Case Study: Digg
Digg.com is one of the most popular web sites in the world, setting the trend for social news. Digg, founded in November 2004 by Kevin Rose, Owen Byrne, Ron Gorodetzky, and Jay Adelson, was one of the first “social news” sites. Social news is quite similar to “social bookmarking,” in which users submit favorite sites. Unlike bookmarks, however, which tend to be general resources that one might visit over and over again, Digg users tend to submit links that are only shortly relevant. Submissions can range from the latest technology news to humorous sites to breaking world news.
Digg provided a unique service to the web when it first appeared in late 2004. There were sites that offered social bookmarking, but not social news, something far more transient. There were sites that offered news stories derived from a variety of sources. However, these sites used an editorial hierarchy. Digg has no hierarchy, it has no editors, and it’s controlled by the users. Any site—from a prominent New York Times article to an obscure blog post—can make it to Digg’s front page. The promotion of submissions to the front page takes place via the users themselves. The other users determine your submission’s fate. Interesting articles are “dugg” (voted for), while boring submissions can be ignored or “buried” (voted down).
And users can take whatever role they wish. A small group of users submit thousands of stories and are particularly well known in the community. Others read, comment, and Digg extensively. Still other users might read the site without ever creating an account to vote for or against submissions. Of course, the varied roles of users brings into question whether Digg truly is a democracy. While all users theoretically have an equal opportunity of making it to the front page, many have questioned how democratic Digg actually is. In 2007, the top 100 users submitted 44% of the content that made it to the front page. These top 100 had submitted 56% of the front page content in 2006. Some say this can be attributed to both the quantity and quality of their submissions. However, significant controversy has arisen when some users have resubmitted and effectively “stolen” stories from less known users. Additionally, some are resentful because even the best submissions rarely make it to the front page unless they are submitted by members with some history in the community.
Also, the Digg system can be exploited by companies, which can pay to have a story dugg up (since making it to the front page of Digg can mean tens of thousands of views) or alternatively, pay to have a positive story about a competitor buried. The alleged presence of “bury brigades,” groups of users that systematically bury stories either because they fundamentally disagree or are motivated by financial concerns has brought much tension to the Digg community. Finally, some have accused Digg of utilizing moderators to bury stories that the site disagrees with or that offend advertisers. Digg has repeatedly denied this. They have also stated that their algorithm ensures that groups that bury or digg up stories will be largely ineffective.
So for those who buy into the idea of bury brigades and stealthy censorship, Digg doesn’t live up to the utopian idea of a web democracy. To others, the site fails because of the celebrity status of its top users. From analysis of the arguments from both sides, it seems most likely that Digg is still almost completely democratic and user-driven, but the actual equality of opportunity is threatened by the presence of particularly popular—almost celebrity—users.
In addition to having users control the popularity of submissions by voting for their favorites, Digg offers an array of features that allow users to socialize and network. Digg currently features a “Friends” option that connects you with either your real friends or Diggers with similar interests to you. Using the friends feature, you can publicize your submissions easily (making it slightly easier to get your story voted up) and you can communicate through “shout-outs.” Users can also create a miniature profile with their gender, general location, and photos. Of course, the core idea of social news is more important than these other features. But these additions, as well as Digg’s extensive commenting system, make the site even more social and interactive.