Small Crowds Aren’t Very Wise

FanboysThis post talks about how small crowds aren’t wise, how this affects voting-based filters such as Pages Unbound and what can be done about it.

Democracy is a strange thing. It powers much of the Internet we see today: Google uses it to decide link relevancy, Digg uses it to decide article placement and Pages Unbound uses it to determine the quality of a work. This model assumes that the crowd is wise: if a vast majority gives an article the thumbs up then surely it must be a good article, and surely it must deserve a spot at the top/in the front page/where most people can see it.

I have talked about the fallacies of this model before, so I’m not going into detail about the strengths and weaknesses of harnessing the crowd as a filter. What I am going to talk about, however, is an underlying assumption that must be fulfilled before the crowd’s wisdom can be harnessed properly. This assumption is deceptively simple:

The crowd must be large.

I kid you not. (Alright, alright, stop giving me that stare). Pause for a moment and think about what this assumption implies.

The larger the crowd, the wiser it is. Here’s an example: let’s say there are 10 people voting in Digg. I have a story I want on Digg’s front page, so I post it up, vote for it and then look for ways to get other people to vote it up as well. The good news is that I am friends with 6 of the other 9 voters. They vote for my story because we’re chums and – hey presto! – instant fame.

Alternatively, I am not friends with the other 9 voters, and my story sucks. Fret not – I’ve got another solution. I call up 20 of my friends and ask them to register and vote for my story. Once that’s done there’s nothing anybody else can do – even if the original 9 try to vote me down I have enough friends to overcome them.

In a sentence: I’ve gamed the system. The crowd is stupid.

Not so for big crowds. We know now that it’s pretty difficult to trick your way into Digg’s front page. They have thousands of users – trying to trick them by befriending a significant proportion of that voter base is plain impossible, as is bringing in thousands more of your friends. Tricking Digg has been done before (by Wired magazine, no less), but it was done with another concept, one we call ‘herd mentality’. Yes, Diggers can be cows too. (Note: in this particular case the crowd corrected itself at the end. Big crowds really are hard to beat).

Pages Unbound Is – Oh Dear – A Small Crowd

The truth about small crowds is that it isn’t really a problem – communities around crowd-based filters tend to grow over time, and even ‘bring-in-my-friend’ behaviour isn’t bad, because it encourages other slighted people to bring in their friends, and so on so forth, until the user base is large enough to be wise. But small, unwise crowds can be a problem when the voter base doesn’t grow.

Pages Unbound is at the moment harnessing the collective intelligence of a small crowd, and it suffers for it. In the discussions in NovLounge I frequently hear of how new stories leap to the very top of the ratings list because fans jump in, create an account and vote the socks of the particular story, even if it doesn’t deserve it. Normally this kind of behavior won’t make a dent in a bigger, more established filter, because the rest of the crowd would then step in and correct whatever rabid fanboyism there exists in PU. But that doesn’t happen here.

Another point to think about is that rating online fiction (be it serials or blooks or one-off stories) is a very subjective matter. Adam of Penfencer has pointed out that PU is dominated primarily by sci-fi or fantasy titles, so it won’t come as a surprise that blooks of other genres won’t be as well received. This isn’t PU’s fault – the demographics of the web show that people who come online are primarily Generation Yers – teenagers and adults below 30. These people grew up with Harry Potter and computer games so it natural for them to gravitate towards stories with an added wow factor. And it does mean that the crowd in PU isn’t as fair to blooks of other genres, apart from the two Adam has pointed out above.

What Can We Do?

The problem is simple – we have small crowds. The long term solution? Get bigger ones! This sounds easy enough to do, but it ties in with our overall aim to push online fiction to the fore and that isn’t easy in reality. Not many people have heard of blooks/blog novels; even fewer have heard of Pages Unbound. And the biggest risk we face concerning PU is that the fanboyism will continue to persist, thus deadening the potential and relevancy of one of the best filters in our medium.

As a short term measure I suggest implementing moderators – people who have the ability to remove reviews that appear to be too fanboyish. The most ideal format for ‘populist’ filters such as this would be of course for the crowd to correct itself, but this isn’t happening anytime soon, not unless we can get a big enough crowd to PU. And that is one of the things we must work towards.

Till then, we must innovate. All big crowds start off tiny, as ours is at the moment. Let’s make the best of what we have and continue to grow.

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Category: Writing Web Fiction