The Problem With Digg

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Digg is hip, digg is fun, every geek likes to compare their list of dugg stories, and gets a thrill from a submitted story hitting the digg.com homepage. But Digg has a problem. As it’s user base has risen, and the site’s design become more refined (latest iteration released today), the perceived quality of the stories reaching the Digg front page, and of the comments individual diggers leave regarding stories, has declined. The most common explanation given for this decline is the dilution of quality attendant to increased popularity; as Digg becomes less exclusive, it attracts a broader, less technically literate, and younger audience. Digg’s democratic structure leaves it open to collective dumbing down (and deliberate spamming) in a way that Web 1.0 social new sites (Slashdot etc), were not. However, let me suggest another potential explanation for the variable quality of news on Digg.

Digg has an identity crisis

Lets compare Digg to delicious, another popular social bookmarking site, one with a much smaller emphasis on the social, and much greater emphasis on bookmarking. As a regular user of both sites (in the case of Digg primarily through RSS aggregating intermediaries like Netvibes), I find myself using Digg and delicious in radically different ways. Digg I treat as one news source among many, checking it daily along with dozens of other such sources (TailRank, Techcrunch, Boingboing etc) via a tab on my Netvibes page. I use Netvibes rather than competing page aggregation services (e.g.: Pageflakes) because it allows me to read the guts of a story (or at least that portion of it contained in it’s RSS feed) before deciding whether to go directly to the source site. If the story is something I think I’ll need later, or just something intrinsically interesting or of note, I’ll frequently add it to my delicious bookmarks.

By contrast, as a casual Digg user, I rarely digg stories. I’d like to avail of the much more sophisticated social features included in Digg (the digging meme itself, integrated comments on each post, richer social networking, better user statistics), so why don’t I? Two reasons..Firstly, The nature of Digg means that by the time I’ve read a story I’ve left the page dedicated to it (which cuts out my motivation to ‘Digg’ it). Secondly, the operations involved in using Digg have greater costs – originality, search, voting, and exposure to voting. Lets look at the process of adding links, as a logged in user of either delicious or Digg.

Submission to delicious

    • Hit del.icio.us tag button (an extension or bookmarklet)
    • Tag (with many fields autotagged based on my previous bookmarks)
    • Save

Output: An online collection of bookmarks, social in the sense that they are aggregated with the bookmarks of other users, and can be copied or shared with other delicious users, but primarily distinct and isolated in the space of my individual delicious page and it’s attendant RSS feeds. Lets contrast this with Digg.

Submission to Digg

    • Search for duplicates to the url I’m submitting
    • Submit the link including description, sans tags, but including one exclusive topic.
    • Save

Output 1: Story posted to Digg.com, where it can be commented upon, ‘dugg’ or ‘buried’ (though only from inside the post itself, rather than any of the overall site views) by logged in users, potentially promoting it to the Digg front page.

Output 2: Alternately, my submitted URL is rejected. Should the URL I am posting already have been uploaded to Digg, my post will be rejected, providing me with the error message “This URL has been reported by users and cannot be submitted at this time.”

Conflicted Roles

Digg fulfills two distinct roles, roles that in its current iteration are in conflict. The first as a social news site, and the second as a social bookmarking site.
I can use my posted digg stories as bookmarks, laboriously searching for duplicates before I post, and digging rather than posting if they already exist; or I can decide to post only notable stories which I hope will be original. If I do the former, I add several steps to my bookmarking (with diminished navigability due to the lack of tagging), if I do the latter, then my motivation for submission is unclear, and my reward (successful posting, popularity of post) uncertain. Submission of notable stories might be done out of social honor, in search of popularity, as a product or service announcement, or in support of a meme, organisation or product. To time pressed adults (rather than the pimply uber geek / tech teen contingent), spending time on such submissions – rather than posting a blog entry, or writing a story for a more fully developed news site (such as Newsvine) simply doesn’t make sense. Hence we see a small number of dedicated hobbyists supplying the majority of news on Digg, and a much greater number of ‘casual’ readers who ignore the sites social features.

The problem is that Digg’s identity is indistinct. As I’ve tried to demonstrate, Digg is ill suited for use as a social bookmarking site, due to its insistence on novel posts. Digg is also not designed to allow for detailed discursive posts. The site is a news platform, with a great incentive (in terms of traffic and exposure) to be linked from, but a small incentive to post to. As a social network, Digg rewards frequent successful posters, but does little to build community around individual topics or users. As Digg’s popularity increases, a decreasing proportion of its growing user base are likely to contribute to the sites content – due to the increasing difficulty of posting original content, and the increasing likelihood of successful posts failing to be promoted to the front page as the overall rate of posts increases, resulting in a transition from a Slashdot like authoritative (sic) news site, to a Fark like entertainment site.

This is fine as far as it goes. There’s a lot of advertising revenue to be made from being the Web2.0 Fark or the tech College Humor. But it’s a disappointing outcome. Digg has the potential to be more, to compete as a delicious replacement, and to provide sterling competition to sites like Newsvine and Tankrail as a hub for news and current affairs discussion, and sites like Reddit for rapid news discovery and dissemination.

What’s the alternative?

A few minor changes could improve the quality of links submitted to Digg, while keeping its core discursive structure intact.

  1. Tag support
  2. Rather than spitting back “guidelines to make digg a better place” when a previously submitted link is posted, automatically provide users with the option to Digg the previous submission of a non novel submitted link
  3. Allow article submission in addition to link submission
  4. Encourage submission and digging via bookmarklet and extension
  5. Increase the personalization and connectivity features of individual profiles

At a stroke digg could compete as a social bookmarking site, social news site, social network and even basic blogging platform; building on their existing connectivity and popularity engine, and highly granulated news selection features, and allowing more detailed discussion of individual topics. These features are so complimentary they gain in utility through aggregation. If Digg does not become the place to offer such feature cross pollination others (anywhere from Facebook to delicious) may. Finally, if users are provided with the opportunity to use digg to store bookmarks, in the way they currently use services like delicious, the ranking of links ‘dugg’ will have a much greater relationship to their utility than at present – akin to the difference between asking people what products they like, and monitoring the ones they actually purchase (minus the confound of economic scarcity); and the number of novel Digg submissions will rise, by virtue of the increased amount of postings to the site.

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