As mentioned previously (see links below), Discogs' owners have employed a "Tom Sawyer gets his friends to paint a fence" strategy of labor, where most of the editing of the database is done by enthusiastic volunteers.
Unfortunately only a couple of overworked staffers have been assigned to manage this free labor, on a site with millions of entries in constant state of editing-churn. To evoke another literary reference, Lord of the Flies, with no adult presence on the island, the kids have to police themselves, to keep the editing masses from going out of control. Instead of blowing the conch for a tribal assembly, Ralph and Piggy (who I have rudely described as hall proctors) have The Forums, The Guidelines, and CIP (Community Improvement Program). The former two prescribe how editing is to be done; the latter is Jail. Proctors have the power to downvote bad editors' contributions; enough of these and the amateur editor loses the ability to alter the database. According to The Guidelines, "the ability to vote is automatically assigned based on your interaction with the site." "Interaction" means adding releases to the database, chatting in the forums, and receiving positive votes for contributions.
Discogs is both a database and a market. So changes to the database can affect the value of collectibles. Some proctors like to claim that database considerations trump marketing considerations. But do they really?
Discogs makes its money by charging fees to record sellers, who may or may not have voting power and a chance to guide the database. A seller may have to watch helplessly when one of the proctors changes the date of an item for sale and declares it a "reissue" or "repress," making it less valuable. If the seller has voting power, a fight with the offending proctor may result. The overworked staff may intervene in these disputes if either party to the argument files a SR (Support Request); the outcome of these Requests is not published.
Let's take a specific example. Snakefinger's Manual of Errors (1982) was in the database for years. Almost 700 people said they owned it; 37 copies of it were for sale; values ranged from 14-36 dollars depending on condition. (These stats are all posted on the release page.)
Proctor "valparaiso" (who has a Residents eyeball for his screen icon) realized that the first person to enter the disc in the database years ago made a mistake thinking it was the 1982 original, when an etched number in the runout in fact indicated a later, 1985, repress. Photos and physical description of the '82 and '85 discs were largely identical. There was no other "1982" submission in the database.
Instead of creating a new submission for the 1985 release, valparaiso changed the date of the database entry from '82 to '85, citing the rule that the first runout entered was the controlling data item. Thus, potentially hundreds of users who thought they had a 1982 copy (including sellers) now had to switch their public ownership stats to a 1982 release newly created by valparaiso, which had no records of ownership or sales. All the sales history remained with the 1985 release, which was now patently inaccurate.
Another proctor, Musikland, balked and stepped in to revert the date back to 1982, and to change the date of valparaiso's release to 1985. Valparaiso then punished him with two EI (Entirely Incorrect) votes and delivered a lecture about how personal preferences should not be considered in making changes to the database. (As noted above, getting too many EI votes eventually leads to... CIP).
Valparaiso was technically within in his rights to do all this, but it was in bad form. With 700 users about to be inconvenienced and the likelihood of a fight, the best way to proceed would be to open a forum topic, announce that the change was about to be made, and get a consensus from other users that the change was kosher. None of this happened.
Besides the inconvenience there are also ethical concerns -- wanting to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
A friend who has worked in the record business off and on and knows the collector mentality scoffed when I told him that Discogs had a monk-like caste who lived only for the Database and shunned wordly concerns. "I know these people," he said. "If they have the ability to change the database you can bet they will use it to reap personal, financial advantage." My friend has been selling his voluminous collection on eBay. Someone told him he really needed to look into Discogs. When I told him that collectors were in charge of the database he said "Thanks for the info -- that's very helpful -- I'll stick to eBay."
How does this apply to the Snakefinger release changes above? Valparaiso personally owned the (actual) 1982 edition of Manual of Errors and made it the basis for his newly-created 1982 database entry, posting photos of it and other data. That entry was new to Discogs and had no sales history. The release pages at the time of valparaiso's changes showed the 1985 repress selling for $14-36. Let's say (purely hypothetically!) that in the timelag before users start migrating their personal collection data from the '85 to '82 version, someone offered a copy of this "rare" 1982 version for sale for $75 and a buyer, not knowing any of this history, snapped it up. The disc would now have a $75 market value. If Valparaiso (purely hypothetically!) had immediately put his copy up for sale -- bingo -- he would have made money. Do this enough times and it could add up.
This was another reason to open a forum topic and get a consensus. Valparaiso's actions would be "above board" and open to discussion, including the ethics of the change (although the money side is rarely talked about in forum fights.)
Why care about any of this? (i) Aesthetics. As with the visual art market, sales have a subtle or not-so-subtle effect on aesthetic judgments. Knowing how the mechanisms work is interesting. (ii) This is a brave new world of digital business and digital archiving. Nothing like Discogs existed 20 years ago. Understanding the ethics of this corporate-owned cyber-commons is necessary.
Update, October 2021: As I spend more time on Discogs my assumptions about the site change. The paragraphs above have been revised to be more accurate. Previously published updates were removed.