Many open web advocates would hold up Slashdot as an archetype of new media democracy. Don’t let those authoritarian old media editors decide what’s important — let the people decide.
Well, it turns out “the people” are really just a small cabal of dedicated (fanatical) users, with names like Zonk, CowboyNeal, and CmdrTaco who decide what’s important.
Jason Kottke has a fascinating comparative analysis of Slashdot vs. Digg. Leaving aside that Slashdot has been around much longer, Slashdot is much more influential on a per item basis because it aggressively limits the number of items that get posted. Digg, on the other hand, is more democratic, open to more links, and therefore less influential:
Slashdot is far from dying…the site still wields an enormous amount of influence. That’s because it’s been around so long, it’s been big, visible, and influential for so long, and their purpose is provide their audience with 20-25 relevant links/stories each day. The “word-of-mouth” network that Slashdot has built over the years is broad and deep. When a link is posted to Slashdot, not only do their readers see it, it’s posted to other blogs (and from there to other blogs, etc.), forwarded around, etc. And those are well-established pathways.
In contrast, Digg’s network is not quite so broad and certainly less deep…they just haven’t been around as long. Plus Digg has so much flow (links/day) that what influence they do have is spread out over many more links, imparting less to each individual link. (There are quite a few analogies you can use somewhat successfully here…the mafia don who outsmarts a would-be usurper because of his connections and wisdom or the aging rock group that may currently be less popular than the flavor of the month but has collectively had a bigger influence on pop music. But I’ll leave making those analogies as an exercise to the reader.)
In a nutshell, Slashdot is more influential because it acts more like authoritarian old media. Matt McAlister has a great recount of his effort to game Slashdot to drive traffic to his site, which ended up being more effort than he had time for. Sounds an awful lot like the effort required to get published in old media.
This is what the blogosphere fails to realize about the old media model — people value authority, or probably a better word is judgment. Slashdot newsworthiness or Wikipedia acuracy is determined by the judgment of a relatively small number of dedicated, knowledgeable people (the blogosphere won’t call them editors, but that’s what they are.)
Which is not very democratic. But it’s a whole lot more useful than being awash in a sea of unmoderated (or loosely moderated) opinion.
Slashdot serves the crucial old media editorial function of helping people figure out what’s important and what’s worthy of their finite time and attention. Even in a democratic Web 2.0 guise, e.g. Newsvine, participatory media is a lot of work, and most people just don’t have the time or energy.
Digg may see more site traffic from everyone trying it out and playing editor for a day. But the Slashdot model of aggressively filtering the vast sea of information creates more value for readers. Slashdot may be ultimately be replaced by the next hot app, but maybe not –its brand, like stodgy old media brands, has real value that may yet endure.
I came across an example of the risks of democracy on Digg involving O’Reilly Media. As Nathan Torkington points out in his post on the mess:
This is a classic Web 2.0 problem: it’s hard to aggregate the wisdom of the crowd without aggregating their madness as well.
Richard MacManus takes it a step further in his ZDNET blog post, calling out the wrongness and risk of anonymous personal attack on a pure democracy site like Digg:
NowÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ maybe I’m being alarmist here, but it worries me that a person’s reputation can be so quickly attacked on sites like Digg – and Wikipedia for that matter, although at least they have warning messages. Especially when the attacks are personal and made by anonymous cowards, at which point they cross a line for me. I’m not sure if I’d make it a federal crime, but still it is cowardly and too close to a mob mentality for my comfort.