A tale of two Diggs

It's clear that the company has to deal with its dual identity as a social-news pioneer struggling to compete with Facebook and Twitter, and a Slashdot-like fanboy hub.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

NEW YORK--You had two options if you wanted to hang out with Digg founder Kevin Rose at the Web 2.0 Expo conference this week: head over to the lobby bar of the trendy Standard Hotel on Monday night, where Digg was picking up the tab for several dozen of the city's blogger elite; or pack into Manhattan Center Studios on Tuesday night along with about a thousand other young, predominantly male New Yorkers for a live taping of Rose and co-host Alex Albrecht's "Diggnation" video show.

Geek heroes: Jay Adelson (left) and Kevin Rose in a screenshot from one of their regular 'Digg Dialogg' videocasts with Digg users.

Those are, after all, the two Diggs. There's Digg the company, the name that first put "social news" into the mouths of New York media both old and new, the BusinessWeek cover story that established the shaggy-haired Rose as digital media's poster boy, the start-up that was once talked about as a huge acquisition target for the likes of Current Media, News Corp., and even Google amid CEO Jay Adelson's coy insistence that it wasn't for sale. But then there's Digg the brand: haven for the wackiest of the Web, with a front page dominated by anything Apple, oddball science, insidery tech and politics news, and the latest YouTube sensations. It's a dual identity that seems to be tough for the industry, or the five-year-old company itself, to reconcile.

At the Web 2.0 Expo, both Diggs--and the tension between them--was on full display in a dual keynote by Adelson and Rose on Tuesday afternoon. And the executives were both vocal about the fact that Digg has got to change.

"We're about 40 million users today, (with) about 20,000 submissions a day going into the Digg system," Adelson said onstage. "It's certainly achieved huge things for us. It's what we've set out to do, but we have a ways to go."

Rose added, "We've pretty much stayed the same over the last couple years."

There's a revamped Digg coming, a complete overhaul using the Cassandra database management system, which was developed and then released as open source by Facebook. In the new version will be "instant Digging" that doesn't require registration or a login, better filtration of topics to fit any number of niche interests, and a "smarter" way to gauge story popularity so that both the number of "diggs" and the number of times a link was submitted in the first place are taken into account.

Adelson told CNET later on Tuesday, just outside the auditorium where hundreds of rowdy young Diggers were awaiting Rose and Albrecht to walk onstage for the live Diggnation taping (a co-production of Revision3, the video outlet that Rose and Adelson also co-founded), that this will arrive in the first half of next year. "I can't say with certainty when, because there are so many infrastructure components that have to come first," he said.

This talk of change and versatility is exactly the message that the San Francisco-based Adelson and Rose want to convey while they're visiting New York, the center of the global publishing industry. This is Digg the media company on parade, the Digg that picked up the tab for the cocktail-swilling media insiders at the Standard on Monday night; and this is the Digg that's taken a bit of a beating recently. True, its traffic isn't plummeting, and by most measures continues to grow at a decent pace, but as a news-sharing destination it's been eclipsed by both Facebook and Twitter.

Digg's once-gossiped-about valuation may have taken a hit simply because the market for social news has grown so saturated, and as a result the company is no longer a novelty. Take third-party Twitter app TweetMeme, for example, which takes the links shared all over Twitter in "retweets," and compiles them into something that looks an awful lot like Digg. Or the likes of Yahoo Buzz, which haven't proven to be as popular or ubiquitous as Digg but which proved that it's not particularly difficult to build your own social news service.

"It makes me very proud," Jay Adelson said of the Digg influence evident in TweetMeme buttons and, now, Facebook sharing buttons. He added, "I think that the sophisticated publisher understands the difference between sharing within a social network, sharing on Twitter, and sharing on Digg."

Influential, sure. But when it comes to making a lasting footprint in the media world, Digg hasn't yet been able to get past the common wisdom that the footprint in question will be from a beer-soaked Converse All-Star. And that's the Digg that was showcased on Tuesday night as Rose and Albrecht, both in trendy fitted plaid shirts, received a rock-star welcome for Diggnation.

More than a thousand people had showed up at the Manhattan Center Studios venue, a smaller crowd than the show's last taping in New York, but a company rep pointed out that the previous taping had been in the summer, and this one was on a school night. Someone in the audience excitedly waved a sign that said "WINDOWS 7 FTW!" (That's "for the win," in case you stepped in late.) Another sign read "I SKIPPED CLASS FOR THIS!" and still another, which Rose and Albrecht seemed especially proud of, was a green sign that read "GO HIPPIE!" with a massive, hand-drawn marijuana leaf.

Adelson says that the company's merry band of fanboys--yes, most of them are male--doesn't get in the way, strategy- or image-wise.

"Our core Digg enthusiasts frankly provide a tremendous amount of our feature ideas and feedback, and are the ones that we can count on to be there even when we screw up," Adelson told CNET on Tuesday night. "I don't think they hold us back. I think that's the power of the product."

Kevin Rose's essential Diggnation props: Mac laptop, open bottle of beer Revision3

There have been some good signs. Adelson says that Digg's experimental advertising system, in which unpopular ads are penalized with higher costs ("We charge the advertisers more money when their ads start sucking," Rose explained in the Web 2.0 Expo keynote) have been a runaway success. The company also absorbed a Rose side project, Twitter directory WeFollow, which could have interesting implications.

Their mission is still precarious. The hordes of Digg loyalists propelled the company to fame, but they're known to be volatile: if they hate something, they'll make it obvious. In 2007, when Digg pulled down a number of news links in response to a cease-and-desist complaint (the links directed to instructions for cracking a digital rights management code in the now-defunct HD DVD format), avid users flooded its system with even more links to the code. Digg admitted defeat, and restored the censored links. Earlier this year, when a new URL-shortening feature called the DiggBar garnered a negative reaction, the company made some significant modifications. If they don't like the yet-to-be-unveiled Digg revamp, it could get really ugly.

But perhaps the most difficult part of Digg's dual-identity wrangling is the fact that the company's executives and figureheads really do seem to have an affinity for its mischievous roots. Take Tuesday night, when a few excited audience members at the Diggnation taping started waving around the pink tickets they'd received from local cops for downing booze while waiting in line outside to see the show.

"Open container in line? That is awesome!" Rose exclaimed, reaching for one of the tickets and displaying it in front of the crowd.

Co-host Alex Albrecht chimed in. "You should get that framed!"