchers and technophiles. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has acknowledged that what he expected to be an "80-20" rule—a system where 20 percent of people control 80 percent of the resources—in fact understates the site's top-heaviness. Palo Alto Research Center's Ed Chi, the scientist who determined that 1 percent of Wikipedians author half of the content, told me he originally hypothesized that the site's most energetic editors were acting as custodians. Chi guessed that these users mostly cleaned up after the people who provided the bulk of the encyclopedia's facts. In reality, he found the opposite was true (PDF). People who've made more than 10,000 edits add nearly twice as many words to Wikipedia as they delete. By contrast, those who've made fewer than 100 edits are the only group that deletes more words than it adds. A small number of people are writing the articles, it seems, while less-frequent users are given the tasks of error correction and typo fixing.

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."

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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