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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The problem with voted content: Homogenisation

A couple of things occurred the past week which made me think about voted content. The first was Dharmesh Shah lamenting the loss of reddit and the second was an idea floated on the bangalore barcamp mailing list of having an event where all the talks are voted on by the audience.

Why do I think an audience voted event is a bad idea? Tyranny of the majority. Tyranny of the majority is a term applied to pure democracies where the majority can constantly out-vote the minority and therefore impose their view on the entire population (which is why there are no purely democratic countries, but lets not go there).

Lets take a simple example to see how this works. Say we have an event and 100 people turn up. 60 of them want to attend startup sessions. 40 want to attend photography sessions. There are ten speaking slots. Common sense dictates that having 6 startup sessions and 4 photography sessions is a "fair" distribution for the given audience.

But what happens when topics are put to vote? In every slot, the startup crowd can out-vote the photography crowd. Therefore when put to vote, the most likely outcome will be 10 startup sessions and no photography sessions.

But it doesn't end there. The next time the event comes up, the audience will be reinforced by those who liked it the first time around. Therefore in the second edition, there will be more startup enthusiasts in the crowd and fewer photography buffs. Over time, this positive feedback cycle will reinforce itself until the crowd and the topics become homogeneous.

This is exactly what happened to reddit for example. Topics that appealed to the majority go to the front page. As users visit the site, those who like the topics on the front page tend to stay, while those who don't will leave. Those who stay cause more such articles to get to the front page, which in turn attracts people who like those topics. A vicious positive feedback loop occurs as the crowd and the topics become homogeneous, eventually driving out minority interests.

The cool thing about a barcamp is that there is a great deal of variety in the topics. Therefore, even if you are in the minority, there is a good chance that you will find someone with your interests at the event. The biking collective was a good example of this. Such a session would never have survived a voting round. But the barcamp format meant that it was possible for those interested in the topic to meet up and have a session.

That is why I feel that efforts must be taken to preserve diversity.

Having said that, there is merit in voted sessions. Voted sessions avoid the situation where people talk about stuff that no one wants to hear about. But it makes more sense if voted sessions are just one of the tracks in the barcamp, not the whole event.

4 comments:

Rams said...

I was one of the earliest user/contributors on reddit. To start with was a very promising, but I think at some point they became obsessed with hits.Understandable for VC funded businesses that don't sell anything, and they were not very serious about ads at that time. So the obsession with hits is understandable, since the whole aim of the companies funded by y-combinator is to get sold. They had nothing going for them other than the number of visitors. In addition to that they never ever had a good system for checking downvoting bots; cliques and cabals were never detected and eliminated. By the time they had instituted a few weak rules, it was all over - the mob had already taken over or they got what they wanted. They did really silly things like allowing
users to go back and remove their posts with bad scores, so that their total points could go up. Truth be told they were extremely amateurish - the whole lisp-> python farce - chosing a bad lisp distro and then blaming lisp. Till date it doesn't do search properly. I have become deeply cynical about the crowdsourcing/web 2.0 thing after watching reddit closely - I think Mark Pilgrim was the only one who got it right:
http://diveintomark.org/archives/2006/10/31/ugc

Paul Graham claims to be doing a better job with news.ycombinator.com - yes the man who funded reddit is now completely fed up with it. But again, where's the transparency ? The one trick that does seem to work is to have voting on niche areas - so programming.reddit.com is still ok. But once you have a topic on
which everyone has an opinion, the quality is bound to go down.

Shourya Sarcar said...

Voting at Barcamp is a dangerous proposition, for two reasons.

a/ Since it will be difficult to conduct a secret ballot on-the-spot, there will definitely forming of cliques. And I hate to see people canvassing at Barcamp. Publicity, yes. Canvassing, no. Fine line.

b/ Your 60-40 example was good. If 13 people vote for a session on RoR and 11 vote for Bicycling ? I can telly you the bicycling faction is going to end up in the corridor. Which is what should happen at a Barcamp. The problem is the environment of animosity it will produce. Uggh :-(

Votes are fine in a free society as long as you do not force the minority to give in to the majority's choices. At that point, the society stops becoming free.

Anonymous said...

Shourya, Siddhi:

While voting could indeed be dangerous, it may not be entirely without merit. Could we examine it further?

See Kingsly's comment, for example: http://jace.seacrow.com/archive/2007/08/14/why-voting-in-sessions-may-be-a-bad-idea#1187221913

--Jace

Anonymous said...

The link that didn't get linked.

--Jace