The Fallacy of Floating Content

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through flipboard as I do most evenings before I go to bed. I came across a really interesting article that I felt compelled to share with my social networks.. it was an incredibly well written and researched piece which offered amazing insights into a topic we’re all familiar with, yet strangely uninformed about. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed when it was given almost zero notice, save for a retweet or two. There’s nothing more disheartening than calling out to the void and hearing nothing back but your echo. I was doubly disappointed as we’ve all preached the idea of “great content will always float to the top”, but I just didn’t see it here. I’m starting to doubt the accuracy of this mantra.

If we have a look at the success and failure stories of online communities, we would be remise not to mention Digg.com. Arguably the first social news sharing site, it had its hey days during the 2005-2010 era, when it was the go-to place for breaking news. At its peak, Digg boasted 29,000,000 unique readers a month. It eventually tanked, and it tanked badly. You see, Digg had a problem with “Super Users” – users with so many friends who were so influential that they could single handedly make or break a story. In fact, you had almost zero chance of having your submitted story make the front page without the help of a super user. They tried to fix this problem with numerous redesigned layouts, but they never got it right. Digg eventually folded under revolt from its readers after v4 of the redesign. Once worth $165m, it sold recently for just over $500,000.

I mention Digg here because I don’t think it had a UX problem. I think it had a democracy problem.

The idea of great content always floating to the top rests on the principles of democracy. You vote with with your likes and retweets, and the content that receives the most of either floats to the top. It works really well in theory except for one small problem. In a democracy, each individual is granted a single, secret, ballot to cast as he or she sees fit. There’s a double system at play here. The principle of one vote and the principle of a secret ballot, both of which protect us from undue influence or reprisal, and contribute to the success of a democracy. While social media grants us a single vote, its very nature goes against the idea of a secret ballot.. and herein lies the flaw of floating content. Influence warps and distorts democracy. Imagine walking into a voting both and seeing exactly how everyone around you is voting, how your friends are voting and knowing your vote will also be broadcast to those same people. It’s not so much that you’ll be embarrassed to vote, but more that you’re going to be influenced by, and subsequently influence, others. In essence, the more friends you have and the more popular you are, the more influence you’re likely to exert on others.

The same applies to social media, except we embrace it, which only means its effects are even more aggressively felt. Unless you are a Justin Bieber of the world you’re never going to get your preference of syrup trending world wide for three days.. scarily, the opposite applies, and because of this we are forced to hear Justin’s syrup preferences because his tweets are artificially “voted” up.

It worries me. If our clients’ work needs not be just remarkable, but exceptional, is the realm of Social Media going to fall not to the super users, but to the out-of-reach super budget?