Once upon an SP time, there were three awesome articles detailing the history of SummitPost (up through 2006).
Sadly, the author, a fine writer and once a highly prominent member of the site, deleted those submissions when he became angry with the site and deleted many of his pages and transferred some others. While most deleted pages here are no great loss in the grand scheme since they can be replaced or may not have had much value to begin with, the deletion of those articles was a real loss to SP because they were informative, well-written, and balanced. Newcomers have no good way now to learn the rich history of SummitPost, along with some of its greatest controversies, from its 2001 founding up until about 2006.
This article, and the one preceding it, is not an attempt to recreate those previous ones. As someone who joined in 2004 and didn't really become active until the fall of 2006, I just do not have the firsthand knowledge to document what those articles covered. Also, this article is not going to go into every significant change and event on SP since the times those articles spanned. Instead, its focus is on two questions I and many others have asked many times:
What happened to voting and other content-related participation?
Why is the submission rate so much slower than it used to be?
As someone who was witness to and a player in many of the events involved with exploring those questions, I am trying to be as objective as possible but realize there may be sharply different viewpoints. I encourage readers to read the comments as well, for there they may see some of those different perspectives.
From here on out, I will write from a third-person perspective.
What Happened to Voting?
Years back, the page score for the Photo of the Week (POTW) would almost always go into the mid- or upper-90's. A Photo of the Day (POTD) submission would fare nearly as well. Good new mountain pages usually cracked 90%.
Today's voting algorithm is different than it was two years ago, making such scores more difficult to obtain now. However, erosion of page scores, resulting from a strong dropoff in the number of members voting, really began as early as 2009 and has only continued.
An easy answer is that the novelty of the new voting system that came with SPv2 wore off and people got bored, but there was another dynamic at play, too: frustration.
Silly as it may sound, photo voting has caused a lot of discontent on the site, and it even has caused some members to leave. To a similar but lesser degree, a flawed system of voting on content pages has caused significant unhappiness.
The Voting System
Once, SP had a 5-star voting system. Because some members found ways to manipulate and abuse it, a new system came into being. It was a 10-point scale with very explicit definitions of each score.
A 10-point scale sounded great in theory, but in practice it had serious problems. For the most part, people were voting 10/10 or not at all. This resulted from a combination of factors: people voting and trying to get others to vote on their own submissions in turn, people complaining (sometimes in the forums and sometimes through nasty private messages) about "low votes," and people just wanting to be nice by voting 10 on something that really wasn't top-notch quality (related to this was the complaint about certain members who would vote 10 on anything, even if it was poor or incomplete, and this is still an issue on SP). There probably were other reasons as well, but those were the big ones.
Human nature was the culprit, but what brought this out was a system that didn't really fit with people's expectations and experiences.
In the U.S. school system-- and although SP is an international site, a strong majority of its active membership is from the U.S.-- a 90% is usually a low A, an excellent grade. So many would have expected a 9/10-- which in the voting system is "Wow! Amazing"-- to translate to 90% and be seen as a good score. Page scores would represent an average, and an 8 or 9 would be a positive vote. Even a 7 might be seen as one; 7 means "Good" in the SP system although it translates to the low end of average in the U.S. grading system.
But this is not how the voting system worked (or works). Because SP in its earlier days had problems with people creating multiple accounts to vote up their own material and vote down others', the changed voting system was based on power. A new member with no submissions could vote but would have little or no effect on the score, while a member with a lot of Power Points could have a much greater influence, especially negatively.
What members found was that a 7, 8, or 9, intended to be a good vote, would "sink" a page's score into a range that in the school system would signify a D or an F. This led to angry reactions, and angry rebuttals, and ultimately to people just voting 10/10 or not at all.
Another source of contention was that the system favored, and still does, the number of votes, and, naturally, pages that get more hits are going to get more votes. One of SP's top three contributors has posted many excellent pages on truly obscure peaks and canyons; in some instances, he has been the first person, or a part of the first party, ever to reach that particular peak or descend that particular canyon. Yet, his pages stand virtually no chance of matching the scores of pages for very popular peaks that in many cases are mediocre in quality; in some cases, the authors of some of SP's highest-rated pages have not even climbed those peaks, and this has burned a lot of people (there has been many a forum debate about whether people should post pages for peaks they haven't climbed; even worse, there are members who have posted route pages for routes they have not climbed, sometimes for technical routes, though one of the elves took upon himself the task of deleting most of those pages a few years ago).
Many have made the argument that pages for obscure objectives are far more valuable than are the ones for objectives such as Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, and the Colorado 14ers, for which good information is widely and readily available. But those pages on obscure peaks, as excellent as they often are, come nowhere close to the scores that the pages for the trophy peaks get.
To say it again: human nature was the culprit. Anyone on this site will tell you that Power Points aren't important and that they mean nothing in real life, and that is true, but the reality is also that human beings tend to seek validation in quantitative ways. Hence the paradox that Power Points, and vote weight, mean nothing yet really do mean something.
So no one was happy with the voting system, but no one has ever come up with a good replacement. People who put more into the site like having greater voting power, and there doesn't really seem to be a way to balance the competing interests and avoid the past problems at the same time. The current system makes non-10 votes less punitive than they were before, but most voters are still voting 10. And by making lower votes less punitive, the new system's engineers inadvertently have made weak pages look better than they really are.
In all likelihood, the damage has been done. There just are not many people voting on pages these days, and in the cases of the pages that get more votes than others, name recognition seems to play as strong a role as quality does.
Author's note: I have criticized the voting system many times but have never found a great solution myself. My current idea, just recently formed, is something along the lines of 9=90 and 8=80 and so on, but with that number becoming slightly higher according to a person's points, and a page score being an overall average. For example, a new member's 9 would be a 90, but someone with 100 points might see his or her 9 become a 91. This would preserve the greater role for people who contribute more. It would not fully address the problem of avatars, but I have some developing ideas for that as well. Also, popular pages would still have an edge, but the gap would likely shrink. There are other issues to consider as well. It's just an idea right now.
At some point during 2009, people began noticing that a few members were getting POTD over and over, that these members were often posting variations of the same picture, and that sometimes the photos weren't even very good or were off-topic. What started bothering some people even more was that most of these photos were not attached to beta pages. Some of them weren't even climbers, not meaning that they didn't climb technical routes to summits but meaning that they didn't go to summits at all or only rarely.
There was a growing perception that a handful of people were dominating a highly visible aspect of the site and even changing the face and meaning of SP by doing so.
A hilarious article mocked this phenomenon, but it was too little and too late. Too many people were too fed up with what seemed like a trivial matter but was proving to be anything but.
In the forums, there were allegations of manipulation, of cliques, of deception, and of degrading the site. To varying extents, all were true. Examples:
Manipulation-- SP used to have a Photo of the Hour. For an hour, the picture that got the highest score the previous hour was on the front page. This was an obvious boost to getting POTD and, eventually, POTW, and you would see members posting a picture at, say, 9:00 or 9:01. But they would only post one picture, two or three at the most, not wanting to flood out the one they wanted people to vote on. And you would see people post their best pictures shortly after midnight SP Time in order to maximize the time they would have to accumulate votes for POTD.
Cliques-- there were, and are, people who vote on their friends’ stuff just because they are their friends. It’s easy to figure out who they are. SP has seen a number of fairly shabby POTD selections because of this.
Deception-- something shown to be true time and time again is that many SPers either like, or are completely duped by, photoshopped pictures. Sometimes it is “merely” ridiculous color effects that nevertheless get some people excited and believing; one now-dormant member submitted many an obviously over-saturated picture, but it didn't prevent the swooning and the adulation. Once, out of curiosity and for fun, this article's author posted a picture and then posted a copy with the saturation bumped up to the max; the original was good and the copy clearly more dramatic but also clearly manipulated, yet the copy got more votes. But the most egregious was a member who had some highly rated photos that turned out to be fraudulent. He would take a dramatic scene and then use clip art or even someone else’s picture (not one belonging to an SP member but rather to a pro photographer or a member of another website) to insert an animal into the scene in a spectacular fashion. Some of the Elves and a few other members were onto him for a long time and finally called him on it when they had the proof, but few others seemed to suspect anything; his phony pictures generated high scores and garnered numerous comments showering praise upon him. After he was exposed, he deleted his pictures and fled the site. (Sad though the author is to admit this, some Elves routinely voted on and complimented his pictures, and some Elves still partake in the club mentality that continues to infect the site.)
Degrading the site-- people started posting pictures of flowers in their gardens and of their pets, and not meaning pictures of their pets while on hikes and climbs, which are often pretty cool pictures (Liba&Duchess pics are awesome). These were domestic pictures. Yet they were well received by many. Other completely non-climbing-related photos got lots of votes and occasionally got POTD.
This picture by a professional photographer named Fabrizio Moglia was altered and then submitted by a fraudulent poster as supposedly being his work; it was done up as a "Happy Holidays" type submission and was very popular. The member even stooped so low as to have a friend post it for him; that friend, an honorable man, had no idea what his "friend" was doing.
Being disgruntled with the voting system and the POTD/POTW scene was not the only thing that contributed to a decline in voting, but it had a larger role than many acknowledge or understand.