Why Digg.com Just ‘Works’ & Why Its Users Quickly Revolt.

On: October 10, 2009
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About Joery Bruijntjes
Joery Bruijntjes is a digital media enthusiast with a profound interest in the social uses of media. As a digital native he breathes digital oxygen and loves to stay at the razors edge of technology, social media and marketing. He's MA in New Media and frequently blogs about contentmarketing and other stuff. If you want to learn more about him please visit his website for an overview of his web activities.

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So, I just finished reading the better part of Jonathan Zittrain’s lastest book: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. In it he deals with the question how generative media on the internet (like Wikipedia) may be controlled without killing off it’s fundamental principles that lead to innovation and popularization. I thought it was a nice text to help explain why sites like Digg and Slashdot just ‘work’ without much regulation, and will do so after discussing Zittrain’s main ideas.

First let me explain this notion of ‘generative media’ trough a quick comparison between an iPhone and a PC. Zittrain defines generative media as (quite simply put) platforms for innovation. An PC for example is essentially a blank slate; though it usually comes with software installed you have complete freedom to ‘rework’ your computer by installing or writing other software for it. This (simply put) makes it a platform on which might be innovated, since the possible outcomes of your rework aren’t predetermined. An iPhone on the other hand contains a highly closed ‘base operating system’ by default which you are not allowed (legally and otherwise) to tinker with. You can of course still write software for the iPhone but in the end Apple is the one who decides which addons are acceptable, thus predetermining all kinds of ‘innovation’ that might take place.

According to Zittrain, the internet is a generative medium by nature (I suppose nobody argues him there :)) and we’re killing it by forcing a greatly unsuitable form of control on the ‘issues’ (such as breaches of copyright) that arise. To point out that there are other possibilities he uses two main examples; Wikipedia and the ‘verkeersbordvrij’ project. I feel the latter one is more suitable to explain how Zittrain answers the question what the technical tools and social structures that ‘inspire people to act humanely online?’

Verkeersbordvrij is a project started in 2006 in a Dutch city called Drachten. In Drachten they removed (almost) all road signs. This means there were no traffic sign, parking meters or even parking spaces (there was space to park obviously). Aside from regular traffic rules (like max 50 km/u in the city center) the only rules were ‘that drivers should yield to those on their right at an intersection, and that parked cars blocking others will be towed.’

Without road signs to blindly follow people were forced to actively think about what’s going on in front of their eyes. To paraphrase Zittrain a bit; they were once again communicating with other drivers in stead of just looking a other cars. Sadly Zittrain’s book did not mention if or how long this effect lasted but the point in case seems clear; with fewer rules the parties involved have to figure out what works for themselves.

According to Zittraine, the same goes for online environments. It’s hard to enforce strict rules from the start and usually also counterproductive. To me it seems obvious that Wikipedia participation for example will decline when more and more rules are added to steer participants in a certain direction. More rules means a higher bar and a higher bar means more washout. Strangely, for Wikipedia ‘the absence of law has not resulted in the absence of order.’

Zittrain extract the following lessons from Wikipedia’s success:

  • Few rules;
  • No gatekeepers;
  • Discussion pages for users to interact;
  • A core of initial editors who shared a common vision.

Now the interesting thing with these set of lessons is that the founding principles were not undebatable. Since users could change everything the rules were also easy to change. But in order to do that they would have to reach some level of agreement on what the correct rules were. Otherwise other members would simple revert the rule again. This according to Zittrain leads to the same kind of social behavior we’ve seen in the Verkeersbordvrij project.

When we look at Digg we see a few similarities but also a big difference. Within Digg each user is able to submit stories, give comments or rate how important they find a certain story. The single common goal ‘Diggers’ have is to find as much interesting stories in their field of interest as possible. This gives users, like Wikipedia contributes, an incentive to actively participate in shaping Digg to their liking. Of course there are clashes of interest, which they together must work on to decide which step to take towards the best path to their common goal. Here, numbers play an important role.

So Digg has no gatekeepers (everybody can post), few rules (no child pornography and stuff), plenty of discussion pages (comments beneath each entry) and they have had a initial core of contributing ‘geeks’ who helped set out a course. Sounds great, right? Well to a certain extent it ‘works’ perfectly in this way. The trouble with Digg is that it’s more like an iPhone than a PC. Users can freely interact and discuss what ‘Digg-worthy’ stories are but their realm of possibilities is limited by Digg Inc, the company behind the site.

In the end, Digg users have little say in ‘hardcore’ changes like the site design, the available categories or the introduction or adaption of new features. It’s not open like Wikipedia is open (arguably, you can’t change the Wikipedia core but you can change the interface and navigational conventions etc) and Digg users are therefore at mercy so to say of the founders will. In reality things are of course a lot less simple; where there is power there’s also struggle.

This struggle comes into the spotlight when Digg starts making decisions for its users, like removing an AACS code story after a cease & desist letter. The trouble of the matter is that Digg Inc has always given its community the necessary tools for self-governance; thus getting users to become personally involved with the service. The users invested in the service means that, following Zittrain’s arguments, they feel ‘part-owner’ of the platform they helped shape. When major decisions are made without involving the community it’s therefore logical they become upset and revolt, to balance the power relation once more.

Update:

In the weekly scheduled meeting discussing contributions to the Masters of Media (MoM) blog it was noted that this article contains mainly law & social theory and that the addition of a humanities point of view would be a welcome one. Since the text above is mainly about the influence of control mechanisms on content creation, it makes sense to extend this all with some Surveillance & Control perspectives.

First off, it seems to me that the implicit transition Zittrain bargains for (from strict ‘top down’ control to open ‘bottom up’ regulation) is a lot like the transition from the kind of disciplinary societies that Foucault identifies to the control society Deleuze sees taking place. Going with this analogy for a moment we can easily see the similarity in that both find that top-down control is losing it’s advantages or at the very least is being replaced by a more complex and efficient system.

This leaves the important distinction between control enforced by human actors and control that is enforced by systems, in this case mainly software. With the notably exception of the AACS keys, I arguably find that in Digg it is mostly the system itself that enforces control and enables actions. One could say that it is modulating user behavior to a certain extends and thus bares a lot of resemblance to the way control mechanisms work in Deleuze’s control society.

Deleuze reminds us that the control society is not necessarily something to fear but that we simply need to find new weapons to fight with. I think that ‘hacking the system’ is the most effective new weapon one has to rebel. If we view Digg as a system within a control society we see that the AACS case is an effective way of ‘hacking the system’ by (in this case) massively floading the system with the forbidden information as a form of civil protest. Though in this case the system was used in a legitimate way (publishing links to interesting stories), it was obviously not mend to be bombarded with short messages of discontent causing the servers to crash. Ironically, the users use the system to fight against the system…

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