Too Digg for their boots?

Kevin Rose founded Digg in late 2004. It was the beginning of something phenomenal... to be precise, the Digg phenomenon. Digg was all about the tight-knit community of techies who wanted to get in there, share relevant tech news, vote for it, and talk about it. And what a fabulous idea it was.

So fabulous, in fact, that according to an article about Digg, Kevin and co literally had potential investors beating down the doors, offering fantastic quantities of money to them because of their potential. They accepted a couple of million in late 2005 and the rest, as they say, is history.

In mid 2006, Digg started expanding into new areas beyond the realm of tech. This was an incredibly popular move. Digg gained a massive 13,000 new users that day, and everybody thought it was dynamite. But what does this mean for the tight-knit community of techies? Well, it doesn’t just expand the community, it also loosens it. The knit becomes less tight.

Things changed. All of a sudden, there are non-tech people all over the site. But they didn’t keep their comments confined to non-tech posts. They began making comments (some of them uninformed and inflamatory) about various aspects of technology. Are they allowed to do this? Sure. Does it encourage a sense of community? Not at all.

Initially, these people were discouraged/silenced (their comments were voted down by the greater number of techies). But as Digg’s audience grew, the “wisdom” of the masses was voiced with greater and greater strength and Digg became the domain of whoever can get the backing of the lowest common denominator. It can be like going to watch a football game because you really like football, but getting trampled by thugs with bottles who are there because they like to yell obscenities and drink beer and punch people. Oh, and football, if there’s none of the other stuff...

Well, I’m wondering if Digg would have expanded their categories from tech only to the other categories if they weren’t trying to make the most money for their investors. And it’s not like the expansion hasn’t been a huge success at pulling in the punters, which, I would imagine, certainly increased the income and return for investors. But as I indicated above, how good is it for the community?

But there’s been more trouble in Diggland than just with the community...

There was quite a lot of tension back in May 2007, when the copy protection crack story soared to popularity with the diggers. It was pulled by Digg staff due to possible legal ramifications. Well, outraged diggers became very vocal and demanded the return of the story based on claims Digg was censoring the news. Digg made the decision to repost the story. Good for the community? Yes. Risky for Digg? Absolutely. According to the Financial Times, Digg were lucky not to get their funding pulled by their investors, who should have been consulted before such a controversial move was made. It was a difficult call, and it looked like in that case, everything worked out okay... but I don’t think Digg will be making the same mistake again. We all know the golden rule of business. The investor(s) comes first. Due diligence must be exercised at all times.

Where am I going with all this? Well, Digg have just signed an exclusive ad deal with Microsoft. A pretty solid business move for them, I would imagine. But it brings another player to the table. A player who doesn’t exactly have a squeaky clean trackrecord when it comes to playing clean with contracts. And I’m not saying that Digg wouldn’t have excellent legal staff to make sure they aren’t going to get burned when it comes to the crunch. But think about it: a three year exclusive deal with Microsoft. We’re never going to see the details of the contract and we are never going to know what else Microsoft would have wanted as part of the deal. Digg would have had to sign if it meant getting a greater profit for their investors or they could potentially be sued for not acting with due diligence.

What concerns me is that Digg hasn’t exactly been as Linux/UNIX friendly lately. Oh, sure, they have the section and news gets put in it. But it feels like less of it is being promoted to even just the technology page lately, let alone the front page. And then, when they do, I’ve noticed quite a few legitimate Linux/UNIX stories getting buried or pulled shortly after being promoted.

Furthermore, Digg has had an increased number of very vocal pro-Microsoft/anti-FOSS users commenting lately and it has been hard to find a FOSS related story that doesn’t get flooded with anti-FOSS related sentiment. It has been suggested on many many occasions in the comments on Digg that Microsoft employs (some of) these people to create accounts and post pro-Microsoft/anti-FOSS comments. Whether it’s true or not, again, we’ll probably never know (especially not with the NDA’s that MS make their employees sign). In any case, we do know it’s possible; it’s not like Microsoft couldn’t afford it, and they do spend an awful lot on advertising. This would be just another form of advertising right?

So I ask you, is there any way in the world that this new contract could improve the situation? Not at all. Who knows what’s in the contract, but theoretically there could be something in there about pulling anti-Microsoft content in between the parts that cover flooding the site with pro Microsoft ads and of course, anti Linux/UNIX ads. Am I being paranoid? Well a story was posted to Digg just after the agreement was signed. It was the press release from Microsoft announcing the Digg/MS advertising deal—fairly innocuous stuff. But, after 1300+ diggs, it was pulled from the front page. But why? Well no reason was given as far as I know and the only reason I could come up with was the high amounts of anti-Microsoft commenting going on.

So what does this all mean? Last time there was discontent with the users, Kevin Rose took their side over the investors. I imagine his advisors would have had very stern words with him about due diligence at that time. This time, has he done the right thing by his investors, but to the detriment of, at the very least, the FOSS and Apple sections of the community? But this symbolises a deeper problem for all Digg readers. It shows that the time when the community came first is over.

While Digg may not ostensibly lose users, they are failing a part of their community. And with the advent of Pligg (a Digg-style content management system), some people have started creating Digg clones in order to give voices to niche communities that would otherwise be lost inside Digg. And, being niche sites, they are unlikely to end up with investors to answer to.

Here are some examples:

  • C2NN (a site devoted to environmental concerns)
  • dotnetkicks (a site for Windows related links)
  • dzone (a site for developers)
  • bringr (a site for women-related issues)

Now, out of the whole Digg community, the FOSS community is the most badly affected. They have already had a tough time standing up to the opinions and misconceptions of the wider community. They don’t have all that many forums like Digg on which to voice their opinions and they certainly don’t have Microsoft or Apple’s advertising budget. But they still need somewhere to go to voice their opinions, share their news, and be amongst like minded people whose comments are based in a deep understanding of FOSS.

Thankfully, the FOSS community has the brand new FSDaily website. The FSDaily staff will never sell out to Microsoft and, in fact, have made a commitment to removing any Google ads that appear which are for Microsoft products. Of course they need the community’s help in identifying the Microsoft ads as different ads are displayed depending on a number of factors including the country the visitor is viewing from. A special email address has been added so that readers can let the FSDaily staff know.

I’m sure Digg will continue to grow in popularity and good for them (the share holders). With so many categories, more and more people from different niche communities are attracted to the site to get involved. But I think we will see growth in smaller independent Digg-style sites, like FSDaily, for those people who feel that maybe, Digg has outgrown them.


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