Why I don’t dig Digg

By Nicholas Tufnell on August 10th, 2012

Poor Betaworks. For an investment group that focuses on social media start-ups, I can’t help feeling sorry for them; considering this is meant to be their area of expertise, the seemingly endless list of mistakes surrounding the new incarnation of Digg, dubbed Digg v1, is perplexing to say the least.

Bought for a measly $500,000 (the company was once rumoured to be worth $200 million), you might be forgiven for thinking this was an investment difficult to ruin. As long as Betaworks took their time to listen to their user base, undo the catastrophic failure that was Digg 4, and borrow and improve upon celebrated features from other leading social news aggregators, such as Reddit, this phoenix could surely rise from the ashes?

Yeah. Instead, Betaworks rushed the rebuild through in just 6 weeks, with Jake Levine, Digg’s general manager, unashamedly stating to the BBC: “We’re trying to get it out as soon as the last line of code is written.” Of course! What better way to ensure a stable, effective and successful service than to rush it out immediately upon completion before any internal or closed beta participation? First impressions matter, and Digg v1 gives the impression of a rushed, incomplete and uninspired proto-failure.

The biggest mistake was taking the user base for granted. There’s an endless list of websites that want my attention and, more importantly, my loyalty. Digg already came with that loyalty and attention from a long list of users that, despite the mess of Digg 4, were still willing to stick around. To not only re-launch Digg without comments, but also remove all existing accounts entirely (along with the URLs to old posts), Betaworks has seriously jeopardised Digg v1’s potential to succeed.

Digg is a social news aggregator, the key word here being social: the comment system allowed for a community to burgeon and blossom with many accounts close to a decade old. Users would have individually amassed thousands of comments, many of them well thought-out and researched, with a large number of users only visiting Digg during its decline precisely because of the ability to interact with others in this very personal and immediate manner. The community is what held the website together when everything else broke down. This community, which took years to grow, has now been at best seriously dispersed and at worst permanently crushed.

Forcing the user to sign up via their Facebook account is unwise. Along with many others out there who have a dislike for the organisation, I don’t have a Facebook account and I never will. (That might sound odd to some Kernel readers, but you’d be surprised how many people either never joined or have, in the last year, quit the network.) Insisting on an external authenticator excludes a large number of people who would otherwise be interested in engaging with the new design.

Additionally, those who wish to comment anonymously under aliases, of which there are many, will also take their custom elsewhere: anonymity is crucial for any website that desires large user participation.

Betaworks claims this is a short term fix to stop spammers before a better solution is found. Fair enough, but it seems to prove that rushing Digg’s launch was not worth the payoff they presumably thought would be provided by riding whatever wave of media interest was surrounding the company at the time (namely, its failure and low sale price). Indeed, it’s the desire to strike while the iron’s hot, and while telling disgruntled users to be patient, that is the source of many of Digg v1’s problems.

It’s a bit like Apple releasing iPhone 5 a year early and saying “Well, you can’t text or call yet, but be patient, we’ll patch that up later”. It’s stupid.

Further problems lurk within the design itself. On my MacBook, I can read 16 headlines on the front page of Reddit. On Digg I can read 5. This isn’t good enough. Why not ditch the Pinterest-influenced design and add an “upcoming” section at the bottom? The lack of any form of categorisation is also troubling, particularly considering how easy it would be to fix. Reddit does well with its subreddits, which is simple and intuitive. As it stands, Digg is one big mess of uncategorised and unrelated news stories on a single page.

One of the few positive aspects of Digg v1 is the iPhone app, which is smooth, fast and a pleasure to use. But the lack of an Android alternative is yet another symptom of a rushed launch that will anger many users. It’s a shame there are so few things to like about Digg v1. I’ve been a Reddit and Digg user (I use both, unusually) for close to five years now. I’ve seen Reddit rise from being the scorned underdog to the leader of social news aggregators that it is today.

So it pains me to see Digg v1 fail so dramatically, most of all because Reddit, like any other market leader, is in need of good competition. This isn’t the reboot I was hoping for. Despite its failure, though, I believe all is not quite lost: Digg is still alive and the developers claim they will listen to the complaints. By this virtue alone has Digg taken a very small and rather pathetic limp in the right direction.