Finally, Yahoo is doing something

I don’t know whether Yahoo’s new Buzz feature will actually get any traction, or whether it will be lost in the sea of other Yahoo stuff, or whether it will be orphaned or otherwise screwed up in some way (in the past, any of those options would be a safe bet), but at least the company seems to be trying to do something interesting, which is worth a round of applause all by itself. I think the Digg gang can probably sleep safe at night for a little while, but Yahoo could turn out to be a strong competitor (Stan Schroeder doesn’t think so).

To me, there are two interesting aspects of the service: One is that most-Buzzed-about items will feed into Yahoo’s main news page, and the second is that search results will help determine what moves up the Buzz rankings. Those are two things that Digg can’t really offer — unless it does some partnership deals with Google, of course, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s true that Digg recently signed a deal with the Wall Street Journal, but I don’t think that’s going to do much to affect the placement of news stories over at WSJ.com anytime soon.

There’s no question that a story on the Yahoo News page can push a gigantic amount of traffic because of Yahoo’s size. It’s still one of the top three news pages on the Web, after all. And it’s possible that having Buzz-worthy stories on there will prove to be a big boost for some blogs and other sites — although Yahoo is starting with a fairly small group of 100 sources. As with Digg, of course, there’s also the risk that Buzz could be gamed. But it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Digg Town Hall: No “secret moderators”

Well, the very first Digg Town Hall is over, and I think I can safely say that it isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the site one iota. If you’re a fan, and you think Kevin (Rose) and Jay (Adelson) are a couple of great guys with the site’s best interests at heart, then you will likely continue to believe that after the show. They do seem like nice guys with good intentions. If, on the other hand, you believe that they are out of their depth running the site, aren’t transparent enough about how they run it, or are too busy navel-gazing, then you’ll probably still think that after the show.

There were only 20 questions submitted — not much of a town, really — but some took up the bulk of the show and others were dismissed relatively quickly. One of the first things out of the gate (after some audio issues) was a statement from Jay that the site does not have anything like a group of “secret moderators” or editors who bury things or block people. All there is, he says, is a site admin whose job it is to remove porn links and other things that breach the terms of service (Kevin says he did that job for the first six months or so that the site was live and then they hired someone). And there are no “bury bots” or a “bury brigade.”

All there is, according to Jay and Kevin — but mostly Jay — is an algorithm or series of algorithms that are designed to maintain “diversity” on the site. In other words, designed to keep posts and links and comments and Diggs coming from as wide and diverse a group as possible. That’s why some links get more Diggs but still don’t get “promoted” to the front page, they explained — because too small a group of similar people are Digging it. It’s the same with burying, Jay notes: too many similar people burying something wouldn’t work either.

Among other things, the two said that they are working on the new comment system (expected by April, maybe), and are working on fixing the search and duplicate-finding functions, which they freely admitted were broken. And they are going to introduce support and other forums to respond directly to users. They also said they want to be more transparent — but then a few minutes later said they didn’t necessarily want to show who was burying things, and also said they couldn’t talk about what criteria they look at to determine “diversity” of Diggs or links, except to say that they look at “a lot of stuff.”

Note:

Tony Hung has some thoughts at Deep Jive Interests, and there’s an overview of the town hall here as well. Best line in the Mashable live-blogging chat (which they did with Keith McSpurren’s excellent CoverItLive) was an Oasis reference: “Is that Liam on the left, or Noel?” My friend MG Siegler of ParisLemon also has a good writeup at VentureBeat.

Digg: portable data is good, so is OpenID

Adam Ostrow has the news that Digg has joined the Data Portability group — the same one that Facebook and Google joined not that long ago — and will also adopt OpenID. Steve Williams at Digg has more on the news, saying the site wants to help users do whatever they want with their data, and is always looking for ways to help Digg interact with other sites better:

Want to sync your Digg friends network with another service? We want to help you do that. Want to use your Digg activity to get recommendations from another web site? We’re working on that, too.

This may not be a huge development, but it’s nice to see some of the big social networks lining up behind both of these initiatives. And Digg is definitely one of the big boys now — according to John Graham-Cumming, who apparently did some sleuthing, the social network is closing in on 3 million registered users.

Digg: A social media Petri dish

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.

Tinfoil hat alert: Digg has secret editors!

Must be a slow news day over at Valleywag, where Owen Thomas is trotting out the old “Digg has secret editors” meme again (not only that, but it has the laughable “Exclusive!” tag). According to Owen, a top-secret source — let’s called him Deep Digg, in Watergate style — was approached for a job at the social-news site, and was given the inside dope on the secret cabal known as the Illuminati. Oh, sorry; wrong conspiracy.

Deep Digg was apparently told about how each topic at Digg has a secret ringleader known as a “moderator” (part of Digg’s appeal is clearly the arcane titles that the Enlightened Ones use; plus I hear they wear silk capes and get to twirl their moustaches). The moderator not only looks for spam and obvious morons, but gets to “adjust the criteria to make it easier or harder for a story to make it big” (gasp!) and this means that they… wait for it… “exercise editorial judgment.” Eleventy-one!

Of course, this was confirmed over a year ago now. Owen then trots out the old straw man about how this means Digg has “failed to match its aspirations as a perfect democracy of news,” something I don’t recall anyone ever claiming it was. This is similar to the shock and horror that Nick Carr and others express at the notion that Wikipedia has a “cabal” of insiders who edit articles and block disruptive people and so on.

Why is that so terrible? It makes sense — and far from being a negative from a business point of view, as Owen tries to convince us it is, it’s actually a positive. About the only thing I can agree with him on is the fact that they could be a bit more transparent about it, if only so that we don’t have to read any more breathless exclusives.