In some ways, the Internet is a giant popularity contest. Worth is assessed by Google PageRank – a formula based primarily on how many people link to a site. Every news site prominently displays the most read, most commented, most e-mailed stories. Social news sites such as Digg, reddit, and del.icio.us exist as an aggregation of what is popular around the web. Another level up, PopUrls serves as an aggregator of aggregators, displaying all the most popular headlines from other news-sharing sites.

There is a collective fixation on what is most popular, with the assumption that what is popular is also most worthy. Websites that show up on the first page of a Google search are more reliable than those on subsequent pages. There’s good reason for this kind of trust in popularity. Unlike the days when information was controlled by few hands in just a few media channels, the Internet is an incredibly democratizing medium, where both the barriers to entry and costs of participation are low. If you build it, they will come. The cream will eventually rise to the top. Popularity, then, can be become a shorthand for quality.

Now that social media has been a buzz word for a while, marketing companies have scrambled to exploit these principles. Advertising in the form of pop-ups and banner ads still abounds, but the savviest marketing mimics viral popularity. Whatever mistrust we may harbor toward corporate advertising, our guard comes down a little in social media. The Internet is perhaps the most democratic media platform we have ever had, it is still not a level playing field. A part of digital literacy is the ability to distinguish what has genuinely risen to the top and what has been inflated by outside influences. Popularity, then, is not always the most reliable metric for quality.

A particularly timely example in this week leading up to the election is astroturfing. Accusations of astroturfing, or formal PR campaigns that aim to give the impression of grassroots movements, have been thrown around by both the McCain and Obama campaigns. Nebulous definition aside, Astroturfing is difficult to prove, but it’s also fairly spot something fishy. A public relations firm after all, no matter how well staffed, can’t really imitate the organic interactions of a real grassroots movement.

This kind of behavior isn’t limited to political campaigns of course. When it was revealed last year that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had spent at least seven years posting under a pseudonym on Yahoo Finance forums, in which he pretended to be an unbiased third-party and posted critical comments about a rival company that Whole Foods was looking to buy, there was a collective outrage online. There is something particularly odious is this way of gaming the system that seems to go against the principles of the Internet.

There is also, of course, the entire industry of search engine optimization. The point is that the popularity game, is in fact a game. In social media, quantity can become synonymous with quality. Post count, number of followers, incoming links – these are the numbers that govern the game. The most popular lists can also be facile and rather unvaried. Explore a little. There’s a whole world out there. Randomize, and no, the I’m Feeling Lucky button doesn’t count.

-Sarah Zhang