Humans are social and curious creatures — and so it is no surprise that when we browse the web, we are drawn to places like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord, TikTok, internet forums, and more (Threads?).
Joining these communities is a painless process as well:
- Interested in boxing? Click “Subscribe” on https://www.reddit.com/r/Boxing/ and now you are part of the Boxing subreddit community.
- Want to chat about Animal Crossing? Join the Animal Crossing Discord and within a few clicks you are chatting with like-minded people.
- Want to talk tech and startups? Sign up to Hacker News and you can start commenting or submitting posts.
Over the course of our digital lifetimes, we’ll most likely join tens if not hundreds of these communities. But our engagement with these communities usually will differ drastically:
- Some communities we will have a passive interest in, but only “check-in” on once in a while (perhaps we might look at the Boxing subreddit once a month to see if there’s any interesting topics).
- In other communities we will be heavy lurkers: we’ll read the comments and posts everyday, but never participate in the community ourselves, outside of upvoting or saving posts and comments.
- Finally, in a few select communities, we will be engaged either partially or heavily: either via posting comments, submitting posts, moderating the community, etc.
All of this engagement will additionally be subject to change over time: we will move from passive interest to lurker to engager and back again, depending on our current fascinations, stage of life, and more. Some communities we will even completely abandon (perhaps our love of boxing fades, or we no longer play Animal Crossing, or we stop working in startups and tech).
Regardless of our engagement, our membership to these communities do not fade away unless we force them to. Even if I haven’t checked the GameFAQs forum in years, if I go back there and login I’ll still a member. Sure I could delete my membership, but why would I? Similarly, I’m subscribed to /r/AnnArbor on Reddit, because I live there, although I don’t check it that often. But even if I didn’t check the Subreddit in years, I wouldn’t unsubscribe, because I still live there, regardless of whether I engage in the community representing where I live.
From the platform or community’s perspective (e.g. from Reddit/ Discord/Twitter/TikTok’s perspective), there’s also no real reason to purge site or community membership of a user assuming the user isn’t harming others. Social media is built on user counts / engagement / daily active users (DAUs), and any user the platform purges, is a potential user that could have logged in that day and bumped up the platform’s metrics. Even when membership to a community “costs” something to the user (e.g. ~$10/month for Discord Nitro or ~$8/month for Twitter Blue), if you stop paying these memberships they will not purge your account, you’ll just be downgraded to the “free” tier, and there is always a free tier, as again platforms want to have the potential for user engagement.
So in the end, we’re all perpetual members of many different communities, regardless of whether we are heavily engaged in these communities, or have completely abandoned them.
But if our engagement to these communities can vary so wildly, why is it that we all get an equal “say” when it comes to things like upvoting / retweeting / liking content within these communities?
- If I live in Ann Arbor, shouldn’t my upvote weigh more when voting on content and comments posted to the /r/AnnArbor subreddit, vs someone who has never been to Ann Arbor?
- Edge case 1: What if I never engage with the subreddit, outside of upvoting? Should my upvote weigh more than someone that heavily engages with the Ann Arbor subreddit, but doesn’t actually live there?
- Edge case 2: What if I live in Michigan, but not in Ann Arbor? Should my vote still weigh more vs someone located in California because I am in close proximity to Ann Arbor?
- If I am searching Twitter and come across a topic I am completely unknowledgeable on (let’s say a medical discussion), why will my “heart” be equal (and potentially rise one person’s comment over another) to someone with innate knowledge on the topic being discussed?
- If I am browsing /r/all on Reddit, and come across a post on the /r/Knitting subreddit, why am I able to upvote a post in a community I’m not even subscribed to, yet alone engaged in, and that upvote is equal to someone who is a fervent engager in the community?
Why shouldn’t we use vote-weighting to solve for this?
If I had to guess, I think the answer involves people not wanting to think that their opinions “count less” vs another person’s opinions. E.g. If you knew that your upvote actually only counted as 0.01 upvote on /r/Knitting because you never engaged with that community, would you still upvote? Similarly, imagine you lived in Ann Arbor but never engaged in the /r/AnnArbor subreddit, and your upvote counted as 0.05 a vote because the platform weighed engagement higher than living in the location the community was named after — wouldn’t you be upset that your opinion was weighed less, even when you feel like you are a legitimate member of the community?
From the platform / community’s side of things, these negative ideas of feeling “lesser” would also significantly hurt community engagement, and when the platform depend on engagement to drive growth and valuations, they are probably hesitant to put anything in place that might prevent that.
Additionally, even if these platforms wanted to add some sort of vote weighting system, how would they implement it? ID verification to confirm where a user lives, credential verification to confirm that a user is an expert in their field? The most reasonable approach might be to weigh the votes from members of the community higher than the ones outside the community (e.g. the platform would value votes from /r/knitting members more on /r/knitting than those who are not members), but then couldn’t someone join every community and then get their equal vote?
Finally, vote-weighting could mean that we could get stuck into our echo chambers even easier. If a long-time member of a “flat earth” community had a larger “vote” weight vs a newcomer who was trying to show that the earth wasn’t flat, that newcomer will never be able to get their opinion heard, as they’ll always be outweighed by the establishment opinion, no matter how “wrong” it is. Is that what we want?
Can the vote-weight challenges be overcome?
In my mind, I still think vote-weighting could have its place on a platform — even with the challenges described above.
In general, members of a community should always have more of a vote towards things that happen inside their community, than those that come from outside the community — regardless of whether or not that community has opinions that may differ from the mainstream views.
For example, while the case of the flat-earth believers has an objective right answer (they are wrong), there are too many cases where the answer is not black and white, and so allowing those from outside the community to have an equal voice inside these communities feels, at worst, like the communities are being brigaded with people participating who aren’t actually representing the general consensus of the community.
Outside of community engagement however, implementing other types of vote-weighting has a less clear path. If we could magically do credential verification of users (e.g. verify someone is a software engineer, or has a computer science degree from MIT), would we weigh these users’ votes more heavily on technology in general, even if they’ve never done anything in the area at hand (e.g. maybe they are a frontend developer commenting on a backend developer topic)? Let’s say we do ID verification of users as well — do we then give teenagers less of a say on topics like relationships, or career experience, as they most likely have not had much experience with either? How would that be fair when there are plenty of adults who have also never held jobs or had relationships?
For the cases above, I’d say we would not implement direct vote weighting, but we could still implement a way for a person to reveal they might have more weight on the subject at hand than others. E.g. if someone could give themselves a flair with something related to a verified credential (E.g. “MIT Grad”), they could at the very least highlight it, and allow the users to judge whether they should be upvoted based on that verified information or not.
There’s more to speak on this topic, but I think I’ll keep more thoughts towards another blog post. Let me know your thoughts, however, as to what I haven’t considered, and I’ll perhaps make a part 2 in the future.
-  Alright, so this isn’t always true, as there are plenty of paid membership communities with no free tier (e.g. Something Awful, Tildes) but I think the rule holds true especially for the largest community platforms.
-  We’ll (conveniently) ignore the fact that validating that we’re either an expert on a topic, or that we live in a specific place, would be impossible to do at scale.
-  Maybe to counteract someone joining every community, you could take into account things like karma generated within a community, time spent subscribed to a community, maybe divide their vote by the number of communities they’ve joined, etc, but regardless it’s going to be messy.