Requiem For A Digg

To me, the most interesting aspect of the Digg story is just how much of a central role the service has played in the larger story of our current tech scene. It was a key catalyst in the era of social that we now live in. And the company’s diaspora has seeded many of the current crop of services we all use. In some ways, the sale to Betaworks really is the end of an era.

Om captured this well from the press perspective and Aubrey has from an insider’s perspective. I have a bit different of a perspective: the perspective of a user.

I signed up for Digg in April of 2006 — fairly late, the service had already been live for over a year. I don’t recall exactly how I found out about it — remarkably, back then, I probably read about it in a magazine like Wired (or maybe even on TechCrunch). But I do remember why I joined: I was bored.

My life was very different back then. A couple years removed from college, I was in the transition stage between trying to “make it” in Hollywood and becoming a web developer. I was a 24 year old dude who lived alone, loved technology, and had a lot of free time on my hands. In other words, I was right in Digg’s wheelhouse.

Digg appealed to me right away. It was the front page of a newspaper, but one where anyone could vote on what appeared. It was great for consumption, but just as interesting to me was the creation element. Anyone could submit any story. After studying the service for a bit, I started submitting content (not my own, mind you — I was essentially just a bad personal blogger at that point).

About a month after I joined, I had my first story that I had submitted appear on the front page. It was awesome. Something that I had picked out was deemed cool by hundreds of other people. I remember the feeling of euphoria that came with it. It was a drug, I was hooked.

It seems silly now, but remember that what Digg enabled was very unique at the time. Twitter was still just a internal side project back then, and Facebook hadn’t even rolled out the News Feed yet. The number of eyeballs that the front page of Digg could direct towards a story was massive. This was power. And the ability to submit stories as well as vote on them gave part of this power to the users.

Unsurprisingly, this “power” gave rise to power users. While Digg may have started out with the idea that anyone could submit any content and have it reach the front page, things quickly veered towards the 90/10 rule as Digg grew in popularity. That is, the idea that 10 percent of the users were the ones creating the content (in this case, submitting stories), while the other 90 percent were the ones consuming it (voting on the stories, or just clicking on them).

There were several studies in the heyday of Digg about just how few people controlled what appeared on the front page. It was basically just a few dozen. Again, the power users. I was one of them.

Back in the day, Digg had a leaderboard to highlight these users. It was based on number of front page stories a user had submitted, but it also showed things like ratio of total stories submitted to those that became popular. At my peak, I believe I was in the top 25 on that list with a popular ratio of well over 50 percent.

In some ways, Digg was a game. And I love games.

But I don’t mean to minimize the importance of Digg. While a gaming element drove some of the use, at the end of the day, all that mattered were the Diggs themselves — as in, the votes. Sure, people would Digg each others' stories in order to get votes back (this was sort of an unstated courtesy), but if a story was bullshit, it either wouldn’t make the homepage or wouldn’t last long there — behold the power of the “bury”.

Good content was always paramount to Digg. And that’s why it worked as a service. Not just for the power users, but for everyone. I spent a lot of time scouring the web, looking for good content to submit.

I used to get asked a lot back then why I would spend so much time on Digg when the benefits weren’t immediately apparent (there was no financial incentive, for example). My answers at the time ranged from lazy: boredom, to righteous: I was helping people find good content!

But in hindsight, the answer is far better. Without Digg, I almost certainly would not be where I am now. That reads like hyperbole, but it’s not.

The service forced me to get very good at finding news and interesting stories — and doing it fast. It also forced me to hone my headline writing skills. And it helped get me on the radar of people like Eric Eldon (back then an editor of VentureBeat — my first professional blogging gig).

Once I got a web development job and my free time vanished, my usage of Digg quickly dropped and my power user status faded. But not before the service left me with an extremely valuable realization that changed my life: I was on the wrong side of the equation. Rather than submitting other people’s stories, propelling them to fame and fortune, why wasn’t I writing my own?

So that’s just what I started doing.

I realize that the social environment has changed dramatically in the past five years on the web, but it feels like Digg should still exist — and maybe even thrive — in some capacity. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a better steward than Betaworks to try to make that happen. I’ll be rooting for it.

 
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