The digital democracy’s emerging elites

Yesterday I attended the IE-Club conference that took place in Paris. The most notable speech was the one Marc Simoncini, the man behind Meetic, gave. He talked about the entrepreneur spirit and the 4 pilars required for an economy to foster such climate: seed money (think VC), technology (it’s all there anyway), entrepreneurs (wanna quit this safe job of yours?) and society (French people tend to think “entrepreneur” and “mafia mobster” are synonymous). To him, it seems this fragile virtuous cycle has just begun here in France.

Interestingly enough, a day before this event took place, an article from my favourite newspaper, the FT, touched on the emerging elites of the ‘web 2.0 economy’. Here it goes.

The digital democracy’s emerging elites.
September, 25th 2006
(c) 2006 The Financial Times Limited.

There are no prizes for guessing the most popular (and sought-after) types of internet enterprise at the moment. Anything that can be labelled Web 2.0 – social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, news aggregators such as Digg and Reddit and user-generated sites such as Wikipedia and Flickr – are the new new media.

Facebook is the latest such company to think of selling itself, with companies such as Yahoo and Viacom being asked to cough up Dollars 1bn (Pounds 526m). With News Corporation’s purchase of MySpace last year for Dollars 580m now being regarded by Wall Street as a master stroke, other media companies are trawling for their own Web 2.0 acquisitions to transform themselves in the eyes of investors.

The hoo-hah over Web 2.0 companies is more than a matter of financial credibility. These companies, unlike most newspapers, magazines or television operations, do not employ professional writers, editors and producers to create material for their audience. Instead, they encourage their users both to contribute content and to select the most interesting things to display to others. Old media “gatekeepers” (such as the people who edit this column) are out of fashion and what Jay Adelson, chief executive of Digg, calls “collective wisdom” is in. As Rupert Murdoch said last year of young internet users: “They don’t want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what’s important . . . They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.”

But such democratic rhetoric (what one critic has dubbed “digital Maoism”) ignores one awkward fact. While anyone is free to launch a blog, contribute to Wikipedia or publish photographs on Flickr, a relatively small number of activists often dominate proceedings on Web 2.0 sites. Although they are unpaid, they can nonetheless achieve an elite status reminiscent of the old media’s professional gatekeepers. An illuminating spat occurred last month at Digg, which encourages its 500,000 registered users to submit news stories from around the internet and vote for (or “digg”) the most interesting. The most popular rise up its rankings and are displayed on its home page. It is the kind of thing that might have pleased the original Diggers, an 18th-century English sect that believed people should form self-governing communes. After protests that a group of about 20 Digg activists were promoting the stories they liked by supporting each other’s choices, the site changed the algorithm that helps to rank stories. Kevin Rose, Digg’s founder, said it would give more weight to “the unique digging diversity of the individuals digging the story” – in other words, make it harder for a cabal to distort the results. That created outrage from the other side, with its activists complaining that they were being accused unfairly of cheating. Its top user, ranked by success in promoting stories to the home page, threatened to abandon the site. “I bequeath my measly number one position to whoever wants to reign,” wrote the user known as P9. He was persuaded back and is still ranked at number two. Mr Adelson insists that Digg is more democratic than some other sites because it is easy for anyone to contribute: users simply click to vote. Others, such as Wikipedia, demand more effort and have narrower participation. Jimmy Wales, the latter’s founder, estimates that 70 per cent of editing is done by less than 2 per cent of registered users.

At one level, the fact that an elite often emerges within Web 2.0 sites is neither surprising nor sinister. The same thing can be seen in physical communities such as political parties. Relatively few have the patience or inclination to attend meetings and work on projects. The result is that groups of like-minded people who are particularly dedicated to the cause gradually gain dominance. All the other slackers (or lurkers, as people who browse community sites for news and information without themselves contributing are known) gain a free ride at the expense of not controlling the agenda. “Things will always be done by the people who most want to do them. I don’t think we will ever be shielded from that,” says Clay Shirky, a consultant and academic.

But it does, as Nicholas Carr, a technology writer, says, “contradict a lot of the assumptions promulgated about the great egalitarianism of the web”. There is not much of a logical distinction between someone who edits stories for money and someone who does so for recognition and social status. Indeed, Netscape has lured away some of the most active Digg users by paying them to submit stories to its site instead. These are early days for Web 2.0 sites so it is difficult to predict the degree to which new media will come to look like old, with small groups of people filtering content for mass audiences. The optimistic view is that technology will make it so easy to switch among filters that gatekeepers will have less power. Digg already allows people to see stories that have been recommended by their friends rather than all of its users. Still, the fact that there is an “A-list” of bloggers who garner a large proportion of internet links and traffic indicates that just because the web is an open medium it is not necessarily an egalitarian one. This generation of consumers has learnt to be sceptical about how information and entertainment is edited and filtered by groups of professionals. It ought to remain on its guard in the Web 2.0 world as well.

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One Response to The digital democracy’s emerging elites

  1. Pingback: Web 2.0: the French touch « W<i>nn</i>ng the Web

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