Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wikipedia vs. Digg: The Internet at its Best, and at its Worst

The dreams of doe-eyed idealists live on in the Internet. "Information wants to be free!" Universal, free access to limitless information; absolute powers of self-publishing; and virtual intellectual anarchy. The Internet is a parallel world to the real one, and the only rules it abides by are the ones people have chosen to follow. It is a self-governing paradise.

One of those dreams is the image of millions of anonymous surfers acting as the ultimate information sieve of which information and news is most relevant, important, and true. Throw enough people at a problem and the solution will rise to the surface.

That power is enticing, but it is tempered by one phenomenon: the more democratic information becomes, it seems, the less it becomes. Like magnetic iron shavings, Internet users bond together into clumps, and where there are clumps, there is control, there is preference, and there is domination.

Two of the Internet's most popular sources of information are Wikipedia and Digg. Both derive their importance from the analogy of the sieve. In Wikipedia, anonymous contributors edit articles ad-infinitum, and the more an article is edited by more people, the more true it becomes. Digg is somewhat different in that it does not apply the ocean of Internet users to the task of content creation, but rather merely content evaluation. Articles are voted up or down (there are no criteria for choosing one or the other; it is merely preference); and moreover, comments to those articles are themselves voted up or down.

These two models of user participation both make claims to the effect that the democratization of publishing will produce an end result that is more helpful and beneficial to public discourse than their mainstream media counterparts.

Wikipedia, I believe, succeeds brilliantly. The anarchic encyclopedia often comes out neck-and-neck in terms of accuracy with the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta, though it is often lacking in good structure. Whatever its failings, Wikipedia is far and away more useful and accurate than anybody could have predicted of a reference governed only by an honor system.

Even on matters concerning religion, which the dominant 20-30 something crowd of Internet users commonly loathe, Wikipedia offers solid information.

Digg, in spite of having similar principles driving it, is a wasteland of critical thought. Digg voters and commentators appear to be dominated by a vast sea of--not just non-believers--but angry, prejudiced, intolerant, and utterly dogmatic non-believers. It is not only the religion articles that unveil that striking character, but any article invoking popular emotion unleashes the mob mentality. That mob feeds on itself by "digging" comments it agrees with and "burying" comments it does not agree with.

What's the difference?

I believe there are a few:

  • What kind of user-contribution is invited?
  • What is understood to be of greatest value?
  • What happens to truth in these models?
Digg and Wikipedia ask for distinctly different contributions. Digg asks for a click. Wikipedia asks for expertise and explanation. An opinionated troglodyte can edit a Wikipedia article; however, such an edit will not likely stand the test of time. Even if the troglodytes outnumber the scholars, the scholars will win out in the end because the value of their contribution to the article will be more widely recognized.

Digg offers no serious means for scholars to win influence away from troglodytes. On the contrary, because contributing to Digg has no complexity or distinctive content (no "click" is more persuasive than any other "click"), the scholar's positions will only be "dugg" if their conclusions match those of the majority; otherwise they will be "buried." Majority opinion is self-reinforcing on Digg.

Digg and Wikipedia have distinctly different values. That is evidence in their very titles. Wikipedia is the "Free Encyclopedia". Users and contributers have a collective understanding that accuracy and truth are its sole reason for existing. Even those with idiosyncratic agendas understand this. Relatively few people edit Wikipedia articles with the same interests in mind that govern Digg. Whether I "like" something is irrelevant. Only the truth matters.

Digg, then, is all about preference--not about accuracy. A true comment will be "buried", not because "Diggers" found it to be untrue or inaccurate, but because they might have found it disagreeable or unimportant.

Another factor to consider is that the people who make earnest contributions to Wikipedia articles more often than not are specialists of some kind or another. They care about the topic at hand. Two scholars on Wikipedia can hold off a dozen article-defacing troglodytes, because they can continually remove the influence of superficiality, and their efforts will be reinforced by supporters.

On Digg, a comment can only receive one vote from each person. Thus, a scholar cannot continually "digg" their own comment; to defend ideological terroritory, the scholar would have to recruit substantial numbers in order to "digg" that comment up into relevancy. Without the numbers, comments get buried irrespective of their actual value.

So what happens to the truth in these models? In Wikipedia I believe truth actually does rise to the surface. In Digg, truth takes a backseat to the caprice of the mob, to enjoyment, to collective outrage, in a word, to groupthink.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

Reading your post, it sounds like Digg might just be the necessary evil, the dodge, the hustle which serves to further preserve the integrity of Wikipedia?