It seems obvious that Web 2.0 is not as citizen-generated as people would like to believe. So obvious that Slate's recent article, "The Wisdom of the Chaperones," seems too mainstream for the usually contrarian site. Writer Chris Wilson imagines that Digg and Wikipedia are still seen as radical examples of the wisdom of the crowds, and reveals that they're run by a small base of power users. Of course, Slate is wrong. Call it banal, but the user-written news site and encyclopedia really are the work of thousands, even millions of casual users.
"According to researchers in Palo Alto," Wilson says, "1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits." Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales believes the same; he told the Times, "the vast majority of work is done by this small core community." So Slate buys the party line. But these are fake statistics: The Palo Alto study counted the number of edits. If I add five hundred words to an article about fortune cookies, that counts the same as if I rename a category. All this proves is that a small set of wonks are organizing Wikipedia.
The masses are still writing it. Aaron Swartz compared the number of letters added to several articles and found that most articles are written by people with little other Wikipedia experience. That is, most of Wikipedia comes from people who dropped in and added a chunk of text. All the edits? Those are just Wikipedia diehards rearranging the other users' contributions. (A more thorough study confirms Swartz's conclusion.)
It's obvious, really. Why does Jimmy Wales believe that only 500 people wrote everything of import on Wikipedia? With 2 million articles on the site's English version, that would mean each core user wrote nearly 20,000 articles in the seven years since the site launched. That's eight articles a day per user, and clearly physically impossible. Is Wales unaware of this math, or is he so bent on maintaining Wikipedia's respectability that he can't admit how innovative it is?
So much for Wikipedia being in the hands of the few. But Wilson also aims at Digg, saying the site "is largely run by 100 people." The top hundred Digg users submitted almost half of the stories that went to the front page, he points out. Of course, Digg recently adjusted its algorithm to lower the influence of those Diggers.
Wilson tries to spin this: "The super Diggers published an open letter of grievances and threatened to boycott the site," he says, implying that the hundred top users were in united revolt. But the actual threat only came from four users. That's hardly enough to threaten the site.
As Wilson notes, founder Kevin Rose talked to these four Digg users and reached what Wilson calls a "shaky truce." What exactly is shaky? Rose and CEO Jay Adelson merely explained what they had just done and how it would encourage new users to contribute. They didn't actually concede anything to the four users.
Isn't Slate supposed to be the reasoned, second-guessing news source? Then why does Wilson assume Rose has any fear of his top users? Talking to these users wasn't Rose's way of saving his site. It was a cunning move to make these users feel important, and get his message out to the entire Digg community. Rose came away doing just what he wanted and making everyone thank him for it.
Wilson even reaches for unsubstantiated arguments against Digg; he points to rumors that the site hires secret moderators to delete stories. Rose has denied this publicly several times; it's hard to believe he'd lie about this one aspect of the site when he's been so open about all others.
It'd be easy to blame this story on Slate's need to be contrarian, but the message here was so conservative and mainstream, it seems it's just a plain old bad story, bad enough to be retracted. If only we could vote on that.