Thursday, May 11, 2006

Revenge of the Nerds

"Why the internet sucks, people are morons and Digg.com is bad."
(May also be interpreted as "How democracy can go bad" or "Are Google evil?" if you're lazy and prefer the tabloid version.)

It seems people are the future of the internet. Or, peer review.

Today Google announced Google Co-op. "Google Co-op is about sharing expertise" Or in other words, peer-review of the web. People subscribe to Google Co-op, surf the web, and as they find websites they like or dislike, they let Google Co-op know. Eventually, the idea is that Google will use Co-op to influence its search engine rankings, gather meta data, and find out what real people, rather than Google's search bots, like and dislike.

Which sounds like a pretty good idea - an evolution of the web, expanding upon the ideas of peer moderated websites like Slashdot and Digg. Except, sometimes the peers (read: bitter, angry nerds) get out of control.

I was reading this rather innocuous post on Digg.com - a user submitted post linking to video footage of the unfinished PlayStation 3 games system crashing. Ignoring the fact that this non-event somehow made the front page of an important news site, gathering hundreds of "diggs" (each digg is a thumbs up, or a vote, from a user who regards the post as worthy news) - the comments within this post's page are more worrying.

Every user's comments on Digg.com can be moderated by other users. A comment receives + or - diggs from other users. Each comment starts off neutral, but if it receives four or more negative diggs from other users, it is "hidden" (not deleted, just hidden from human eyes). Okay, this sounds fair enough - a system to prevent people harassing others on discussion boards. But in reality, if a handful of people don't like something? They digg it down. Bury the comment!

You don't even need to post inflamatory comments to be "dug down" and have your opinions pushed off the internet. Here we can see that comments such as "this is the fault of programmers, not the console" or "that's not particularly unexpected for an unfinished games system", can and will receive negative diggs (you can choose to view all comments, even though with negative diggs, by changing your user settings, but most viewers won't make this effort, so these people are effectively censored by the masses, or a small group of moderation vigilantes). Why the negative diggs? In this particular case, because a group of people, fans of Nintendo, not only refuse to hear negative criticism of Nintendo (their favourite multi-national company), but refuse to hear anything that doesn't go along with their own view point.

It's not such a big issue with Digg.com, because, popular as it is, you can still go else where if you don't like it. It is a very big issue with Google - Google is trusted as a portal, the search engine for the internet, if you're not on Google, you're barely online.

Google Co-ops peer review sounds harmless at first. It's not a true, fair democracy though - it's more an issue of who can get a large enough vigilante mob together to censor and "mark down" websites on the internet. Admittedly, it's unlikely Google will actively censor websites (though, they are doing that right now, on Google China), but they don't actually have to remove websites from their search listings. If enough users tell them "this site is rubbish!", it seems inevitable, that site will fall in Google's page rankings. Falling from the first page in Google's search results, to the third page, for some websites, is as bad as being censored. If there's a reason for it - because the site in question has nothing to do with the user's search, or is filled with spam - then great, everyone wins. But at the same time, angry nerd mobs could use this to demote things they simply don't like.

Ok, so everyone deserves a say. Don't take this as an anti-democracy message - I'm not trying to tell you something like "Hitler was elected!" (he wasn't really... well, sort of, if killing all the opposition and scaring everyone into voting for you counts). But, I do think even the moderators need to be moderated. The peers are reviewing the web, but who's reviewing the peers? Google, presumably. But do they have the man (or bot) power?

In the 2006 British local elections, the BNP got a small but news worthy share of the vote. Their party line seems to be something along the lines of "we don't like immigrants". In a general election, there isn't much fear of them ever winning - surely, not enough people are that bigotted and stupid. On the web though? On Google Co-op? Yes, half a million moronic bigots could probably join together to "digg this (fascist) site!" and "bury this (reasonable opinion) site!".

Or maybe gamer nerds will just form a mob to censor any site that says "the PlayStation 3 sucks". Maybe it doesn't matter at all. It's worth talking about though, without burying people we don't like.

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(Well, that's my first post, this peer internet thing sparked me into re-setting up some form of blog.)

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