The user-generated Web sites revolutionizing the way information is consumed in the 21st century are confronting the same question America's revolutionaries faced in the late 1700s: How much power should you give the people? America's forefathers, of course, decided against giving the masses too much. They fashioned the government into a republic, insisting that a pure democracy left the state vulnerable to foolish decisions made by an uneducated, or emotional, public.
Digg, one of the most popular news-aggregator sites on the Web, founded by Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose, disagrees with that old constitutional wisdom. Instead of seeing tyranny in the masses, the company sees "wisdom in crowds." It relies on registered users to submit their best articles to its site. Users then vote on the stories by clicking a "digg it" button. The more "diggs" from the community, the better the placement the story receives on Digg's site (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/21/05, "How Digg Goes Deep").
The company's voting strategy, however, has received some criticism recently as its community of users has ballooned from 80,000 Web-savvy early adopters in 2005 to roughly 700,000 online users, according to the company's statistics. Users are complaining that the larger audience is promoting more sensationalistic or humorous stories to Digg's homepage instead of the substantial news articles that attracted them to the site in the first place (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/25/06, "Shoveling on Digg").
Some users, such as blogger and PodTech Vice-President Robert Scoble, say they are increasingly turning away from Digg to less democratic, competing news-aggregator sites. "If I was going to tell a business executive to read something, I would go with Techmeme," says Scoble. "Digg brings you more weird stuff."
On Dec. 18, Digg launched an extensive redesign of the homepage that could address some of its core users' concerns. The site is planning more redesigns in 2007 to focus on personalizing the Digg experience. Digg also plans to expand into different kinds of content aside from news. Adelson, Digg's CEO, says the critics are in the minority. "There are always squeaky wheels," says Adelson, adding that Digg users have public profiles and want to develop reputations for digging quality content. "Most feel their experience has improved based on the increased numbers."
Helping to Sift
The extensive redesign of the homepage includes more categories for information in the main navigation bar, including a category for podcasts and videos. The expansion is the latest in a series that included the June addition of world and business news, science, and gaming (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/22/06, "Digg Expands Into New News Areas").
In theory, providing additional ways of segmenting information should let users more easily find the content that most matters to them and avoid the stuff they don't care about. Thus the initial tech audience could still find the serious technology articles under the tech industry news section and avoid some of the more lighthearted content such as a video of a golfing parrot.
Of the redesigns to come in 2007, most will focus on personalizing the Digg experience, says Adelson. Though he declined to get into specifics, the site will offer more categories of information and improved social-networking features (think, for example, about having a homepage filled with the latest stories marked by other users identified as friends, instead of just seeing the wider audience's top picks).
Not all the future changes sound as if they will be easily embraced by the core audience, however. Adelson says the site will expand into different kinds of content, aside from news.
"News just happens to be what we started with," he says, adding that the company will expand into any area "where there is an overwhelming amount of information out there and sifting through it has been a problem."
What is there an abundance of on the Web? Entertainment content is one area Digg may move into. Given that the site just launched major categories for podcasts and videos, it wouldn't be farfetched to assume that Digg's near future will include more entertaining video clips or fun podcasts—all of it for review and critique by the Digg community. The top 10 most viewed submissions could soon look very different from the list of news articles now on the site.
The danger for Digg and sites like it is that the influx of new users and new types of content could alienate the core users who rely on Digg for hard news. Sure, they can personalize their page to reflect their penchant for breaking stories. But too much personalization, in order to avoid unwanted stories, could result in users missing out on the kinds of hard news stories they awake to now when they view the top stories on Digg. In a November post, venture capitalist Jeff Nolan wrote in his blog that he was finished with Digg. "I'm just not getting anything out of it anymore."
Christine Tatum, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and assistant business editor at The Denver Post, says the move from "mainstream to mystream," popular with user-generated and social-networking sites, is bound to keep people from being exposed to necessary information outside the realm of their favorite topics. "The chief danger here is that, by striving for personalization, people are weeding out a lot of information that everybody should be exposed to."
Of course, that's less of a problem if Digg is just one of several sources of news that people rely on to get their information. Adelson says he reads the newspaper in the mornings for some types of news and also gets information from Digg. However, for some people, news-aggregator sites such as the Digg community will be their primary source of news—if they are not already.
As Digg embraces more entertainment content, other upstarts are poised to steal its news audience. Techmeme and Tailrank, for example, use formulas that give preference to the stories most blogged about in order to highlight the news most likely to be fresh and interesting. Techmeme monitors 1,000 sources, such as highly trafficked industry blogs, and then uses an algorithm to select the top stories mentioned by those blogs. "If something is linked by the right people fast enough, it is a signal to my system that they see the thing they are linking to as having news value," says Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera. Tailrank does something similar, monitoring 160,000 blogs every half hour. Tailrank CEO and founder Kevin Burton says he opted for an algorithm, rather than public votes, to focus on news.
Techmeme and Tailrank have significantly less traffic than Digg. Techmeme is among the top 5,000 sites and Tailrank is in the top 11,700, according to Alexa. Digg, on the other hand, is the 78th most popular site on the Web.
Both Burton and Rivera say that bloggers, because they rely on their reputations to attract traffic, are less willing than the general public to promote stories that are simply sensational or offbeat. "If the community finds something funny on Digg, they will vote it up," says Burton. "But if I am at work and I want a real news site, I don't want to see that."
Clearly, many others do want to see that. That's why they are digging it. It's also why the founding fathers made America a republic.