At both Digg and Wikipedia, small groups of users have outsized authority. In the case of Wikipedia, this authority is both organic and institutionalized. A small segment of highly active users author the majority of the site’s content; there are also elected site administrators who have the power to protect pages, block the IP addresses of problem users, and otherwise regulate Wikipedia’s operations. At Digg, active users have more of a de facto authority over the site’s goings-on (though there are persistent rumors that the site has “secret moderators” who delete content). But officially speaking, while the site’s algorithm seems to favor devoted users, no individual Digger has the power to unilaterally delete a post.
While both sites effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.
This top-heavy structure of social-media sites isn’t news to researchers and technophiles. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has acknowledged that what he expected to be an “80-20″ rule—a system where 20 percent of people control 80 percent of the resources—in fact understates the site’s top-heaviness. Palo Alto Research Center’s Ed Chi, the scientist who determined that 1 percent of Wikipedians author half of the content, told me he originally hypothesized that the site’s most energetic editors were acting as custodians. Chi guessed that these users mostly cleaned up after the people who provided the bulk of the encyclopedia’s facts. In reality, he found the opposite was true (PDF). People who’ve made more than 10,000 edits add nearly twice as many words to Wikipedia as they delete. By contrast, those who’ve made fewer than 100 edits are the only group that deletes more words than it adds. A small number of people are writing the articles, it seems, while less-frequent users are given the tasks of error correction and typo fixing.
Take a look!