July 07, 2008

More BB/VB notes: A personal disclosure, Google-effects?, NYT

Full disclosure: I had a length conversation with Xeni Jardin (the Boing-Boinger part of the controversy). I don't know anything more about the mystery reason than I did before (I didn't ask, and she didn't tell). The discussion was more an exchange of perspectives about (my paraphrase) A-lister power and responsibility. I mention this, with permission, as the personal core of my blog is/was chronicling the difficulties of net-activism (that endeavour didn't work out so well, but that's another topic).

There's an interesting post from a sexuality films site which lost some links as collateral damage, about possible Google implications (NSFW - don't follow this link if you're at work) of the events:

Back in late 06/early 07, when we realized just how vague, eratic, and fallable Google's ranking methods could be, we moved to uncouple our fortunes from the whims of Googlebot. This Boing Boing "unpublishing" things suggests that it's time for a re-evaluation of our PR tactics.

I'm not sure how much of an effect there really is, as the pagerank/keywords don't seem all that substantive. But there may be a "trust"/anti-spam Google effect which could be especially significant for sites which deal in sex-related material.

Memesterbation (linking so that this post shows up on trackers) - NYT article on the topic

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in bogosphere | on July 07, 2008 09:04 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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All true, but do you think the dominance of A-listers is a permanent condition of the Web (or of any communications medium), or something that could be changed with a new algorithm?

I've been saying for years that I think you could build a perfectly meritocratic system for rating content that would not give any advantage to "established" players, by having ratings done by a *random* selection of the population. Take music for example. You submit a piece of music to the rating system in a given genre, and the system sends it out to 100 randomly selected users who have elected to receive music in that genre. If it gets a good average rating from them, it gets made available to everyone who likes music in that genre. (If not enough people prove willing to rate random content, you could even have the content submitter pay cash to the raters for doing the rating, as long as the content submitter can't make the cash payment conditional on a good rating.)

The trouble is that such a system would have to be constructed artificially; it couldn't just grow organically like the blogosphere (which heavily favors A-listers).

The point is not about the merits of this particular algorithm though, but about whether *any* system could ever be constructed that is purely meritocratic, and doesn't give an advantage to the A-list established players.

Posted by: Bennett Haselton at July 7, 2008 01:50 PM

I think any algorithm would have to take into account the incentive and constraints from funding, and could not work in isolation from the rest of the media.

No system will ever be purely meritocratic, but it's certainly possible to do better. Just like no society will be perfect, but it's certainly possible to do better than 19th-century style robber-baron capitalism.

I'm particular bothered by the demagoguery of many A-listers and their desire to undo much of the social gains in mainstream media and replace those gains with virulent cronyism.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 7, 2008 02:34 PM

Agreed that an algorithm would probably not work in isolation from the rest of the media (if you implemented my algorithm on some new "meritDigg" site, anything that was a hit there, wouldn't necessarily spill over into the major news sites). But what do you mean that an algorithm would have to take into account incentives and constraints from funding?

Taking my proposed algorithm as an example, what would the "incentives and constraints from funding" be?

Posted by: Bennett Haselton at July 7, 2008 10:20 PM

I meant, who is going to pay the developers to run the site, and to experiment with the algorithm (fixing problems, fighting spam), and get the word out that there's great stuff here, and so on.

Any algorithm which is successful attracts spammers - Google's experience is an object lesson in that regard.

Note there's a whole media system around blogging, much of it not so nice.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 8, 2008 12:42 PM

Well, you could say the same thing about Digg -- who was going to program it? Organize it? Help fight spam? -- but someone did it eventually. Not to mention "getting the word out".

I think an algorithm like the one I'm suggesting would be easier to defend against spam -- because stuff doesn't get promoted to the top unless you can convince a majority of randomly selected voters to vote for it. (Yes, you could spam things to the initially randomly selected voters, but content submitters could have to pay some small amount to have people view their stuff and vote on it.)

Posted by: Bennett Haselton at July 8, 2008 01:51 PM

Ah, but solving exactly that problem is what bedevils every Digg-wannabe. In fact, much of the answer from Digg is that it was the project of a (minor) celebrity.

And rest of the answer is that if it's so simple, you can code, why don't you do it?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 8, 2008 11:09 PM

Hello Seth, thanks for the post and link. Not too surprisingly, speculation on Xeni and Violet's personal life has been the subject of much more interest than the collateral damage to ours and other business.

My suspicion is that it is a "trust" issue, and that the Boing links played heavily in the vast increase in google traffic we saw after receiving those inbound in links, and the drop off we say after we lost them. Easy come, easy go. (Oh wait, not so easy come.)

At any rate, just today we received an invitation to screen our films for a select group of faculty and clinicians at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. As I said, the Boing 'unpublishing' has cause us to re-evaluate our PR tactics. So far so good!

Posted by: Tony Comstock at July 11, 2008 07:23 PM