Segmentation of social news sites

Giles Bowkett: Summon Monsters? Open The Door? Heal? Or Die?

I have to admit, I almost stopped reading after the first couple paragraphs justifying himself being jerk-ish, but he does have a healthy dose of good points towards the middle.

The underlying assumption of ‘wisdom of the crowds’ is that people make independent decisions, and they have the same amount of time to do it. Neither are true in social news sites. The former being untrue because you can up vote stories that are already on the front page. That just makes it into a positive feedback system that blows up and amplifies small signals. It’s ok when the community is small, but as it gets larger, the more likely that noise will make it.

The second point I didn’t think about until Giles pointed out explicitly–that since votes come for free, that people that spend their time on the sites are the ones that influence it the most.

Combine the two effects, you have a recipe for amplification of noise. The problem is, you need the amplification mechanisms like up voting on the front page in place when the site is small to grow it, and then when it reaches a certain size, the mechanics of social sites need to change (to what, none of us exactly figured it out yet) to protect the users from themselves.

I’m venturing to guess personalization and fuzzy segmentation to be one solution. As Paul Buchheit mentioned earlier about how twitterers hardly get any spam, it’s because if anyone’s saying stuff you don’t want to hear, you can just unfollow them. Twitter works in this regard because there is a built-in small world network with a relatively low transmission rate between nodes (as opposed to facebook which has a small world network, but high transmission rates of information between nodes…which results in lots of unwanted invitations to bite zombies and vampires). Social sites like Digg, reddit, and hacker news, don’t really have a network. It’s just one single “place”, where what happens on it affects everyone, and small perturbations get amplified.

However, I don’t think such a strategy would work well in the beginning. The very thing that helps a small community in the beginning hurts a larger community, and the very thing that would protect a larger community from itself would stunt the growth of a new smaller one.

I think this would be an interesting topic and ripe for research. It actually reminds me of ant colonies, where younger ant colonies will act like teenagers, taking more risks, focus on growing, and experimenting. Older ant colonies are more about taking less risks, maintaining the brood, and surviving. There’s some sort of decentralized mechanism that kicks in for ant colonies to do that, or maybe once they reach a certain size. I think looking into the literature for that might yield some clues into how to design community sites so that they can grow in the beginning, and not implode when they get bigger.

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