Digg Goes Deeper with Social Networking

With its audience expanding and interests diversifying, the popular site is launching new features to help users find like-minded friends

When Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose launched Digg three years ago, the Web site attracted a community of like-minded people. Digg users were technophiles, not unlike the company's founders. Rather than pay attention to the news dominating the national headlines, many early Digg users were more apt to respond to articles that Rose posted on new Web companies, open-source software, and even stories about mental illness that can haunt mathematicians after they solve complex puzzles.

But, with Digg's audience expanding to millions of monthly users worldwide, the techies have seen their preferred stories pushed from Digg's front page in favor of business news, sports write-ups, and bizarre comedic articles. This diversity of interest has led tech-minded Digg users to criticize the worthiness of popular articles and even accuse influential users of colluding to unfairly promote stories. "Now that nontech stories have exceeded the tech stories," says Adelson. "The challenge is on us to provide what our community needs."

Open for Discussion

What Digg's users need, says Adelson, are social-networking tools. On Sept. 19 the company is launching a host of new features that might seem more at home on Facebook or News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace than on a Web site where users post links to online articles and other media. The intent is to make it easier for users to find others who share their passions by enabling them to form small groups of "friends" and create fuller personal profiles. "This is really the first time that we have enabled communications between users," says Rose.

Instead of submitting stories for review by the larger Digg community, users will be able to send—"shout" in Digg terms—story links along with messages to particular Digg friends. Friends, or small groups of friends, also will be able to chat or discuss stories on their personal pages with posts to a message board, a feature akin to the "wall" on Facebook.

Stronger Identities

Digg's new emphasis on user profile pages is also designed to let users better define their presence on the site by posting multiple photos, personal interests, biographical information, and even links to a member's personal blog, social network profile, or Web page. With the addition of these features, it will also be possible to control whether that content can be viewed by all Digg users or just designated friends.

As before, the profile pages will still feature those stories that an individual user has submitted to Digg as well as the site's overall tally of how many users also "dug" that story. But in addition, readers will be able to view a history of an individual user's comments on stories. The new features are "going to give everyone a bit of an identity on the site," says Rose.

Community Engagement

The changes are just the first in a series of new features slated to debut by yearend. In October, Digg plans to add a section dedicated to images. The plans also call for a new function that will suggest stories, or potential Digg friends, to members based on the articles they have read. "There is going to be a section where you will see these suggestions of news items and pictures and videos based on what you have been looking at," says Rose. "It will find connections—people you constantly agree with and just don't know it."

Rose and Adelson hope the new social-networking capabilities will encourage users who only read articles on the site to become more engaged with the community. Currently, 15% to 20% of Digg's audience are registered users. The vast majority of the 20-million-plus users, by Digg's count, just read the posted stories. Adelson believes the ability to share information with a select group of people and craft a personal identity will encourage more passive users to get involved. "We are creating this in-between world for people who maybe don't want to share information with the whole planet," says Adelson. "We all have a short list of probably 5 to 10 people whom we feel compelled to share certain information with."

Microsoft Connection

For Digg, more registered users mean more people whose interests the company knows enough about to show them targeted advertising. In July, Digg announced that Microsoft (MSFT) will be the site's exclusive provider of targeted ads for three years (BusinessWeek.com, 7/25/07). The deal came after a year of talks with various ad providers, says Adelson.

Of course, it's still an open question whether the site's new social-networking tools will prove popular with users. Digg knows better than most that, when dealing with communities, even slight changes can cause an uproar. But Rose says the community has been demanding more personalization and privacy for a while, even going so far as to build Digg applications for Facebook where they can discuss articles with smaller groups. Adelson and Rose first began discussing the features more than a year ago, but they decided to move slowly to ensure the applications would be robust enough to withstand the Digg community's well-worn reputation for overwhelming Web sites with traffic. "We have to build them to survive the Digg effect on themselves," says Rose.