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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

The Users Are Revolting

By Annalee Newitz

A SOCIAL TRADITION that has carried over quite nicely from communities in the real world to communities online is revolution. You've got many kinds of revolt taking place online in places where people gather, from tiny forums devoted to sewing, to massive websites like devoted to sharing news stories.

And while they may be virtual, the protests that break out in these digital communities have much in common with the ones raising a ruckus in front of government buildings. They range from the deadly serious to the theatrically symbolic. But how, you might ask, can a bunch of people doing something on a website really be as disruptive or revolutionary as people carrying signs, yelling and storming the gates of power in the real world?

By way of an answer, let's consider three kinds of social protest that have taken place in the vast community on Digg. According to Internet analysis firm ComScore, Digg has 6 million visitors every month, who come to read news stories rounded up from all over the web.

About half of those visitors log in as users to vote on which stories are the most important—the ones with the most votes are deemed "popular" and make it to Digg's front page to be seen by millions. A smaller number of people on Digg—about 10 percent—choose to become submitters of stories, hunting the web for interesting stuff and submitting it for votes in categories that range from politics to health. Digg's developers use a secret-sauce algorithm to determine when a story has received enough votes to make it popular and worthy of front-page placement.

You can imagine that a community like this one, devoted to the idea of democratically generated news and controlled by a secret algorithm, might be prone to controversy. And it is.

Two years ago, I was involved in what I would consider one type of user revolt on Digg. It was a prank that I pulled off with the help of an anonymous group called User/Submitter. The group's goal was to reveal how easy Digg makes it for corrupt people to buy votes and get free publicity on Digg's front page.

My goal was to see if U/S really could get something on the front page by bribing Digg users with my cash. So I created a really dumb blog, paid a couple hundred dollars to U/S and discovered that indeed you could buy your way to the front page. Think of it as an anarchist prank designed to show flaws in the so-called democracy of the system.

But there have also been massive grassroots protests on Digg, one of which I wrote about in a column over a year ago. Thousands of Digg users posted a secret code, called the AACS key, that could be used as part of a scheme to unlock the encryption on high-definition DVDs. The goal was to protest the fact that HD-DVDs could only be played in "authorized" players chosen by Hollywood studios. So it forced people interested in HD to replace their DVD players with new devices.

It was a consumer protest, essentially, and a very popular one. Hollywood companies sent Digg cease-and-desists requesting that they take down the AACS key whenever it was posted, but too many users had posted it. There was no way to stop the grassroots protest. Digg's founders gave up, told the community to post the AACS key to their hearts' content and swore they would fight the studios to the end if they got sued (no suit ever materialized).

Another kind of protest that has occurred on Digg came just last month, and it was a small-scale rebellion among the people who submit stories and are therefore Digg's de facto editors. After Digg developers changed the site's algorithm so that it was harder to make stories popular, a group of Digg submitters sent a letter to Digg's founders saying they would stop using the site if the algorithm wasn't fixed.

You could compare this protest to publishing an editorial in a newspaper—it reflected grassroots sentiment but was written by a small minority of high-profile individuals. Though Digg didn't change its algorithm, this protest did result in the creation of Digg town-hall meetings where users could ask questions of Digg developers and air their grievances.

Each of these kinds of protests has its correlates in the real world: the symbolic prank, the grassroots protest and the angry editorial. So forgive me if I laugh at people who say the Internet doesn't foster community. Not only is there a community here, but it's full of revolutionaries who fight for freedom of expression.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants a revolution.

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