Monday, December 29, 2008

Bring Back the Wisdom of Crowds to Social News!

...or "Why Social Media and Wisdom of Crowds Don't Mix"


I'm taking a detour from Newsodrome and niche news to discuss social media... -
A couple of months ago I was watching a short lecture by James Surowiecki, the man who coined the term "Wisdom of Crowds". Two concepts caught my attention: "Under the right conditions, groups can be remarkably intelligent" and "Groups are only smart when the people in them are as independent as possible.".
I heard a coin drop... what I realized is that "Social voting" and "Wisdom of Crowds" just don't naturally mix!
In a way, it makes perfect sense. If we all vote as a group, we actually vote as a single person and the wisdom is gone with the crowd.

How to Become a Social News Power User

Yesterday, I ran across a "how to become a digg power user" post, the latest in a repeating theme of stories about how to become a digg/StumbleUpon/reddit/Mixx/propeller power user.
They all have the same basic idea: add as many friends as you can, vote for everything your friends are submitting and IM your friends to vote for your own submitted stories.
But what I now realized, is that following the "power user" advices can ruin the best aspects of the wisdom of crowds!

Deterioration of Quality?

There is a lot of talk about the deterioration of the quality of digg's front page stories and I can attest to it in a way. While I read digg daily, I was much happier with its quality at the very early days of digg when it was a small technology news-site, fighting head-to-head with Slashdot (I confess that I might be just a little nostalgic here...). A possible reason for this decline is that as digg got larger and as more social engagement tools were added, the mediocrity of the groups overpowered the wisdom of crowds.
The elements required for a crowd to be wise include diversity of opinion, independence and decentralization. Factors that can break the wisdom of the crowd include being too homogeneous, too centralized and too imitative... Surely we have a problem here.
Kevin Rose and the rest of the digg folks are trying to solve this problem by penalizing group votes. However, this hasn't significantly changed the top diggers chart as it was before the changes.

Enough With the Rant and Off to a Solution (?)

Our principles of a social news website that revives the "Wisdom of Crowds" -
  1. Social and voting aspects of the news service are decoupled.

  2. Users can vote only on a selected portion of the submitted stories, selected by the service.

  3. Submission and voting is anonymous.
Here is our suggested solution:
Everyone can submit new stories BUT you can't vote on just any story, but rather on a subset of the stories, randomly chosen by the system.
Let's look at a scenario: Blonde58 wants a story to reach the front page. She sends an IM to all her friends, but when they reach the upcoming stories section, the only place where you can vote, they only have a slim chance of seeing blonde58's particular story and vote for it.
Add some standard anti-group-voting algorithms and this may just be the solution we've been looking for.

What Now?

We described what we believe is a service that can bring the wisdom of crowds back into social news.
Improving the social news is quite a divergence from "Newsodrome", our niche news website and our main focus (tune in next week to read why social news and niche news don't mix...). But for the interest of the community, we are more than willing to make this idea a reality and test it out in the wild. Please follow this link [Updated: voting ended] if you are interested and want us to implement this solution.

Love to hear your thoughts.



Blogger Lars said...

...but you can't do this from the beginning. If you have a userbase of, let's say, 50 and they can only vote on a subset, there won't be enough data to make meaningful assumptions about the quality.

the hard thing is to construct a system that takes the road to "critical mass" into account and changes gradually.

December 29, 2008 2:19 PM  
Blogger Itai Lahan said...

@Lars - good point.

We shouldn't have thrown away the excel chart with the critical-mass calculations we've made...

If I recall correctly, starting with a couple of thousands of participating visitors, you'll already start seeing some actually interesting front-page stories emerging.

December 29, 2008 2:48 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

great insight. especially for those of us involved and building social sites.

December 29, 2008 5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Out of curiousity, how will this not force people to just make more accounts to beat the odds?

December 29, 2008 7:25 PM  
Anonymous Education in India said...

nice article

December 29, 2008 9:29 PM  
Blogger Itai Lahan said...

"how will this not force people to just make more accounts to beat the odds?"
Because it would probably be futile.
Let me rephrase (creating dummy accounts can usually be easily detected) so - "how will this not force people to just invite more friends?".
Today, you might need 100 reciprocating friends to reach the front page as each can vote for your submitted story. If the system controls what articles you can vote on you might need a number 100 times as large, probably making it an unreasonable MO.

December 29, 2008 10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good observations, but wrong solution. A much more effective, and simpler solution is to give site visitors an option to hide all power user submissions. Why? because it allows the groupies to keep together with out gaming the Digg system while the rest of us can ignore them.

December 30, 2008 3:58 AM  
Blogger said...

I like the idea of hiding power users, cause I ignore them anyways. This is exactly how lawmakers pass laws. They vote multiple times and disrupt the actual count.

December 30, 2008 5:14 AM  
Anonymous Trevor said...

I have absolutely said this before and social media will prove it to be true. The group-think mindset destroys open and honest discussion on places like forums, and discerning places like digg where the opinion of what is good should be what matters not how big popular the article is.

And the biggest problem is that through web 1.0 different companies have actually followed discussions and articles assuming that the group speaks for the majority, when the truth could not be farther away... the majority often languishes afraid to combat the bullies.

December 30, 2008 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Why Social News Can't Exist Without Hierarchy said...

I disagee that social news can be effectively separated from a social hierarchy.

I posted my response in the link above.

December 30, 2008 5:30 PM  
OpenID dubek said...

Itai, take a look at this:

It's more than a year old, and has your ideas. He implemented it as a Facebook app, not sure how successful it was.


January 4, 2009 6:04 AM  

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