Elgan: Why Digg failed

The Digg social bookmarking site is now so obsolete that even its founder and former CEO prefers Twitter

OK, I'm going to call it: Digg is dead.

No, the site hasn't gone dark. It still functions and has millions of users. But then so does MySpace.

I used to be a very active Digg user -- as were many of my techno-journalist-pundit-type friends. Five years ago, Digg was the future of content discovery. But now I don't personally know anyone who's still an active user. We've all moved on.

Now, it turns out, even one of the site's founders and former CEOs, Kevin Rose, barely uses Digg anymore.

In a devastating analysis this week, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington exposed Rose's Digg usage. According to Arrington, Rose uses Digg less than once every four days or so. He hasn't submitted a story in more than a month. And he went more than three weeks in December without using Digg at all.

Arrington pointed out that Rose is 26 times more active on Twitter than on Digg, having tweeted 181 times in the past month.

Arrington's numbers have been called into question by blogger Taylor Buley, who says Rose is twice as active as claimed. In other words, he's only 14 times more active on Twitter than on Digg.

To me, the most telling bit in all this is that, as of this writing, the story about Rose not using Digg hasn't even made it to the front page of Digg. And Rose defended himself not on Digg but on Twitter, tweeting to Arrington that "I think you forgot we shoot a weekly podcast about digg stories. "

Even the Internet's most important conversation about Digg isn't taking place on Digg.

What went wrong? How did Digg become so unappealing that even its founder and former CEO doesn't want to use it?

Digg was undemocratic

Digg always wanted to be the democratic alternative to the oligarchic media in determining which stories got the best exposure. The idea was simple: Anybody could submit a story, then anyone else could vote it up or down. The cream would rise to the top, and the great masses could have their stories selected by the crowd.

It was supposed to be a "People's Choice Awards" for news and content.

Unfortunately, the initial design was fundamentally flawed. There is no possibility of democracy when anyone can rig the elections. And that's what happened.

In Digg's heyday, you could collect friends by the boatload, then mass-mail them to up vote your stories. Anyone with a lot of friends had a much better chance at having those stories hit the front page.

Getting on the front page of Digg was everything, because the site's millions of users used to read the front page like it was the morning paper. The early movers who collected a lot of friends were able to get even more friends by getting on the front page. A Digg aristocracy emerged. Influence on Digg became a winner-take-all system, with the majority locked out of meaningful participation.

An ordinary user might post the most important story of the day on Tuesday and get three "Diggs." But if MrBabyMan (King of the Digg Super Users) noticed the story on Friday and posted a duplicate link, it would be on the front page with 10,000 diggs in three hours.

The super users made the front page because they had a lot of friends. They had a lot of friends because they made the front page.

Because Digg had no way to verify users, many became super users by creating dozens of accounts, then repeatedly digging their own content. Digg tried to police all this, but the system was easily gamed.

"Brigades" of users banded together to quash stories by down-voting them when they disagreed with their political opinions, or views about say, Linux or Apple products.

Digg outsourced social

Digg "solved" the super-user problem by simply preventing users from messaging their friends. As alternatives, they offered up Twitter and Facebook, which was a huge error. Digg itself could have become a real social network. All it needed to do was get rid of the universal front page in favor of Twitter- and Facebook-like individual front pages, where everyone has a different front page based on who he or she is following.

Digg could have been Facebook and Twitter combined, becoming a hot social network and microblogging site. Instead, it outsourced social networking to these two sites and thereby became somewhat irrelevant.

Digg content categories were crazy

Digg is about content, and content needs to be categorized. For most of its existence, Digg categorization was bizarre and heavily biased according to the founder's semi-adolescent world view. For example, "Tech" was a category. And so was "Apple." Why was one company singled out for special treatment? There were no categories for things like "Religion" or "Research," but six categories for gaming.

Digg has improved content categories by offering fewer, more general ones. But its "Media type" categories are "News," "Image" and "Video." The first isn't a media type, but a content type. For example, video can be news; why isn't it "Text," instead of "News"? And why shut out "Audio"?

Digg has always struggled with simple categorization.

Digg was anti-blog

Digg always had an inexplicable bias against blog content. In an age when CNN and The New York Times take blogs very seriously, a site like Digg should simply allow blog posts and let the users decide if they're "weighty" enough.

This is how Digg alienated the bloggers.

Digg was anti-opinion

Digg doesn't recognize the opinion concept. Let's say some news event takes place -- "Google in Talks to Acquire Glopware." A newspaper site posts a story, someone posts the link, and it goes on Digg.

The next day, an editorialist writes her opinion about the merger, analyzing the benefits and risks, and coming to some conclusion about its prospects for passing regulatory hurdles. If someone were to post the opinion piece on Digg, it would often be shouted down as a duplicate story.

This is how Digg alienated the opinion columnists.

Digg was anti-how-to

Digg was originally a content site for geeks. That's why it has always been strange that the site had no category for how-to content. Why?

This is how Digg alienated the hackers, do-it-yourselfers and how-to nerds.

Digg was anti-self-promotion

The Digg community, not the company, has always had an unexplainable opposition to people posting stories they've written.

This had two effects. First, it made stories old. A self-promotional journalist might post his own story on Digg minutes after it was posted online. If well received by the Digg user community, it could rise to the front page and generally make Digg a hot source for breaking news.

But posting your own content is a no-no on Digg, so the stories are often old and stale by the time they reach the front page. (I just checked the top story on the Digg front page, and it's three days old. Incoming stories on my Reddit and Twitter feeds are minutes old.)

The second effect of the Digg community's bias against posting one's own content is that it drove all the shameless self-promoters to Twitter. That makes Twitter far more timely, and also the location where stories are actively discussed and discovered. The story about Rose's lackluster Digg usage comes to mind.

Digg was killed by 'mission creep'

Most of all, however, Digg was killed by mission creep. At first, it was a geeky site for geeky geeks to share geeky stories about gaming and technology. Then it encompassed an arbitrary selection of nongeeky subjects. Then, with recent changes, it tried to become all things to all people, and so has in fact become a confusing mess to a shrinking number of people.

Digg feels like it was designed by a committee with the purpose of pleasing investors. Digg is complex, arbitrary and uninviting.

Meanwhile, its social bookmarking rival, Reddit, has remained true to its purpose and mission.

Digg was created as an act of rebellion against the media elite. But it ended up being suffocated by control. You can't post this. You can't post that. If you're the wrong kind of person, or have the wrong interests, you're not welcome on Digg. Go away.

Well, we got the message.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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