How The Internet's Biggest Social News Site Saved Itself (Again)

Kevin Rose started Digg specifically to give users the power to decide what's news. It must be a pain to see some of his top users quit the site and write an open letter charging him with "disregard for the Digg community," "lack of transparency," and "flagrant disrespect of top users." They were angry that a sudden change in the site had lessened their influence. This may seem like an intramural tiff, but these users are known for submitting thousands of stories to Digg, driving up to several hundred thousand visits to each story that makes the front page. Gawker Media alone owes millions of pageviews to Digg. And this isn't the first time top users have grumbled. So Rose and his CEO Jay Adelson made a surprisingly sensible move: Late last night, they chatted live with the disgruntled users. Here's why Rose frustrated his top users, why he bothered talking to them, and why it's a lesson for all online media.

The point behind social news is, as I said, to empower users. This assumes that users can produce good news. Obviously Digg's user base, which grew from Rose's fanbase from his days as a host on TechTV, hasn't reproduced the New York Times. Instead, they've curated a site focused on servicey news, workday entertainment, and big scoops: lists of funny old cartoons, studies about pot's effect on the body, and updates on new technology. The content reflects the user base. Theoretically, as the site grows more mainstream so will the news, until Digg is as useful as Drudge for a snapshot of what's important today.

But to keep the site interesting to all users, Digg must balance the influence of top users with that of casual or one-time users. Because core Digg users can find each other and often promote each other's stories, they may dominate the site unless Digg actively balances their role. That's what the company did, unannounced, on Tuesday. And the top users were unhappy.

Every major site has a core user base (on Gawker, it's the commenters), which sees the site quite differently than the casual visitors. They feel an ownership, to such a point that they will directly insult those running the site for not catering to their whims. Thing is, those core users are often as important to (and spend as much time on) the site as its official employees, so they can't be ignored.

A typical newspaper or TV station can only do so much to interact with its mass audience. Even then, audience members don't have much influence over each other; the medium is one-to-many. If the New York Times screws up, it only has to face bad press, not a reader revolt. Rose has to put out every fire whenever he decides to change his business. And surprisingly, he's done a great job at it. He's learned from mistakes and changed site policy; the next major algorithm change will surely be better announced.

Digg may not be as big as Facebook or MySpace, but I get the feeling that if it were, users would still feel closer to Kevin Rose than they do to Mark Zuckerberg or Rupert Murdoch. Sorry for having a banal opinion, but I like how Digg works.

[Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid]