Are We Being Served?

Web 2.0 throws a lot of buzzwords at us. New technology has given us new terms to describe a particular design process. One of these is “user-centric” design. An example of a website that isn’t user-centric would be A static site where the users have no control over the content of the site, nor any choice in what they see. The company displays the information they deem important. This is considered web 1.0. (Note by AS: a new site has gone live since this submission). YouTube and Digg are examples of Web 2.0, user-centric sites whereby the users of the site contribute not only the content that the other users consume, but each user helps decide what content is promoted. Today, I’m going to coin a new term: self-centric design. To define this new term, I will compare OSNews to one of the leading web 2.0 sites: Digg.

What’s new at Digg?

As a Digg user, you can submit a news article immediately, and see it automatically published. OSNews requires that your news is verified and chosen by an editor. There is no guarantee when your article may be published, or if at all.

Once your article is published, other Digg users may ‘digg’ it, to show that they approve of the article. Articles that get many “diggs” within a short space of time will be promoted up the list to the front page. OSNews lets you recommend an article, but this has no effect on its position on the home page. The order that you see is according to the publish date by the editors.

Digg users comment on articles to express their opinion. Unlike a forum, each user can moderate other user’s comments, either “digging” or “burying” a comment. A comment that is sufficiently buried will be collapsed and hidden from view by default. OSNews also provides user moderation that works similarly, however limits are set on the maximum number of positive or negative moderations that are allowed (-5 to +5).

In these respects, many would consider Digg ahead of the curve, with its hip, web 2.0 user-centric design. However, Digg is the perfect example of self-centric design.

What’s wrong with Digg?

A self-centric website is one in which the users all serve themselves. At the front of the chain, Digg’s submission process does not vet any articles for journalistic quality or relevance. Whilst the principle is that Digg users post articles they think others will like, the reality is different.

Since going mainstream with Digg v3, every day the Digg home page contains articles that are either a) a user’s own blog linking off to the actual article in order to get traffic / ad-revenue, b) some four year old meme a user only discovered today or c) an actual news item posted as hurriedly as possible to be the one to get all the diggs; or a different link to the same news item to try outdo the other article duplicates.

Digg includes a feature that lets you see only news from the categories of your choice; this way I can choose to only see the news that is relevant to me. The problem is that if I chose to see only Apple news, I see lots of crap Apple news; often badly presented or baseless. This is not user-centric design. The users are not looking out for one another, and are not interacting to improve the overall service.

The self-centric design of the site gears everything up to making users compete for superiority. Everybody who comments is just another nobody to agree or disagree with – to laud or to hate. There is no “community” to speak of and almost no middle ground in Digg. Besides the core users who post the news, Digg is a platform for self proclamation, one way or another. Digg’s mentality can be summed up simply as “OMG first post!!”

Does that make OSNews right?

By submitting a pre-written news article for vetting by the editors, you are putting your own journalistic abilities up for show. Isn’t this self serving? Not absolutely. There is no reward, nor fame for submitting news to OSNews other than some self-satisfaction. You are not in a speed competition with everybody else. Nobody would want to write something that resulted in a mass of other users laying into you personally. OSNews has proven over time that its users will submit news that only they may have been aware of (e.g. fringe news from small alternative OS projects) or written pieces that try to inform about subjects others would not have any experience of (e.g. RISC OS, etc.). Nothing is perfect, but these type of articles, given their slightly more narrow nature, benefit the whole community by informing and educating about subjects others would not normally encounter on a day to day basis.

OSNews falters by not giving its users enough means to control the future publication of articles. Users can complain in the comments about poor articles, but they do not feel any immediate or direct effect on the general flow of articles. This is a dangerous area however. The term ‘Digg’ is ambiguous, it is different for everybody, and means that users are not making a single, combined, coherent statement about the quality and enjoyment of the article.

I do not feel that reshuffling the order of articles based on user votes would benefit a site like OSNews. Instead it would be beneficial if users could state in a straight-forward manner, their opinion specifically on the quality of journalism in the article (either in -5 to 5, or a set of categories), not just whether they agree with the article or not – so that over time the editors (and users submitting their own articles) would become aware of what the community as a whole likes and dislikes in so much as journalism (and not just popular subjects). Thus, the users would be working together to improve the quality of the articles published, without necessarily narrowing the subject range.

What does this mean for Digg?

OSNews is not the perfect example of user-centric design at work. This is not what I am trying to prove. OSNews could be labelled ‘web 1.0’ as a method of drawing a line between recently deployed technologies such as AJAX and instant user contributed content, and previous standard methodologies. There is not, and never will be, a web 2.0. AJAX was implemented by Microsoft in 1999, and was available earlier than that in Outlook Web Access. Microsoft were doing gMail back when Google was still only doing search. All web 2.0 really means is not the new vs. the old – but instead the young vs. the experienced. Without experience, many web 2.0 startups are going to have difficulty dealing with the drawbacks of an initial self-centric design process, further down the line.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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