The folly of the crowds

By Razib Khan | October 10, 2010 2:52 pm

With the big hullabaloo around The Social Network I’ve been reflecting a bit about my incorrect intuition since ~2008 that the Facebook bubble would burst at any moment. The bubble may still burst, or a new competitor may come out of the blue, or Google might actually release a comparable offering, but Facebook is still surfing on the crest of victory (which may be a sign that it has “peaked”). But along the way I stumbled onto this article about the marginalization of Digg:

According to Quantcast, an online audience measurement firm, Digg’s domestic traffic has dropped sharply in recent months, from 27.1 million unique users in April to 13.7 million in July. By contrast, Facebook had 145.2 million domestic users in June, according to comScore. While not giving specifics, Mr. Desai of Digg attributes the decline in domestic traffic to changes in Google’s search function that resulted in fewer Digg stories showing up in Google searches.


When the rate of change goes into negative territory in the USA you’re on the way to becoming Friendster (big in Asia) or Orkut (big in Brazil). Here’s the issue:

Digg executives say the redesign, which has been plagued by technical glitches, is less about limiting power users than it is a response to consumers’ desire for customized content. Keval Desai, vice president for product management at Digg, says that people surveyed by the company loved the site’s wisdom-of-crowds ethos but that they also said, “I want to add something curated from my own crowd.”

I appreciate the readers who submit the stories from this weblog to Reddit, but looking at the comments on the posts it is often shocking how lacking in intelligence or discernment most people on the internet are (or, perhaps they choose not to manifest intelligence and discernment on the internet). In contrast, the core cluster of blogs which I read, people who I allow on Google Reader to recommend links, etc., are narrowed to those who I judge to be intelligent, and whose discernment is aligned with my own.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
MORE ABOUT: Digg, Facebook, Technology
  • Stu

    I think you’re right about Facebook. Last night on SNL they ran a phony ad for a software filter for Facebook called “Damn It, My Mom is On Facebook.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i think that’s what “groups” are supposed to fix. we’ll see.

  • rick

    Ah yes, “folly of crowds” is much nicer than my exclamation of “wisdom of crowds, my ass” when at some point recently Reddit hit the idiot tipping point.

    I think the sharp decrease in popularity of Digg is indeed attributable to the fact that you are at the mercy of the discernment of this pretty stupid crowd, but the interesting part is that Reddit was once seen as a greener intellectual pasture.

    I quit reading Digg quite a while ago whenever I stumbled upon Reddit because the level of discourse seemed to be much higher and the stories on the front page were often of at least a middlebrow character. For a while, Reddit was almost an elitist’s version of Digg.

    But at some point over the last year, I also have retired to my Google Reader (and have picked up a few print magazines/journals) to get interesting stories because the front page output of Reddit has basically degenerated into nonsense.

  • LouF

    Good post. The comments, and frankly the commenters on Reddit absolutely are “lacking in intelligence and discernment”.

  • Denis Vluegt

    Three things you should not watch being made if you have an easily upset stomach:

    (1) Sausages
    (2) Politics
    (3) Google’s decision-making process on favored websites.

    Although if you are an investigative journalist with access to a Deep Throat, I would love to read your account of the backroom deals between Eric Schmidt of Google and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.

    Automatically ranking Wikipedia #1 on Google searches, nearly every time, even when the “articles” you get are nothing but random assemblages of facts (and “facts”) stuck together by pimply kids in their parents’ basement, should have ruined Google’s reputation years ago. But it hasn’t, probably because Google’s ample benefits still outweigh their scandals.

    Google gains from using Wikipedia as an extension of the Google user experience: the layout, design, and structure of WP articles follow rigid patterns, so Joe Surfer knows what to expect.

    Wales gains from the prominence that the million top-ranked articles afford him, allowing him to parlay his notoriety into five-figure speaking fees as a premier expert on “crowdsourcing”, i.e., getting the public to work for you, for free.

    I guess Digg wasn’t considered as useful to Google, so down they go in the search rankings.

  • AR

    “…backroom deals between Eric Schmidt of Google and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia. Automatically ranking Wikipedia #1 on Google searches…”

    I don’t see that this strongly implies a conspiracy. Far from it, in my experience people (including myself) often use google as a shortcut to wikipedia articles. In this case ranking wikipedia near the top just means google’s algorithm is doing its job.

  • Wayne Gretzky

    yeah, i was totally enamored with reddit for the past year and i’m starting to become less so. i don’t even bother to contribute links anymore cuz it’s so pointless. SWPL hipsters aren’t worth talking to about anything…

  • http://sep.stanford.edu/sep/jon/ Jon Claerbout

    Google reader keeps me so busy I ran out of time for Digg.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    I gave up on Digg over a year ago. Too little news and too much “Cracked.com” top 10 lists and other silliness. Plus a healthy dose of right/left paranoia articles.

  • Brian

    This popped up on Hacker News (to which many former Redditors have migrated) today, and seems of particular relevance to the discussion at hand: http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/social-software-sundays-2-the-evaporative-cooling-effect/

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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