Netvibes, a pretty sweet portal site with a wealth of features just put out a new feature called Buzz. Today, any user can star an article on Netvibes. Buzz essentially lists out the links that have been starred the most by Netvibes users in the past couple of days (sliced up by 1, 6, 12, 24 and 48 hours). The result is a sort of Digg-like tally. Sort of.
There’s a really important but subtle distinction here. Netvibes is not asking anyone to explicitly post or vote on a particular link. Instead, it’s simply peering over the shoulder of users that are going about their normal, every day usage.
This distinction is important because it ensures that the results are not polluted by hidden agendas, or skewed by the more heavily weighed votes of superstar users. It’s fairly safe to say that the integrity of the data is better because the user goals are selfish.
Yeh, we may star an article because we want it get popular (just as we may tag a link on delicious) but the real end goal for most users is to better organize and file away stuff they like. The problem with sites like Digg is that the end is social. With tools like Buzz and Delicious, the end is personal – with a collective social benefit as a by-product.
Google fights this battle all the time. It’s constantly on the look out for sites that are trying to game the Pagerank system to end up higher in search results. Google’s power lies in its ability to mine and leverage selfish behavior that is oblivious to collective outcomes. If you don’t do that, you end up with a collective outcome that starts to have a singular, self-reinforcing identity. Which to me is more akin to joining a club.
Ultimately, this is about the distinction between machines listening in and explicitly asking. When machines observe and unobtrusively listen in, you get the real story. When they put a microphone in front of you and ask a question, you get aspirations of popularity, validation and celebrity. Youtube and blogs are a great example of how much we like to watch ourselves and hear ourselves talk. The problem arises when we try to put all that information together and find meaning in it. The more its about me, the better the collective outcome. The more its about you noticing me the worse the collective outcome.
Maybe we should be ban Broadway celebrities from the Internet.