The story in Wired magazine entitled “I bought votes on Digg” shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Not only has the service used by the author — an automated voting system called User/Submitter — been written about before, but anyone who has paid any attention over the past six months to a year knows that there are problems with the Digg model.
The site has had issues with people “gaming” it pretty much since inception, and there has been a back-and-forth battle between Kevin Rose, Digg spammers and the top Digg submitters for some time now. Digg recently removed the top Diggers list in an attempt to cut down on the incentive for gaming, but as Scott Karp notes in a recent post at Publishing 2.0, there is still an incentive to vote up sites like the fake blog that Wired cooked up for its story, because doing so gets you reputation points if the link becomes popular and moves to the front page. Muhammad Saleem of The Mu Life has written about these issues many times.
So the Wired magazine piece isn’t exactly a surprise. That wouldn’t be noteworthy, except for the fact that — as Mike Arrington at TechCrunch reminds us — Wired magazine is part of a publishing company, CondeNast, that owns one of Digg’s main competitors: namely, Reddit. The story mentions the ownership issue parenthetically, but I still think it’s offside. Unlike Mike, I don’t think Digg should sue Wired, but I do think it looks bad for a magazine to cook up an event to make a company look bad, and then write about that event, when a sister company is a major competitor.
I would compare the story written by Annalee Newitz (a freelance writer who used to be a policy analyst with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, according to the bio on her blog) with the kind of “sting” that newspapers write when they sneak knives aboard a plane to show how lax security is. The only difference, of course, is that in most of those cases, the newspaper’s parent company doesn’t own a competing airline.
Wired’s piece for me crosses a line. If the story had been about some neutral third party that hired User/Submitter, then that would be one thing. But Wired effectively perpetrated the sting itself, and that smells bad to me.
Ms. Newitz’s story is a companion piece to this article entitled “Herding the Mob,” which is about reputation hacking on sites like Digg and eBay. There’s also a third piece about Digg by another author that is part of the same package, called “Hunting Down the Bury Brigade.”
Ed Felten of Freedom to Tinker has some worthwhile thoughts about manipulating reputation systems here, and Tony Hung of Deep Jive Interests — also a veteran Digg watcher — has a post here. Frantic Industries also thinks Wired is playing on the wrong side of the tracks with this one, and Robyn Tippins at Sleepyblogger takes a crack at it as well.