Thursday, April 19, 2012

Upvote for Aggregation Innovation

When discussing the internet--a topic both accessible and interesting--most people seem to have some pet analysis that they deploy regularly, steering the conversation to a place where their favorite conversational lines can flourish. One that I hear often is that the internet has progressed along a sort of dialectic. First, early content-creators provided info for the masses. Next, as costs plummeted (due to better technology, infrastructure, and user interfaces) the masses became content-creators themselves, causing an explosion in the amount of information available on the web. I'm talking about the rise of things like social networks, blogging, and Wikipedia. The third trend, which is supposed to be happening now, is innovation in methods for sorting through that crush of information. The best example would be Pandora, but stuff like Stumbleupon and Google+'s "circles" idea also illustrates the demand for information-filtering and -structuring services.

This model is fun and useful, especially when thinking about the explosive popularity of sites like reddit. Now, any attempt to analyze, define, characterize, or label the multifarious and sublime reddit is ultimately doomed to failure, but it's a start. Reddit is possible for many reasons: the existence of free image and video sharing websites, the hyperlink navigation system, its prodigious size and diversity, its non-invasive design and style, sheer inertia and luck, etc. But the most critical ingredient in reddit's success is its total reliance on a wildly undervalued aggregation innovation: the upvote/downvote system.

Every hour of every day, thousands of people are submitting content on reddit--pictures, videos, links, discussion comments, interview questions, whatever. Every topic imaginable is represented, but for simplicity's sake let's focus on just pure humor, which plays an outsize role for most users. All of this content is presented as a massive list, with multiple nested threads. Users then vote on the material, registering approval with an upvote and disapproval with a downvote. The votes are then aggregated, pushing popular content up in the rankings, while burying unpopular content. What results is basically a hyperactive cultural laboratory driven by a sped-up Darwinian variation-and-selection process where only the best content makes the front page.

A lot of what reddit pushes to the front page is silly, but that's only because what's silly is what people want. The upvote/downvote system is just a highly effective mechanism for producing desired outcomes based on the preferences of users. In r/funny we have what is probably the single-most reliable source for high-quality humorous material in the world. In r/aww we have a shockingly effective cuteness delivery vehicle. For a subreddit with a more specific or empirical purpose, such as r/whatsthisbug, we basically have a real-time, interactive, micro-Wikipedia.

By virtue of this sped-up Darwinian selection process, reddit is a fabulous resource for social scientists: by looking for regularities in submissions that do well or poorly, we can identify interesting psychological biases or preferences in the user base. A good example of this is reddit's consistent interest in objects and animals that coincidentally take on human characteristics (i.e.machines that look like faces, animals making complex emotional expressions, etc.). Keeping in mind the long history of humans finding human-like agency in ridiculous things, reddit provides the richest dataset for testing hypotheses dealing with this question.

The consensus of scholars who study different methods of aggregation seems to be that all have certain strengths and weaknesses. We have elections, with different voting systems that favor certain types of candidates. We have wikis. We have markets, which can be understood as preference-aggregating institutions, their outcomes relying on the informational role of the price signal. Prediction markets are an interesting subset. The upvote/downvote mechanism has only just emerged as a serious alternative, yet already it has demonstrated astounding outcomes on a wide variety of topics. It is utterly devoid of any rigorous intellectual attention, but that will surely change as more and more applications are discovered and adopted by successful organizations.

Note: some might consider the rise of smartphones and the mobile internet (and thus its fusion with other technology like gps, photography, and videography) the fourth "macro-trend" in the internet's historical narrative. Perhaps, but my guess is that once some reboot of the Grafedia idea becomes fabulously successful (just wait), we'll instead see smartphones as just the first step in a more general process of blending the real world with the internet (augmented reality technology like Google Goggles is advancing rapidly).

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