the ‘el farol’ problem in social news

the el farol bar problem, as james surowiecki explains in his book the wisdom of crowds, goes something like this:imagine that there are a certain number of people and on a particular day, they all want to go to a bar called el farol. the problem is that the bar is rather small and if everyone goes at the same time, it will be crowded and no one will have fun. these are the rules:

if less than 60% of the population go to the bar, they’ll all have a better time than if they stayed at home.if more than 60% of the population go to the bar, they’ll all have a worse time than if they stayed at home.

the other problem is that you have no way of telling how many people are going to go to the bar because all the people have to decide at the same time, whether they are going to go or not. social news sites, it seems, have an incredibly similar problem when it comes to content submission. if everyone submits at the same time and a large volume, some people are always happy and some people are always unsatisfied. however, if everyone submits in turns and in moderation, everyone gets a chance to have their content promoted and everyone is happy at least some of the time. let’s start with the following conditions (for sake of this example, let’s assume all the submitters and the voters are the same people and are all relatively equal power-users):

  1. there is a fixed maximum number of articles that can move to a site’s front-page on any given day.
  2. this number is without a doubt smaller than the total amount of interesting/cool/promotable content created on that day (never mind the preexisting content that will be found and submitted).
  3. there is fixed average number of votes that all users are going to cast on all the stories, and these votes are less than the total number of votes needed to promote all the stories, and are not uniformly distributed among all stories.
  4. once a story is submitted and not promoted, it loses its chance of ever being submitted and being promoted.

to put this in numbers, let’s assume there are 500 great stories, all of which will be submitted, and each of them needs on average 50 votes to be promoted. however, a maximum of 200 stories can be promoted, and there are only 100 users, each of whom will cast on average 100 votes (meaning that 10,000 votes will be cast, which if distributed uniformly, can promote all those stories). what we see is that because all users over extend (submit 5 stories rather than 2), the votes get divided in such a way that even less than 200 stories get promoted.

  1. if every user submits 2 stories, we get 200 stories promoted. the content producers are happy, the users are happy (for a perfect ratio), but we create a backlog of good content.
  2. if every user submits 5 stories, we get 150 stories promoted (because of the vote split the average is less than 2), and the group as a whole is less happier than it could be.

the ideal case

like in the ‘el farol’ bar problem, all parties would be better off if they took turns in participating and did so moderately. the easiest way to institute this would be to have a mechanism where everyone is limited to a certain number of submissions daily. the problem here is that this system would not only go against the basic principles of socially driven sites, but it would be much hated and would elicit an extremely negative response. the simple fact is, even if it hurts us, we love and value freedom of choice above most other things. so the system we want to find is one that comes naturally, from the community, through consensus between the individual users.

what actually happens

what happens is that users fail to coordinate their submissions with each other for several reasons. first of all, some users are simply unable to (networking issue) or don’t find it efficient to (time issue) to coordinate their submissions with other users. second, for many users it’s not in their best interest to throttle their submissions. we have to keep in mind that not all users are equal, even from within the good content, not all content is equal, and everyone thinks that they got it right and therefore the vote split will work in their favor. furthermore, you can never be completely sure that you made the right calls and there for submitting 5 rather than 2 is better for you because you get to hedge your bets.

in fact, i’ve tried to talk to several top users, many times, to try and come up with a system where we all don’t clog the system to the point where no one is having fun, but also get to participate to a point where we are having enough fun. one major problem we faced in trying to come up with the system is getting everyone else to participate. if 5 users participate and 5 others don’t, the 5 who decide to throttle their submissions lose out.

this post is a part of my journey through james surowiecki’s the wisdom of crowds.

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12 thoughts on “the ‘el farol’ problem in social news

  1. Gerard

    I like this post; i would choose this as my favorite [so far].

    I had one issue with the model, though. It had all 100 users (the entire community) as content contributors. We know that reality is nothing like that.

    failure to coordinate submissions does seem like a big issue on digg. I think there are others, though. digg’s algorithm takes the number of votes being cast at a given time into account (according to your post on another site). all diggs or just the ones cast in the upcoming section? if it’s all, that could make getting stories promoted to the front page harder, especially for top users who already need a large number of votes. The other issue might be which content is competing with each other. Does content in the technology section of the site have to compete with content in the offbeat section? these two sections have content that are very different in interest from each other and would attract different groups of readers. If we allow them to compete, one section’s content could push out the other and upset both the readers and the contributors.

    Lastly, why the use of an arbitrary number in the model? why not a proportion instead? If we allow for a certain percentage of submissions to hit the front page (as opposed to a specified number of them), would we not be spreading the chance equally among contributors? If we allow for 20% of submissions to hit the front page, then each contributor would have 20% (more or less depending on the quality of submits and other factors) of their submits promoted regardless of whether they submit 3, 5, or 10. It would also allow us to compensate for a site’s growth. More submissions won’t encourage fiercer competition among contributors.

  2. muhammad saleem Post author


    i made all the 100 users submitters and voters because i was looking at this problem from the perspective of the most active (top users) which are power-submitters as well as voters/commenters. furthermore, as for taking votes into account, all votes are taken into account because all stories are in effect, in the upcoming section (you just have to keep going deeper).

    as far as # of stories promoted are concerned, i actually think that there is an upper limit to how much content they let through, regardless of total submissions/activity. this makes sense because if there is too much content, a lot if it will go unnoticed (because we know people only scroll through so many pages of the front-page and if it changes too fast, people will skip stories). similarly, if there is too little content promoted, the site loses on potential page views.

    balancing how much content to let through is another interesting issue to be looked at.

  3. Gab "SEO ROI" Goldenberg


    I love your content but the lack of caps at the start of sentences makes it bloody hard to follow.

    As to such a ration system being hated, it’s like saying that it’s normal for people to be allowed to talk way more than others. To let some people dominate the conversation. I disagree. That’s why you have to raise your hand in class, and why the teacher tries to rotate who gets to speak (assuming the teacher understands class dynamics at all).

    Finally, making the system work might be achieved using exclusion (see Seth Godin) then gradually expanding the in-group till everyone participates. Because everyone wants to be “in,” this could get the initial participation. Do that with the top 100 and it’ll filter to the top 200. Then to the top 500…

  4. muhammad saleem Post author

    gab, sorry about the lack of caps on the site. It’s a theme thing. It’s a generic minimalist and it does that by itself. Thanks for visiting and commenting though 🙂

  5. Gerard


    now i understand why your model is constructed this way.

    i can see how you’re right about balancing the amount of content that gets through to the front page. Too much content may require too much time out of the user or just clutter their view, and discourage them from browsing the site. It would be interesting to know how Digg controls its front page. what is that upper limit… or do they even need one yet? i guess i don’t see much option other than coordinating submissions. although, i imagine it would be extremely difficult to get every contributing member of a social news site to cooperate.

  6. Israel LHeureux

    It seems to me that the basic problem is that there are too few bars.

    The model of one giant site that is useful to everyone just doesn’t work. What we need are more bars (besides el farol) that are interesting to us.

    Look at how I got here: I didn’t read this on Digg. I found it on Louis Gray’s shared items. Louis’ recommendations generally suit me, so I am apt to read them.

    What we’re doing over at assetbar is combining the easy reading and sharing of assets with simple discovery of like minded readers.

    So it’s easy for you to read your own interests, read the shares of your current friends and then to find and follow people who post/share things you’re apt to like. It’s not one bar, it’s a bar for each circle of connections. And each bar is aware of–but not dominated by–the activities of all the other bars.

    We’re getting ready for a pre-release soon if anyone is interested in checking us out.

    our blog is at

  7. Brett McKay

    Israel makes a good point. There aren’t that many social news sites right now. Thankfully, more and more are cropping up each day.

    However, how do you get people to start going to these other “bars” (social news sites) so that you have enough to have a good time?

    Seems like right now everybody wants to stay all night at digg and reddit.

  8. Shane

    The formula we use at the bar were a little different. If 60% of the girls were great looking we had a great time. If less than 60% of the girls were great looking we didn’t have a great time. This formula adjusts drastically by the amount of alcohol consumed. In some instances when we got there the percentages were less yet when we left 100% of the girls were beautiful. Figure that

  9. Gerard

    I was thinking of possible ways of encouraging users to throttle the number of their submissions. What if a social news’s site incorporated the number of a user’s submissions into its algorithm – raise the vote threshold (to go front page) for each submission they enter? This might discourage flooding the queue with content and may even encourage users to be more selective of the content they enter (i.e. higher degree of quality control).

  10. Pingback: Best Internet Marketing Posts of 2008: Social Media, SEO, and More » techipedia | tamar weinberg

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