Social media and Web 2.0 (a term that, incidentally, we don’t hear much of anymore) were supposed to make the internet a more democratic place. On today’s internet, just about everybody has a printing press, and the little guy has equal opportunity to distribute a message. The best, we’re often told, will rise to the top.

Of course, anyone who is involved with user-generated content and the popular web services through which user-generated content is shared and promoted, eventually learns that the internet isn’t as democratic as it’s supposed to be.

Mark Suster, an entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist, the other day shared how a friend let him in on this not-so-little secret:

On Digg it really matters who submits your story. There is a small group of people that all work collectively to promote stories. We all know each other by online handles. We are all linked in IM (instant messenger).  When we want a story promoted we ping each other and all of the power users will promote the story. When it starts breaking then the power of the crowds takes over.  If you want a story to break on Digg just let me know. I’ll help promote it.

Suster also learned that this isn’t always a not-for-profit activity either. “I learned that some of these people I knew are paid to help promote stories,” he wrote. “They have consultancies that guarantee you traffic and get paid to operate in
these mafia rings.
” Suster calls this ‘mafia sourcing‘, and for many who learn of it, it becomes a scourge that needs to be addressed. Hence support for the changes that companies like Digg have made to their user-generated content-driven services.

But is mafia sourcing really a problem?

In my opinion, the answer is no. The reason: individuals and businesses pay for promotion in every medium. PR firms help companies obtain earned media on television, in print, and on the radio. SEO firms help businesses grow their exposure in the SERPs. And so on and so forth. Which begs the question: why would anyone expect social media to be different?

The truth of the matter is that anywhere there’s an abundance of attention floating around waiting to be focused, somebody will be doing the extra mile to obtain it. The exposure driven through social channels is often very valuable, and it’s only getting more so. Thus we’ll continue to see social media mafia sourcing.

But online, there has to be some substance. Mafia sourcing can only do so much. A blog post is unlikely to hit the front page of Digg, for instance, if it’s devoid of any value. Which is why, in fact, mafia sourcing may be a good thing. If a company pays a lot of people to promote a message that has no resonance whatsoever, chances are it will still fail to spread. Particularly in the realm of social media. Yet in other channels that have an entrenched culture of pay-to-play, a message with no resonance may still be distributed far and wide.

From this perspective, one might even go so far as to encourage mafia sourcing. The companies that think they can buy distribution for a lacking message will probably lose money, and in the process, they might just learn to create something more compelling the next time around. And when that happens, everyone wins.