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Surfing 'n' skepticism go hand in hand
LURKING behind every twist or turn of the Web is the shadow of fakery. The Web is the most intimate of mediums, a format that allows you to enter from the privacy of your bedroom the privacy of others' bedrooms — including those of people who would spit if you tried to approach them on the street. Through the Web, you can sort through a colleague's favorite songs and see what articles your neighbor is reading (on del.icio.us).
But the Web's honor code — the idea that what you are seeing is direct and real; that for every open ballot a one-user, one-vote principle will prevail — is every day being subverted. Two developments last week threw into relief the potential for treachery behind every Internet corner.
On the morning of Jan. 18, a video was posted on YouTube that within seconds was viewed at offices around the globe. The video was too perfect to be true, yet so seemingly unhinged that it seemed it had to be. It was too perfect not to be true.
But it wasn't. The video was a commercial for that foe of all things "webby": big business. But in its brief lifespan as a possible glimpse into a genuine private moment, the video once again showed what a labyrinth the viral video realm is.
Titled "Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out," the six-minute video features a group of bridesmaids preparing for a wedding ceremony in what seems to be a hotel room. After bursting back in the room from an unfortunate trip to the stylist's chair, the bride rapidly morphs into a cursing, head-spinning imitation of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" before hysterically taking scissors to her own head.
Gaining more than 2 million views in the blink of an eye, the "Wig Out" virus quickly leaped to old media. In New York, the CBS affiliate aired a piece spun off from the video. After noting "whether or not the video is real, the fact remains, stress does happen," the newscast's in-house therapist gave "simple tips to take the edge off." The video was featured on "The Tonight Show," "Good Morning America" and shown in heavy rotation on cable news networks.
Well, much quicker than anyone had no doubt planned, on the afternoon of Feb. 1, journalists and bloggers opened their e-mail boxes to find a news release stating tersely, "The recent 'Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out' video was an initiative from Sunsilk hair care brand in Canada. The video was created to dramatize that 'bad hair' is one of the challenges faced by young women, many of whom have experienced their own 'wig-out' moments. It was never Sunsilk Canada's intent to portray anything other than a dramatization."
Left hanging: Why is a fictional bride screaming in a hair commercial inherently less fascinating than a real bride screaming in a hotel bathroom? If this had been billed as a commercial in the first place, would we still have watched, let alone forwarded?
Gaming the Digg
SINCE the dawn of the Internet, one site has reigned over all others as the Web's official rounder-upper of the day's news: the Drudge Report. As anyone who works at a news website can tell you, the best driver of viewers to one of your stories is a link on Drudge. The second-best way is — there is no second-best way. For years, if a news story broke in the woods and Drudge didn't link to it, it didn't break.
Many, including such otherwise favored Web tycoons as Arianna Huffington and Gawker media's Nick Denton, have launched sites positioned as rivals to Drudge, but none has made a dent — until now. Welcome to Digg.com, the czar of social news — a kind of cross-pollination of Drudge and MySpace. The site's main function is fairly straightforward: Users post links on the Digg site to news stories. Other users look at the story and vote to either raise it up to the top of the site or bury it at the bottom.
Visitors are greeted with the prestigious "Newly Popular" page — a list of fairly recent stories that have received a lot of votes from users. And the page is extremely popular. The problem? The Web was rife with suggestions that Digg was being "gamed"; that groups and individuals were teaming up to artificially raise articles' standings on the page. Reports circulated with tales of co-ops who would, at the signal from one of their members, log on and vote for an article, of users (as seen in the YouTube wars) with multiple fake accounts and paid virtual sweatshops of users on call to drive up an article.
On Feb. 1, Digg acknowledged that it just might have a problem. In a post on the Digg blog, Kevin Rose, the site's distressingly juvenile-looking founder wrote, "Since the early days of the site, we've known that people try to game Digg, and since the beginning, we've developed tools to prevent it. It's obvious to us that this is just a normal dynamic of a growing site and is similar to what sites like Google, Yahoo and hundreds of other sites have been dealing with for years."
Reassuring passengers that these little bumps are nothing your flight crew can't deal with, Rose continued, "We're confident that such attempts do not impact the content that reaches the home page. We work hard every day to develop tools and systems that guard against this behavior. Whether someone is paid or chooses to try to "break" Digg, it's irrelevant — our systems can tell when it's happening. Stories reach the home page only when enough legitimate users have put them there."
He goes on to urge users to have faith in that ultimate information-age totem: the site's algorithm, the complex encoded formula that, we are assured, sorts out the good clicks from the bad. As at many sites, the secret algorithm is constantly tweaked to stay one step ahead of the cheaters.
But despite the assurance that all is well, has been well and will continue to be well, Digg felt the need, Rose mentions, to make one list change: dropping from the site the list of its top "diggers" because, he claims, "We believe there are better ways to discover new friends based on your interests and what you're digging."
Which we are free to infer might just confirm that Digg insiders share the suspicions of many Digg watchers, that some sort of funny business has been afoot at an epicenter of Web 2.0.
As for the Drudge Report, its algorithm — Matt Drudge linking to whatever the heck he feels like — appears, at this hour, to be secure.