Firehose: misplaced democracy or no democracy at all?

May 21, 2007 3:00 PM EDT
Slashdot: News for nerds, stuff that matters. Or so it says. Recently Slashdot implemented a system that apparently allows users to vote on which news and stuff they'd like to see on the homepage. The feature is called Firehose.

It's a bad metaphor and a bad idea.

When I (Slashdot nickname:  jcatcw) first discovered /., it was a site for science & technology stories submitted by the community and selected by the editors. Early on, when I got a story accepted, the response from the dotters was so great that it crashed our site. That might sound bad, but we can buy more servers (in fact, we have).

Now, submissions are visible to all, and registered users can vote the items up or down.

The idea, I suppose, was that the community could vote up good items and that would bring them to the attention of the editors. (This is the charitable interpretation. The less charitable suggestion is crash competition with Digg). They could just look at the good stuff & forgot the stuff that the community voted into the black hole. Maybe the editors felt that they were drinking from a firehose because they were getting so many submissions. I can understand that, but the solution seems worse than the problem.

Misplaced democracy?

The new system encourages submission of unworthy items. Some number of clicks will come through the items in the hose, whether they are ever posted to the home page or not. Granted, the traffic may not crash one's servers, but the incentives have been reversed. When only the editors saw submissions, one's only incentive to submit was the hope that the item would be accepted. That meant it might as well be a somewhat reasonable submission. It would be a huge waste of my time to submit items that I didn't think stood any chance of acceptance. It could even give me a bad reputation so that the editors would be predisposed against me.

I think the number of unworthy submissions has increased since the introduction of Firehose. I have no numbers to prove this, of course, but I spend a lot of time at Slashdot and the quality of the submissions (and in some cases the commentary) seems to have declined since Firehose became generally available.   For example, in the last hour, an item titled "Convert an Excel Chart to Image by using Aspose.Ce" was posted. It's content: "click HERE" and "Download" and several more links to the same site.   There are also two identical submissions linking to direct2dell.com.  Hmmmm.

All it takes to vote is a user account with a valid email. How many of the new account holders are part of viral marketing scams? There are probably people there now who are being paid for submissions or for votes.

The increased number of unworthy submissions makes more unpleasant work for the editors as well as members of the community. A bigger hose with more crap in it just means that the editors have to read all that crap -- and so do the voting members of the community. That's just more work for everyone.

No democracy at all

Is there any guarantee that all these votes matter? Nope. So far as I can tell, the editors still make the decisions. Good for them. I have no need for democracy in the selection of stories at a site that has done an excellent, if elitist, job of using editorial judgment. That's what makes it such a good site.

Drain the hydrant and throw away with the hose.