Big Social News Sites Need to Outsmart the Subverters

Getting on the home page of popular social news sites like Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon is a marketer’s dream. Top-ranked topics get recommended by many visitors. Recommendations from people we trust are the No. 1 driver of web traffic, according to a recent Deloitte study on Internet use. There’s no better way to get people to visit your home page than to get highly ranked on these sites.
For many Internet readers, the big social news sites are the start of their daily browse. These sites get the most submissions, comments, recommendations and feedback. As a result, they’re a great source of novel news. Put another way, if the wisdom of the crowds works, then a bigger crowd is wiser. But the more big sites grow, the more of a target they become.
Big social news sites need to win the war against trickery if they want to stay relevant. If not, they’ll pave the way for niche sites with better recommendations.
Social news sites let members vote for or against stories, so that popular topics make their way to the top. Of course, promoters go to great lengths to try and get visibility, often against the intended use of the site. Sometimes they hope to build a user base (although the spike in visitors that they provide may not be sustainable.) Other times, they want to promote a particular point of view or political opinion. And often, they’re simply hoping for a quick win from advertising revenue.
Reddit, Digg and others have had to create rules to reward good submissions and discourage bad ones. People who submit a story that becomes popular get credit for doing so, and their subsequent recommendations count for more (what Reddit calls a “karma system.”) There are also ways to flag offensive content. This is supposed to create a self-policing system in which interesting, popular content rises to the top.
Promoters are always trying to subvert these systems so their content makes the front page. For example, users can run scripts in Greasemonkey, a Firefox extension, to automatically up-vote stories about a favored political candidate. Or they can vote down legitimate stories, ensuring their latest submissions make it to the top.
But it doesn’t just stop there. Companies like user/submitter and Subvert and Profit pay Internet users to vote up their stories. Some bloggers claim to be the victims of “Digg blackmail,” whereby they are faced with threats that others will report them as abusive spammers (costing them their hard-won popularity) unless they pay up. And users with strong reputations are in constant demand, because their votes count for more — so, of course, people have offered to pay the influencers directly. Digg removed its top-ranked poster list in early 2007, but the Wall Street Journal was still able to pinpoint top submitters.
Update: (In response to this article, Reddit pointed out that different social news sites vary significantly in their use of “karma” rankings, and Reddit in particular doesn’t use rankings for nearly as much as others do.

  • On Slashdot and Digg, karma is used as a filter for what gets seen (comments, etc.)
  • On Digg, influential posters exist because past success leads to recommendation.
  • On Reddit, Karma makes you feel good and lets others see you’re trustworthy if they choose to look. But it doesn’t give you more votes.

But Reddit does use karma for some things — such as whether a link is spam (links from people with high karma are less likely to be spam.) The social news sites are cagey about specifics and Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian remarked, “The dev team isn’t telling me all of them though, because if I ever got captured, they know how quickly I’d break under torture.”
One use for Karma is to filter out low-karma posters. Reddit lets users filter out comments and links that score below a certain value, but not posters. Alexis continued, “We’ve thought about creating a “foes” list, similar to the ‘friends’ list we have now, only it will auto-hide the submissions of any of your foes.” (update ends)
The social news sites have fought back with adjustments to their algorithms and new rules for acceptable use, and the result has been a full-fledged arms race with malicious promoters.
“With the deluge of spam submissions we get daily, we’ve constantly been tweaking and improving our technology to help curb spam with the assistance of the reddit community,” said Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. He credits the site’s unique page design, in which stories rise and fall as their popularity changes, with helping to control spam. Similarly, in a CNET story from December of 2006, Digg founder Jay Adelson confirmed that the site uses “technical information that only we could know” to suppress spammers and suspicious users. But as Wired writer Annalee Newitz proved, that information isn’t always enough.
The increasingly draconian measures taken in this arms race can mean that legitimate recommendations don’t get the attention they deserve. Early down-voting of a story on Reddit can make it disappear (a bug the folks at Reddit say is being fixed.) Ohanian acknowledges that there’s no substitute for the human touch. “I can address the occasional machine gaffe and fix problems genuine users have fairly quickly,” he said.
If the big social news sites can’t win the war, smaller, more topical niche sites may be able to thrive alongside the big guys. To be sure, one of the reasons big sites like Digg and Reddit have to deal with this problem is because they can drive the most traffic. This makes them big, seductive targets for malicious promoters. Niche sites simply aren’t as likely to be attacked because there’s less to be gained by doing so.
But it isn’t just size that makes the job of detecting trickery harder for big sites.
Digg and Reddit cover a broad range of topics, from politics to technology to world news. At the same time, they know relatively little about their members, when compared with niche sites. Smaller sites are more intimate with their members — think the corner store vs. Wal-Mart. It’s easier to spot a stranger, and to watch them closely.
Consider, for example, Boardgamegeek. This site knows a lot more about its members, who are willing to volunteer information over time about which games they own and how often they’ve played each one. Similarly, thesixtyone can learn about its members’ music collections and preferences by having them share their music collections and recommend music over time.
Smaller, more topical social news sites may be able to build better “weapons” to fight abusers than a generic site like Digg or Reddit, because they know more about their members. They’re also less likely to wrongly block a recommendation from a trusted member.
Reddit has plans to address this. “Reddit is hoping to release something very soon that will provide a solution for all the Redditors we have emailing us with suggestions for new Reddit communities they’d like to see,” Ohanian told me. “Something as basic as sharing and discussing interesting links is still happening all over the web on forums, Usenet, chat etc. — we just think the experience would be best on a Reddit.”
What this suggests is that social news sites will reach a natural equilibrium. There will be the Diggs of the world, which cover a wide range of topics that will offer somewhat more dubious results to those users unwilling to reveal things about themselves. And there will be specialized, mid-sized sites that provide more relevant recommendations on a particular topic in return for more disclosure from their users.