Digg’s Double-Edged Sword

Published by • January 27th, 2008 RSS News Feed

The Digg world was in disarray this week.

As you may be aware, Digg recently tweaked the algorithm it uses to determine which stories make the front page. This might not seem like a big deal to most, but some of the top Diggers were up in arms and staged what they referred to as a near “revolt”. Several of the top Diggers expressed concerns that the new algorithm makes it more difficult for their submitted stories to make it to the front page, amounting to what they construe as punishment for their success.

It’s been estimated that approximately 30-50% of the top stories on Digg are submitted by top Diggers. As such, many of the top diggers feel that they have “built this site from the ground up” and are mulling a move over to other social news networks such as reddit and mixx.com

According to Wired,

“Several top contributors to the social news site Digg held an emergency online meeting at around 8:30 to discuss their response to a recent change in the algorithm Digg uses to determine which stories appear on the site’s front page.”

First of all, some of the top diggers need to get over themselves. This is Digg, so when one reads of “emergency online meetings” and “boycotts”, it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity. Now I understand where the top diggers are coming from. They are responsible for a good number of the front page stories that hit Digg and they feel that it’s unfair that they are essentially being punished for their past successes as top contributors.

In Defense of Digg:

It is well accepted that new users have a considerable disadvantage when it comes to getting stories to the front page. In contrast, many of the top diggers have an online following that range in the thousands. When they submit a story, they instantly get numerous Diggs from their fans. With that in mind, doesn’t it make sense that a top digger like Mr. Baby Man (with over 4,000 fans) should have a higher hurdle to getting to the front page than a digger with no fans?

Digg wants to continue to grow. It wants new users to join and feel like they can become part of the community. It’s daunting, however, when new users see quality stories they’ve submitted go nowhere simply because they have no clout. The changes in the algorithm might not necessarily be about blindly helping new users get to the front page, but more about leveling the playing field on Digg, where a few of the top Diggers arguably have too much power.

Another reason why Digg might have decided to tweak its algorithm is that Digg has turned into a lobby system of sorts — “I’ll digg your story if you digg mine.” As people began amassing friend lists in the hundreds, spamming via the shout system became common place and though it didn’t happen all the time, some questionable content starting hitting the front page.

There have to be safeguards in place in order to prevent users from simply adding an inordinate number of friends and mass shouting to them for diggs. Digg’s new algorithm supposedly takes this into account, and deals accordingly, with diggs that come from users who digg every submission sent their way. The problem with this, however, is clear. While this might take care of the user who blindly diggs away at anything their friends send them, not all diggers are spammers. In fact, the majority of them will only shout when they feel they have a high quality submission that will be of interest to users. So if a friend of mine on Digg consistently sends me great stories, and I digg every one, is it fair that my digg should be weighted less?

On the other hand, let’s hypothetically analyze a story submitted by a top digger. Let’s assume that 50 diggs on that story means 20 diggs on weight due to serial diggers, and that thats visually represented in the “hot list” as a “50 digg” article. At that point, it’s up to the non-friends to digg it up and achieve that highly coveted “diversity” spread. If it’s a good enough article, the diggs will start coming in and the article should be queued for the front page. Is that really so outrageous?

In Defense of the Users

One might assume that if all the top Diggers decided to leave Digg that others would simply fill their void and the stream of quality content would continue. But if you peruse the submissions of the top diggers, they really do a great job of finding interesting and obscure stories around the web.

The question then, is this: should we assume that only the top diggers can find great material online? This is a dangerous line to toe because we risk elevating the top diggers to a status akin to an editor on Slashdot, the complete antithesis of what Digg is supposed to be about. Moreover, because it’s so difficult for a new user to make the front page, new users (potentially the next Mr. Babyman) might be inclined not to even bother submitting. The fact that a Digger has a history of great submissions should not be overlooked or taken for granted, but that shouldn’t give diggers a free pass for the rest of their Digg days.

The fact remains, however, that Digg is a user-generated content website and Digg must be open to hearing the concerns of those who helped make Digg what it is today. Otherwise, it risks “alienating its most loyal users.

Digg’s Dilemna

The heart of Digg is quality content, and to get that, you either need an algorithm that favors power users or a completely blind algorithm that favors the masses. The problem with a completely blind algorithm that lets the masses decide what makes the front page is that there are so many submissions to Digg that people will miss a lot of great stuff if there aren’t ‘power users’ to shape and shift what makes it through. Essentially, there has to be an incentive for ‘power users’ while also having measures in place as to prevent them from attaining too much editorial power.

Some have suggested that Digg should remove the “friends and fans” aspect of the site. This would presumably ensure that people will start digging for content, rather than out of obligation to friends or for reciprocal diggs. This won’t happen anytime soon, though, because the system of friends and fans is actually beneficial to users. If I see that a user is consistently submitting stories that I find interesting, I should be able to add him as a friend and follow his submissions. With such a setup, I am more likely to become an active member of Digg.

What’s interesting about Digg is that its created a virtual world where you have “elite” users who happen to be the top diggers. Then you have the serfs who are fighting for their “rights” as users. Then there are a slew of random diggers with no loyalty to digg who might login to the system once every two weeks. And then, of course, you have a large number of people who don’t even have digg accounts but make sure to visit the Digg homepage a few times a day.

Keeping all of these users happy is no easy task, and Digg is trying its best to maintain the most beneficial balance. Before even giving the new algorithm a chance, however, some top diggers decided that Digg wasn’t listening to them and they were going to jump ship to other social networking sites. The talk of a revolt was amusing because some of these top diggers clearly felt that they had some sense of entitlement. They feel that they’ve invested more of their lives into Digg and want that to be taken into account. That is an understandable position, but at the same time, no one forced them to digg for 8 hours a day. They did that on their own accord, presumably for selfless reasons.

Digg is being challenged with maintaining growth while, at the same time, maintaining the dynamic that made them so popular in the first place. Time will tell how the new algorithm tweaks affect the stories that hit the front page so all of the hullabaloo about boycotts was a) stupid and b) premature.

And in the spirit of being a provocateur, I say to the top diggers — Boycott away! This is the web, it’s not real life. Get over yourself and try to understand that you’re not the only people out there who can find great diggable content. The Digg community has 25 million people on the site, so by assuming that 10 diggers out of that mass of people are that important is ridiculous. Some of the top Diggers were contemplating moving to reddit, mixx, propeller, or any other social news network; imagine what they’d think if they came to an already mature social news network and no one cared about what they had to submit because they were newbies. A quote from their manifesto of sorts said:

If Digg is a game then we are ready to play for keeps. What happens if the most powerful users in the community decide to leave? Will others join? Is Digg anything without us? Let’s prove it.

Drama much? No one is born a top digger, so there really is no need to blackmail Digg.

Again, why should a top submitter who gets an automatic 50 diggs seconds within a submission have a perpetual advantage over a “new guy” who submits the same story and gets 3 diggs from complete strangers? At the same time, are automatic diggs really a problem if a top Digger has a proven track record of quality submissions?

A balance must be met and that’s what Digg is attempting to do. I say “attempting” because judging from the front page stories of late, the algorithm is not in full working order. The new algorithm, however, isn’t written in stone and is subject to constant tweaking, as admitted by Digg CEO Jay Adelson. Digg seems to have the best interests of the Digg community at heart so people need to relax, take a few days or weeks off and come back and see what happens. Long story short, stop crying and start digging.

Itola Author

is a business / tax attorney from the windy city. Yoni is also a gadget enthusiast who enjoys writing in the third person.
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Comment by Digidave
2008-01-28 16:17:19

The debate is less about the algorithm change and more about Digg’s ability to be transparent.

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Comment by Anonymous
2008-01-28 16:22:16

what transparency is being demanded of Digg?

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Comment by Fred Soto
2008-01-28 16:50:44

I agree, the secrecy is pretty annoying on some levels but in order to stay ahead of the game they kind of have to be quiet about changes. Gaming is one of the core problems with Digg and more transparency yields more gaming. The problem for diggers that devote a lot of time to the community is that the secrecy throws them out of their element. In a way, it kind of is a game to be a ‘top digger’ because Digg keeps you guessing and having to do a dance to get onto the front page with your good stuff. It’s a difficult subject to tackle but I do think that too many high quality articles are slipping through the cracks and too many b.s. articles are hitting the front page.

Recent changes have put an end to some of the garbage blog posts that essentially quote other sites and write 1-2 lines of their own commentary. However, the quality writings of some bloggers and media are still tough to crack the front page because of lack of name recognition which defeats the purpose of perusing the internet for quality content to share with friends / community.

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Comment by Reed
2008-01-28 17:15:53

“garbage blog posts that essentially quote other sites and write 1-2 lines of their own commentary.” — those posts have got to go!

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Comment by Digidave
2008-01-28 18:32:31

The transparency I’m talking about are: Secret editors, auto-buried sites and banned users.

Digg has a right to do any of those: They can have editors, decide certain sites are not good for the community to promote and ban users — but they should let us know IF they employ the first two, WHY they decide certain sites aren’t good and finally: Respond to emails from people who are banned and think it is unfair.

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2008-01-28 23:47:10

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Comment by Zaibatsu
2008-01-29 00:24:54

Our debate was never that much about us, I can drive a 2 -3 Fp stories per day every. It’s about the mid-level digger that have worked so hard to make a name for themselves. Revolt or no revolt, I just wanted to help. I should have just STFU and start submitting more Top 10, cutest pic or Apple fanboy diggbait posts.


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Comment by Norski
2008-01-29 10:22:50

Thanks for this post. And, for a detailed discussion of DIGG and their decision-making process.

I signed up with DIGG, and will probably touch base there again this year. It’s a fine website for people living in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood and their friends: but that’s all it is.

A not-altogether-unreasonable comparison would be the Royal Ascot. There’s nothing wrong with the race, and it’s been a fine occasion for British ladies to show off their new hats. But a son-of-an-Irishman like me has about as much place there as a skunk in a flower shop. Outside the stables, of course.

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2008-01-29 16:39:10

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