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On gaming the Internet

I once worked with a guy — let’s call him Jim — whom our company hired because he was influential on Digg. He could singlehandedly drive huge volumes of traffic to any website.

By being patient and methodical (read: obsessive), Jim had accumulated friends and credibility on Digg. Our company* would assign him to whichever of our brands needed a traffic boost to clear ad inventory. He’d juice their numbers by promoting their links on Digg.

* * * *

I thought of Jim recently when I read some remarks by Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker. Denton was talking about why Gawker recently shut down its rankings-based commenting system. As reported by GigaOM, Denton said:

“[The Gawker comment system] doesn’t work because people game it — and the people who game it are the people with time and social-media expertise, and those are not the people with information or insight. What person who actually has a job and a reputation… would give a fuck about getting some little badge like they’re in high school? It’s patronizing.”

That nicely sums up an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while. People who are great at getting high-influence positions on social media are rarely the best creators, thinkers, or artists. But they’re always the best hustlers. Social media rewards people who can elbow their way to the front of the line.

* * * *

This explains why Google+ is so weirdly unsatisfying. Despite being elegantly designed, Google+ shows me nothing but irrelevant and pointless posts when I log in. It relies on statistics to determine what’s popular, and statistics favor people obsessed with social media — more often than not, insufferable bores.

From Google+, to the comments on Gawker, to Facebook, social media brands find themselves in battles with site gamers, similar to the fight Google Search has been waging for over a decade against black-hat SEO artists. You can see it in the scourge of “reply girls” on YouTube and Twitter’s lawsuit against marketing spammers. It’s a battle to keep these valuable channels from becoming all noise and no signal.

* * * *

This pattern leads to some troubling conclusions.

First, it reveals what should be a Law of Social Media. That is: There is no correlation between aptitude in social media and aptitude in anything else. It’s a mistake to use social media popularity to evaluate somebody’s credibility in any other field.

Second, it means social media is now an arms race. Any site that’s (a) open and (b) popular will be corrupted by relentless gaming until it becomes (a) less open or (b) less popular — usually both. That’s what happened to Digg, which is now a hollow husk of its former self. Nobody wins an arms race.

* * * *

The hope, reaching back to the early days of the consumer Internet, was to build democratic marketplace of ideas. Nobody owns the Internet. An individual should be able to find the best of whatever she’s interested in, without distraction. Quality should trump all other considerations.

That has not happened. Instead, we’re in a race to keep social media mercenaries from shamelessly hyping their clients (or more often, themselves) on channels that were meant to be for enjoyment and information. It’s a race which a few sites — Reddit comes to mind, in addition to Nick Denton’s Gawker properties — are proudly fighting, while others lay down and succumb to a creeping ooze of sucking lameness.

This is the communications battle of 2012. The fight to keep the Internet interesting. Who’s side are you on?

* Just to be clear: Not the company I’m at now.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Social Media, Technology

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