Groupthink: Digg, oh how I hate thee.

So what exactly is groupthink, where can I see an example of it, and why is it bad? 

I am so glad you asked!  

Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight. (from wikipedia)

I have been seeing so much of this going around over the past couple of years that it has essentially turned from one of my favorite sites on the internet, to one of my least favorite.

Digg Logo

I discovered Digg back in probably 2005.  As you can see from my member profile, I have been a member since 2005 and I have clicked “digg” on a very small handful of stories.  When I first discovered it I thought it was the best site ever.  Constantly updated with interesting and relevant posts which were always sure to entertain.  It completely replaced Slashdot for me, and solved most of the problems I had with slashdot.

Since that time it has become…something different.  The first time I saw an issue with Digg is when it was quite clear that the top stories were submitted by the same people, all of the time.  It was later found that the algorithm used to decide the promotion and demotion of stories could be easily abused.

What basically happened is, groups of friends submit stories and digg each others stories.  It is also believed that people who have more friends, and more frontpage stories, have the ability to digg something with a heavier weight.  So essentially what was going on is, people with large groups of friends got large amounts of “automatic” diggs from everyone on their friends list, leading to almost anything they submitted hitting the frontpage, and anything they bury, not.  (see more here)

It was also believed that this power was easily bought and sold, as the amount of traffic you receive from a digg front page story is massive, and obviously quite valuable from an advertising perspective.  

This has since been resolved and there is now a much more diverse set of stories reaching the front page, except now I have a new problem.  It seems that the entire site is ruled by the tendency for its users and their opinions to be governed by the laws of groupthink.  Essentially the uses of digg can be quite easily categorized and the types of pages that reach the front page can be easily predicted.  I have even heard of trends where advertisers, or simply people with ulterior motives could wrap their content in something which might interest digg users.  For example, write a blog entry about some sort of iPhone gossip but have that page intentionally spattered with ads or other sorts of links to a completely different type of product.  Basically duping users into going to their site to read false gossip about one thing and being tricked to get information about a completely different thing.

So onto the groupthink, and why I personally have learned to hate digg.  It basically boils down to the immaturity of its user base.  Everyone who submits a story, wants it to reach the front page, so as such, people follow within whatever is the hot trend at the time.  Digg used to be a news site, a tech related news site.  It has since devolved into a place where people will do anything to make the front page.  As a user of digg I see several trends, of which, I have no statistics to back up, but I will mention them anyhow.  I will make each point with the percent hit modifier bonus to get digg front page.

  1. Follow the Leader.
    This mostly relates to politics.  For about 4 months half the stories on digg were about Ron Paul.  Shortly after which, it was a quick focus shift to Obama.  Whoever is in the lead on the left wing, everyone on digg loves.  Whoever is right wing, they all hate.  So, articles which talk down to the right, +25%, articles which talk good about the left +25%.
  2. Apple is God.
    Submit a story about the iPod, iPhone, or anything else apple related, you have a +50% chance of getting front page
  3. Linux = Ubuntu.
    Have an interesting story about linux, a cool new app, or some interesting how-to article?  Replace every instance of the word linux with the word ubuntu, +30% chance of front page.
  4. [PIC]
    Doesn’t matter how old it is, post it up!  +75% 
  5. Misuse of the words Web 2.0 or AJAX
    Hey if its dynamic it must be web 2.0, or ajax, or something right?  +10% 
  6. When all else fails, post an old video.
    Got a video from, or youtube which is already on the front page there?  Might as well be on the front page of digg too right? +20% 
    Who are you, Ted Koppel?  Here is some breaking news:  Posting a story to digg which links to another actual news site, is not breaking news.  Thanks for trying, you get a +90% modifier. 

All of the above, I feel are the results of a massive groupthink epidemic.  The types of stories which make the front page form a trend, and as such the submissions begin to follow that trend.  Digg is no longer about sharing news and information, it is about submitting whatever you can to make it to the front page.  The problem is, the subject matter which makes the front page anymore is getting dumber and dumber, and I check the site less and less.  What is funnier though, are the problems people run into when they try to submit an actual worthwhile piece of news.  As seen in this recent parody, it is as if the power goes the users heads, and almost nothing worthwhile ever gets read.

When you take a group of like minded people, you’ll get a set of like minded opinions.  The stories which make it to the front page of digg are an approximation of the relative intelligence and opinions of the users who post stories there.  I only wish that one of my submissions might one day make the front page so that I may be a part of what I am apparently missing out on.

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