Rigging the Popularity Contest

We've all been there. Reading an online publication, our eyes are drawn to the "Most Forwarded Articles" or "Most Popular Articles" sidebar. Before you know it, you're reading about peep jousting or "A Plan B for Darfur."

But the system may not be all it's cracked up to be: Today's Wall Street Journal informs us that "a diverse group of actors -- ranging from spyware makers to a venture-backed start-up -- is helping push specific videos, articles and photos to the top of those lists."

Great. We've just gotten acclimated to the fact that – in order to keep those ratings up – cable networks have changed the definition of news from "vital information you must know to be an informed citizen" to "hey, check this out!" And now we find out that the articles that "everybody's talking about" could very well be ho-hum stories that mischievous online souls are trying to peer-pressure you into reading. It's as if people who love "Friday Night Lights" could artificially boost the show's ratings by turning their TVs off and on, so that Nielsen would think more people were watching than actually were.

The good news in the article is that prominent sites are patrolling their pages and are committed to the most accurate usage/popularity statistics available. (CBSNews.com tells PE it monitors where traffic is coming from and flags curious behavior.) But online content is just like athletes and performance-enhancing drugs – the science/technology of those who want to beat the system always seems to be a step ahead of those who are trying to make sure everything is on the up and up. Remember how interest groups started sending cut-and-paste e-mails to newspapers, creating artificial waves of disgust/support for various issues? (See also: Nipplegate) That's kid stuff now.

The advice, readers, is to remain vigilant and wary. Trust, verify … and then judge for yourself. Oh, and that peep jousting is pretty cool.