The Unfortunate Investment of Social Media (and its Consequences)

A week ago, I gave a relatively unbiased account of the “Digg revolt,” a response to Kevin Rose’s post that there were to be algorithmic changes to Digg that likely will impact only the top submitters. After seeing how it panned out, I have to say that I’m not impressed.

Here’s a screenshot of a story that became popular with a whopping 235 Diggs. It was taken the night of January 28, 2008 (approximately 11PM EST):

Digg hits Front Page with 235 Votes

While Digg typically allowed stories to hit the front page within 80-120 votes (the latter being more rare than normal), it’s now requiring almost double the number.

In comparison, here’s another anomaly (for its time). This is a Digg submission from August 17th:

Digg hits Front Page with 142 Votes

The problem is quite evident that the most dedicated and seasoned users are feeling the brunt of the impact. And so, it’s time that I acknowledge what people have been saying for a long time: I think Digg has jumped the shark.

Here’s why:

Naturally, the savviest of Digg users are feeling this change the most. These are the users who are familiar with networking on Digg (finding friends with similar interests) and checking not only the front page of Digg but the Upcoming page as well (which is far more important). While Jay Adelson made a claim last week that this algorithmic change has an aim of more diversity in terms of who votes upon the stories, it’s virtually impossible for there to be more diversity on the Digg upcoming page when so few people visit it compared to Digg’s front page.

Unfortunately for Digg, the savviest users of the bunch have also been the most vocal about Digg thus far (save for the few blogs that cover everything web 2.0 related). If nobody talks, nobody remembers, and nobody sticks around. If the “top Diggers” move on, other people will take their place, but they won’t stick around because the algorithm will likely impact them negatively in due time. In a nutshell, while Digg has never quite embraced its biggest supporters (much to many users’ chagrin), it has now begun to alienate its biggest supporters.

It took an uproar to get a response — and that uproar had to happen offsite. I’ve sat in on meetings and discussions over the past several months that included dedicated Digg users who wanted to effectuate change within the service. Their emails and open letters to Digg have fallen on deaf ears. Blog posts have been written and buried once a user submitted it to Digg. It’s clear that anti-Digg sentiment is silenced, and is often suppressed. Using Digg as an instrument to get Digg’s attention has never clearly had an impact until last week’s “revolt,” and the only reason why it had an impact then was because it was done off Digg’s site (in this case, Ustream) and had plenty of press people standing behind it.

Lack of communication doesn’t taste good. The biggest concern many of the top Diggers have is that there’s no communication from Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose. That was somewhat addressed in last week’s chat with a goal to have “town hall” meetings and forums where Digg staff can interact with the users to make the experience more pleasurable. However, it’s been a long-standing issue that Digg has not acknowledged its users to satisfaction. Granted, I moderate forums myself and I understand that sometimes you need to make changes that are not going to make all users happy, but when that’s the case, I am fair enough to express my apologies that I cannot satisfy my users just to let them know that their opinions are still valued. This is not a regular practice on the social news giant, and unfortunately, that is probably the biggest thing causing its downfall.

As a side point, Google is a bigger beast and it has tens or hundreds of staff members visiting forums and moderating groups to ensure that the user experience is a good one. Spam engineer guy Matt Cutts has his own blog where he talks about his personal life and all things Google. Google is undoubtedly huge and they could simply shrug their members off like Digg does to its much smaller userbase, but instead they engage the community and that’s why Google is such a positive brand.

Moving back to the Digg “town hall,” with Digg in its position as a long-lasting social site that has only recently been responding to user concerns, it’s hard to say if I have confidence in the new forum. As one of the “revolt” leaders discussed with me earlier this week, unless it’s moderated full-time by someone close to the Digg happenings, it’s likely not going to be as successful as many envision it will be. With so many folks that are invested in the service, ignoring them for long periods of time and letting messages stack up will not be in the site’s best interest. Users are so involved and so extremely dedicated that they expect (perhaps unreasonably) that they’d get the same kind of respect that they give Digg. That hasn’t been much of a reality on Digg. Really, the biggest unfortunate investment of social media is that it’s often a thankless job. Sometimes, those users will even feel the heat. There’s not much going for you when you’re heavily invested.

Digg is not the government. Free speech can be stifled. If someone doesn’t like something, he’ll ignore (or bury) it or she’ll delete the email. There was only one occasion when the users were able to make a lasting impression on the social news site. It’s hard to say if that will happen again. But it makes another thing clear: unless Digg acknowledges that its users are valuable assets to the company’s growth, Digg is not going anywhere, because if it does, there will be new people on staff who will have to control the flow of the conversation in their favor. Just like Digg doesn’t like anti-Digg content reaching the front page in order to control its brand, if anyone buys Digg and there’s a negative article about said company reaching the front page, it won’t look very good for them.

I live twittered hour 23 and 24 of my last story submission to Digg. After declaring “Digg bankruptcy,” I got a message from a guy in India that the “most dedicated users” should never give up. He called himself an “unbiased observer.” There’s the problem. Unless you are heavily invested in the service, you can hardly relate. Most of us have given Digg a lot of chances — too many chances. Many of us, at this point, think that Digg has exceeded the amount of chances they’re allowed.

I’m open to communication, and I’d strongly encourage Jay and Kevin to step it up a notch on a regular basis and not only in time of emergency. Until I see Digg becoming more involved in user affairs, I feel that there’s no real future for Digg as a social news service and that their 15-minutes of fame has ended.

29 Comments

  • Jason Falls says:

    Great post and great points, Tamar. I would ask some philosophical questions, however. You refer to the ones most effected as the savviest of Digg users. Being one yourself, that’s the perspective you see. But the changes should be seen from other perspectives as well.

    The savviest of Digg users are those who likely spend a lot of time there. Some might be the “savviest” users because they spend inordinate amounts of time and energy there. It’s their community of choice and that’s fine.

    But what about the users who enjoy Digg, like finding and sharing news, but don’t have hours of dedicated time to spend there? Should Jay and Kevin cater to the most active users or continue to tweak the algorithm so that all users can get optimal use out of the community.

    I agree that if the savvy user has a hard time getting 200 digs in a short amount of time, it’s tough for others to do so, but by keeping the algorithm the way it was, does it not continue to build that inner circle of front page dominators and push out the occasional user?

    I’m an occasional user. This is my perspective. Seeing the playing field leveled a bit benefits us. Seeing power users complain about it isn’t going to produce loads of sympathy.

    Certainly, the system isn’t perfect, could be improved and everyone has their own viewpoint. Just wanted to make sure you and other savvier users than us regular folk keep that in mind.

  • Jason, no doubt you are right, and I’ll bet Kevin and Jay had that in mind when they implemented the change.

    The problem is that I think Digg is now going to cater more to transient users rather than dedicated users. And you’ll still have to do some bit of networking to get your posts to the front page, whether it is to ask your friends for votes or to shout using Digg’s internal system.

    Right now, I think it’s hard to say that Digg will have “fanboys and fangirls” anymore. I think the site has turned from a social news site that people really depend on to a site that people only visit occasionally. Time will only tell.

    My problem isn’t that Digg isn’t catering to “power users” anymore. My problem is that Digg pushed them aside completely. I think they should have made changes that would give all users the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, they simply don’t seem to know how to.

  • Zak Nicola says:

    Hi Tamar, great post. I like Digg for what it is, but I am in no way near a power user. Like the people Jason mentions, I use it more socially than for sending and directing the traffic of its members. The same goes with SU, although I will admit I use the site a bit more for getting and sending traffic than I do with Digg.

    What I’m getting at is this, Digg’s purpose isn’t to serve the master users that try to direct traffic. Just as Google’s purpose isn’t to serve the SEOing webmasters. The sites are there for two reasons, serve the average user, and make money. At least thats how I see them at their most simplest form.

  • Zak, you make an excellent point. The only concern I have is that Digg might feel it’s strategically placed in a position better than other social news sites, but they have some solid competition, whereas Google is clearly the leader in search. These choices may be better for Digg in the long run. The flaw I see is that people will stop using Digg as “religiously” and look toward other more welcoming alternatives.

    If you ask me, SU is clearly one of those sites that you never get sick of (and it also doesn’t have a strong “community” like Digg does from my observations). If you also ask me, Digg has had a lot of vocal supporters and those voices are going to be preaching about other social networks now.

    I’d be interested in seeing how time determines whether my predictions are correct or not, but I think Digg has an obligation to its users — all types of users — and hasn’t yet delivered.

  • Ian Cowley says:

    It’s sad from a submitters point of view to see Digg go this way. Although I’m not sure that Digg will fail following the algo change. The fact is that Digg can do what they like. If you don’t like it move along…

  • Gerard says:

    Tamar, thanks again for an insightful post on social media. The point is well-taken that Digg power users (the one’s who have established the community) have been virtually pushed aside. However, I’ve been concerned about paid social media services corrupting the integrity of this type of medium.

    If a large enough percentage of power users are gaming the medium, then the “power” should be redistributed. Assuming that the transient user has less of a personal agenda than the power user, then we might see an improvement in the quality of the content. That said, there’s no assurance that there aren’t a fair amount of transient users with their own agenda as well.

    Perhaps it’s not the perfect solution, or even a good one, but anything’s worth trying if it protects the integrity of the medium. With so many people gaming social media, I say bravo to any site owners trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • Gerard: the problem with your logic is the assumption that top users are being paid to game social media sites. Most of us aren’t. Top users who have been asked to accept money to submit stories to Digg have been banned. Jay mentioned last week that sometimes the individuals whose accounts are banned are those who use Digg for this purpose. They’re already taking action, then, on the so-called gaming. Why make it difficult for users who love Digg to continue loving it?

  • Zak Nicola says:

    It is sad to see them take such a standoff stance towards their users, average, active, or overly active. Mixx is looking rather nice. I have yet to give it try, but Glenn has had some good things to say about it. Only time will tell. I don’t think Digg will be buried though, ever.

  • rjmoriarty says:

    It looks like the outcries of the Digg Elite have been heard. I think it’s a little late, but it’s great that Kevin and Jay are finally making moves for a “Town Hall.”

    http://blog.digg.com/?p=109

    I’m curious to hear if this changes your feelings at all.

  • rjmoriarty, yes, before I posted this blog I knew that this was in the works and was also being fast-tracked. I don’t know yet if it changes my feelings at all. One of my primary concerns is how Digg has still turned less into a community that attracts users for the long-term with the recent algorithmic changes, and that doesn’t seem to be solved.

    Still, I applaud Digg for getting a blog post up to announce that they’re actually planning on listening to the users. I hope that the responses that we get are less “corporate” and more about making the users feel wanted. Obviously, when they were on Ustream last week, they were put in a tough place, but their responses, as I said, were “expected.” In other words, it wasn’t new territory. I hope that Digg tackles a lot of the problems that bother the users and really addresses them on a more personal level. I wish them the best.

  • NewMan1320 says:

    As a fairly new, yet extremely active user, I too have been experiencing problems with the new Digg algorithm. It is not only hurting the long-time users who have made the site as popular as it is today, it is also hurting those active community users who are new to the site. Since the change, I have not had any of my stories hit the front page. I typically have at least one per week, since I digg a lot of stories, but don’t submit that many. (Maybe 1 or 2 per day while I pay my dues)

    What is happening in the upcoming section is frustrating! If you look at the first 5 pages, it’s log-jammed with all the stories from the top users that aren’t getting promoted. What that does in essence, is push us new users much farther down the list and we don’t get the visibility we once did with 40-80 diggs. We need those diggs from the upcoming section to push us over the edge, but they’re not coming any more. A few of my stories recently were front page material that never got the diggs from upcoming to push it to the front page.

    My feelings are that Digg shouldn’t punish the top users. They submit the best material on the site anyways, and we have a lot to learn from them. Let their stuff hit the front page so the small guys can get some views in the upcoming section! It has thrown me for a loop the past week. I’m getting frustrated.

  • Digg “jumped the shark” several months ago.

    As seen on compete.com, alexa, comscore and other sites, Digg growth has flattened in the past few months. One of Digg’s strengths is that it has a definite editorial voice: it likes Macs, top ten lists, and Ron Paul. However, I think Digg’s quirky tastes limit it to a pretty specific audience. The only new users Digg is attracting at this point are web marketers who want a slice of the traffic it sends.

    Now, you might say that Digg was fine the way it was… there are certainly a few million users who are happy the way things are. However, Digg’s owners want to sell it — and large companies are interested not only in today’s traffic, but also in future growth. There’s a proliferation of sites like Sphinn that target specific audiences, and the possibility that a site that’s small but rapidly growing, like Mixx, might overtake Digg in a few years.

    Needless to say, if Digg’s management wanted to change the kind of content that’s on Digg, it would need to take away the control that a small cabal of “top diggers” have on the front page. That’s what they are doing.

    “Top diggers” need Digg more than Digg needs them. In Q1 2008, There isn’t any social news site on which a user can develop more than a small fraction of the audience they can on Digg. Tens of thousands of people are ready to the replace Digg’s top 50.

  • David Eaves says:

    I do not believe that there is any algo, digg staff just choose the stories that they like. Since the changes smaller sites have totally been discriminated against. You may as well just subscribe to about 50 feeds and you have digg.

  • I knew the shark had been jumped when they made Microsoft their ad partner and displayed crappy banners for M$ products alongside stories about Ubuntu’s domination and Apple’s PWNing.

    The way I look at this update is that “Digg killed reciprocal links (votes)” and that the algorithm is looking for stories that gain a natural pattern of traction and unconnected, unshouted, un-email-referred, non-friends-listed votes. Just like search algorithms evolve and require new tatics, so do social media strategies. I’m trying to figure out how to make the most of it. It’s also kind of cool that they are trying to make it so you don’t have to spend 4+ hours a day on the site with a huge network to get some traction (I find that aspect of Digg to be a burden).

    I think Digg is very resilient and has a robust, loyal community of users (many of who never submit much but read and digg a lot) and careful admins.

    The quality of the content that stays on the front pages is consistently high quality – compared to sites like Sphinn, Propeller and Reddit where I’ve seen politics and personal stuff get a lot more visibility.

    It might be hard going as a marketer, but as a person who genuinely loves Digg content, I don’t see the quality of the submissions on the site going sour for quite some time.

  • I’ve seen some strange behaviour on Digg.com in just the last couple of days. One item I dugg hit 290+ Diggs, made the popular category and even #2 on the front page of Digg.com in less than two hours the story was evidently auto buried even though the item had over 116 comments, and the item was very active up until it was buried.

    Something is amiss at Digg.com that’s for sure.

  • Has Digg jumped the shark?
    They have indeed

    Come to Mixx instead – we have free donuts

  • babblin5 says:

    It won’t make any difference. Jay and Kevin are too self-absorbed in their own vision to see the flaws in it. Town Hall meetings are great, but the real uestions and concerns will never be addressed, because they have no real desire to do so.

  • FatLester says:

    “Come to Mixx instead – we have free donuts”

    And damn good donuts at that!

  • Saporito says:

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  • Saporito says:

    You may notice I posted on that article as well. I didn’t say they’re not good, I said relying is a bad idea.

  • Darrell Long says:

    I actually had a chance to speak with a representative from Digg last week at the Social Networking Conference in Miami. When I asked him about the types of algorithm changes they have been making he pretty much pushed it aside and stated that the changed they are making will make it “fair” for more users to have a say. He really didn’t want to answer the question at all, so then i asked how they are managing the revolt as result of these changes.

    He seemed taken back like he had no idea of this and basically said “we have people that would monitor it” and “we actively communicate” whats happening to our users.

    The total opposite of whats really going on.

  • 1389 says:

    I got sick of Digg a long time ago.

    Here’s the bottom line – for everybody: Don’t fall in love with anyone or anything that doesn’t love you back – and that includes an online social venue.

    All websites are owned and run by people, and it’s their character that shapes the whole site. If selfish, amoral, low-life types are in charge, the site will be that way too. Expecting to influence it for the better is as fruitless as becoming infatuated with a selfish, amoral, low-life boyfriend or girlfriend and expecting to transform him or her into an acceptable mate.

    My advice? Cut your losses, bite the bullet, go through the emotional withdrawal, then vote with your feet and begin investing your time and emotional energy elsewhere.

  • Hi Tamar, interesting post. I like Digg for what it is, a diversion, but I am not a power user. I have a real job and a family, and a life and … :)

    In terms of traffic I find reddit is 3 times as powerful as digg for most topics.

  • hoalaQuorogox says:

    What is bumburbia?

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