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New Web 2.0 App Sees Democracy As Spam!


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Popularity contests increasingly decide what people see on the Web.

Features like most-viewed, most-popular and most-emailed lists democratize news and information, advocates say, letting consumers play a role in what's deemed worthy of others' attention, taking it out of the hands of an unseen editorial elite. Now, though, a diverse group of actors -- ranging from spyware makers to a venture-backed start-up -- is helping push specific videos, articles and photos to the top of those lists. Some of the Web sites targeted now are having to grapple with how to draw the line between user input and unacceptable manipulation.

News media and other Web sites traditionally have relied on editors to select which content to display on their home pages and feature prominently to users. But lately, many sites are basing such selections at least partly on how popular a given piece of content is with users. Google Inc.'s YouTube video-sharing site lists the video clips that have been viewed the most times, or are the highest-rated by users. Digg Inc., a community Web site that is the archetype for the popularity-contest model, relies on voting by users to help select which Web page links to feature in the lists for various media and subject areas that make up its site.

Spyware makers and others have taken notice, building software that tries to boost the prominence of specific items on some sites, by automatically clicking on them repeatedly or tricking unsuspecting users into doing so. The rewards for such tactics: the items are prominently featured on the "most viewed" and "highest rated" pages of sites, generating more exposure. "It's paramount for sites that are publicly driven to think about this every day, this arms race against the manipulators, " says Jay Adelson, chief executive of Digg, which is based in San Francisco.

The latest to try to capitalize on the popularity-contest trend is start-up Collactive Inc., which lets individuals create bulletins about specific online content that they can then blast out to other people. Users can identify items such as articles or video clips from a number of different sites, and specify what actions -- such as emailing articles and giving videos a specific rating on YouTube's five-star scale -- that they want Collactive to direct other people to take. The users can then email a link to the Collactive bulletin to friends or post it on their Web sites. Collactive, a Delaware-registered company that operates mainly out of Israel, then automatically walks the recipients through the process of viewing and emailing or rating the content. While the service is free for individuals, the company plans to charge businesses, politicians and some nonprofits for usage.

The Genocide Intervention Network, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, used Collactive last week in an effort to get 30,000 members on its email list to boost the visibility of a Boston Globe opinion piece about the conflict in Darfur, Sudan. The piece was featured in a "most-emailed" box on the newspaper's site; as of yesterday, it was the most popular item for the past week.

"Not only does this mean that the article got significant exposure to a much broader audience, but we also believe that owners of news sites care about their reader's interests and will often write more stories on these subjects," says Mark Hanis, executive director of the network, which didn't pay Collactive for the service.

So far, sites such as Yahoo Inc. don't appear to object to the use of Collactive's bulletins. "People using Yahoo News's 'most popular' or 'most emailed' as a kind of grass-roots marketing tool is just fine with us," says Scott Moore, senior vice president at Yahoo in charge of news and information. "If we detected abuse in the ratings ... we would stop it."

Collactive, whose investors include blue-chip Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia Capital, believes it's helping to democratize content online, making it easy for people who aren't technology experts to influence what other people see. "If you have enough friends and it's good content, you can make it popular on the Web," says CEO Eran Reshef, who co-founded Collactive late last year.

But the start-up's plans to let businesses and politicians use its service, for a fee, to promote their products and agendas could well attract criticism that it's helping manipulate the most-popular lists and home pages of news and video sites -- therefore decreasing their value. "There's a difference if you're a marketing company and you want to get something manipulated to the top," says Digg's Mr. Adelson.

Digg is among the Web sites that wrestle with how to define and avoid improper manipulation of user recommendations. Services have cropped up promising to boost a site in Digg's rankings, for example, on the premise that making it to Digg's home page drastically increases traffic to the site.

Mr. Adelson says Digg counts every vote submitted for a Web link, but weighs factors such as who is voting, patterns of voting and the time of day to try to determine whether the voting is being manipulated. When it believes that's the case, Digg is unlikely to feature the item on its home page.

But Mr. Adelson predicts some sites that rely on user popularity to determine which content to feature "will tank because they become so abused and they haven't really developed the methodology to deal with that abuse."

Digg earlier this month faced the implications of relying on users when some rebelled against the site's decision to remove links and information about breaking copy-protection locks on high-definition DVDs. Digg reached that decision out of concern for legal liability. But each time Digg removed the information, users posted it again and flooded the site until Digg's management gave up efforts to censor it.

Online video sites face challenges as well, as people try to game the "view counts" for clips by using automated software to repeatedly click on videos. Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, has spotted spyware software that hijacks individuals' Web browsers and makes them view specific videos on YouTube. Other spyware Mr. Edelman has documented forces users' computers to visit a clip on YouTube and give it a top five-star rating.

"Our computers are so good at counting that we treat their answers as infallible, but they're subject to gaming both through ordinary counting errors and through systematic attack," says Mr. Edelman.

"We are continuously updating the product to provide accurate view, rating and subscription numbers," says a YouTube spokeswoman. "When it comes to our attention that someone has rigged their numbers to gain placement on the top pages we remove the video or channel from public view."



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