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blog.gkaindl.com » The Digg Democracy Disaster

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The Digg Democracy Disaster

Whoa, last night must have been a pretty traumatic experience for the Digg people, both the site owners and users (On a sidenote: As a European, I’m always in the pillows when the big things happen on the Internet).

The chain of events has been something like this: A cryptographic key necessary to decrypt HD-DVDs appears in a story submitted to Digg. The post gets taken down. More posts appear. More posts get taken down and user accounts suspended. Jay Adelson (of Digg) posts an explanation of what is happening. Boom, then the users go wild and plaster Digg’s front page with re-submits of the story, sporting various funny or not-so-funny titles. Digg gives in (rather: is forced to give in) and stops deleting the posts. Finally, Kevin Rose posts an “everything’s back to cool, let’s be friends again” message, trying to calm down his upset users.

As a recollection, some posts about the whole story can be found on Techcrunch, Crunchgear or Bokardo, or with screenshots of the Digg front page(s) on Gizmodo. You’ll probably find a ton more via Technorati, where “digg” currently ranks as number 3 in the “Top Searches” list.

From a copyright/intellectual property perspective, this is nothing out of the ordinary, but considering that Digg has been a (if not the) Web 2.0 success story, the revolt of the users is a big thing.

What upset the users are not the US IP laws that some may call draconic, but Digg’s reaction to an apparent cease-and-desist letter. The revolt was clearly targeted at Digg, not the lawyers that sent the letter. It was almost like a gigantic kamikaze attack where users risked to get their accounts deleted or suspended while burning Digg down in a potential lawsuit. Users taking over a web site, that’s about as “Web 2.0″ as it gets…

First, it’s interesting to see why exactly users were getting so upset. Clearly, they feel betrayed by Digg, who has always advertised itself as a “democratic news site” where users decide about the content that makes it to the front page. As such, Digg apparently censoring news appears to be a violation to the democratic stance the site want to take.

However, I don’t think the Digg users are necessarily in the clear here when they ponder on the “democratic” aspect: The term “democracy” is often used in the meaning of the “rule of the majority”, which is also the principle Digg seems to be adhering to: The more people “dig” a story, the higher its chances of appearing on the front page.

In this interpretation, the line between democracy and ochlocracy is a very thin one: In a healthy and sustainable democracy, there have to be additional regulatory instances other than the majority of votes. For example, modern democracies such as the US and most of Europe have something like a Bill of Rights, a constitution or other declaration of rights that limits the powers of the majority. Such things are necessary in order to prevent a tyranny of the majority from distorting the seemingly fair democracy.

As an example, think of being part of a minority: If the majority always overrules the minority and has no other limits, the form of government would look no other than totalitarian from the perspective of said minority, exposing them to the good-will of the majority without any other protection. In short, it would neither work very well nor be a place where you would want to live (Consider this: You are part of many different majorities and minorities at the same time!).

With this extended definition of democracy in mind, Digg’s terms of use clearly act as the “constitution” in their pseudo-democratic ecosystem. And in the TOS, we have

By way of example, and not as a limitation, you agree not to use the Services:

[...]

to violate any laws in your jurisdiction (including but not limited to copyright laws)

Digg TOS

Obviously, users do not accept these TOS as a constitution that is worth honoring. All other issues aside, the case seems clear to me: The TOS were violated, thusly posts were deleted and user accounts suspended. What blows the whole thing out of proportion is that users have never perceived Digg like this: To them, it’s a service where stories are submitted and pseudo-democratically dugg to the top. In their concept, every sort of intervention from the Digg people constitutes a betrayal of the apparent Digg ideals, but they do accept it if it is in line with their own views.

Let’s follow this thought for a moment: If this hasn’t been an HD-DVD encryption key, but a registration key to a piece of shareware by a small, likable independent software developer, do you really think the same events would have unfolded? See, the internet (as an umbrella term for its most avid users) despises copyright and IP laws, it hates “the man” that uses such laws as justification to send out cease-and-desist letters, but it loves the independent developers, who are themselves embedded into the community. If said developers asked Digg to take down a pirated registration key, and Digg complied, there would be no user revolt: Digg would have implicitly acted in line with the views of the majority.

Thusly, Digg is a clear case of tyranny of the majority, where different notions of law (based on personal views) are applied for the HD-DVD key (with the big, evil corporations behind it) and the imaginary, small indie developer. Digg has never been a democracy in any sense, it has only been a majority-based voting system.

As such, I don’t think the big bang here is that Digg deleted some stories. It’s the realization that Digg is just a normal web site, operating within the same frameworks of laws and terms of services as any other site. Digg is by far not a democracy, it isn’t even intended to be one, it is just another business.

As a sidenote, from a Web-centric perspective, the Digg disaster shows the fragility of online communities, especially when the users’ agendas are no longer in line with those of the site owners. Web 2.0 is about the users, not the sites. Consequently, we’ve maybe just got a little taste of what it could be like when the often-mentioned Web 2.0 bubble bursts.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Digg, so I’m not really too anxious about its future. I’ve always preferred edited news sites, which appear to be more democratic to me. To me, Digg has (despite its open voting system) always looked more like a main-stream medium than anything else, having never had a truly controversial article (such as an embracing stance towards copyright laws, or even something that’s going against political establishments) making it to the front-page, and even if, it would just have been overruled by the majority’s opinion through renunciative comments.

In fact, I even find it questionable if any sort majority-based news system (read: unqualified people deciding what’s news-worthy and what’s not) can work, since I think it’s bound to lead to journalism not aligned with the public opinion always being voted down into oblivion, but that’s a different topic.

Now, let’s just see where Digg is going…

1 Comment

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    wrote on Jul 02, 2007 at 22:06

    [...] for fear of litigation, the users revolted. It was a fantastic display of democracy in action (or not), watching the same story hitting the front page over and over again. I do wonder though, what has [...]

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Hi, how are you? My name is Georg Kaindl, and I'm a twenty-something from Vienna, Austria. During the day, I'm a CS student at the Vienna University of Technology, but at night, I turn into an independent software developer for the Macintosh platform, social nerd, lazy entrepreneur and intuitive researcher.

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