Hot on HuffPost Tech:

See More Stories
Free Switched iPhone app - try it now!
AOL Tech

Why digg is destined for failure

DiggIf you've ever had the good fortune of having one of your websites or blog posts dugg to the point of showing up on digg's homepage, you've enjoyed a huge traffic boost to your site. This is wonderful for web publishers, and I'm not going to lie and say that we don't care about it here at Download Squad; in fact, since the success of a given post is measured in large part by the traffic it drives to our site, it's certainly a goal of ours to have our posts make the homepage on digg.

But how valuable is digg traffic, really, and is the digg community one that we should even care about? Unfortunately, after observing the digg community for about a year, I'd have to conclude no, it's not. Now, at this point I should point out that AOL owns Weblogs Inc, who own Download Squad, and AOL also owns Netscape, recently converted into a social news and media voting site that is in many ways similar to digg. So if you don't think I can be objective about this, you might want to just skip this post. But I'm not here to sing the praises of Netscape over digg either. Overall, I'm not certain that social media sites like Netscape, digg, reddit, del.icio.us, or even the granddaddy of them all - Slashdot - will have any relevance whatsoever in five years.

Okay, so now that I've condemned a whole class of website, or really a whole class of online community, I should point out that while digg drives the largest amount of traffic of the bunch, the community at digg is actually rotting from the inside out.

This is a very inflammatory statement to make, but all it takes is to browse through the comments on few random frontpage posts at digg, and you'll see what I mean. The sheer level of superiority, sarcasm, and general negativity is overwhelming, and makes digg a place that is not only not fun to visit, it's certainly not a place to "share, discover, bookmark, and promote the news that's important to you", as digg's tagline optimistically claims.


Wisdom of Crowds?

The problem with the whole concept of taking advantage of the "wisdom of crowds" is that crowds have no wisdom. Microsoft Windows is an example of an operating system written using the wisdom of crowds - in business they're called committees, and at Microsoft they're BIG committees. And don't get me started on the majority of large open-source efforts (of course there are obvious exceptions). This isn't to say that collaboration is worthless; in fact it's extremely good. But when the crowd involved reaches a certain threshold size, the value that is added by extra voices is more than negated by the "groupthink" that occurs as people begin shutting off their brains.

Although digg claims to be a news aggregation service, in the scheme of things digg articles skew much further towards the Entertainment side of the online content spectrum than they do to the News side. Therefore, a better analogy to illustrate the problem with the digg community would be to liken it to a rock concert that gets out of control where a riot breaks out. The people in the crowd at the concert weren't looking for a riot when they showed up at the concert, they were there looking to be entertained. The problem is that when a few idiots in the crowd begin taking part in antisocial behavior, the "wisdom of crowds" tells the people in the crowd (particularly those who feel anonymous) that it's okay to take part in the nonsense.

To be fair, digg has not been complacent about dealing with this issue; in version 2 of the site digg introduced a new commenting system that allows users to "digg up" or "digg down" comments. The idea here is to suppress the completely irrelevant or offensive comments. But the problem is that it actually empowers a new set of antisocial behaviors. The crowd at digg immediately decided that the new comment system was in place to allow them to support points of view that they agree with, and bury those that they disagree with. In the "wisdom of crowds" paradigm, the reality of this implementation is catastrophic. You regularly see well thought out comments that happen to take an unpopular stance dugg down heavily, and "me too!" comments that add zero value dugg up because they agree with the prevailing opinion. For example, have a look in the digg comments of any article for a comment that bashes Microsoft - something as eloquent as "Microsoft sux!!!" will have a positive number of diggs. Conversely, a well considered comment describing virtually anything positive that Microsoft has done will be buried, not because the information is inaccurate or unhelpful, but because it mentions Microsoft in a positive light.

Digg traffic - more trouble than it's worth

Finally, what is the value of having your content linked to by digg? Right now it can be financially lucrative if you are able to convert unqualified page views into dollars reliably. Advertisers that pay per page view do so based on sheer traffic numbers because there is no easy way to measure the quality of that traffic. Of course, if your advertising requires users to click before you make any money, you're more likely to induce a net cost on your site by being dugg than you are to earn anything. Consider this post from tech-recipes from over a year ago; this was back when digg was less than a year old, and had not yet overtaken slashdot. Even then it was clear that digg users are not valuable for a site that relies on advertising clicks to generate revenue, since they drop by for a cursory look, then head off looking for another distraction. The problem has compounded considering digg has grown in leaps and bounds since that article was written.

What's worse is that companies that are attempting to create new products are often popular topics at digg, and can generate a large number of "early adopter" sign-ups. But digg users tend to be those that will sign up for almost any beta product or service, then bore of it quickly and abandon it for the next big thing. Worse, they are extremely unlikely to give any beta feedback to the product or service originator - rather, they save their comments for the digg site itself. The new product or service provider is then stuck trying to sift through the heavily biased and noise-laden digg comment system to try to uncover a useful post, many of which have been hidden from sight, rather than acquiring useful feedback directly into their feedback system. And God help them if they haven't previously been exposed to the digg vitriol; experiencing it for the first time in regards to one's own product could be a crushing experience.

Conclusion
Social media sites are an unproven phenomenon, in terms of the value that they provide to content creators. Digg in particular is the biggest of the bunch, and also seemingly the most negative. I predict that in the near future sites will start to attempt to block digg as a referrer, since getting a link from digg will simply cost them money. And over time I believe users will tire of the constant negativity that characterizes digg, and move on to better endeavors, unless digg can find a way to clean up their collective act.

[Update]
It turns out that this article was submitted to digg, and has been amassing diggs at a steady rate in the Technology / Industry News category for the past two hours. At this moment, it has enough diggs that it should be listed 3rd 1st with more than double the number of diggs as the next highest entry on the list of most dugg upcoming stories in the Industry News category, but mysteriously it doesn't show up at all. It seems that this can only be attributed to digg's quiet use of moderators. Although it is claimed that Kevin Rose has admitted that they have moderators at digg, his constant refrain that digg's stories are chosen exclusively by digg users makes the concept of moderators that quietly bury unflattering stories pretty hard to stomach. Add the unsettling point that digg has hidden moderators that make arbitrary changes to the status of stories regardless of what their actual users want to the list of reasons digg is destined for failure. I'm not saying don't moderate, I'm saying if you are going to moderate, at least be above-board about it.

Tags: commenters, del.icio.us, digg, Netscape, readers, reddit, Slashdot, social media, social news, SocialMedia, SocialNews

Comments

44