Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

February 27, 2008

Power Structures in Web 2.0

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:54 am

Chris Wilson has an article at Slate called “The Wisdom of the Chaperones: Digg, Wikipedia, and the Myth of Web 2.0 Democracy.” Wilson’s authoritarian zeal is displayed in paragraphs such as:

While both sites [Wikipedia, Digg] effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. 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. 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 of all, I never thought it to be an underpinning of direct democracy that one has to become blind. The largest initial problem operating sites like Digg or Wikipedia is separating the wheat from the chaff. Anyone with even the weakest introduction to the web should know, anytime you allow a user to submit some content for your site, expect an advertisement.  If that surprises Wilson and strikes him as inegalitarian, then he hasn’t taken an honest look at humanity. Properly operating social networks like Wikipedia or Digg involves building up networks of trust within the community. To be trusted, one has to display competence, and it helps if one displays it often and consistently. However, this ruling class presents its own problems, in that it can alienate new users and creates private tyrannies. The solution to this problem is as old as the Roman Republic, and established for much the same reasons, limit the power that any one person yields, limit the amount of time they yield that power to a small interval, and establish a system of checks and balances. In fact, Slashdot’s greatest scandals happened precisely because Rob Malda and other administrators abused their power on occasion, in one striking example censoring a post criticizing the moderation system and arbitrarily removing privileges from users without warning.

In the end, the site administrators who yield unchecked power have the greatest chance of killing the community.  An anonymous double-blind system of rating content which affects users trust levels in the community with a general feedback mechanism is probably the best way to go. I agree with Wilson’s conclusion.

Digg and Wikipedia would do well to stop pretending they’re operated by the many and start thinking of ways to rein in the power of the few.

The easiest and most productive change is simply to add a term limit to a user’s power.  In fact, it is such a good idea maybe we should start with our Representatives and Senators in the real world first.

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