Why Social News Can’t Thrive Without A Social Hierarchy

by Brett Borders on December 30, 2008

This week there was a visible proletariat uprising on the Digg home page, where some users complained that Digg is rigged and asked the administrators of the site to bring back the wisdom of crowds.

Will making social news sites “less social” improve or destroy the culture? image: Tenshirisu

Others are asking Digg to disable the main social networking features on the site (i.e. no more making friends and sending shouts), make all submissions anonymous, limiting the number of Diggs per user each day — and other artificial restrictions… in an attempt to give “equal power” to all users.

I can understand the frustrations of the casual Digg user who never hits the home page. There’s no “101 Intro” video that explains how social news and social networking sites actually operate. And most hard-working people with families or jobs don’t have several hours each day to devote to social news sites, unlike the power users they must compete against.

It’s true that social news isn’t completely “fair” for everybody. And or are other high-profile media realms… like Hollywood, professional sports, or the music industry. Some producers and directors have the charisma, personal brands and connections to push hits onto the screen and win Grammies and Academy Awards year after year – probably at the expense of other “more deserving” bands and stars that no one has heard of, yet.

Social news has a hierarchical power structure, just like old media. At traditional newspapers… the most senior, dedicated employee is more likely to become the editor-in-chief and get control of the home page. At a Japanese company, the salaryman who works the longest hours is most likely to become section chief.

My Japanese supervisor, Mr. Shimizu, put in 16 hour days and knew the culture. He excelled at office politics.

The participation-based merit systems are an important essential ingredient in what has made social news one of the most glamorous and thriving sectors in “Web 2.0″…

Although some people say they hate celebrities, the masses tend to love and support them. I admit that I look up to the “social media rockstars” and I follow their content on Digg or Twitter, in part because they are famous. I can’t meaningfully separate personalities and social relationships from social news… without it losing its exciting, competitive edge… the sticky element that keeps people hooked, hungry and trying harder for the home page.

This competitive drive — and the web of social obligations tied to it — really fuels Digg’s monthly previews and allows it to make money on advertising.

The Digg management understands what the angry proletariat masses don’t: you can’t have capitalism without rich people. You can’t add too many artificial supply restrictions onto a successful social community and attention economy – and expect it to thrive.

So, if you want highly-regulated news… watch Fox. If you want “equality,” start up your own site called “News Lotto: Randomly Selected Stories from Anonymous Nobodies

If you want eclectic, socially-influenced news picks…. Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon do a pretty good, if not perfect job, of delivering a mix of interesting content and commentary. Just be aware that those who participate 10x or 100x more than the average user are going to have somewhat higher odds and, often, better social news skills.

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  • http://www.zsoltballa.com Zsolt Balla

    Hi Brett,

    I think you’ve got a perfect point here: hierarchy is an organic part of keeping things rolling – be it a company or a community. If you take social hierarchy out of a community it stops to be hierarchic but it stops to be social as well.

    cheers,
    Zsolt

  • Brett Borders

    @Zsolt Balla,

    Exactly!

    Thank you for starting it so accurately and eloquently.

  • http://www.makeitbloom.com/blog Xurxo Vidal

    Brett,

    There is a similar discussion brewing on other social networks like Sphinn where users there are trying to figure out how to prevent mediocre content from constantly appearing on the home page because of social influence. While there are many interesting ideas being thrown around, no one can deny the fact that the more active and involved users often get their submissions to the top spots more frequently so definitely there is a hierarchy that kicks in at some point along with favoritism because of superstar status.

    Fighting that trend might be futile given that social networks reflect a lot of elements that are human nature. The more involved in something you become, the more pull you’ll have with it – no doubt about it. Also depending on the network and audience, type of content will have a greater pull than who posted it, but from what I’ve seen, the old adage of who you know is still more powerful than what you know when it comes to social networking.

    Social skills can be and usually are more effective than technical or professional skills when it comes to opening up opportunities and gaining traction in social networks, so to do well in such environments, participants would do well to remember that. At the same time you will also need some technical/professional know how once you’ve got your foot in the door so don’t get me wrong here.

    Way to go for hitting the nail on the head and saying what many people are fighting tooth and nail to deny.

  • Brett Borders

    @Xurxo,

    Amen! There is no meaningful way to “equalize” social news and still have it be social, addictive and compelling…

    People can hate all they want to, but presence, participation and politics cannot be taken out of human social interactions.. online or off!

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