Saturday, July 21, 2007

Out of Control – The DIGG Riot and Web 2.0

Web 2.0 has a few basic principles. Two – social networking and user-supplied content – are familiar; they’re often written about and have real-world analogs. But there’s a third – disintermediation, eliminating the mediator or middle-man – that carries some big risks along with its benefits.

Disintermediation is good because it eliminates information bottlenecks, especially if the information is coming from many sources, like the members of a user community. Web sites like Digg (, provide a rating service based on the collected and aggregated opinions of a community of users. The lack of a mediator, at least an overt one, is a plus. Consider Digg’s description of itself:

“… a place for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the web. From the biggest online destinations to the most obscure blog, Digg surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users. You won’t find editors at Digg — we’re here to provide a place where people can collectively determine the value of content…

How do we do this? Everything on Digg — from news to videos to images to Podcasts — is submitted by our community (that would be you). Once something is submitted, other people see it and Digg what they like best. If your submission rocks and receives enough Diggs, it is promoted to the front page for the millions of our visitors to see.”

It sounds good but there’s one flaw, the assumption that a community’s motives are good. What if they’re not? The result may be that your content gets taken captive and you may be unable to do much about it. Consider the “Digg riot”.

Overview of the Riot

In February, someone leaked the decryption key for HD-DVD and Blu-ray disks onto the internet. The key uses technology created by a consortium made up of Microsoft, IBM, Intel, and other heavy hitters.

Toward the end of April, the key was posted on Digg. The consortium filed a cease-and-desist order, and Digg began deleting posts containing the key and suspending posters. In response, users began flooding Digg with multiple messages containing the key, daring Digg to stop them.

Digg tried. At 1 PM on May 1, Digg CEO Jay Adelson wrote “…We’ve been notified by the owners of this intellectual property that they believe the posting of the encryption key infringes their… rights. In order to respect these rights and to comply with the law, we have removed postings of the key that have been brought to our attention… required by law to include policies against the infringement of intellectual property.”

The response was an avalanche of criticism. Posters to many forums (Google ‘digg riot’) called Adelson “fascist”, claimed that it’s impossible to copyright a key because it’s just a number, and so on. And Digg users continued to flood the site with copies of the key.

At 9 PM, Digg surrendered. Founder Kevin Rose said “We’ve always given site moderation… power to the community. Occasionally we step in to remove stories that violate our terms of use… So today was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.

But… you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be... If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.”

Dianne Lynch of Ithaca College summed up the situation in a May 7 ComputerWorld article. “If you’re going to turn the site over to the community, you can’t decide to change your mind without having serious implications. User-generated content means that users will make a collective decision about what is and isn’t appropriate.”

And Rod Carveth of Marywood University, said in the same article “Communities that develop on sites such as Digg… form their own social norms. And when they feel they are violated, they use their own sanctions, site administrators be damned.”

What It All Means

It’s risky to read too much into the story. There are big differences between Digg and the types of Web 2.0 applications that technical communicators are likely to create. But technical communication itself is evolving in ways that are hard to predict. The lesson here is to be aware of the risks of Web 2.0 before jumping blindly into the technology.

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