Digg Flap Exposes Cracks

Users of Internet news aggregator Digg flooded the site with links to a code that allows people to crack the copyright on HD-DVDs this week—a move that sent shivers down the spines of investors in the digital media space.

VCs have poured over $215 million into news-related startups over the last two years, a sector in which Digg is the leader.

Greylock and the Omidyar Network invested more than $11 million into the company, betting that the startup’s technology may some day redefine the way we think about news. But the HD-DVD controversy exposed how small the Digg community is, how little it represents mainstream news values and how quickly its model can fall apart.

Users hijacked the site after the company’s executives pulled the first story on the subject due to fears of legal action. But Digg co-founder Kevin Rose gave in to pressure from the user community’s blitzkrieg of posts and blogged about the code himself, promising not to go down without a fight. “If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying,” he writes. The site briefly went down last week due to the glut of page views.

The significance of this event was most felt by the casual users of Digg. They saw, perhaps for the first time, how far Digg is from a real news site and how it fails to service people with mainstream interests. As one commenter on the popular TechCrunch blog writes: “Most people just don’t care about their right to post encryption keys, and the fact that this tiny group has managed to overtake Digg really shows their community is a pretty narrow group.”

The site passed the 1 million registered user mark in March, more than five times what it had during the previous year. But the top 100 Digg users controlled 56% of Digg’s front page content and just 20 individuals submitted 25% of the front page content, according to a study by Internet consultancy SEOmoz conducted last summer.

Digg was an attempt to turn the “guiding hand” of an editor into the “invisible hand” of the information market. Many heralded it as the beginning of a new generation of digital news delivery via direct democracy and several competitors and clones have since popped up (BlinkList, ClipMarks, CoRank, Newsvine, OpenServing, Conde Naste’s Reddit, SpotBack, Spotplex and StumbleUpon). Venture capitalists are no doubt already looking at these startups and licking their lips. But last week’s uproar demonstrates that Digg is closer to a replacement for “News for Nerds” site Slashdot, than The New York Times. The HD-DVD issue exposed how far away the site is from crossing into the main stream.

Editors define the tenor and tone of any news organization. Smart publishers hand-pick the right people to ensure readers are best served. That’s how value is created and why Rupert Murdoch is willing to put a $5 billion bid out for Dow Jones. Digg has abdicated this role to a faction of users that have little regard for readers with interests outside of HD-DVD cracking. This faction likely represents the majority of Digg’s current users, but doesn’t reflect the wider market that Digg could access. Allowing the mob to rule the site turns away the minority of non-nerds, the people who could carry Digg’s banner across the chasm of early adopters and into the mainstream.

But the problem of faction has been dealt with before. James Madison wrote about it in Federalist 10. The larger a society is, the less able a faction is to control the majority, Madison writes. This may be Digg’s way out of the problem: get enough users to drown out the voice of the tech nerds with the diversity of interests reflected by mainstream users.

But another way to deal with the problem, one that involves less marketing outlay to reach additional users, would be to designate two levels of Diggers. Call them super diggers and standard diggers. Let the standard diggers elect a super digger to represent them. The super digger’s article selections should reflect the interests of the standard digger. The super diggers, maybe 100 strong, are likely to better reflect the needs of a wider base of users and will have the wisdom to best discern the true interest of the Digg community. Put each super digger up for election every three months to ensure they don’t move away from the interests of the community that put them in the position of power.

This would take some of the power out of the hands of the mob and place it back with the interests of Digg and its investors. The company’s service is an experiment in democracy, and will continue to serve the demands of the least common denominator unless its founders step in to better harness the power of its community. A two-tiered user base would also be a smart strategic move by Digg to bite off any potential competitors who would offer a Digg-like service for a user’s social network or interest group.

Or they could just hire editors.