Here’s some more food for thought: according to PaidContent.org, it takes 50 votes from 140,000 or so digg users to get a story onto the digg front page. This got me to thinking about a key difference between “participatory media” sites like digg.com and, as it were, “directed media” sites like Guardian Unlimited (or indeed any newspaper site). On digg, obviously, the community decides what goes on the front page. On GU, the editor does.
But let’s break those concepts down a little. The PaidContent stat seems to imply that, actually, the community doesn’t decide what goes on the front of digg. Actually, a very small, statistically almost insignificant number of individuals decide (some 0.035%) that a particular story goes on there. Of course, it’s not the same 0.035% for each story, and I’d be interested to know the percentage of diggers who regularly post stories. Because this number is quite so small, it’s hard to accurately say “the community says this story is important.” It’s a bit like saying “the record buying public thinks the current number one song is great” at a time when single sales are in freefall.
Another point about this: digg.com is obviously not the only “participatory media” site out there. Its 140,000 users also use other sites (Slashdot, for example), while there are millions of other users who don’t use digg at all. The number of people “participating” is spread across more and more sites. If the wisdom of crowds counts for something (and I believe it does, of course), then how big and active does the crowd have to be before it becomes wise?
On GU, the editor decides what goes on the front. But actually, it’s not one editor, it’s a team of editors, sharing stories, discussing them, making a case for them. These editors are making decisions in the way editors always have, based on their skill and judgement, and based on their understanding of the Guardian’s editorial priorities and what the Guardian stands for. But unlike traditional print editors, they are also in possession of two key additional feedback loops: they hear from users all the time via email, and they have real-time stats on what people are using. These two things inform their editorial choices. The relative weight the editor gives two their own judgement and external feedback is different from editor to editor, of course. But the feedback is there.
All of which is a long-winded introduction to the core question: are 50 digg users more “representative” of the 140,000 digg users? Or is a group of GU editors more representative of the GU community? In my more militant moments I’ve often wondered how GU would look if we handed over the front page to the 12 million unique monthly users – would it be more reflective of the community, or less? Isn’t it probable that, actually, all that would appear on the front page would be stories around issues on which people tend to hold “extreme” positions, so they are prepared to work harder to force those issues to the fore?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know my instinct. My instinct is that everything we do to “edit” the site seeks to keep a balance between editorial instinct and the desires of the audience, and that, in doing that, we may be reflecting the “community” more fairly, both mathematically and ethically, than the likes of digg.