The Downside of Social Media (Or Why it Sucks to be on Top)

You might think it’s all fun and games when you become a top submitter on a social news site. However, that’s not exactly the case. The more popular you get you get, the harder it is. It’s a natural progression of what some people might consider “celebrity” status: once you hit fame, you’re also scrutinized a lot more closely. You’re no longer really sailing smoothly, and the critics abound.

I learned a lot after writing my open letter to Kevin Rose. I learned that six months ago, I was a different type of Digg user. I learned that there are people who are merely spectators. Some of these people seek out discussion. Some of these people look to simply vote on stories and use Digg as a bookmarking tool, which is primarily where I started when I first signed up to use Digg. Then there are others who primarily focus on contributing content to Digg.

Six months ago, I wouldn’t have liked myself as I use Digg today. There’s no real way to explain that except to say that it’s not easy to jump into the head of someone who submits heavily to Digg unless you’re one of those people. It’s a completely different mindset and one that, for me, took months of study. I can have this discussion on Digg for hours, but nobody will be able to relate unless they’ve been there.

I might have given off the wrong impression when I wrote my letter. Thus, I think it is appropriate to address a few underlying misconceptions that continue to plague those users who really dedicate a lot of time to social media sites.

  1. Most contributors are looking for content that will please the audience. The truth, and what many social media users (and even management) fail to see, is that many social media contributors — the biggest submitters to sites like Digg — are folks that specifically look for good content to impress the audience that these sites serve. Digg users often get called out for submitting stories (and some of those comments are hardly appropriate), but many of you have no idea that these users are investing a considerable amount of time to find those stories. Like I said before, social media requires a time investment. Thus, the top users are not just blindly submitting stories; they don’t submit just anything. Some dig long and hard to find something worthwhile of a submission. Others submit the best and most interesting posts that they read every day in their feed reader. Regardless of their approach, one thing is obvious: they’re typically not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it because they feel the audience wants it. And most importantly but most often overlooked, it is an emotional process for them. I understand if you cannot relate to this mindset, but please don’t spoil it.
  2. Most contributors do not feel that they belong on the front page. There’s no sense of homepage entitlement as one user put it, at least from yours truly. What does irk me is when other social networks promote the content that gets buried on Digg. That’s when the conspiracy theories begin. That’s what prompted my open letter. Why would Digg be responsive to all other emails and ignore emails about one specific domain? Is this a transparent social network, or is there something else going on? Why won’t they say?
  3. The top contributors are not driven by money. I’m not sure why people continually make false statements that users are gaming social media services to promote marketed content. Sure, it happens sometimes, but that’s an anomaly rather than the norm. Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself attempting to pay off top contributors. That said, why does expressing an interest in search (and writing for a search related blog) equate to being a Digg SEO spammer? Please, before you make claims that lack any credibility, do some research. I use Digg because the news I find there satisfies my quench for knowledge. I share news on Digg for the same reason. It’s a community effort. For the most part, I love that community. I’m even going out to lunch with mklopez today.
  4. There’s really no presiding “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality. As MrBabyMan once wrote in a comment on this blog, Digg is a social news site. People befriend each other based on interests. As Andy puts it, “Odds are, if a particular user has dugg many of your stories, that user has similar tastes to you. His submitted stories, in turn, will likely be worth checking out yourself, and he will be a worthy person to befriend. … [R]emember, you can�t spell �social news� without �social�.” As for me, I won’t Digg everything from submitted by those I’ve befriended and the statistics show it. Naturally, I will Digg the stories that I find pique my interest. Your mileage may vary on this one, but again, the important points to take are that these networks are inherently social. These networks allow you to befriend people and see what they’ve Dugg. If this was construed as gaming, I’d imagine that there would be features that disallow users to friend and network with each other. By all means, take advantage of networking — it’s there for a reason.

Once upon a time, I worked with clients who were building a social network. We were talking about the growth potential of the site. They had realistic expectations: the site may outgrow their hosting environment in a few months (which they were hoping for) or the site would slowly but steadily grow. They also considered the possibility that the site might not do well at all. The point is that they knew that the users were going to be the element that will either make or break their idea.

Digg might be Kevin Rose’s brainchild, but even he may not realize that many of his users have changed the service from his initial vision. Of course, management is privy to more insider information than the typical addicted user, but the ardent users of the service are those who really help build the network’s success, and they may not have the same vision as the founder of the site. In social media, democracy should drive the site’s popularity. Disallowing that — or restricting users who specifically seek out the viral content that they firmly believe would satisfy their audience — would kill the resolve of many people who are helping to drive the site into success. On a related note, adjusting an algorithm to penalize top contributors makes some sense, but it also kills morale.

I still want people to hit the Digg front page. And I think that when you get there and stay there, you’ll have a greater understanding of the downsides of social media “success.” Most top submitters really do spend a huge chunk of time trying to seek out stories that they feel the majority of users want to find on the front page. They want to please others. Making comments like “I am sick of [insert name here] hitting the main page” shows that many users don’t appreciate the nature of these social networks and the thought process behind submissions, and when Digg acts upon this kind of input, they’re ostracizing their biggest supporters.

It is also wrong to assume that the biggest contributors have malicious intentions. From my correspondence with many users, that’s hardly the case. We care about sharing and networking, and that’s where the line is drawn. The problem really lies at the level of perception from all sides. I hope that this post clears up some misconceptions from my end, but I’m still looking forward to hear from Digg. (To answer those of you have asked me, and there were several of you, I’d be shocked if Digg responded.)

At the end of the day, most of us top users are extremely transparent. Some of us are bloggers. Some of us work in IT. Some of us are students. We have nothing to hide. If we did, we’d be a lot more anonymous.

I open the floor to an intelligent discussion in the comments below.

26 Comments

  • Glen Allsopp says:

    As you know I hit the Digg homepage a couple of days ago analysing the top 100 users, and as Muhammad had said the comments wouldn’t be pretty, he was right.

    I noticed that some people were very glad that theres no longer a top users / submitters list because Digg is about a whole community and not just single people. However, this is something I know a few top users wouldnt mind having back as it’s a bit like a ‘thank you’ for all their hard work.

    Just wondering your thoughts on that…

  • Tad Chef says:

    Great summary of what it is like. I know because I am user #2 at German Digg-clone YiGG where you can’t get any significant traffic but people offend me all the time for being a “SEO spammer” anyways although I use it privately and only submitted like 5 own articles out of 600, almost 400 of which hit the frontpage.

    Ironically mostly weak users and the founder himself offend me although I contribute that much. Basically I’m through with simple first generation front page or nothing social news sites. I moved on to social brwosing services like StumbleUpon, Yoono or Spotback. They work better structurally and the users there are still the enthusiastic kind of early adopters mostly.

    Digg gathers the worst of mankind. Everybody who hits the Digg front page will get numerous hate comments. Like Smashing Magazine being a “Digg Spammer”, ridiculous.

  • Brian Auer says:

    Interesting write-up — I’d never thought about the downsides of being a popular social media user. I’ve only been using the social sites (mostly just digg, StumbleUpon,and del.icio.us) for a short time now, and my primary reason for using them is to share other people’s work. The sites also give me a good way to keep track of all my new findings so I can reference them when it’s time to link out from my blog (again, more sharing). I really can’t see myself becoming a top user on any of the sites — it sounds like I don’t have enough time on my hands.

  • “I noticed that some people were very glad that theres no longer a top users / submitters list because Digg is about a whole community and not just single people. However, this is something I know a few top users wouldnt mind having back as its a bit like a thank you for all their hard work.”

    Glen, I agree completely. I don’t mind that it’s gone (I became a “top submitter” after the list disappeared) but this particular investment shouldn’t be completely disregarded by Digg.

    I would find it interesting for Digg to release stats regarding the time spent from the top contributors. Beyond the emotional investment, submitters consider many other factors, mainly that they’re submitting something original (not duplicating anyone, which takes more than just a simple search with Digg’s currently totally flawed search system). I’d love for Digg to come out and say “XXX spends 3 minutes a day on Digg. tamar spends 3 years a day on Digg.” ;)

  • There is a line of thought that who you are extends to what you allow to be in your world. In other words, the website you use regularly becomes part of your identity. You feel ownership of that website.

    So if you are a person with low self esteem traveling through a difficult puberty, that website also goes through the same maelstrom. You hate yourself, you hate any websites you use. Therefore you hate anyone who is percieved to have success within the website and they become a target.

    Tamar, in any rational, mature space you would have won your arguement before your fingers tapped the keys. But this is digg, and I’m not one to tar a whole community with being a bunch of arsewipes, but there are some seriously moronic people who use the site. More so than a system like Stumble, which I prefer.

    It shouldn’t matter but it does. But to me, I see the comments as theatre, as people who are in character. I doubt any of the people who make the comments would ever say such a thing to your face. And with that thinking in mind I find it very easy to ignore the more rancid ones.

    Initially I used digg for personal gain, but now I kinda get it. I want my submissions to hit the front page, even though I get nothing from it. Apart from when I submit my own stuff of course, but hey, if people don’t like it. Then they don’t like it.

    Actually my motivation in submitting stuff is it becomes like a video game. I no longer play Civilisation, I submit to digg instead :)

  • Glen Allsopp says:

    Regarding your comments, I’m actually quite surprised you would be interested in that data. Wouldn’t that lead to more insults of the users who put the most energy into the site?

    Interesting :)

  • That’s true, Glen. It’s sad that if data like that is released to the public, it is expected that the response would be anything but positive. Lyndon explains it quite well.

    “I doubt any of the people who make the comments would ever say such a thing to your face.”

    Exactly. Some people are more anonymous than others. I personally can’t find myself to become more transparent without getting naked. ;)

  • Alex Watson says:

    Interesting post Tamar, particularly your point about the way top Diggers look for stuff that’ll suit the site – did you see the recent PEJ Social News survey looking at social news sites like Digg? Had some interesting points, particularly about how tailoring content for the audience keeps on narrowing the focus – do you feel that needing to find Digg-worthy content makes the Digg a repetetive site, or is it just good at serving a niche market?

  • Makes me wish I paid a bit more attention in my lectures about communities at universities, there’d be plenty to blog about digg’s quirks.

    It does seem that the ‘normal’ digg user harbours quite a lot of resentment towards top users, as the system is inherently competitive jealousy would seem the obvivious justification.

    My solution is I never read digg comments!

  • 1389 says:

    I used to be quite the Digg junkie. I got quite a few stories to the front page back in the day, and that was with a whole crew of loudmouthed enemies who threatened to bury everything I submitted, no matter what it was.

    But then, every time Digg made any changes, the system got worse. It became so obviously rigged that it completely stopped being any fun. And for me, the disgust I felt at the bad actors spoiled my enjoyment of pleasing the good Digg members.

    Now, I spend most of my online time blogging. Somebody has to create the content! I do not rely on Digg to draw traffic. And page views, links, and comments tell me whether it’s working or not.

  • David Mihm says:

    Hey Tamar,

    I really enjoyed both your open letter and your follow-up. As a relatively new Digg-er, it’s fascinating to me how some of the politics of the heavy hitters work! I guess I AM surprised at the negative feedback that some of the power users draw…you are the people who help keep the site vibrant and on-topic, as you said, by submitting content that you think the community will like…but I guess being an online celebrity is just as hard as being a real-life one (though I have no experience with either!) :) dm

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  • Selimhanov says:

    The Downside of Social Media (Or Why it Sucks to be on Top)

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