Sphinn: A Dysfunctional Social Community?

Sphinn: A Dysfunctional Social Community?


It’s no secret that Digg, Reddit and other news and media aggregators are a target for search marketers. In my quest to learn more about the intricacies of these social environments, I sought after a community to review and understand a bit more.

The trouble I ran into was that with sites like Digg was that there are too many active users and too much going on at any one moment to form hypotheses on.

While analyzing the marketing opportunities of a socially active environment may seem difficult, the one I ended up reviewing was quite simple. Since the title of my post eliminates any element of suspense, I’ll plainly say Sphinn was the community I opted to dissect.

What I found was some great potential, but a number of obvious problems that are preventing the community from growing.

** Please note, this post was a draft for about 3 weeks, so now that it’s live, the data is a few weeks old. **

Background / History
First, let’s understand the purpose of Sphinn. Created by Search Engine Land and Danny Sullivan, Sphinn was officially launched on July 12, 2007 for the purpose of aggregating newsworthy items in the search industry. The links featured on Sphinn could come from blog posts, news portals, forums, etc. At the end of the day though, content was said to be specific to the search industry.

Basic Data on Community Users
For me, a community is only as rich as the number of active participants. When I pulled my data there were 12,410 registered members according to the alphabetical listing of users shown in the Sphinn Network.

Now, I watch Sphinn on a regular basis. I’m positive that 12,410 is not a fair representation of the active user base. In fact, I’d say that number of really active members is more along the line of 124, or just 1 percent.

Continuing to pull numbers using the available search features, I came up with a few key stats:

Registered Users: 12,410
Users with 5+ Submissions: 750
Users with 2+ Comments: ~1,300
Users with 1+ Sphinn: 6,259

My Initial Reaction…
Are you flipping kidding me?

Communities, like all social groups tend to have two types of users – leaders and followers. With Sphinn, I’d consider the leaders as those making the most submissions and comments while the followers are the pile jumpers who just vote for things to see their own stature improved upon.

Now – as Gerhart would surely tell me, this is a community where stardusters look to promote their own work. When they post, they hit up friends and colleagues to Sphinn up their stories to help cement their legitimacy in a rather veiled, niche industry. (Of course, I’m okay with that, especially because people often ask for Sphinns and I tend to reciprocate that behavior because it’s free traffic.)

The Leaders (Submitters and Commenters)
750 members, or 6.04% of the community has more than five submissions. Five. While I love to set really low expectations so they can easily be met, even this surprised me.

Unless I’m entirely off base here, and I know I could be – I believe that five submissions would classify a casual user of the network, not a leader. Here’s a graphic I made because Excel likes to do that for me:

Registered Sphinn Users with 5 or More Submissions

Looking into it further, I thought okay… My standards are too high. maybe the leaders don’t really submit things, but contribute on a regular basis in their commentary of submitted stories.

It took lowering my expectations to get the numbers to improve. There were about 1,300 users who have submitted multiple comments on Sphinn. That’s less than 10.5%. For those who like graphs with complimentary colors, I give you this:

Registered Sphinn Users with 2 or More Submissions

Hyperactive Users
Or maybe I mean hyperactive ABUSERS? You be the judge.

First, my apologies to Bill Hartzer and Steven Bradley. I’m using your activity on Sphinn to prove a couple of points here, and in exchange for that I’m giving you each a backlink without no-follows for good measure. I have never (knowingly) met either Bill or Steven, so I apologize if this offends anyone. I’m not trying to judge any characters here, just user data as provided to me on Sphinn.

Bill Hartzer, The Sphinnmaster
Bill Hartzer (bhartzer) has cast 10,427 Sphinns. The next active user, Maki (DoshDosh) has 5,108 Sphinns. That’s 48.9% of the actvity of Bill. In other words, Bill’s out there giving our Sphinns like candy on Halloween. Stopping short of accusing Bill of just sphinning everything he sees, I’ll say this… Bill has 1 comment for every 100 sphinns cast. Continuing the comparison, DoshDosh has nearly 5 comments per 100 sphinns cast. aimclear, Sphinn’s third most active user produces nearly 12 commens per 100 sphinns.

I’m sorry Bill, I just don’t see how you can vote for that many items without providing more commentary. I’m certainly open to your response though. Am I just assuming too much on the numbers?

Steven Bradley, Speed Sphinn’er
Steven goes by the name of VanGogh on Sphinn. He sphinns a lot of Search Engine Journal’s posts. That pleases me. While wrapping up this post though I clicked on over to Sphinn Live. Here’s what I saw (my notes in red):

In a 16 second span, Steven read and voted up three stories. Then, Bradley picks up by giving out another 2 votes in a 44 second time span.

If Stephen’s sphinns are truly a vote of authority or approval, then Steven read 5 articles in 66 seconds, and judged their contents highly enough to vote for them on Sphinn.


(added hours after initial post)
The Community Responds!
Please Note — Since the time this was posted, I’ve gotten some great feedback and responses on my thoughts. Particularly, I want to applaud Bill Hartzer’s blog post and Steven Bradley’s comment. Both of these gentlemen took the position of absolute professionalism – and their thoughts and counterpoints need to be read.

Furthermore, Danny Sullivan offered his thoughts on my post as well on the Sphinn story page for this post. Please be sure to read the comments there in conjunction with this blog post.
(end of post-launch additions)

Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds!
I’m not bashing Sphinn directly here, so please understand that. The only thing I’d like to do here is raise some concern for what has quickly become a reputable site and resource for those in the industry.

Sphinn provides a decent amount of traffic to Search Engine Journal and it has done the same for my blog here too. However, I’m afraid that some activities need to be policed a bit more.

Should a user be able to vote up 5 stories per minute?

Should users be permitted to continuously vote for things without contributing more comments, submissions or feedback to the community?

Should user accounts be archived or removed after a specific duration of inactivity?

Is there Enough Data?
Rather than come off as accusatory or assumptive, I do understand that there could be too small of a data sample to work from here. What do you think? Is there enough data here to warrant making changes to help the long term growth of the Sphinn community? Can the community continue to grow beyond the limited reach it has already required?


These are only a few questions that come to mind for me, and I’d love for these thoughts to be heard by the Sphinn Staff. That’s all I’ve got for tonight, but I’m all ears when it comes to readers comments. Of course, I’ll be submitting this to Sphinn for good measure… Gotta cash in on that free traffic!

18 thoughts on “Sphinn: A Dysfunctional Social Community?

  1. Hi Eric,
    Great post, although I think that the “Sphinn Live” s/shot you’ve provided will be argued against. I’ve brought up that point before, but many have argued against it saying that:
    a) People have many tabs open, then come back to the main one to vote, and
    b) Some have read the articles in a feed reader already, and then voted on it.

    Both are fair comments.

    I will say, however, that it is interesting when you stumble across blatant spam, and see an active sphinner that has sphunn it. I WILL say that I’ve seen one of your test cases do this on more than one occasion.

  2. >If Stephen’s sphinns are truly a vote of authority or approval, then Steven read 5 articles in 66 seconds, and judged their contents highly enough to vote for them on Sphinn.

    I know I’ll read stories in my reader, then cruise over to sphinn, so if I see a story I remember reading earlier and like it I’ll vote, sometimes dor multiple stories quickly in a row.

  3. Ditto. I see lots of stuff in my reader, on twitter, or maybe even on digg, and when I visit sphinn I get reminded of the posts and may vote 3 or 4 at a time.

    Spam getting sphinns does appear odd and I see it once in a while as well.

  4. Although this an interesting and creative way to look at it, I am not sure I agree with some of the analysis. I scan SEL stories way in advance of them being submitted and in most case I just need to remember I saw it and enjoyed it.

    On the other hand, I some times quick scan – see that it is an interesting article and sphin – which would take about 5-6 seconds…

    However, the core question is worth looking at – are there too many non contributers or “fake” accounts? What is the community behaviour? I have often seen tweets and sphinns being written about, and the original sphinn not acknowledged by the writer. Does that mean the core population is there to consume and not participate?

  5. I find your metric of “5” submissions very arbitrary.. I am sure that there are a significant number readers and participators that simply do not submit new stories.. Personally it’s because I work and don’t have time to go looking for things to submit.. It’s simply not a priority for me..

    That makes me a consumer, or taker, from sphinn.. And while I don’t contribute by submitting, I do contribute by commenting and sphinning.. And in many cases the comments aren’t happening on sphinn, they happen on the blog where I think they really belong anyway.. I would wager that my comment count would easily be triple what the sphinn number says if it counted comments on blogs that I found because of sphinn..

    As for speed sphinning, I do it all the time.. For the same reasons already posted.. I get most of my reading done in Google reader..

  6. Great post Eric, you have some good information and stats here. I’ve always been a rather light Sphinn user due to lack of time, but I rarely cast a sphinn without reading it. So your stats were quite the surprise on the top users. Do you know of the 12,410 do these include the spammers that spam hunters like myself report, or are they totally removed from the system and not in these stats?

  7. Often times, I’ll read a bunch of posts for Search Engine Land’s Search Cap and then go to Sphinn for new, see the posts, then Sphinn all that I’ve already.

    So perhaps there’s an explanation for Steven’s Sphinning behavior.

  8. Speaking as one of the silent majority, I can think of one reason why a few people might be responsible for disproportionately much of the activity. Let us take a look at this story posted today, under the title “It’s NOT the recession, You just suck”. It is exactly what it sounds like. You can find it here:

    http://sphinn.com/story/109951

    By now, we all should know better than to write something like that piece. Circa 2009, it is damned nearly impossible to not run into hard working, talented people have who gone from personnel office to personnel office, only to get stonewalled, this going on for years or even decades, with no end to the ordeal in sight, especially should they have unwisely elected to have passed the age of 35.

    I took one look, saw the kind of people I’d be dealing with, and decided that I wanted no part of that site.

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