Mafia Sourcing – How Insiders Game User Generated News for Money

Posted on Sep 1, 2010 | 30 comments


The Web.  Open, democratic, leveling, freeing information from closed networks.  The wisdom of the crowds. Or so it seems.

I originally came from the entreprise software world (for 10 years) and before that I was in mobile & telecoms (8 years) so the last three years of immersing myself in consumer Internet, digital media & advertisings has been very eye opening.  I arrived on this scene wet behind the ears assuming that the web was, as it seemed to me as a user, powered by the masses for the masses.  Ah, the joys of youthful naivete.

I first learned the ropes around SEO (search engine optimization) and how for years this has been a cat-and-mouse game where people game the system (Google) through link exchanges, offshore SEO “agencies,” widgets, algorithmically optimized content and the like that degrades the quality of search results.  I then learned about the large world of Internet arbitrage, lead gen, and “crap-taculous” revenue as one friend calls it.  I learned about domain parking and how much money that drives for Google.

[update: I was not implying that all SEO programs are bad. To the contrary, I actively work with entrepreneurs on how to better drive SEO. I was simply pointing out that there is a “black hat” element to SEO that I (and many non SEO people) didn’t know about.  There are also “white hat” SEO people.  The black hat element is what keeps Google trying to innovate to stay ahead of.  That’s all.]

And then I had another bubble burst.  I had previously believed that the world of user-generated news sites were run on a open, crowd-sourced model.  You submitted news to a website like Digg and if it was interesting content with a great headline and newsworthy text it would get driven up to the masses.  I know the more experienced consumer web people will be laughing about now.

What I learned 18 months ago is that sites like Digg traditionally have not been “crowd sourced” so much as “mafia sourced.”

Here’s how I learned:

When I first started blogging 18 months ago or so I started asking people the best way to get distribution.  I didn’t want to obsess with it (I have a day job!) but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t writing just for my mom.  I had a lot of initial success publishing my content on Twitter and the truth is that it was fairly democratic.  If I wrote an interesting story with a compelling enough title it tended to get good click throughs (2-4% each time I Tweeted & for reasons I’ve explained before I Tweeted 2-3 times into different day parts).

I had a few friends help with the initial distribution and explained how to do that in this post on how to blog effectively.

I then experimented by putting a button from Tweetmeme to make it easier to Tweet from my blog and FB share button from awe.sm.  Things started to spread more virally.  Awe.sm is right!

Then I started experiencing the magic of being “profiled” on a few sites.  The first to hit was when I was on the WordPress home page.  BOOM!  Traffic rolled in.  And then I got covered a couple of times on HackerNews and another major spike.

Next on my agenda – Digg.  If HackerNews was big, Digg must be even bigger – right? I put up a button on my blog and noticed that I got a few clicks on the button.  But it didn’t drive ANY traffic.  Hmm. Not the expected reaction.  I tried another experiment – I asked a friend of mine to submit a story on Digg.  He had told me he used Digg all the time so I figured if people saw him there submitting a story it would bring at least some juice.  Nada.  Bagel.  Zippo.

I called a friend of mine who is REALLY in the know.  I’ll need to protect his identity ;-) I asked him why I sucked on Digg.  He asked me who submitted my story.  I told him and he said, “well, that’s your problem.”  Huh?

“On Digg it really matters who submits your story.  There is a small group of people that all work collectively to promote stories.  We all know each other by online handles.  We are all linked in IM (instant messenger).  When we want a story promoted we ping each other and all of the power users will promote the story.  When it starts breaking then the power of the crowds takes over.  If you want a story to break on Digg just let me know.  I’ll help promote it.

I never took my friend up on this offer.  Blogging is a hobby for me and I love being able to learn about all of the technologies from a practitioners perspective rather than the Ivory Tower.  But I don’t make a penny from blogging and I certainly wasn’t wanting to mafia source a bunch of users who probably would drive unfocused numbers to my blog.  I care about quality entrepreneurs & investors engaging with me intellectually, not mob scenes.

I’m not talking about systems where a few friends conspire to get more coverage for their news – that obviously happens everywhere and in many ways is just part of hustling as an entrepreneurs.  I’m talking about places that are systematically rigged by powerful trading networks of people who are paid to help propagate (and kill) stories.  That’s a far cry from friends who are your personal user-generated marketing machines.

I called a bunch of other friends in the space and they all corroborated my initial friend’s story.  Some offered to help promoted me on  StumbleUpon, Fark and others.  Uh, no thanks.  Et tu, Brute?  Yup.  Seems these rings operate where they can.  And I learned that some of these people I knew are paid to help promote stories.  They have consultancies that guarantee you traffic and get paid to operate in these mafia rings.

One place that really has surprised me is HackerNews.  At least from what I can tell (maybe I’m still PollyAna-ish about it because I love HackerNews) this user generated news is much less gamed.  Not zero, but less so.  They seems to make it hard to directly link to stories and I haven’t heard of HN mafia circles.  It seems that they have a desired goal to control it as outlined by Paul Graham even this week.

So when I read the articles about the Digg V4 controversy (see: wikipedia & TechCrunch) it doesn’t surprise me that Digg would want to change its feature set to make it a more honest broker of user-generated news (the way Twitter seems to be to me).  Yes, they are getting lambasted by their users for the recent changes but probably precisely because when you’re the mafia you don’t appreciate a little light shining.  I must admit that I haven’t followed the Digg v4 controversy closely enough.  I stopped watching when the Sopranos ended.  So there might be more to users discontent than making the system harder to game.

I for one applaud any efforts to make user-generated news (and the web) more democratic & open.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Dude, I'd still be a complete and total nobody (as opposed to a mostly-nobody) if it wasn't for my Hacker News voting ring.

    Hustlers hustle. That is what we do.

  • David Riffer

    >>> One place that really has surprised me is HackerNews. At least from what I can tell (maybe I’m still PollyAna-ish about it because I love HackerNews) this user generated news is much less gamed. They seems to make it hard to directly link to stories and I haven’t heard of HN mafia circles. If I’m wrong please write a comment (even if anonymous).

    HN is setup to favor YC companies in lots of subtle ways.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    A lot of this I have realized myself over the years, but regardless this was an eye opening piece. I really think digg is better of with their new format then slowly fading into obsoleteness with an outdated structure.

    That being said, I have no idea where you find the time in the day to do all you do. I guess I need to go back and read your posts about productivity and effective time management, and stop waiting for the clock to tick down, ahah.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ah, I guess I am naive then. Hacker News, too? I get that people ask friends to help with promotion. But if the UG News sites become dominated by “professional” rings then they lose legitimacy.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, that makes sense.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Well it's nearly midnight and I'm still at the computer. Night owl by DNA. Plus, I don't watch a lot of TV ;-)

  • Guest

    Doesn't take much, just 4 or 5 upvotes in a short amount of time to make the front page. From there you live or die on your own merits. But without that initial boost, it is INCREDIBLY hard to get lift off and separate yourself as signal from noise.

  • (def lambda)

    Well there is gaming at HN – obviously if the title has [YC W || S I] or PG, it almost always makes it to frontpage. It's terribly easy to make it to frontpage if you're a YC company. But then again, the voting circle is somewhat comment driven insofar as to say that sometimes comments tend to happen in circles and those who generally have a past of agreeing with the commentators do vote (patio11 and cperciva come to mind – they tend to reply to pg quite often).

  • http://danieltenner.com Daniel Tenner

    Posting as myself, yes, there is some “let's help each other” going on, but it's relatively minor. A handful (literally, less than half a dozen at the most) of stories a week get “promoted” on the IRC channel. Anyone can join that channel and is warmly invited to (it's not a secret society, and there's no membership requirement). Anyone, no matter their seniority, can suggest an HN story that they feel deserves attention.

    What happens next is that if there are people around, some of them might click and read the story, and if they' think it's good, they might upvote it. Bcause of HN's sensitivity to early votes, this can give a huge boost to a great story that would otherwise have sunk without a trace. However, as I mentioned this process is open and entirely merit-based. No one gets their stories upvoted just because of who they are or who they know – at least not on the IRC channel. It's a far cry from a mafia voting ring, if only because anyone is welcome to join it.

    I think of it as a YCombinator for HN stories… Helping great stories take off more easily…

  • Idiot

    Boring as hell.

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    As someone whose content has over 50K diggs and hit the front page about 95% of the time, I can attest that this is all true, but it's not as nefarious as you might think. I don't advise people to submit to digg and see what happens, as the chances are slim that content from neophytes will go big, but ti doesn't mean that the cream doesn't rise to the top. Getting “popular” is a matter of getting around 50-350 diggs depending on the algo. Beyond that, the content is largely on it's own merit. Craptastic content will peter out around 400-600 diggs. Above 1,000k diggs and you really have to have something special, important, cool. An analogy would be power users determining who qualifies to run the 200m in the Oympics. After that, the runners are on their own. They rarely get involved after the gun clap since their effectiveness is drowned out by the many thousands of users who see and vote on the content.

    Another note is that the power users are not financially motivated. Some have made a few coin on their power, but what gets to the top is still good content, mostly free from financial interest. The power users have their intrests, Ron Paul, net neutrality, but no power user could push up a story on the best places to get a payday loan.

    The current controversies at digg are misrepresenting the issue I believe. power users haven't had their power taken away. This is evident by the rampant gaming, pushing reddit stories to the top. The issue is that the new Digg is very focused on being a distribution of established providers, like Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch. The Mashable account has thousands of followers on digg and so when everything mashable does is submitted to digg, it all gets pushed to the top. This was the case a day or two after Digg4 was related, 90% of the front page content was Mashable. So the power users on digg, are upset because the power they had which was theirs alone, is not shared with these huge internet publishers. So basically, they have competition in the gaming department.

    Personally, and I will certainly note my conflict of interest, the power users have done a great job at curated content on digg, and I certainly don't want digg to start looking like my RSS reader (which I never look at). Any site that allows for gatekeeper, will have gatekeepers, hacker news included. What you want to look for is the qaulity of the gatekeepers, not their existence alone. Does hackernews provide you with great stories? Then perhaps you should thank the mafia that runs it.

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    Never really got into Digg – notwithstanding its bad design and UI, it always just seemed too clique.

    Love HN though – its not run as a business, has no marketing, very niche audience – i do feel the cream rises to the top. have no issue with users voting each others stories up as HN provides me with good utility and the top stories in my experience have actually been the best.

    In regards gaming of systems generally – i think all's fair in love and war. It's a never-ending cat-and-mouse. At the end of the day all the gaming which goes on is about getting a little kudos and/or traffic – no-one gets hurt -its not like digg voting decides the federal budget or which patients to be treated first. digg is a news site for geeks – if they think gaming the system is a good use of their time – surely they are deserving of a little pity.

  • Guest

    Yeah, your comment really was terrible.

  • http://www.zoliblog.com Zoli Erdos

    I had very similar experience on Reddit in their early days – not only organized promotion, but just as well organized down-voting.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome commentary. Thank you for the insights. Yeah, I'm not surprised that there are “gatekeepers” so much as the fact that if a gatekeeper DOESN'T push your story on Digg you were pretty much f'd. and from what I could tell there were people earning bank to help promote stories.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, the down voting can be as lethal is the organized up voting.

  • http://twitter.com/crossloop crossloop

    In reading your post, I realized that most content on the web is open but is almost always used to generate income either by SEO or ads etc. And with this way of people being”paid” to promote stories the normal user can not get their content up the tooting poll since these “mafia” promoters have an upper hand. The question comes down to is will this behavior really ever stop, as we do have an “open” web from the naked eye but in reality the common person is ignorant to this behavior as they do not know any better. As they say ” Ignorance is bliss, and in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king”

  • http://twitter.com/cojorgensen Cody Jorgensen

    “I first learned the ropes around SEO (search engine optimization) and how for years this has been a cat-and-mouse game where people game the system (Google) through link exchanges, offshore SEO “agencies,” widgets, algorithmically optimized content and the like that degrades the quality of search results. I then learned about the large world of Internet arbitrage, lead gen, and “crap-taculous” revenue as one friend calls it. I learned about domain parking and how much money that drives for Google.”

    A pessimistic, jaded, and definitely one-sided view of an industry. SEO can be motivated by many different reasons, and the techniques they employ are varied, yet at the end of the day it is a misfire to suggest that all are in the black hat camp as you seemingly suggest.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    I was under the impression this was common knowledge. One additional reason that your blog will not fare well on Digg and StumbleUpon regardless of how excellent it actually is – your topic is VC and the casual lurker users (i.e. the ones who click links) are interested in babes, farts, and top 10 lists. Check out the sites that make the homepage. You'll be hard pressed to find anything VC related in there. You could get to the top of a particular category (e.g. technology, politics, or world news) if you had a power Digger on your side but it's highly unlikely you'd ever hit the homepage unless you changed your subject matter to something “sophomoric” (is this even a word?). Did I mention that 99.9% of the traffic from these sites is bounce traffic? You're almost better off buying cheap traffic from bots if all you want to do is pump up your Alexa / Compete / Google Analytics to show you have good traffic. The clickers / lurkers on these sites don't actually read the articles they land on, the read headlines, click, and bounce. You'll be hard pressed to ever see a conversion of any sort from a click generating from Digg / Stumble.

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    I know it's a constant struggle (as you outlined with the Google SEO battle), but I've been surprised these sites haven't taken a more active approach to reduce gaming.

    I saw this early on with ebay – using a group of friends to bid up each others items, but from what I've followed, ebay got a pretty good handle on this fairly quickly and I'm surprised Digg, etc have taken so long to follow suit.

    Have you seen this behavior at Quora?

  • Johnmgreathouse

    Mark,

    I had an “interesting” experience with my infoChachkie blog (http://www.infochachkie.com) and HN. Unbeknownst to me, my blog was BANNED from HN because of “voting irregularities”. I only found out about it via a Google Alert which directed me to a post in which someone (whom I didn't know) asked HN why the infoChachkie articles he was posting could not be viewed by others.

    To HN's credit, they were very prompt in “unbanning” my site after I sent them an email. The only explanation I can think of is that some of my students may have voted near or at the same time on a particular article. Apparently HN looks at the IP addresses of the voters. If “too many” are from the same IP address (in my case UCSB's wireless network), it flags the votes. Not really sure, but HN does seem to make an effort to keep the system clean.

    John

  • Johnny45

    I completely agree. This is an extremely misguided view of SEO. There are plenty of ethical white hat SEOs out there that optimize sites/pages with well written, useful information that people would have a hard time finding were it not for SEO.

  • http://www.researchandcompare.com Alex

    Seems to me that this is the 1-9-90 rule at work. 1% of the user base is driving what is and is not seen on all these sites.

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    Q for all…have you ever seen the most sinister, big-money, illegal hacking that goes on every night on a Major Player? It goes unspoken. Omerta. Or no one knows? I've only written of it once or twice, and have found I've been flagged by Major Player. I did evil by speaking truth to power. When are people going to speak up??
    Serious question.

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    But unfortunately the factors are continuously in motion, and even white-hatters will not win if their aim is relevancy over profit .. if you know what I mean.

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    You have no idea how much I want to talk about this…I can't decide if everyone's

    - drunk on kool-aid
    - stupid
    - content

    ??

  • http://notesfromtheninjabunny.tumblr.com/ Emily Merkle

    isn't that what “associated content” is? Even LinkedIn has been gamed into uselessness.
    Can't trust a source anymore…just gather lots of data and deduce…disappointing to be a skeptic but necessary…

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    The fight between good and evil is endless. The goal of open remains though.

  • http://jack.dempsey.myopenid.com/ Jack Dempsey

    Great post Mark. When we set out to build http://euraeka.com we made several key decisions with these realities in mind.

    The first rule was simple: no gaming the system. To truly do this you can't allow users to vote! The “wisdom” of the crowds isn't always the best thing to strive for (as Digg has shown), especially when everyone can see the current sentiment on an issue–to say it influences future votes would be an understatement.

    Second rule: no submission. If you let users submit stories, then there will be an inherent bias in what stories are even available to vote on. We do allow users to suggest feeds to prevent any bias in the several thousand sources we currently analyze (which were selected by aggregating lists of well read and influential news sources).

    We made many choices in how to seed our A.I., in what sorts of analysis we would perform on the text, but in many ways those two rules are and have been the most important.

    The end result is a site that accepts no bribes, no special favors. The only way to get an article to our front page is to write something well. We realize that some people may prefer a more subjective or provocative rating, so we're considering allowing our users to order the stories on several other styles of metrics, including controversiality, likelihood of it being propaganda, and political bias.

    In some ways one could say that this system is completely the opposite of democratic and open. It is indeed closed in the sense that we won't be telling people just exactly how the code works, but it is very open in the sense that many of the tools we rely on are freely available and based on published papers and dissertations.

    I would say it is democratic in that we haven't put our own value judgements into the analysis–for instance, the political analyzer component ( http://euraeka.com/news/business_society/politics ) is trained on what the masses agree are conservative or liberal rhetoric, not whether we lean towards the Left or Right.

    My co-founder and I believe that the future of information consumption will have to rely at least in part on technology. There's just too much content being produced every minute of every day, and it seems to be doing so at an ever increasing rate. This is why our latest feature is a recommendation engine which precludes the need for others to submit articles and vote them up. After all, don't we all like different topics, different styles of writing?

    You could call us the Hunch for news. The hard part we've found is that people only get so excited about consuming news content online. They're much more likely to go play Farmville than pay attention to an excellent recommendation on an article from Psychology Today, and this challenge, the simple truth that we all seem so interested in content not written well, not good for us, and even then not for a very long time, is something that may not even possible to solve.

  • http://www.gpgsolar.com.au/ GPG Solar

    the mafia gaming is purely based on GODFather