Who Should Decide What We Read? A (Limited) Defense of Astroturfing

It all started with a terrible cliché: "I have a dream," I wrote in a blog post for Wired's Epicenter blog. "An idea. A maybe great notion. Actually, as Auggie March might say, 'I got a scheme.'" I was proposing to start a Twitter book club. Some people—enough people—liked the idea, so I created One Book, One Twitter, which became the model for 1book140, where the notion of democracy—of voting—is a central premise.

If you click on this link to that original post, you'll see, right at the top, a tweet to the handful of people then following me. It's an update on the voting to that point. What's funny is that at the time we were convinced we'd be spending the month reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Then Neil Gaiman heard about the project, and suggested that his million-plus followers stop by Wired and vote on his book, American Gods, instead.

You can imagine what happened next. No other book even came close. It wasn't just a landslide; it was like aglacier calving. Gaiman himself (rather selflessly) even suggested voting for other books just to make it a fair fight, to little effect. Thousands of Gaiman fans came, they voted, and then we never heard from them again. How many of Gaiman's followers stuck around to read and discuss his book? One Book, One Twitter had about 12,000 followers at its peak, so a very generous guesstimate would put the proportion at around one percent.

We had, I suppose you could say, been astroturfed: The fate of a project that was supposed to be fueled by grassroots support ended up being decided by one powerful person. Cut to a little over a year later. One Book, One Twitter was reborn as 1book140 and moved from Wired to The Atlantic. On the final day of voting for our July book, someone at Haruki Murakami's US publisher told the author's 350,000 Facebook fans to vote for Kafka on the Shore. Within hours, the title went from fourth place to first, where it stayed until the polls closed at 5 p.m. As with American Gods, there was some grumbling among the 1book140 faithful. Why shouldn't the core community get to determine what book is read?

This is my answer: First, the "core" of a community is always in flux. That small fraction of Gaiman fans who came for the voting but stayed for the chatter made 1book140 what it is today. They created illustrations and Excel spreadsheets and came up with the idea to separate discussions by chapter hashes. They gave of their enthusiasm and expertise and, most of all, patience, while I worked out the kinks in the project. And I strongly suspect many of them are still with us.

Every time we put a book on the shortlist, we attract a new base of fans. Many of them stick around to read the book, even when it's not the one they voted for. We have every reason to grow this community. It adds to the range of opinion and insight, and it simply makes for more interesting and robust conversations. And of course, as we grow the ability for any given constituency to influence the voting is diminished.

But even more to the point, putting constraints on the voting would be futile. We can't pet the dog, play fetch with the dog, then expect it not to chew our fancy shoes from time to time. 1book140 is a social media experiment, and that means we have to respect inherent properties of the medium.

There's an axiom that's developed about online communities: It's called the One Percent Rule, and in brief, it holds that one percent of the community will create the content, another nine percent will edit it, and the rest are just lurkers who enjoy the content. For our purposes, we can expect the 90 percent to come vote, and the other ten percent to comment. That's the nature of our particular beast.

So let the voting continue, and let's welcome everyone to the club. And as always, happy reading.