Antisocial News?

Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe the term “social news” or “social media” is a misnomer. You really don’t see that much bonding and if anything comments can get pretty nasty. Is negativity a necessary ingredient for social news? Where does it come from?

I think the factor that contributes to negativity the most are familiar to any web service:

  1. Anonymous interaction among a large user base
  2. Voting on passionate topics is very subjective

Someone said that social news is just like any other forum with link submissions and voting. If you take out the algorithms used to ensure the right votes count there’s really not much separating social news from the millions of forums you see on the net. It’s no secret that one of the most requested features on Digg is properly threaded comments.

However, the voting element is important enough to set it apart and also introduce new dynamics into user interaction. Imagine a social news site that exclusively covered political elections. It would be flames, flames, and more flames.

In fact, take any online community that draws from a broad base of people and ask them a divisive question like: “How do you view American involvement in Iraq?” You’ll have a flame war on your hands soon enough unless it’s an extremely tight-knit community where people think they know each other real well.

The dynamics of a social news site make it that much more complex. Essentially you have competitors (who submit stuff for voting) and the spectator judges (the commentators) who decide what’s cool. This dynamic contributes a lot to how some social news sites easily tip to the negative.

Roles between the competitors and spectator judges overlap but someone focused on submitting to the site will be real careful about what they say unless they believe in something strongly and can’t hold it back. The term “spectator” might seem passive but in reality it’s the competitors that are the pawns in this sport because judges decide the fate of stories.

This creates a peculiar situation where the most well-informed people contributing to a social news site (since they track lots of sources and develop a discerning eye) are also usually the most silent or publicly conservative. The last thing they want to do is anger people with their opinion and get “marked” during the voting process in the future.

This is probably the biggest difference between your typical social news site and a large forum. In most large forums people who make the most posts or who are acknowledged for their contributions get offered the chance to act as moderators. In social news this would create a dilemma because the average user has to be in control to ensure only the most popular content hits the front page.

The problem is that there’s no way to properly separate interactions between all users without affecting the voting process.

I’d argue that in most cases if you let the typical balance stand, the average users have much more power and control over the situation. That’s why keeping negativity in check is a major challenge for the long-term. Social news sites are just like any other community, once the scales tip in favor of negativity it takes a monumental effort to restore a positive balance.

One solution would be to make submissions anonymous until the story goes popular or expires. This would allow heavy submitters to participate in discussions more actively without fearing retribution.

So is social news already rigged to be antisocial by it’s very fabric? We’ll have to see.