Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is one-person-one-vote redundant in a networked world?

I'm not proud. I admit it. I was watching the X-Factor on Saturday evening. It made me sad and angry. And not just because I know there are millions of things that I should have been doing that would have been of greater value to me and humanity in general. Like staring into space, for example. Forgive me.

Two things stood out.

1. This show (and those of its ilk) has been lauded as a vanguard of co-created media, two-way flows - the viewers as participants rather than simple broadcast-as consumers. (for those unaware, you text to vote for your favourites - so the audience acts as mass collaborative judge on the singing talents of those paraded before you). (There, I knew I had an excuse to watch it)

But it strikes me that all those ideals of mass collaboration, of edge taking control of centre, work at their best in unfettered networks. And these are not unfettered networks.
While the X-factor may create the illusion of handing control to its voters, they only have one option - to create a hit.

They aren't allowed to say - hey actually we want to form our own global niche of supporters for this artist here (who the 'masses' are kicking out in week six of the show, for example). And, you know what, we're going to set up our own show - or tour or whatever. No, all they can do is join the relentless pursuit of creating the next, one, single, hit.

Seems a bit of a miss really, since as any fool will tell you about the Long Tail, the hit will only account for 15% of the cash to be made. 85% going down the dunny? Has anyone told Simon Cowell?

This winner-takes-all approach results in the survival of the blandest; the least worst, emerge as the 'hits'.

There are recurring examples of this 'survival of the blandest' emerging. In every case they are where a centre-out-we're-in-control approach remains at the heart of the trappings of shared ownership. Simply - the centre organises a competition - the edge gets to vote. The edge loves diversity, is passionate about difference and will self organise around it to celebrate it - but this gets swept away by the pursuit of a winner.

The lesson of the networked world is the big win is in the long tail.

2. My second concern is perhaps more challenging. A very fine singer got voted out on Saturday night. I mean a very fine singer. A fabulous school teacher, from Luton. The studio audience stood in awe to applaud her performance. She was good. Oh, I did I mention she happens to be black?

It's not the first time staggeringly talented black singers have fallen under the wheels of the battle of the bland. Whenever it occurs I get alarmed and surprised about the great British public. And it tells its own heartbreaking story that the wonderful Beverley was entirely unphased by this turn of events.

So this is where it gets challenging. It turns out I just don't trust the judgement of a significant number of people. So why should I be comfortable allowing their 'one vote' to be equal to my own?

Of course, this begs the question - why should my vote, my say, be given any more weight than anyone else's. This is the difficulty of democracy, and famously, it's tyranny.

But perhaps the networked world is showing us ways in which the idea that it must always be one-person-one-vote can change.

We are quite comfortable talking about user ratings being given more credence if the raters themselves have been given more credence by members of their community. We seem comfortable with the notion that if the community values your opinion (or doesn't) they can share this through some kind of scoring, some form of rating and recommendation. And that your influence, your opportunity for your voice to be heard, may rise and fall with this.

One-person-one-vote means everyone's opinion is equal. But in the networked world there is a general acceptance that this is not the case. Perhaps it can apply within niched communities - but not on the mass scale?

Imagine an X-Factor competition in which only people I trust can vote. This is the niche global approach. Tough one to stage on mass broadcast TV, I grant.

My community of people I trust would vote away and we'd all end up with a result we supported. Our bit of the long tail would award the 'win' to artist x. And we'd love x, our building of trust may even have included some taste sharing. No wonder we all love x.

Now repeat with someone else's community of trust. Artist Y wins! Hurrah. The long tail is being enabled.

Everyone is created equal, but when they enter a community equality ends.

That sounds quite anti- web2.0 quite anti, social. But it also sounds like the reality of life as we experience it.

It feels natural. But is this slippage towards hierarchy natural, helpful, or simply residual? Your contributions very, very welcome.

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?