many of the quality-related flaws of social news sites can simply be attributed to the fact that they aren’t mainstream enough. as these sites grow larger, we can hope to see them become more diverse and shed most of their biases (i.e. pro-apple and anti-microsoft, pro-nintendo and anti-sony, and so on). at the same time, however, as social news sites grow, the addition of new social networking and on-site communication features are working against any gains these sites would make from become more mainstream and more diverse. could it be that the problem with social news sites is that they are too…social?
from the digg about page:
from the biggest online destinations to the most obscure blog, digg surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users. you won’t find editors at digg — we’re here to provide a place where people can collectively determine the value of content and we’re changing the way people consume information online.
how do we do this? everything on digg — from news to videos to images to podcasts —is submitted by our community (that would be you). once something is submitted, other people see it and digg what they like best. if your submission rocks and receives enough diggs, it is promoted to the front page for the millions of our visitors to see.
social media is as much a tool for networking with like-minded people and developing off-site and even offline relationships as it is about socially driving news. therefore, by its very nature, it is hard to ensure that content promoted on a socially driven site is actually harnessing the collective intelligence of the site’s audience. while what digg and most similar social news sites say, sounds good, what we see happening in reality is that as we get more socially involved with other users on these sites, we don’t actually vote for what we like best, but we vote based on what our friends like and what they want us to like.
therein lies the problem. some of the fundamental requirements for a group to be collectively intelligent are diversity, independence, and decentralization. we can solve the diversity issue by opening up to a more mainstream audience and making a platform easy to use and appealing to the masses, but the problems of independence and decentralization, are much harder to solve in social media because of the ‘social’ element of these platforms. we need diversity and independence because without them, we get a largely uniform audience and the content submitted and shared on the site isn’t a result of scrutiny or debate (this is one of the reasons why we end up content that is mostly pro-apple and anti-microsoft, and similarly divided into camps with unbalanced representation).
this is not to say that these sites shouldn’t be social at all, because groups certainly benefit from people talking to each other and learning from each other (otherwise there would be a significant barrier to entry because you wouldn’t be able to rely on the experiences of others). the key is in how much you allow the community to interact and how much information the users can share amongst themselves. if there is too much communication, it can lead to the group becoming collectively less intelligent and making poor choices. according to james surowiecki, author of the wisdom of crowds, the best way for a group to be smart (collectively intelligent), is for each person to think and act as independently as possible. however, the more we interact and the better we get to know each other through the social networking mechanisms of social news sites, we can’t help but ignore the right ‘independent’ choices in favor of the more comfortable ‘influenced’ ones.
further reading: joshua porter has an interesting piece that explores how digg is using site design to combat some of these issues brought about by giving the community more room to be social.
this post is a part of my journey through james surowiecki’s the wisdom of crowds.