Digg vs. Wired – Does Integrity Exist in Social Media?

In case there was any doubt as to the growing importance of social community tools that rate popular web pages, there’s been a flurry of press this week that raises up some pretty interesting issues.

First, I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal (thanks, Tom!) all about “The Wizard of Buzz,” all about the different social media webpage voting tools and featuring profiles of the major players. Like all communities, Digg, Reddit, and the like have more active members as well as prejudices, opinions, likes and dislikes. The article nicely sums up the “Digg” effect — where a site can go from relatively unknown to delivering hundreds of thousands of users pretty quickly (albeit a group with rather limited attention spans) simply because it becomes popular among a group of users. Since a community member’s reputation is based in part on their voting on a popular story before it becomes popular, the big players often seek out those potential gems before they catch on. This tendency leads me to the next point.

Wired News was proud to report how they “Bought Votes on Digg” (note that Wired is owned by the same company that owns Digg’s competitor Reddit). This article inspired a huge backlash in the blogosphere, to the point where TechCrunch suggests Digg should sue Wired. Now, what was this article about and why such a backlash?

The whole “I Bought Votes on Digg” story is about an invented website that the author is ultimately able to pay to get popular using a site, User/Submitter, that hires the community to “Digg” a story for 50 cents. After a slow start, the paid Diggs began to trickle in, and soon organic Diggs followed. The community was skeptical about the concept (a blog with photos of crowds), but not enough to “bury” the story before it became popular. And so, claims the author, the experiment was successful.

The TechCrunch call for Digg to sue Wired calls this experiment “making the news” about Digg. They claim that Wired, probably due to the conflict of interest, is actively promoting negative press about Digg to help promote the image that the Digg community is in trouble. First off, is the Wired experiment unethical (“the reporter actually create[d] the story she writes about, and willfully violated the Digg terms of use in the process” says TechCrunch), and second, if so, what would an appropriate response be?

For me, it’s only the conflict of interest that makes the motivations of the journalism questionable. There’s that old story of journalists posing as grocery clerks to expose a story about the low standards of meat products, which violated a code of ethical behavior and ended up being successfully sued (if you know more details of this story, let me know!). By that barometer inventing a site to test Digg’s susceptibility to paid inclusion is probably also a gray area. But while the motivations of the journalists in the historic story is to expose the truth, in Wired’s case it can only be construed to throw dirt in the face of a rival — clearly a disservice to an otherwise reputable publication.

It’s unlikely that Digg will ever sue Wired, though the community pretty much agrees that it’d be a great publicity stunt. It also points again to the amazing power such a new medium has to transform traditional journalism and influence the opinions — and behavior — of hundreds of thousands of people.