Digg: A social media Petri dish

by Mathew on January 24, 2008 · 26 comments

Now that the sturm und drang over the latest changes to Digg’s algorithm has died down somewhat — after the villagers made it all the way to the castle with pitchforks and lighted torches in their hands, only to relent and make peace with the lords of the manor, after Kevin and Jay joined a podcast — I think it’s worth looking at what happened. I must admit that when it first bubbled up on Techmeme, I sort of wondered what all the fuss was about. So Digg tweaked the algorithm again; so what?

The reaction from top Diggers such as Dave “DigiDave” Cohn and Muhammad Saleem, both of whom I know somewhat through emails and the Twitterverse (DigiDave is involved with NewAssignment.net, among other things) was strong and swift. An “open letter” was posted complaining about the secrecy with which Digg goes about its business, the reports of “bury” bots aimed at specific posters, the lack of responsiveness to complaints, and so on. In his recap of events, Muhammad notes how quickly the issue snowballed, and also how quickly it was resolved.

My friend Scott Karp notes at Publishing 2.0 that what has been happening at Digg over the past year or so — the continual tweaking of the algorithm to try and prevent “gaming” of the site, of which the last tweak is only the most recent example — shows that a completely open social-media network is bound to fail, and I would agree. The only point I would make is that there has rarely ever been an example of a completely open network, just as there has rarely ever been a completely democratic country or a completely altruistic act. Human beings are complicated.

For better or worse (and in some cases both at the same time) Digg is a kind of living research project into “social media” and how it operates — or perhaps evolves is a better word. One day it will seem like the model for how a collaborative news-filtering engine can arise almost organically out of the primordial Internet ooze, and the next day it looks like a “tragedy of the commons”-style train wreck, or a kind of proto-democracy on crystal meth, eventually tipping over into self-parody and irrelevance. It’s like an unstable chemical soup, prone to explosion.

But it’s also probably the best real-time, experimental social-media lab we have right now, and it is fascinating to watch.

  • gregory

    not that fascinating, and my s**t detector goes off sometimes around digg, like big brother has a hand in there somewhere

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    It's all part of the show, Greg :-)

  • http://www.spot.us digidave

    It is an interesting thing to watch isn't it.

    My involvement in all this is just to make sure that Digg become more transparent. For me – and I think everyone – the algo change is a distant second.

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  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    Question – Why doesn't Slashdot count anymore? Please don't say it is the quality of the commenting or posters. Or that having a group of editors intercede in what gets promoted is somehow antiquated and wrong (because umm… Digg is now doing just that – except non-transparently).

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I would have to agree, Dave. But the algorithm changes are what often stir
    the pot and enrage the masses :-)

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    It's not that Slashdot doesn't count, Karl — I just think for whatever
    reason Digg is the hotspot, and so a lot of the issues that are coming up
    have to do with them. Digg is the new black :-)

  • Mike

    I dunno, I think it's more like Digg *was* the new black. Most of my digg “friends” are no longer active and neither am I. I think the whole “open” vs. “editor” thing is overweighted. What you end up with on digg is “management by clique” which is basically the same as Slashdot only less organized and (IMO) lower quality. I guess it's like reading a newspaper or news magazine: you have to find one whose editorial policy you like and go with it. When you don't like what you see, you move on…

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    You might be right, Mike — and I certainly wouldn't say that Digg is the
    be-all and end-all of social media or news aggregators or whatever you want
    to call them. But it still seems like where a lot of action is when it
    comes to the issues of user vs. editor and how you manage those conflicts.

  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com Tish Grier

    Great post, Matt! I was watching this from the sidelines between working on three different projects–and a lot of what I saw and read echoed what I saw happen on newsgroups back about 10 years ago. There are ways in which social groups de-volve from the good intentions of the original builders has been documented in many places (notably some great essays by Clay Shirky–which echo many of my experiences in the things…)

    Think about it: newsgroups were always *open* to whomever wanted to join. But they only became “social” to you if you were accepted by the group. The groups always had overlords–moderators who were involved with the group depending on the level of love for the topic–and would sometimes outright ban others or “douche” various members from the system for “infractions” that were sometimes never explained.

    Now, these things are automated. Rather than a human hand sending a popular person into the Internet ether, we have bots. And algorithms. Don't blame the site administrators for maybe having big egos–it's just the impartial algorithm that's making things happen ;-)

    Digg always seemed to me to be more of a community than a news source–and perhaps that's also a huge error on the part of those observing the phenomenon, who may know very little about older forms of social media and have no reference points to understand communities like Digg, who saw Digg as a news service rather than a community. As for the idea of “collaborative news filtering”–well, that used to go on in newsgroups, too. And it's going on in other places than Digg. Only just not with the same hipster cachet as Digg. And while you're right about Digg being a big social media petri dish, we shouldn't forget about the petri dishes that came before….

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    You're quite right, Tish. Those of us who are old enough (cough, cough) to
    remember the early days of Usenet and even IRC and other forums have seen
    these types of behaviour before — in many ways the same themes keep
    repeating themselves. But I think each time it happens there are more
    people exposed to it, and more people involved, and perhaps we learn a
    little more (hopefully). Someday maybe people will put some of those
    lessons to use :-)

  • http://www.mappingtheweb.com Aidan Henry

    I think the people that are pissed off are the people who “used to” regularly make the front page. I saw to heck with them. In theory, nobody should be making the front page on a consistent basis if the system is true. Only the best content should rise to the top, and I doubt a few given individuals are submitting all the best content. Therefore I'm totally FOR algorithm changes that level the playing field and only allow for the best content to reach the top.

    These little groups and cliques that have prospered for so long are now in turmoil and they're in a pissy mood. Do you really think that a few top blogs and news sites produce the best content all the time? Think again. I'm not a conspiracy theorist here, but there Digg “rings” and “circles” out there. These groups pledge together and vote items to the top. My guess is the new algorithm recognizes voting patterns and a LACK of voting diversity, hence the reason some submissions aren't making the front page…

    Just my two bits on a lovely Friday :)


  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree completely, Aidan.

  • http://broadcasting-brain.com Mark Dykeman

    Mathew, my belief is that the algorithm change was just part of the problem. The lack of feedback from Digg about user bannings, the lack of feedback from Digg management and support in general, the unusual bury activity AND the unannounced algorithm change were all contributing factors.

    I've had some minor interaction with three of the four top Diggers who were part of the protest letter and they seem like decent people. I think they got frustrated because, once again, the rules were changed without warning, adding another log on the fire of frustration. After all, they're just people like the rest of us – they want to be heard when they have a complaint.

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  • http://supaswag.blogspot.com supaswag

    The shocking reality: What REALLY goes on behind the curtains at digg.com >> http://supaswag.blogspot.com/2008/02/can-you-di

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