Sorcini insists Digg's real appeal is "exposing other users to sites and news I find interesting," but he admits there is also a social and competitive aspect to the proceedings. "The top submitters all do know each other and are in constant communication with each other," Sorcini said. "There is rivalry, too, as many are highly competitive, but it's usually pretty friendly."

It's not always just friendly competition, though - some of these Web 2.0 interactions can have implications for real-world business. Amazon.com has turned product criticism into a contest of its own by letting readers rate the "helpfulness" of the thousands of user reviews on the site.

Much like Digg, recognition on a top reviewers page encourages people to play the reviewing game. "When I started to review on Amazon and watch my ranking, I think I debuted around 25,000 or so," writes Top 300 Reviewer Tom Duff. "That would have been late 2003. My goal was to get into the top 1,000 by the end of 2004. I ended up in the top 500. This year, I wanted to end up around 250, but I'm already at 269. Breaking 200 is probably more realistic."

While Duff says his improved writing is the main benefit of his prolific reviewing, there's also a more tangible reward for his efforts. "Now that I'm in the upper rankings, I often get email requests from authors (both tech and fiction) asking if they can send me a review copy of their book," Duff writes. Think of it as a redemption game writ large; Skee-Ball for literati.

Of course, like any game, there are those that try to exploit the system. A programming glitch in 2004 revealed many authors using Amazon's review system to post anonymous praise for their own work. To the authors, it's just a way of fighting back against a virtual enemy that's threatening their real-life livelihood. "That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd," author John Rechy told The New York Times after being caught writing an anonymous rave for his own book. "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."

Even if there isn't a personal stake, the popularity contest can drive reviewers to game the system or pander to the audience's tastes. "My positive reviews are rated as 'useful' far more often than my critical reviews," writes Amazon reviewer John Gordon. "This may represent human limitations, but it's trivially easy for persons associated with a vendor or retailer to downrate critical reviews and uprate positive reviews. I'd say this qualifies as cheating on a reasonably impressive scale."

And that's the thing about the new interactivity trend on the web. When everyone's a potential creator, everyone's also a potential cheater. Or a winner, or a loser, or just a competitor. One thing is clear: In the new web, everyone's a player.

Kyle Orland is a videogame freelancer and co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual. He's written for a variety of print and online outlets, as chronicled on his workblog.

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