Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Politics of the Algorithm...

How's this for an ironic story? Yesterday, a hysterical blog post about how frustratingly difficult it is to make the Digg/Popular page... made it to the Digg/Popular page. The author's rant is definitely entertaining (and relate-able), but both it and the comments Digg users posted on its page underscore a more serious point: the increasing power of the algorithm in Digital Media.

Think of some of the more popular websites on the internet. Whether its Google, Wikipedia, Digg, Technorati, or something else, how these companies determine what content is being displayed on its front page has tremendously powerful consequences. For example, let's say someone did a Google search for the term, "office supplies". Research has demonstrated that unless a link is displayed on the first page of Google search results, the chances of people clicking on it (or ever even finding it) are practically nil. So Google's search algorithm (the formula it uses to determine its results) basically has the power to make or break office supply companies' business prospects. In fact, an entire new industry known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, has even sprung up to capitalize on this, promising to increase your Google ranking in exchange for a modest fee of several thousand dollars.

The same is true of trying to reach the Digg/Popular page, the Technorati front page, and many others. And I can attest to this from personal experience. Several months ago, one particular Nerfherder blog post made it to the Digg/Popular page - and as a result, it generated a 1200% increase in web traffic to the site and relative bucket loads more in advertising money from click-throughs.

So how do these websites determine what makes their popular or front pages? The answer is that they all use different proprietary algorithms, which of course are trade secrets, and therefore are more the subject of speculation than knowledge.

What's more, these algorithms are somewhat controversial. Yesterday's tirade aside, Digg users have revolted before over what they see as unfair preferential treatment afforded to Digg "power users". Other websites like Wikipedia use an algorithm based on random selection, to the chagrin of traditional power elites and companies who would like to get listed more prominently and more often. Google has been criticized because its algorithm which relies on external hyperlinks rather than page views, in effect giving already-established websites an even more entrenched power position.

In the end, the issue is one of media gatekeeping. The rise of voting-based mechanisms on Web 2.0 sites has been a very promising development, though, without doubt, they too have shown their flaws. I'm sure that, like myself, most web content creators can relate to Rebecca Kelley's tirade and too-often feel overwhelmed with frustration, making us want to rip the heads off those evil mathematicians who devised grossly unfair algorithmic formulas that make us feel like we "have as much persuasive power as a gay Democrat in Alabama".

But I'll still take a mathematical formula that can be tweaked rather than a traditional gatekeeping media elite, sporting their own personal or institutional agendas, who make decisions on our behalf.


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