Credit to Alexander Halavais for the title – as well as the subject of this post – his eponymous paper.
The article examines the role of feedback in motivating commenters on Digg. (In a nutshell: feedback, either positive or negative, tends to correlate with future contributions, so more dugg (or buried) diggers are more likely to digg diligently than less dugg (or buried) diggers. But those users who don’t elicit feedback with their comments are unlikely to become or remain active on the site.)
But the article arrives at bold conclusions beyond that:
An initial examination suggests that […] Digg […] is used to encourage discussion rather than invective. [… It] does not seem to embody the very negative form of anonymous sniping often identified by critics of online discussion.
On the other hand, neither does it provide a model of Habermasian deliberation. Style is rewarded, and the entertainment value of a contribution […]. Digg may represent a model of discourse that diverges from rational deliberation, and instead replicates the kind of ordinary conversation about politics and other matters that occur in many settings.
While in general I wouldn’t be surprised if such was the case, I think a few cautionary remarks are due about this conclusion.
What Halavais is most interested in is the relationship between commenting and receiving feedback on the comments (on Digg, as on several other websites, such feedback can be provided in the form of replying to a comment, or rating it positively or negatively). He analyzed this by examining comment and feedback patterns. In addition, he also dissected relatively popular, unpopular and conspicuously innocuous comments, establishing which individual words are correlated with positive, negative or ignoring feedback.
It is implied that a more in-depth content analysis was also carried out (e.g. “in contrast to […] ad hominem attacks, users who provide facts and locate further information in support of their arguments tend to receive more diggs”), but it is not explicated or described in detail. Rather, the analysis seems slightly less, strictly speaking, scientific, and more heuristic.
So my worry is that Halavais evaluates the deliberative merits of Digg without conceptualizing or operationalizing deliberation, without a careful and reliable analysis, and, importantly, without consideration for the topic of discussion. His focus is on the evolution of the individual commenter who, naturally, might comment on articles belonging to any number of different topics. Which does make sense; but a loosely set content analysis across topics is, I think, a bit of a trip through thin ice. (If memory serves, Stromer-Galley has provided evidence of the commonsensical hypothesis that the topic influences various qualities of the discussion.)
There are two points I’d like to emphasize here. The first one: as I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the final analysis, Halavais turned out to be right; I just don’t think that his paper provides a solid enough basis to back up his claims (at least not in this respect).
The second one: even if Digg is proven to be hopeless for rational micro-deliberation, it might still contribute to society-wide deliberation.
Habermas’ model I’m focusing on distinguishes between the everyday talk of citizens and the formal deliberation of the political system. In the case of elections, says I, the latter is taken out of the equation (or at least assumes a smaller role, preparing and executing the decision of the voters); but it still cannot be expected that formal deliberation will organize the totality of public discussions around election time. The most important task of informal discussions remains the generation of the largest possible set of views and ideas, from among which those so-called “strands of considered opinion” can crystallize. And one way to decide whether or not this is happening is to look at social news sites not merely as discursive spaces, but also as media organs; from which perspective what matters most is their contents.
(And whether or not that, in fact, matters, is an empirical question.)
Halavais, Alexander (2009): Do Dugg Diggers Digg Diligently? Feedback as motivation in collaborative moderation systems, in: Information, Communication & Society, 12 (3), pp 444-459.