Friday, July 06, 2007

The Failures of Digg and Self-Regulatory Governance...

This blog, like thousands of others, has a small link below each posting giving the reader an opportunity to "Digg It!", signifying whether they enjoyed the post or not. The most revolutionary aspect of is its claim to be self-regulating. People cast their "diggs", or votes, not only on whether they enjoy a posting or not, but also on the comments other readers have left on the site. Digg self-regulates because 1) people choose which stories warrant public attention (as opposed to a newspaper editor acting as a gatekeeper), and 2) people decide which comments should remain visible on the site in response to each posting.

This promise of self-regulating governance has worked in two important senses. Whether Thomas Friedman of the NY Times or an anonymous 8th grader writes a blog article, people get to vote and choose which they think is better and recommended reading for others. The content trumps the reputation of the author. Also, Digg further democratizes the media because, even though the front page of the NY Times or the leading stories on CNN might focus on Iraq, the Scooter Libby trial, or the most recent Supreme Court ruling, ordinary people might view different stories as more relevant or interesting. As I write this, one of the top stories that people are "digging" is a recent survey on the sorry state of Americans' scientific literacy titled, "20% of All Americans Believe the Sun Revolves around the Earth", which was buried in the back pages of the NY Times.

That all sounds great and wonderful... but does it work, and are we actually better off as a result of this self-regulatory style of media? Here a a few reasons why people still should NOT use Digg as their source for actual news.

First, who exactly are Digg users and how does that affect their selection of stories? The majority are highly-educated, tech-savvy, white, male, high-income-earners. As a result, the most "dugg" stories are not exactly representative of what the general population might find important. Right now, there are a plethora of stories about the iPhone, Net Neutrality, and Linux tutorials, and relatively very few covering international politics.

Second, the basis for users "digging" certain comments and hiding/censoring others is far too often a matter of personal taste more than any sort of objective journalistic standard. Someone who writes a very well-written and insightful article or comment supporting President Bush's strategy in Iraq is likely to get voted down so that no one can see it, whereas mindless lunatic rantings that espouse a more popular position fare much better.

Third, the social-networking feature creates the possibility of Digg Mafias. Last year, organized efforts were discovered among Digg users who had made agreements to "digg" each others' stories and, thus, artificially boost their rankings. This type of things happens all the time in cyberspace (see Search Engine Optimization), however on Digg it is more of a concern since rankings are not purported to be based on a computer algorithm, but on the votes of people.

Such concerns only serve to undermine the credibility of Digg as a viable alternative to the traditional news media. Self-regulation has worked, but we are not better off for it.


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