The madness of the masses: Why social news results in more errors, but quicker corrections.

We’ve had a couple of freak outs recently about social news sites promoting false or inaccurate stories. The latest one, about Google buying Sun, was interesting in that involved stock prices and potentially stock manipulation for gain.

Of course, we had this same issue 10 years ago on Yahoo and Raging Bull message boards when they first gained critical mass. You see, people didn’t know how to respond to information on a message board, but now they do. Today folks take posts on a message board with a grain of salt or as a place to start their research–but never as actionable information.

Today folks are starting to understand how to deal with hot stories on social news sites like DIGG and Delicious. The issue is primarily based on a misunderstand of what it means to vote/bookmark/DIGG a story. Voting for a story on DIGG or Delicious does not mean you endorse it–it simply means you’re interested in it. My guess is that a large number of folks (most?) vote for stories *before* they even visit and read the source material. In fact, many folks DIGG information they know is not correct so they can reference it in the future–I’ve done this many times myself. Perhaps it’s time for social news sites to have a way to bookmark something without endorsing it–sort of like the nofollow link. DIGG has already don’t a solid job with their warning that the story is under review (the image below)–a good start.

Fact is, outlandish stories rise quicker on social news sites. I could create a blog post right now that Google, Yahoo, or AOL was going to buy Facebook for $2B and place it on DIGG and it would have a very solid chance of racing up the charts. You don’t need any facts, you just need a good meme, and insiders know the “Facebook getting bought for billions” meme is spreading all over the Valley.

You see, the faster the news services the greater the chance of error. Social news sites can beat any traditional news site based on speed–but they are always going to suffer from the madness of the masses. The upside is that social news sites expose misinformation almost as quickly as they disseminate it–will people remember the correction or just the incorrect headline is the rub. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. The masses, and managers, of these sites are going to need to focus on corrections as violently as they do misinformation, or the social news sites will turn into glorified message boards/chat rooms.

Live television suffers from the madness of the masses all the time, most tragically when it was reported that the miners were alive. It’s a great meme, people want to believe it, and once the word gets out people run with it.

Users will soon learn that social news sites are imperfect, but highly-compelling, radar systems. Their not maps, newspapers, research reports, or encyclopedias. It’s gonna take another couple of years for folks to grok this, in the mean time you can expect weekly stories on DIGG/Delicious/etc. “reporting” incorrect news. Of course, the fact that anyone would consider social news reporting shows how little they understand our evolving medium.

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