Failure of Crowd Wisdom – the Fanatic Takeover

I don’t visit Reddit much anymore, for reasons which this post will soon discuss, but today I got there and found an item titled “Reddit, a year ago. Better times… and barely any political or religious zealotry in sight.“. Personally, I think a year ago is too early – it was better two years ago.

A few noted milestones in Reddit’s decline were the “Impeach” day, which filled the homepage with all sorts of “Impeach Bush” links, and then the Ron Paul flood, which gave the impression Paul is a serious contender in the US presidential race, when in fact his support base is lower than the statistical error margin in most polls. (Paul supporters, please don’t flame. I’m not stating a political view, just a statistical fact).

These incidents demonstrate that the networked crowd, whose wisdom Reddit tries to harness, is easily gamed. Worse: with some persistance, people who game it can start a feedback loop that amplifies their efforts. I call it the Fanatic Takeover.

The basic pattern goes like this: say you belong to a certain ideological group, like Paul supporters. You posts a Reddit vote link to a pro-Paul story in some internal forum. Within a short timeframe, many group members who visit this forum click the link – registering as Reddit users if needed, because they care enough to take the 20 seconds to do it – and push the story up in Reddit’s stats, getting it to the homepage. Since stories in the homepage have a higher chance of being upmodded, simply due to higher visibility, Reddit users outside your group who happen to agree with this story also vote it up.

Notice that this not only floats the story, but adds Reddit users from that group’s forum, including people who wouldn’t have been in Reddit without it. So, your group now gained more power to affect the site. Furthermore, because your people came with a certain ideology, they are more likely to use their ability to vote stories up or down, unlike other users who may be indifferent to the US presidential race.

As a single story incident, this is not big deal. But when you do the same thing on 10 stories at the same time – which is not much harder than floating one story – you get another effect: you’re not only adding your own Reddit users, you’re actively reducing the number of users who aren’t interested in your messages, or aren’t as dedicated to them, and simply go to greener pastures to look for interesting stories.

As this continues, the process amplifies itself – your users keep increasing their share of total Reddit users. This is done by other ideological groups as well, and as a result the site becomes more partisan and less interesting.

My personal observation is that the “less interesting” part is not only because the site becomes a forum for political arguments, but also because people who support any ideology fanatically tend to be less intelligent and open minded than people who don’t (and, yes, this goes for leftist just as well as right wingers). As a result of the general dumbing down of the new userbase, the non-political stories also decrease in value and you see a lot more links to pictures of cats and clue-challenged “opinion articles”.

I think the interesting part about this is that this same process takes place offline, just at a much slower rate, so it’s not as obvious. The Web allows for rapid iterations in this feedback cycle, giving us a fast forward view of processes that take years or decades in the Real World. But if you look for it, you might begin to see this pattern taking place in many offline systems and groups: companies, academic fields, establishments, governments – even whole nations.