Why Slate is Wrong About “the myth of Web 2.0 democracy”

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.

7 thoughts on “Why Slate is Wrong About “the myth of Web 2.0 democracy”

  1. Sorry, but I don’t think you cam close to demonstrating that the Slate article was “wrong.” And who cares anyway how “democratic” Wikipedia is?

  2. Stephen, I suspect we’d agree that trying to judge these sites by how “democratic” they are is silly. Wilson chose to use that word.

    No, I didn’t demonstrate that the Slate article was “wrong” any more than the Slate article demonstrated that Wikipedia isn’t “democratic.” Opinions are like that. Fortunately, we’re each of us entitled to his/her own. Thanks for sharing yours- no need to apologize. 🙂

  3. If it is true that there is a secret algorithm that gives some Diggers’ opinions more weight, that would be a fair point, Mortimer.

    On the other hand, perhaps the electoral college and democratic party Superdelegates might be a fair analogy for these individual Diggers with disproportionate influence.

  4. Regarding the numbers on who generates content on wikipedia (the superusers) vs who deletes more content (people with less posts)
    Wilson thinks the typo fixing is done by the many, but I reckon those small numbers are people doing spin/damage control on the small number of entries that interest them. Purely speculation…

    Here’s the section:
    “People who’ve made more than 10,000 edits add nearly twice as many words to Wikipedia as they delete. By contrast, those who’ve made fewer than 100 edits are the only group that deletes more words than it adds. A small number of people are writing the articles, it seems, while less-frequent users are given the tasks of error correction and typo fixing.”

  5. My guess would be similar to yours, Guido…but I haven’t seen (or looked for) any data that would support either view.