Groupthink in Digg: A Suggested Solution

Web 2.0 Software / Open Source

I love Digg. I check in at least daily. I love the site, love the concept, and love that it works so well. I always enjoy it when a social network seems to be able to pull of something cool.

But Digg has a problem.

I was on the site the other day when I came across this little gem.

I have seen several of the pc/mac spoofs, some done better than others. But this one was pretty good. I went to digg it only to discover I wasn’t logged in. After logging in, I returned to the home page, only to find the submission gone. It had been buried.

Two spaces down was this submission, which went on to garner 5,000+ diggs.

This submission was also funny, and I dugg it. But I was disturbed that the first story had disappeared. There was nothing offensive. There was nothing grossly inaccurate, though the movie did briefly comment on a piece of software developed by Microsoft. It was a harmless video that made fun of the Apple ads. My only assumption was that it had been buried because it made fun of Macs.

So, what is the problem? Digg is set up beautifully to support a phenomenon called “groupthink.” And a quick glance at the articles shows that this mentality is thriving on the site. But it could all be solved with a simple tweak in one of the features. The basic idea behind groupthink is that you get a group together who starts to all think the same way. When an idea is presented that the group does not agree with, instead of examining the idea, and weighing it’s merits, the person
presenting the idea is asked to leave the group. The end result is a group that all think alike.

The downside? The group often ignores outside expertise, including rational, scientific analysis. Groupthink has been blamed for everything from the Vietnam War to the Challenger shuttle disaster.

Irving Janis, an expert on groupthink, characterized several symptoms of this phenomenon, and guess what? Several of these problems are very prevalent on Digg. Perhaps the biggest problem is that members in this kind of group discount information that may challenge their assumptions. I did a search for global warming stories that hit the front page in the last 7 days. The result was 6 stories. Four of those stories attacked Bush or Republicans. When I included ‘buried’ stories, the result was 12 stories. Six stories on global warming had been buried.

While some of the buried stories were duplicates, or possibly silly stories to begin with, one story was a submission that put forth the idea that global warming is not caused by humans.

The story made the front page and then was immediately buried. But it should have been, right? Because it’s just some nut job? We all know that global warming exists and is caused by humans.

Well, the author of the article has his doctoral degree in climatology, and quotes other ‘voices in the wilderness’, one professor from MIT, who are certain that humans are not causing global warming. I don’t intend to argue either side of the issue. But the collective wisdom of digg decided that this voice with a differing opinion should not be heard. A member of the group (who happens to be an expert) was kicked out of the group, because they had a different opinion.

What is better, to ignore such criticism, or to examine the evidence, and then have a rational debate? Debate never happens in groupthink.

“But wait!” You say, “I saw an article on digg just the other day slamming macs. The other side is represented.” Sometimes it is, but not often. When was the last time you saw a story that told of the good we’re doing in Iraq? Or support of the president? Or the virtues of Vista? And when the other side does get ‘their turn’, you see the exact same problem. Check out the comments on this article.

The author slammed macs, and somehow the story wasn’t buried. PC users, not used to seeing positive articles about their machines, flocked to the story and shut up nearly ever person trying to point out the virtues of macs, or the possible errors of the article. This groupthink went against the normal groupthink you find on digg, but it was still groupthink.

There are other examples of symptoms of groupthink on digg, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse. I mentioned a simple solution earlier in this post, and here it is. With two simple features, Digg could make serious strides against groupthink.

The first is the problem of buried stories. When a story reaches the front page, but then is buried, instead of taking it off, the story should ‘collapse’. A user can
see the title, and then see how many people have ‘dugg it’, and how many people have buried it. They can then chose for themselves, based on the number of diggs and buries, whether or not they want to spend their time. If this was done, you would see more of the ‘other side’. Instead of the member getting kicked out, they are just relegated to the back bench. But their voice could still be heard.

The second feature is even easier. Currently when a comment is buried, you only see the difference between diggs and buries. If a comment has -35 digs, I don’t know if 37 people found it offensive, and 2 found it funny, or if 2000 people found it helpful, and 2037 people found it offensive. If I could see both the diggs and the buries, I could make a better decision on if I want to read the comment.

Groupthink is a comfortable place to be, because there are no hard decisions. Everything is black and white, because nobody is brining up contrary data. But science is all about listening to everybody. Remember Harry Hess, who proposed the idea of continental drift, only to be ignored by the ‘scientific community’ for decades.

Learning is about listening, and when people with a contrasting view point are so easily shut up, the learning stops. There will always be the whack jobs, but better to answer their points with facts, than to not address them at all.

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