Chris Wilson’s article in Slate last Friday argues that social media like Digg and Wikipedia aren’t really “democratic”.
Phil Bradley sums up the article really nicely:
1% of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the sites edits.
In 2007 the top 100 diggers submitted 44% of the sites top stories, and in 2006 it was 56%.
The point really is that it’s not the wisdom of the crowds, it’s a gentle dictatorship of the chaperones.
“At both Digg and Wikipedia,” the article says, “small groups of users have outsized authority.”
Well…yeah. Y’know why?
Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most.
Right. Those who are most active in the process develop over time a hugely disproportionate influence. How exactly does that differ from democracy in the United States?
But it’s the next bit that really bugs me:
Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.
First, direct democracy is absolutely feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. In fact, I believe direct democracy that is (more or less) as democratic as the process by which we elect American presidents is happening on these sites. Just as in life and politics, those who posses the necessary desire and resources cultivate a disproportionate influence.
I don’t think it is that these sites have built a hierarchical structure into their source code- it is that human behavior is still human behavior whether it takes places in presidential primaries or on Digg. That behavior forms a hierarchy.
The United States isn’t a populist utopia, and no social site ever will be either. Why? Because they’re run by fallible people operating from positions of widely varying resources who care in greatly varying degrees.
Anyone with the requisite smarts and time to invest has the opportunity to become influential on these sites- and that’s what makes these sites democratic.