The Wisdom of the Chaperones Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy.
By Chris Wilson Posted Friday, Feb. 22, 2008, at 6:11 PM ET
It’s getting harder to be a Wikipedia-hater. The user-generated and -edited online encyclopedia—which doesn’t even require contributors to register—somehow holds its own against the Encyclopedia Britannica in accuracy, a Nature study concluded, and has many times more entries. But even though people are catching up to the idea that Wikipedia is a force for good, there are still huge misconceptions about what makes the encyclopedia tick. While Wikipedia does show the creative potential of online communities, it’s a mistake to assume the site owes its success to the wisdom of the online crowd.
Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site’s edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.
The same undemocratic underpinnings of Web 2.0 are on display at Digg.com. Digg is a social-bookmarking hub where people submit stories and rate others’ submissions; the most popular links gravitate to the site’s front page. The site’s founders have never hidden that they use a “secret sauce”—a confidential algorithm that’s tweaked regularly—to determine which submissions make it to the front page. Historically, this algorithm appears to have favored the site’s most active participants. Last year, the top 100 Diggers submitted 44 percent of the site’s top stories. In 2006, they were responsible for 56 percent.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Digg—a site meant to “collectively determine the value of content“—is largely run by 100 people. The influence of these members was particularly apparent last month. After Digg tweaked its secret sauce, top contributors noticed a decline in influence—fewer of their submissions became top stories. The super Diggers published an open letter of grievances and threatened to boycott the site. The changes in the algorithm, the Digg execs said, were meant to bring a more diverse set of stories to the site, and they begged for patience from the top Digg contributors. (Thus far, a shaky truce has endured.) The takeaway: Digg’s brass believe that the site, which purports to be the product of a broad-based community, will cease to run smoothly if a microscopic percentage of its user base stops participating.
At both Digg and Wikipedia, small groups of users have outsized authority. In the case of Wikipedia, this authority is both organic and institutionalized. A small segment of highly active users author the majority of the site’s content; there are also elected site administrators who have the power to protect pages, block the IP addresses of problem users, and otherwise regulate Wikipedia’s operations. At Digg, active users have more of a de facto authority over the site’s goings-on (though there are persistent rumors that the site has “secret moderators” who delete content). But officially speaking, while the site’s algorithm seems to favor devoted users, no individual Digger has the power to unilaterally delete a post.
While both sites effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.
This top-heavy structure of social-media sites isn’t news to researchers and technophiles. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has acknowledged that what he expected to be an “80-20” rule—a system where 20 percent of people control 80 percent of the resources—in fact understates the site’s top-heaviness. Palo Alto Research Center’s Ed Chi, the scientist who determined that 1 percent of Wikipedians author half of the content, told me he originally hypothesized that the site’s most energetic editors were acting as custodians. Chi guessed that these users mostly cleaned up after the people who provided the bulk of the encyclopedia’s facts. In reality, he found the opposite was true (PDF). People who’ve made more than 10,000 edits add nearly twice as many words to Wikipedia as they delete. By contrast, those who’ve made fewer than 100 edits are the only group that deletes more words than it adds. A small number of people are writing the articles, it seems, while less-frequent users are given the tasks of error correction and typo fixing.
This isn’t the kind of people-working-together image that Digg and Wikipedia promote. Of course, Wikipedia requires some level of administration—otherwise, the site would crash under the weight of additions and deletions to the George W. Bush page. But that doesn’t explain the kind of territorialism—the authorial domination by 1 percent of contributors—on the site’s pages. Is this a necessary artifact of operating an open-access site? Or is it possible to build a clearinghouse for high-quality, user-generated content without giving too much power to elite users and secret sauces?
The moderation system at the tech blog Slashdot is perhaps the best example on the Web of a middle way. Slashdot, which draws on links submitted by readers, ordains active contributors with limited power to regulate comments and contributions from other users. Compared with Wikipedia, which requires supreme devotion from its smaller core of administrators, Slashdot makes it easy to become a moderator. Giving large numbers of people small chunks of responsibility has proven effective in eliminating trolls and flame wars in the comment section. Still, the authority any one moderator commands is small, and the site’s official poobahs maintain control over which stories are featured at the top of the site. “These things are far from utopian,” says founder Rob Malda, aka CmdrTaco. “Slashdot tends to have a lot of ‘Microsoft does something bad’ stories. If I let the community run the whole thing, we’d have a lot more. But I don’t want Slashdot to be the ‘Microsoft Sucks’ page. It’s just one of many subjects.”
Another compelling model comes from Helium.com, a Wikipedia-like repository of articles and editorials. Its founder, Silicon Valley veteran Mark Ranalli, compares his site to a capitalist version of Wikipedia. On Helium, contributors compete to have the top-ranked article on a given subject. As soon as you write an article, you’re invited to pick your favorite of two articles on a similar subject. Requiring someone to write before he or she rates creates a more stable system: Rather than create a caste of creators and a caste of peons, Helium encourages everyone to do everything.
Every model has its drawbacks. Unlike Wikipedia, Helium doesn’t lend itself to comprehensive articles drawing on many sources. Nor is Slashdot free of moron commenters, though its quotient is significantly lower than on any unmoderated message board. It’s refreshing, though, that these sites acknowledge that Web 2.0 isn’t a fairy-tale democracy without letting themselves become dictatorships. Digg and Wikipedia would do well to stop pretending they’re operated by the many and start thinking of ways to rein in the power of the few.
Got a better model for how to make democracy work on the Web? Let me know about it. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Chris Wilson is an editorial assistant at Slate in Washington, D.C.
A lot of people have those reusable polycarbonate water bottles; you can’t go to a college campus these days without seeing students carrying these multi-hued bottles around as they make their way through classes.
Well, a couple weeks back researchers at the University of Cincinnati released a startling new study showing that many of these bottles leach bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor, into water that is being stored within the container.
These researchers found that these plastic bottles leach BPA into room-temperature water. That’s bad enough, but if boiling water is put into these bottles, the rate of BPA leaching goes up by quite a bit.
We applaud the use of reusable water bottles to cut down on the environmental impact of bottled water, but with this new research, metal water bottles are looking better and better. Some have a plastic lining, but Klean Kanteen makes metal water bottles that are BPA free.
Parents who are concerned about baby’s plastic bottles should know that although this study didn’t look at baby bottles, it studied the same type of plastic. At this point, there’s enough research out there to justify the added expense of buying BPA-free or glass bottles. But an even more critical step would be to substitute powdered formula for liquid formula if your baby isn’t drinking breast milk. Babies don’t need to be getting extra endocrine disruptors in any form.
Undaunted by recent turbulence in the financial markets, Visa, the biggest credit-card network in the United States, said Monday that it would forge ahead with what would be the largest initial public stock offering in the nation’s history.
Visa plans to sell as much as $17.1 billion of stock in late March, following in the footsteps of its smaller rival MasterCard, which went public in May 2006.
Visa and MasterCard are prospering as Americans increasingly flex plastic, rather than use cash, to pay for just about everything. The companies have not been hurt by the credit crunch, because they do not actually make credit-card loans. They merely processes transactions for banks that do.
If all goes as planned, Visa’s offering would generate a windfall for thousands of its so-called member banks, which own the company. The largest gains would go many of the nation’s biggest banks, which have been stung by losses stemming from mortgage-linked investments.
“Visa will be able to tell its story, even in an uncertain market, because its story is a good one,” said David Robertson, publisher of The Nilson Report, a payment industry newsletter. “If investors think MasterCard is a good story, Visa looks like the same thing on a bigger scale.”
Visa plans to sell 406 million Class A shares for $37 to $42 a share, with just over half going to the public and the rest to Visa’s member banks.
The first $3 billion will be placed into a special account to cover outstanding antitrust and unfair-pricing claims brought by merchants. Visa will use some of the new money to streamline its operations, expand in fast-growing emerging markets and invest in new technology like systems that enable people to make card payments using cellular phones. But the bulk of the capital will end up in the bank’s coffers, from repurchasing stock from them.
Visa’s member banks can use the extra cash.
If Visa’s shares are valued at a midpoint price of $39.50, JPMorgan Chase, the company’s largest shareholder, would receive an estimated $1.1 billion for its stake. Bank of America would get about $545 million; National City would get about $380 million; and Citigroup, U.S. Bancorp, and Wells Fargo can each expect around $240 million or more.
“The credit crunch is pretty cyclical; the prospects for Visa are very strong long-term,” said Marc Abbey, the managing partner of First Annapolis, a consulting firm that works with many banks and payments companies. “I am sure it is convenient for them to have extraordinary gains at the same time they have extraordinary losses.”
Since going public nearly two years ago, MasterCard have soared 408 percent, closing at $198.45 on Monday. It now has a market value of $26 billion.
MasterCard’s successful IPO prompted Visa to move forward with owns plans to go public. Since October 2006, Visa has reorganized its sprawling management structure, bringing together all of its global operations with the exception of those in Europe. It has also hired Joseph Saunders, the former head of Providian Financial Corporation, as its chairman and chief executive, giving him a pay package worth $11.1 million in cash for 2007. Upon completion of the IPO, he is expected to receive an additional $11.5 million in stock and options, according to Equilar, a compensation research firm.
Visa transactions accounted for roughly 66 percent of all credit and debit card purchases in the United States in 2006, compared to about 26 percent for MasterCard, according to The Nilson Report data.
Growth in card transactions, the foundation of the companies’ businesses , has historically held up well, even when the economy and consumer spending slows.
“If you look back at the last recession, card transactions did not drop ? they took a dip in growth, but they didn’t fall below prior year,” Robertson said.
“There is no reason to think that growth in the United States is going to sink Visa’s boat,” he said. “Whatever lackluster growth in the U.S. should certainly be matched and exceeded by what occurs outside the U.S.”
The prospectus for the sale lays out a convoluted capital structure, with four classes of shares, including three which go to the banks. But the deal, which is underwritten by JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, also raises potential conflicts for the banks underwriting the shares.
Both institutions have strong ties to the financial services industry. But JPMorgan is Visa’s largest shareholder and largest customer. It is a member of the bank syndicate that agreed to lend $3 billion to the company. And it could reap more than 1.1 billion in proceeds from the IPO
Goldman, meanwhile, will serve as the “qualified independent underwriter” in setting the price of the offering, according to public filings. Its independence is not deemed in question even though Suzanne Nora Johnson, a Visa director, used to be a vice chairman of Goldman Sachs.
The United Nation’s Children’s Fund recognized a handful of photographers with honors in their annual Photo of the Year contest. From Afghanistan to the Phillipines, their work exposes horrid conditions facing some of the world’s children.
The image is startling — a 40-year-old groom sitting beside his 11-year-old future bride. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who took the photo last year in Afghanistan, asked the pre-teenage bride what she felt on the day of her engagement.
“Nothing,” said the girl, according to Sinclair. “I do not know this man. What am I supposed to feel?”
The sobering image and the story behind it brought Sinclair top honors in the annual Photo of the Year contest sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).Awards were distributed to first through third place winners as well as eight honorable mentions. International judges considered 1,230 entries from 142 photographers in 31 countries.
Sinclair, an American photographer, produced her winning photograph as part of a series of pictures she took about child marriages between 2005 and 2007 in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Nepal. UNICEF estimates that about 50 percent of Afghani women are married before they turn 18.
Second place honors went to GMB Akash, of Bangladesh, whose winning photo shows a 12 year-old boy toiling in a Bangladeshi brickyard. UNICEF studies conclude that 4.7 million children between five and 14 years of age are involved in child labor in that country.
The third-place photograph was taken by German photographer Hartmut Schwarzbach. His picture depicts a nine-year-old girl jumping in glee on her birthday in the midst of a smoldering garbage dump outside of Manila.
In 2007 honorable mentions were given to the following photographers:
Jonathan Torgovnik, Israel, Newsweek Magazin
Hatem Moussa, Palestine, Associated Press (AP)
Wolfram Hahn, Germany, Student FH Potsdam
Renée C. Byer, USA, The Sacramento Bee
Nir Elias, Israel, Reuters
Finbarr O`Reilly, UK & Canada, Reuters
Musa Sadulayew, Chechenya, Associated Press (AP)
Steven Achiam, Denmark, Student, Danish School of Journalism
This sobering image, showing a 40-year-old groom sitting beside his 11-year-old future bride in Afghanistan, brought Stephanie Sinclair top honors in the annual Photo of the Year contest sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Second-place honors went to GMB Akash, of Bangladesh, whose winning photo shows a 12-year-old boy toiling in a Bangladeshi brickyard. UNICEF studies conclude that 4.7 million children between five and 14 years of age are involved in child labor in that country.
The third-place photograph was taken by German photographer Hartmut Schwarzbach. His picture depicts a nine-year-old girl jumping in glee on her birthday in the midst of a smoldering garbage dump outside of Manila.
“A Mother’s Journey”: The American photographer Renee C. Byer took this picture as part of a series about a single mother with five children and a son suffering from terminal cancer. He died in 2006.
Finbarr O’Reilly recieved an honorable mention for his photo “A House of Hope,” an image of Lopez Vidal, right, and Aron Masahuka, both afflicted with polio, languishing in an ill-equipped hospital in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wolfram Hahn made a series of photos titled “A Disenchanted Playroom” to accompany a study about the television-viewing habits of German children.
Hatem Moussa won an honorable mention for “Life in Gaza”: Palestinian children were rushed from a car into a hospital after their homes were hit by Israeli shelling in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya in April, 2006. An eight-year-old child was killed in the attack and 13 other children were injured.
Joseline Ingabire, 37, an HIV-positive Rwandan woman, is pictured with her daughter Leah Batamuliza, 11. This photo by Jonathon Torgovnik accompanied a story in Newsweek magazine about women who were raped during the Rwandan civil war and their children today.
Musa Sadulayew made this photo as a part of a series called “Chechnya’s Forgotten Children.”
Boys hang from a bar for five minutes as part of a physical training exercise at the Gymnastics Hall of the Shanghai University of Sports. The photo was part of Nir Elias’s series “Pain Threshold — Sports Education in China.”
“Sumo Boys in Japan”: Steven Achiam took a series of pictures depicting life in the Hiragaya sumo club, where boys train until they have beaten a strong opponent 10 times.
The eclipse of the sun or the moon is amongst the signs of the power and majesty of Allah, which are revealed occasionally within his creation. When such events occur, the bondsmen should bow down, in all humbleness, before the Absolute, the All-powerful One and beseech Him for mercy and forgiveness.
Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:
The Prophet said, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of the death or life (i.e. birth) of someone but they are two signs amongst the signs of Allah. When you see them offer the prayer.”
Narrated Al-Mughira bin Shu’ba:
“The sun eclipsed in the life-time of Allah’s Apostle on the day when (his son) Ibrahim died. So the people said that the sun had eclipsed because of the death of Ibrahim. Allah’s Apostle said, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of the death or life (i.e. birth) of some-one. When you see the eclipse pray and invoke Allah.”
Narrated ‘Aisha :
In the life-time of Allah’s Apostle (p.b.u.h) the sun eclipsed, so he led the people in prayer, and stood up and performed a long Qiyam, then bowed for a long while. He stood up again and performed a long Qiyam but this time the period of standing was shorter than the first. He bowed again for a long time but shorter than the first one, then he prostrated and prolonged the prostration. He did the same in the second Raka as he did in the first and then finished the prayer; by then the sun (eclipse) had cleared. He delivered the Khutba (sermon) and after praising and glorifying Allah he said, “The sun and the moon are two signs against the signs of Allah; they do not eclipse on the death or life of anyone. So when you see the eclipse, remember Allah and say Takbir, pray and give Sadaqa.” The Prophet then said, “O followers of Muhammad! By Allah! There is none who has more ghaira (self-respect) than Allah as He has forbidden that His slaves, male or female commit adultery (illegal sexual intercourse). O followers of Muhammad! By Allah! If you knew that which I know you would laugh little and weep much.
(the wife of the Prophet (p.b.u.h) In the lifetime of the Prophet the sun eclipsed and he went to the Mosque and the people aligned behind him. He said the Takbir (starting the prayer) and prolonged the recitation (from the Quran) and then said Takbir and performed a prolonged bowing; then he (lifted his head and) said, “Sami allahu liman hamidah” (Allah heard him who sent his praises to Him). He then did not prostrate but stood up and recited a prolonged recitation which was shorter than the first recitation. He again said Takbir and then bowed a prolonged bowing but shorter than the first one and then said, “Sami ‘a-l-lahu Lyman hamidah Rabbana walak-lhamd, (Allah heard him who sent his praises to Him. O our Sustainer! All the praises are for You)” and then prostrated and did the same in the second Raka; thus he completed four bowing and four prostrations. The sun (eclipse) had cleared before he finished the prayer. (After the prayer) he stood up, glorified and praised Allah as He deserved and then said, “The sun and the moon are two of the signs of Allah. They do not eclipse because of the death or the life (i.e. birth) of someone. When you see them make haste for the prayer.” Narrated Az-Zuhri: I said to ‘Ursa, “When the sun eclipsed at Medina your brother (‘Abdullah bin Az-Zubair) offered only a two-Rakat prayer like that of the morning (Fajr) prayer.” ‘Ursa replied, “Yes, for he missed the Prophet’s tradition (concerning this matter).”
Narrated Aisha:(the wife of the Prophet)
On the day when the sun Khasafat (eclipsed) Allah’s Apostle prayed; he stood up and said Takbir and recited a prolonged recitation, then he performed a prolonged bowing, then he raised his head and said, “Sami’a-l-lahu Lyman Hamidah,” and then remained standing and recited a prolonged recitation which was shorter than the first. Then he performed a prolonged bowing which was shorter than the first. Then he prostrated and prolonged the prostration and he did the same in the second Raka as in the first and then finished the prayer with Taslim. By that time the sun (eclipse) had cleared He addressed the people and said, “The sun and the moon are two of the signs of Allah; they do not eclipse (Yakhsifan) because of the death or the life (i.e. birth) of someone. So when you see them make haste for the prayer.”
Narrated Abu Bakra:
Allah’s Apostle said: “The sun and the moon are two signs amongst the signs of Allah and they do not eclipse because of the death of someone but Allah frightens His devotees with them.”
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Abbas:
The sun eclipsed in the life-time of the Prophet (p.b.u.h) . Allah’s Apostle offered the eclipse prayer and stood for a long period equal to the period in which one could recite Surat-al-Baqara. Then he bowed for a long time and then stood up for a long period which was shorter than that of the first standing, then bowed again for a long time but for a shorter period than the first; then he prostrated twice and then stood up for a long period which was shorter than that of the first standing; then he bowed for a long time which was shorter than the previous one, and then he raised his head and stood up for a long period which was shorter than the first standing, then he bowed for a long time which was shorter than the first bowing, and then prostrated (twice) and finished the prayer. By then, the sun (eclipse) had cleared. The Prophet then said, “The sun and the moon are two of the signs of Allah. They eclipse neither because of the death of somebody nor because of his life (i.e. birth). So when you see them, remember Allah.” The people say, “O Allah’s Apostle! We saw you taking something from your place and then we saw you retreating.” The Prophet replied, “I saw Paradise and stretched my hands towards a bunch (of its fruits) and had I taken it, you would have eaten from it as long as the world remains. I also saw the Hell-fire and I had never seen such a horrible sight. I saw that most of the inhabitants were women.” The people asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! Why is it so?” The Prophet replied, “Because of their ungratefulness.” It was asked whether they are ungrateful to Allah. The Prophet said, “They are ungrateful to their companions of life (husbands) and ungrateful to good deeds. If you are benevolent to one of them throughout the life and if she sees anything (undesirable) in you, she will say, ‘I have never had any good from you.’ ”
In the lifetime of the Prophet the sun eclipsed and the Prophet (p.b.u.h) stood up to offer the prayer with the people and recited a long recitation, then he performed a prolonged bowing, and then lifted his head and recited a prolonged recitation which was shorter than the first. Then he performed a prolonged bowing which was shorter than the first and then lifted his head and performed two prostrations. He then stood up for the second Raka and offered it like the first. Then he stood up and said, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of someone’s life or death but they are two signs amongst the signs of Allah which He shows to His worshipers. So whenever you see them, make haste for the prayer.”
On the day of Ibrahim’s death, the sun eclipsed and the people said that the eclipse was due to the death of Ibrahim (the son of the Prophet). Allah’s Apostle said, “The sun and the moon are two signs amongst the signs of Allah. They do not eclipse because of someone’s death or life. So when you see them, invoke Allah and pray till the eclipse is clear.”
Narrated Abu Bakra:
In the life-time of the Allah’s Apostle (p.b.u.h) the sun eclipsed and he went out dragging his clothes till he reached the Mosque. The people gathered around him and he led them and offered two Rakat. When the sun (eclipse) cleared, he said, “The sun and the moon are two signs amongst the signs of Allah; they do not eclipse because of the death of someone, and so when an eclipse occurs, pray and invoke Allah till the eclipse is over.” It happened that a son of the Prophet called Ibrahim died on that day and the people were talking about that (saying that the eclipse was caused by his death).
They give as examples supermarket receipts showing the price of chicken rose more than 236,000% to 15 million Zimbabwe dollars, or about 50p a pound between January 2007 and January 2008. Slightly lower increases in prices of sugar, tea and other basics brought down the overall average inflation to around 150,000%.
Zimbabwe, a former regional breadbasket, is facing acute shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline and most basic goods in an economic meltdown blamed on disruptions in the agriculture-based economy after the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000 accompanied by political violence and turmoil.
Economic hardship is a key issue in national elections scheduled for March 29 in which President Robert Mugabe, who is 84 on Friday, is facing the biggest challenge to his hold on power since he led the nation to independence in 1980.
Inflation, food shortages and the crumbling of power, water, sanitation, roads, phones and communications and other utilities have fuelled deep divisions in the ruling Zanu-PF party.
In early October, the state central statistical office gave official inflation at just below 8,000%. It then suspended its monthly updates on inflation because there was not enough in the shortage-stricken shops to calculate a regular basket of goods.
November’s already dizzying rate of 24,470% was announced in January and earlier this month the official rate for December was given as 66,212%, a dramatic escalation in the space of a month.
The National Incomes and Prices Commission, the government’s price control body, this month allowed sharp increases in the prices of the corn meal staple, sugar, bread and other basics in a bid to restore viable operations by producers and return the goods to empty shelves. But the new prices were still roughly half the price demanded on the black market and were unlikely to guarantee regular supplies to food stores.