Sunday, January 5, 2014

Voting Rings - Bad or Good?

Voting rings can be a low cost alternative to AdWords and Facebook ads to promote high quality content.

What are voting rings or voting cliques?

Reddit, in their faq section, answers to the question What constitutes vote cheating and vote manipulation? with:
 A "vote ring" is a group of people who agree to vote on certain things together, either a specific submission, a user, a domain, or anything like that.
And they, not only discourage this type of practice, but they explicitly forbid it. Other websites that highlight voted content like hacker news, digg, delicious, stackoverflow, quora and basically all the rest, also forbid the practice of participating in voting rings.

Why are voting rings so alluring

Because it helps you get on the front page of hacker news, or of any popular reddit thread - and this, my dear reader, brings a huge amount of traffic to your site. 

As an example, my post titled Why I'll never leave Romania as a software developer was on the front page of the /r/programming thread on reddit for one day. As a result, the post got 26k visits, most of them from reddit. And the visitors were highly targeted people, all interested in programming. 

You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to estimate that, at a modest cost of 30 cents/click with AdWords, this amount of traffic would've cost 7800 dollars. Imagine what happens when you are on the front page on /r/technology (which has 10x times more subscribers than the /r/programming thread) or reddit itself.

Most of the algorithms that decides what post to be on the front page are based on a combination between the number of votes it receives, and their recency, such that, the more votes a post receives right after it is posted, the upper it gets on the front page, thus being exposed to a bigger number of readers, increasing its chances to be upvoted even further. 
On the contrary, no matter how good an article is, if it doesn't get a few upvotes early on, right after it is submitted, it will go down the drain on the path of internet forgetfulness.

Voting rings are a current practice of internet activity

If you love a certain's author style, there are big chances that you like, share, tweet or upvote the content they publish, creating a voting ring, so the better an author is, the biggest their voting circle is, the bigger the chances that their content gets featured on social networks and so on. Indeed, you might say, having many followers, the author has proven track record that they create notable content. 
For the rest of us, the mere mortals, things are a little bit different - we have to be proactive in promoting our content in order to have it exposed. 

Unfortunately, this proactiveness is considered bad practice and it might get your account banned from the vote enabled, content bubbling sites. Fortunately, it is difficult to accurately identify voting rings, especially due to the fact that popular authors posts look liked they're promoted through voting ring schemes.

So, whether you explicitly ask your friends to upvote your submission or you share your submission on your social network profiles, you encourage your friends to upvote your creation, thus you are susceptible of ad-hoc voting rings creation. 
In my opinion, voting rings are a reality, whether they're good or bad is debatable, but, when I spend 3, 4, or even more hours to write an article, I want to make sure it gets all the possible feedback - be that positive, or negative, so it seems normal to promote it on all the channels I can and ask a few friends to help me with it. 
I don't even know if there's anyone to be featured on the front page of any popular social content aggregator who got there without help (ie early upvotes) from friends or acquaintances. If you have knowledge of highly popular content that got its notoriety without some initial boosting, please mention it in the comments section of the article.


I'd say that voting rings are a natural way of association among individual. It happens day by day in our offline lives. It happens when we ask for endorsements, it happens when a political party or NGO starts a social movement or a protest and the examples could go on and on. 
So, creating a voting ring to give you an initial boost to your content is a good thing. The people in the community will take care and show you the place where that post belongs in an instant anyway, by upvoting or downvoting it.
Why would we ban those practices from the online environment? I expect the online world to be an enriching experience to our offline lives, not a restricting one. I expect it to offer at least what the offline world offers (in the limits of the current technology available, of course), and a little more.

The worst case scenario would be when a group of, lets say, 1000 people group together and act in a monopolistic way against the community they're part of, by keeping the front pages filled only with their content. Such a group of people will take time to be created and there are little chances that just one group will be. There would be more groups, acting in opposition, simply balancing the focus the internet gets.

An Experiment

Not long while ago, together with a group of friends, we created PRForge. It is thought as a platform for audience amplification. Whenever someone posts a link in a group on PRForge, the link gets spread on the social properties of all the members from that group, thus amplifying the total reach of that piece of content. The social platforms supported until now were just Facebook and Twitter, but starting the last days of 2013, we implemented reddit and hacker news upvotes:
If this post convinced you that voting rings are OK to use, join the group on PRForge and be part of the voting ring I created. 

After you sign-up, install the firefox plugin from the link 
Go Get It Champ
which is on the left sidebar. 
Let that Firefox instance running with a Reddit and Hacker News account logged in. Whenever an authorized to post member of the group will submit a Reddit/HN link, it will be automatically upvoted by all the members of the group. 

In order to become authorized to submit links, let me know in the comments section of the group. 
After you sign up you'll be also able to create your own, private groups.

Please note that although PRForge's main functionalities are working right now, it is in a really early release and there are things that will not work. Please bear with us while we fix the glitches that will appear.  

If you read this far, you might want to follow me on twitter