Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Buzz Comix, Part III

I received a cordial but wrong-headed email today from someone at Buzz Comix who didn't want to use a real name.

Apparently under the impression that I think Buzz ranks comics by traffic, not votes, it explains the voting system to me and offers its merits: that it is more "exciting" and dynamic than a boring old traffic count.

Alas, the point of my two previous articles was not that voting is without merit, it is that Buzz Comix presents itself as a site where democracy rules, and yet the system is so thoroughly gamed that the final results are immensely distorted.

The simplest fix for this is to declare that it is permissible to sway the vote by trading votes and offering premiums. This informs visitors that if they want to participate meaningfully, they must be prepared to master a kind of democratic process unfamiliar to people outside Louisiana. It also tells us that standings in the various categories are not reflective of a comic's popularity, but rather its attractiveness to fans who will play the game. It also prevents a less likely, but conceivable, scenario: that visitors delve into webcomics based on the top list rankings, only to encounter lesser representatives of what webcomics have to offer. Is this the list that we want to send out to the uninitiated as representing the best of what we have? And even if every comic on the list is pretty good, is it fair to allow honest contenders with great comics to be shoved down the list because they don't know what's happening? Or won't participate in it? Or are too busy making great comics to screw around?

A superior fix is to break each issue into one problem. For the case of incentives, simply require that comics self-report, and flag those using incentives. Don't sugarcoat it or stigmatize it: "This comic uses reader premiums to encourage voting in its favor" ought to cover it.

For vote trading, it's easy. If I don't have a comic, I can't trade votes, so those with a comic should be allocated one vote per day to use as they see fit, to be made from an IP address affiliated with their account. This cuts bargaining down pretty fast, and allows people who actually follow the comic they are voting on more say. The creators might feel cheated at first, but when they realize that the voting results might actually start to mean something, they will experience the excitement of contenders.

A further empowerment would come from upping the importance of the minor lists. This would require some programming, but having a secondary list appear randomly along with the main list would enhance competition on those lists.

After mischaracterizing what I claim Buzz measures, my correspondent offers a definition: The top lists are "a metric of how many of the readers care enough to vote every day!" This could be included among the declarations I recommended earlier, except it's wrong. A significant portion of voters are creators, participating in cartels and trading votes. A significant proportion of the voters are readers reacting to an incentive -- 90% of the top ten use them, and the one that doesn't did, and recommends it if you want to advance. It sounds like a lot of people don't care enough to vote unless they get their palm greased.

We also know the system is dodgy from a common sense review of traffic relative to Buzz standing (presented yesterday). Do you really think Comic A has readers who are ten times more likely to vote than Comic B, even with both offering incentives? It requires too much bending of mathematics to accept. To my gut, the distortion is significant enough that I suspect computer voting fraud, and I suspect this is why my correspondent passed on an opportunity to explain his thoughts in an interview. I can't prove any such thing at this time.

Buzz has to shed its reliance on hidden rules and worthless results if it is to become a great site. This is true of all the top list sites to varying degrees. I used to recommend that new sites join them, simply for the back link, but the voting sites all have poor PageRank, a surprisingly low likelihood of getting your link noticed, and the quality of being in an unprofessional neighborhood where truth is not respected or even acknowledged. Plus they waste your time.