Monday’s Class

I’m very happy about the panel we’ll have on Monday – the heads of social networking site Ning, discovery service Digg, and search engine Vast.
The theme will be the actualities of “crowd” behavior — its uses, how to stimulate and grow it, unintended consequences, where it’s going. Very apropos as we near the end of our course.

You should look at each of their sites before class so you are conversant with what they do. The brief descriptions below are not a proxy – spend some time with them.

digg: Jay Adelson

What is Digg?

Digg is a place for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the web. From the biggest online destinations to the most obscure blog, Digg surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users. You won’t find editors at Digg — we’re here to provide a place where people can collectively determine the value of content and we’re changing the way people consume information online.

Ning: Gina Bianchi

Ning is the social platform for the world’s interests and passions online. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., Ning offers an easy-to-use service that allows people to join and create Ning Networks. With more than 1.5 million Ning Networks created and 33 million registered users, millions of people every day are coming together across Ning to explore and express their interests, discover new passions, and meet new people around shared pursuits. Ning was founded in October 2004 by Gina Bianchini and Marc Andreessen. The company is privately held.

Vast: Kevin Laws is the leading vertical search platform for autos, travel, and real estate, with millions of users a month making purchasing decisions through’s network of partner websites. improves the online shopping experience with the largest selection, sub-second search times, and intuitive auto, real estate, and vacation rental search that helps users find the best match on the Internet for their needs.

(note that Kevin was also involved with epinions, a consumer review site which was later purchased by

14 Responses to “Monday’s Class”

  1. Chris Kyauk says:

    These “crowd” based websites are interesting because of the authority that its users attribute to them. I remember a Nielsen survey ( ) that showed that 70% of these websites trust the information that is given to them by other people. This trust is the framework that the websites like Ning and Vast are built upon- if there is no sense of trust between contributors to a project, then nothing can be done.

    Tangentially, I think this crowd effect is double edged, particularly in opinion websites like Yelp or epinions. It only takes one negative review to offset many positive reviews, after all.

  2. Quentin Hardy says:

    Trust is an enormous and still-developing issue in this medium. Trust is, of course, bound to identity — unless you trust with utter promiscuity (not a good idea), what you choose to believe in, either people or systems, is an implicit statement of who you are.

    I will be very good to grill all of them on how trust works, and how they engineer trust. Note however that Vast relies on blending existing objective databases (let’s let that one go, without getting into some cul-de-sac over data quality and objectivity) — location of a vehicle, say, with its ownership history and local sales prices — to create something like a blogject.

    Stephen’s earlier company, epinions, had a rating system and an undisclosed algorithm to create a “Web of Trust.” Digg supposedly works without editors (so much for my line that you can’t engineer taste) but does have an undisclosed algorithm for story promotion. It is not as simple as one person, one vote. Which is to say, the human editor is at one remove.

  3. Anne Mette says:

    Social networking is also an interesting topic related to education and learning. In Norway, where I come from, we have a debate going whether universities and colleges should use social media in order to get students involved in discussions, get them to collaborate more etc. I am a teacher (university college) myself, and I have worked for years with distance and flexible education. Social media is what it is, namely social media. I am not sure if social media, including the genres, way of use, user habits, trust of content etc as we as users attach to these kind of media, is the right way to go to enhance academic traditions. But maybe I am just old fashioned…

  4. Julian Limon says:

    I believe that sites such as Ning have a great potential, because they help people create communities of interest. They would be able to study people´s behavior in different networks, even tracking the same person through different networks. That would be interesting!

    I also noticed that they seem to have networks from different countries. I mean, it seems this site is not only focused in the US but has done it great in accessing different markets.

  5. Julián Limón Núñez says:

    A great question for Kevin would be how his site differentiates “Paid Ads” from normal ones

  6. Julián Limón Núñez says:

    “Vast always returns all the relevant results in response to a query, doing our best to sort the results according to the likely relevance to the user. In categories where we have listings for which we are compensated, this also plays a role in the order in which they are returned.”

    It looks a lot like the controversy around Baidu in China:

  7. Quentin Hardy says:

    About 50% of the networks are overseas.

  8. Anne Mette says:

    As a teacher I get a bit envious. Yesterdays seminar /panel discussion reminded me that we are talking about two different ways of learning – in leisure time learning and knowledge is driven by personal interests and passion. In school… ? How do I as a teacher, transfer this passion based learning, this collective learning “drive” from using social media, into the classroom?

  9. Quentin Hardy says:

    I take your point, but also think the distinction of school/leisure learning is, or at least should be, eroding.
    The school model we have is basically an industrial production model, entirely appropriate for its time. One progressed through it, acquiring requisite skills to meet various needs. Those needs were often set out be legal or self-directing bodies (medical licensing and journalism school, respectively) and adhered to by school systems. Particularly in Europe, students were streamed at a relatively young age to professions they would follow for life.

    We now have an economic system where lifelong employment is a nostrum, work can take place anywhere, and during a work day one takes on vastly different identities with different groups. Thank globalization and the communications revolution for that. Shouldn’t the school system change to reflect that? Shouldn’t learning be inculcated as a method which is used throughout life?

    To the extent it is, you may find yourself much closer to our panelists than you thought.

  10. --kates. says:

    reflecting on monday’s panel, two things:

    1. is the underlying assumption viable?
    ning, for example. there is an underlying assumption that community has something to do with consumerism.

    at some point, being in community with other people on ning is connected to buying things, ie: clicking on an ad or purchasing a product from ning, which is its revenue model for sustainability.

    is it viable to connect community and consumerism? i’d offer an alternative, underlying assumption as a comparison.

    the underlying assumption in subscription-based gaming is that entertainment has something to do with consumerism. not, community. community is a beneficial byproduct of your entertainment purchase. here, community and consumerism are divorced by one step– entertainment.

    help me think about this: why does it seem more natural to me, to pay for entertainment than to pay for community? because essentially, that’s what i’m doing on a social network—i am paying for community. but does that feel weird to anyone else? to say that? …admit it?

  11. Quentin Hardy says:

    It’s an interesting, and pretty complicated, question.

    Certainly, it feels more “normal” (Oh God, I put a normal word in quotes) to pay for entertainment than community. Or at least, it feels more normal to say that it feels more normal…it is not comfortable to admit that the distinction is problematic.

    People do pay, however, for community (church donations, NPR pledge drives, country club fees, or status objects like fashions, foods, or other types of products favored by their group) when it is cloaked or spoken of as something else. And someone deep into their guild in Warcraft might say they are paying to participate in a community, or to have things needed in their community.

    Capitalism, or at least our consumerist model, does have an extraordinary capacity to turn things into a transaction. One might argue that $120/hr psychologists and psychiatrists are basically fulfilling the same function that priests and shamans used to cover (usually in exchange for chickens or cash donations or something, but it doesn’t feel like paying). It is the consumerist version of soul healing, with about the same level of success.

    To that extent, what is bothering us here is that someone said it out loud — you are paying for community — which is not done. The system designer, therefore, has to install the profit-making function unobtrusively — with “premium” services, virtual gifts, collecting and selling behavioral information, or some other method.

    We might also take this problem in another direction — the economy and uses of advertising.

    Google makes money on advertising because (a) the ads are closer to a moment of commerce (searching is relatively private, and searching = looking for something, often a product) and (b) they have monster scale (which is how spammers and roadside billboards make money too).

    Ning will likely never have that kind of scale, and is of course not in a product-related sphere. The ads are almost certainly less of its profitability per user hour than in Google.

    There may, however, be other types of advertising, based on machine awareness of behavior, that evolve to better suit this environment — directed ads offering goods and tours to an adventure travel group, puzzles crafted for a group of puzzle lovers. Or, the behavior could be better encoded and sold on to marketers who approach group members privately.

  12. Daniel Turner says:

    Trust on one level may be bound to identity (I take it you mean the identity of the speaker rather than the hearer), but there are obviously a number of situations where hearers trust information without thinking of, or even knowing, the speaker. Rumors, of course, are anonymous; I suppose one could extend the identity sense to that of the extended network — i.e., “I heard it from a friend of my cousin’s best friend’s ex-gym teacher” — but as often, people buy into a rumor because of entertainment value or because it confirms a bias of theirs.

    This ties into the question I asked in class and wanted to explore more, the question of editorial… control? Contribution? The role of an editor includes selecting what stories/etc. are presented to the reader, which was in a way addressed; however, the more important role of an editor is to validate the information presented to the reader/user, to make sure sources are backed up, facts are checked. In this role, their client is not the publication, but the reader/user. And in that sense, I sure don’t want to be my own editor. I want my editor to be someone a good sight smarter and more capable than I am! (Just like I don’t want a president “just like me”… I want one who’ll do a damn good job.)

    There was also the talk about transparency. Ironic that hiding the algorithm is necessary to prevent gaming the system, since the only objective way to check the impartiality of the algorithm would be examining it, and by checking your results against what goes up on Digg. Otherwise, it could all be arbitrary and we’d never know.

    Paying for community… interesting. But isn’t that what we’ve always done? If not in cash, we pay in our time, or trade of gifts/efforts/attention. Bring cookies to a church social, hold up your part in a bowling league, offer hospitality. Hm, but those payments go to the community members, not to a third party.

    Along those lines, isn’t the content of the community-based games rather a capitalist model? You work (kill rats/dragons/aliens or move cargo/go on quests/create skins) to trade/sell items to get better ones, level up. Kind of a scary analogue to the “who dies with the most toys, wins” model of life… .

  13. Rachelle says:

    Kind of a tangent, but I was struck by the discussion toward the end of the class about using a real name v. anonymity.

    So often when this subject comes up, it seems to me that a black-and-white distinction is made between being anonymous and using a real name — but online identities can be lots of things in between those two poles. If you define pseudonymity as the use of a consistent pseudonym in a particular context, say — that’s *very* different from anonymity. (And contrary to what those who deplore the use of pseudonyms sometimes say, a pseudonymous persona almost always has a reputation to protect.)

    This conversation touches on some implications for storytelling, the ways that people create personas/characters, etc:

  14. Luisa says:

    It’s been a while but I read this today:

    “Does your social class determine your online social network?”

    These social-networking divides are worrisome to boyd, who wrote “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics.” Instead of allowing us to cross the boundaries that exist in our everyday lives, these online class differences threaten to carry those boundaries into the future.

    Like someone said in one of the discussions, you may live by and around people, but you don’t really live with them and talk to them. I don’t think the internet is ever going to fix that, that has to come from our formation, it’s beyond the internet.