Digg: an echo chamber for a few?

One of the charges against social news sites is that they are only seemingly democratic, while in reality they are only used to air the views of the few, most active members of the community. Research conducted by the Wall Street Journal indicated that, indeed, a very small portion of the community members is responsible for the majority of submitted items.

Here is what I found on Digg, focusing on articles that became a.) popular (voted to the front page by the community) and b.) dealing with the (pre-)election campaign in the US.

In the March 3rd – May 3rd period, I sampled 235 articles. These were submitted by 180 different users (or at least by users using 180 different user names; it might be that one person used multiple user names).

The average active user submitted 1.31 front-page worthy articles in this 2-month period.

The number of users contributing with only 1 article was 151. In other words, the least influential 84% of users was responsible for 64% of the articles. The overwhelming majority of users (93%) contributed with either 1 or 2 items in the surveyed period; these “light users” accounted for 79% of the total articles. Thus, 7% of the submitters can be categorized as “more influential;” they contributed with 21% of the articles.

The most influential user in the surveyed period contributed with 7 articles (3% of the total sample). According to her Digg profile page, she is a 34-year-old woman from the US, who joined Digg early March 2008 (but after the sampling process started).

Note that it is uncertain how exactly “influence” and “activity” are related to each other. The latter would best be measured by the number of article submissions (and, possibly, votes and comments), while the former refers to submitted articles that were actually voted popular by members of the community.

Based on these figures, the following can be established:

  • various users exhibit various degrees of influence;
  • users could be categorized as belonging to a more influential “core,” as well as to a less influential “periphery” – but:
  • although individual members of the core are more influential than non-core members, on the whole, it is the periphery that dominates, insofar as the less influential users are responsible for the strong majority of articles.

These are, from the point of view of deliberation, results to welcome. They mean that in the survey period, no single “power core” could dominate the front pages of Digg; the site proved open and inclusive to a large number of users.

On the other hand, what also needs to be taken into consideration is the promoted views of the submitted articles. Although I cannot (yet) provide statistics about it, I became convinced that the overwhelming majority of popular Digg-articles represent views supporting the Democrats in general, and Barack Obama in particular. (Their overrepresentation might be due to the fact that the Republican race was practically over even before the start of the research period; in any case, a second survey of the actual election campaign (instead of focusing on the pre-elections) might provide valuable information in this regard.) None of the front page-voted articles offered sharp criticism of Obama. In contrast, almost without exception, all front-page articles that dealt with John McCain or Hillary Clinton were, to various degrees, critical towards them.

The pattern of articles cheering for Obama was only broken by a handful of items supporting the Republican candidate Ron Paul, or condemning the perceivedly sensationalist and unsubstantial way in which the media covered the pre-election campaign.

So what this means is that, while no single influential user could dominate the output of Digg in the surveyed period, dissent from the governing views was largely absent as well. And these two factors are likely to be related. Certain kinds of articles, promoting unpopular views, are out of the question; and from among the rest, it’s not a question of which article to vote popular, but who finds them first. The openness and inclusiveness of the submission process means that a large variety of users could contribute a large variety of information; but most of this information, in this case, corresponded to a general, more or less openly biased view.

About the technicalities of the survey: I have included in my sample the 4 most popular, front-page articles every day (within the 3rd March – 3rd May period), focusing on the “2008 US Presidential Elections,” “Politics” and “Political Opinion” categories of Digg, and choosing those articles only that deal with the presidential (pre-)elections. (It is up to the user to choose the category for the submitted article.)

Sampling was automated. Due to some glitches, the automatic downloading failed on two occasions in the observed period.

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