The Future of Digg

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If you’d come up to me just a couple days ago and asked if Digg were going to survive for the long haul, I’d have sadly opined, “No.”

After lobbing a few hand grenades in the form of questions at (relatively) new CEO Matt Williams the other day, I’m happy to report I can upgrade that to a Magic 8 Ball-like response of “Cannot Predict Now.”

By way of background, here’s the 50-cent version of my Digg story: Account since 2007, active user since early 2008. 130,847 diggs, 18,960 comments, 3,466 submissions and 1,054 popular stories. You could say I’ve been a healthy user of the site.

I won’t belabor the story about how Digg totally screwed up the site with Version 4. One thing I can say is that the current administration at Digg is far more responsive to the questions, complaints and compliments of its user base than any were previously.

So I was pleased to get an invitation to a pre-Diggnation meetup here at SXSW with Williams. It was promised to be a small, invite-only event with some actual facetime.

I was even more pleased when I arrived and saw it was a good mix of hardcore “power” users and regular users of the site who may have never submitted a story, but had spent months or years checking out the front page, voting up stories and clicking through.

What’s often gotten lost in the debate over the future of Digg are these users – the REAL reason Digg was successful. Power users would never have existed if it were not for the great mass of users who cared about what was hitting the front page.

And numbers don’t lie: Whether traffic to or on Digg itself is up or down isn’t really the important thing. Whether power users are still submitting in great numbers isn’t key.

Are people clicking through from the submissions on Digg to external sites? That’s the truly important figure. Those numbers had been down for a while before Version 4, but were still decent most of the time. After version 4? It fell off the cliff.

It’s increased somewhat now and again, but publishers who used to beg, borrow and steal to get posts submitted to Digg now barely even notice if something hits the front page.

And it’s those regular, everyday users who brought that traffic.

Williams is painfully aware of this, and he’s been talking to these users just as much as he’s been talking to power users.

Problem is, he was handed a site that was completely FUBAR and has had to spend an inordinate amount of time on the basics – making sure it doesn’t crash every three seconds, for example. Now that it’s stable again, he’s been working with the team on other short-term fixes: user stats are back, top news is higher up in the sidebar, the design is less cluttered again.

Bringing those regular users back, though, is a much tougher nut to crack: They were there for the news, for the stories, for the memes. There are so many other places for them to find these things now, that convincing them to come to Digg for them is harder than it once was, when Digg was a pioneer.

And a truly tell-tale sign: Last year, the Diggnation party was THE ticket. Everyone went, the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder packed, the line snaked around the block and never ended.

This year, attendees never lacked for elbow room and you could even find some wide-open spaces

Like I said earlier, if you’d have asked me last week if Digg would still be around in a few months, I’d have said no.

Now, well …

Maybe it was the free drinks.

Maybe it was the free lumps of fried dough that were super-yummy.

Maybe it was the way Williams unflinchingly answered questions I lobbed at him like hand grenades.

Whatever it was, I’d have to say, there’s life left in the old lady  yet.

About Amy Vernon

Comments

  1. This is great, but what questions did you ask Williams?

  2. Atul Mehta says:

    The real question isn’t if it will be around in a few months but more like in a few years. Not sure if you had experienced the Geocities “phenomemon” (with ad banner exchange) back then. Finally one day everyone figured the emperor had no clothes! Don’t tell me this time it’s different. Stuff that’s not just without substance but plain hollow can only last for so long. If I wanted to, I could knock off code for a site like digg in less than 3 weeks. There’s nothing to brag about it from a business or engineering perspective. Mark my words — neither Facebook nor Digg is going to last. To me both offer *very primitive functionality* and in closed environments. Far more complex models will emerge with very powerful functionality (and yes some with OS integration.) When it arrives, it will not just dwarf but totally eclipse out what seems so hip today. And yes, for the current ad dollars argument — my suggestion — make hay while the sun shines!

    A must read on facebook reality check:
    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2381827,00.asp

    Truth being told, if the future of facebook with better functionality than twitter or digg looks dicey going forward, the old lady has sung.

  3. Amy,

    You have done awesome job in digg. 18,960 comments that shows you are addicted to be social.

  4. oh my god !!! 130,847 diggs, 18,960 comments, 3,466 submissions and 1,054 popular stories. its not jokes. its very hard work. i really impress with your work. keep it up.

  5. @Bill – Ha! Good question. The biggest question:
    • Digg’s been reaching out to power users, but that’s not gonna help in the long term. Regular users are the ones who truly power the site and what’s Digg gonna do to bring THEM back? But I asked it with a frowny face.
    I also asked about how they’re going to stop mucking up all the third-party apps, fix search and a bunch of other stuff like that.

    @Atul M. – I, indeed, had a Geocities account and remember it well. But keep in mind, Geocities lasted a loooooong time. Was it still relevant? Not for a long time, but it managed to hang on. Very little on the Internet will last long-term (10-15 years ago, the thought of an Internet without Yahoo would have been scoffed at by most, but it’s completely realistic now). I’m not talking about Digg 10 years from now. I’m talking about is Digg even gonna be around next year. Last week I would have said no.

    @ Atul V & Nepal – thx.

  6. The former digg.com had a decent breakdown of Technology – no longer. The current digg.com forces one to Search for: Unix Linux – and the end result is nothing that one would expect from digg.comm.

    Fix, this omission, and the other subcategories – and I might even login to digg.com. Ignore the need – and, it will be lights out for digg.com before long for not responding to user’s needs.

  7. As a user of digg myself, I agree with everything Amy is saying. Not only is the digg front page dead for click through traffic to external sites, but if you don’t own a site that’s been on front page you may never know that. Where you do notice the dramatic difference is in the digg count ‘after’ stories are promoted to the front page. The average user Amy refers to that patrols the front page, no longer votes for front page submissions even if they’ve read and liked them.

    This might be having an interesting effect. If you were a new user of digg.com today, one of the first things you’d notice is that the upcoming section of digg.com has a lot of posts with more diggs than anything on the front page.

    This is terribly confusing for a new user, and in some small percentage of people may send the signal that stories being ‘gamed’ to high digg counts are restricted from front page (which would be good for digg), but the more likely situation is that most new users think the site is flawed or biased towards certain sites, categories, or submitter’s, as the high digg count on submissions in Upcoming means that digg isn’t listening to the community who have voted in mass for those submissions to get promoted to the digg front page.

    I don’t have a solution for this, just pointing out the problem that exists now that you get more votes on submissions in upcoming than you do on submissions that get promoted to the front page.

  8. Digg needs communities now. Back in the ‘older’ days, I would go to Digg and it (the users) did a great job of submitting stories that I was actually interested in. In a sense, there was a single community of like-minded individuals – mostly tech, linux, alternatives…

    I understand that no social site can survive for very long when the site itself represents a a particular mindset and doesn’t reach out to other groups. In an attempt to reach out, however, Digg just started to repost stuff you could find on Google News (hell… it even looked like Google News but the content was far worse).

    There’s also a problem with the chaos at the site among users. Typical “YouTube” type comments far outweighed any legitimate or useful posts. There needs to be better control of this. Dialogue was non-existent… nothing but petty flame-wars.

    Digg also needs to stop being so f***in manipulative in its’ algorithm. Just because I might access a few baseball stories one day does NOT mean I will access only baseball stories. I felt more comfortable NOT signing in because when I did, Digg would try and determine what I liked based on their continuous data-mining efforts. I always want to see everything “that’s out there” and determine for myself what I should click on NOT have it filtered by Digg. I’ll do my own filtering, thank you.

    Social is also fine but Digg continues to force users to interact. There’s way too much… “Hey! This guy is like you, add him to you list of friends so you can both game the system” cr*p. Often, the upcoming stories that never make it to the front page were far more interesting than those that did and you can only weed through this if the users had more control over content-type vs what userYYY is doing.

    I don’t think Digg has really learned its’ lesson. It never was just about a new redesign but about the mindset in the upper levels of management that users put up with because the content was generally decent. There’s an honest way to deal with your user base and a dishonest, manipulative way. Digg needs to understand this.

  9. if there is a problem for digg, it is that they do not care for the user population as a whole. if you sign up, if you are track able then you are graced with the privilege of voting on a story. so digg is not for the masses. it if for bucks and a few, they chose to limit the user base and it’s value. econ 101 guys

  10. Atul Mehta says:

    Amy, Thanks for clarifying what that long haul would be more like. There are very few industry watchers like Dvorak who are capable of sounding off the horn not out off FUD but from a value perspective. Here’s another high-flier on digg today which shouldn’t be: http://gigaom.com/2011/03/14/can-google-save-itself-from-google/ — Can someone go tell Mr. Om Malik (and Digg) that “Facebook cannot threaten Google’s revenue stream, and it cannot eventually pose challenges to Google’s way of the web: search.” Why? Because it is not into search. Microsoft is — bingo, you get the picture. And Google still rules ://search bigtime if he read the stats upfront. It’s as if getting into the search business was so easy just ‘cos you own some popular social networking website! Analysis paralysis?! Anybody remember the heydays of altavista? How many times has search being tried and how many survived? Beating google’s search algos is no child’s play like plugging in a find my classmates algo. Perhaps the high-flying technorati overwhelmed with the latest gizmos and sites have totally lost their touch in separating wheat from chaff. This only leads to mass confusion.

  11. JOCKpost says:

    We were at the DiggNation party in Austin. The most exciting thing was the prospect of seeing Pee-Wee Herman.

  12. @Tom – I agree completely, and have told admins at Digg this several times. I don’t think I actually mentioned it in this conversation, but the lumping together of all tech in one category is ridiculous – before the change, I thought there should be even more categories than there were, not fewer.

    @Adam – Yes, that’s a great point. There are so many stories in upcoming that have so many more diggs than those on the front page. It’s rather baffling. If they’ve been deemed as unworthy of making the front page, they shouldn’t even be visible any more. But even more than that, it used to be that certain stories would hit the front page with twice as many diggs as something else, so those in upcoming were not counted out. Now, if you go over 60-65 diggs and don’t hit the front page then, you’re done. It’s not going to hit. Which makes no sense. Something else I should have mentioned.

    @John – I do agree with some of what you’re saying. The one thing I will say in Digg’s defense is that the current administration actually DOES seem to care about the community, but was handed a site in such disarray that they’ve spent most of their time so far just keeping the site from crashing every 3 seconds rather than doing things for the community. They are trying to change that now, hopefully not too late. Also, I think one of Digg’s biggest problems is that Digg does NOT allow its users to interact on the site, except via comments. I’d love to see them make some way for users to talk to each other on-site.

    @Atul – oooh, Altavista – there’s a blast from the past. ;-)

    @JOCKpost – I didn’t know Pee-Wee was supposed to show up. That would have been fun. As it was, I left at 9:30 and Diggnation hadn’t even started yet. And no one was on line anymore.

  13. I used to be a Digg mega user. When the site would just spin and nothing happened I started checking out other social bookmarking sites. I really like sites like Diigo, Startaid & Spotback. They are easy to use.

  14. Robert of Akron says:

    I lost interest in Digg when they got rid of the Digg-down. It took all the fun out of the battle for political ideas.

  15. So true. I havent been on for a while now. Just did and got to this article. I used to get so much entertainment out of this site and probably learn random things too.

    @Robert
    Wow really? didn’t notice. That’s pretty gay.

  16. DDayDawg says:

    I realize there is some new blood at the top but I still have trouble getting over the way the community was treated with V4. Bottom line is they were trying to monetize the site. It was a choice to screw the users. And when it blew up Kevin and his band of merry men treated us like we were a bunch of whiny assholes.

    I’m that user you talked about. I was on Digg 10 to 15 times a day. Didn’t post a lot, did a lot of commenting, did a lot of Digging and Burying. I went into the upcoming stories and helped move things to the front-page. Certainly not one of the power users but I was part of the community. And for that I got kicked in the teeth.

    I still check Digg from time to time, it’s how I found this story, but I never login. Never comment. Never vote. I don’t plan on coming back because I can get what I want from other sources that haven’t tried to sell out the site in the past. I just don’t see Digg ever recouping it’s old user base.

  17. @Dowell – I’ve heard from other people who like Diigo, but it seems it’s slanted more toward the educator community. I’ll look at those others, though. Thanks.

    @Robert – I rarely commented on any political stories on Digg because the arguments tended to get so personal and nasty. You have a stronger stomach than I, it seems. :-)

    @Kennui – I used to get a tremendous amount of entertainment value from the site, too. It’s a shame so much of that is gone.

    @DDayDawg – Yes, you are exactly the type of user I was talking to Armstrong about. The amazing thing is that while the old regime so obviously had disdain for the power users, their attitude toward the community at large was even worse: Ignorance. They didn’t even realize that by changing the site so substantially, supposedly to cut out the power users, they were taking away everything from the site that the community cared about. Because they never paid any attention to you guys. I think you can see from my post that I’m not completely convinced that there’s a way for Digg to recover, but I have to give the current administration points for at least recognizing there are different levels of users and all of them were screwed over in different ways. That’s the only reason I’m willing to still give Digg a chance and that I’m willing to believe there’s life in the old lady yet. Digg’s not back yet, but I’d encourage you to give the new guys a chance to fix it. The difference between the new and the old: The new folks actually WANT to hear what the community wants.

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