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Digg's inaugural town hall: Too much navel-gazing

The good news is that Digg's executives want to listen to their community. The bad news is that Digg's executives want to listen to their community.

On Monday night, social-news site Digg took a new approach to its famously clamorous users: CEO Jay Adelson and founder Kevin Rose sat down in front of a Ustream-connected camera with their MacBook Pros and a couple of beers and answered questions that had been submitted by Diggers.

As a relative outsider to Digg culture, I was fairly dissatisfied.

All in all, the session highlighted quite a few of Digg's strengths as well as troubles going forward--and additionally reflected a few common criticisms about the site as a whole. But in the process, the questions were inward-focused, dealing with the demands of an active but demanding user base. Very few dealt with Digg's place in the Web's landscape or new media industry as a whole.

Digg, like a handful of other social-media sites (Yelp and Vimeo come to mind), has become famous for a notoriously tight-knit community. On one hand, that's a sign of success. It's got a really dedicated user base. On the other hand, it invokes claims of cliquishness and complaints that it's hard for an outsider to break in.

Watching the town hall, those complaints seemed pretty grounded. Right off the bat, the 20 questions selected were chosen because of the numbers of Diggs each question amassed in a thread about the town hall. True, that's keeping it in the community, and Digg is all about the community. But it's also a bit incestuous, and the questions could have fallen prey to Digg's alleged insideriness--voting up a comment or story simply because of who posted it or submitted it, not because of the content of the stories.

And consequently, the vast majority of the stories were about the nitty-gritty details of the site, the sort of thing that would be of importance to a daily Digg user but which would be inconsequential at best (and potentially nonsensical) to an outsider. I'm not a top Digger, but I'm more than familiar with the site. Digg's users, for better or for worse, also happen to be a tech-savvy bunch. That means a tougher job for Adelson, Rose, and the rest, as the users will be more likely to demand upgrades to the service, insist on a better user experience, and the like. That's good; I'm tired of seeing Web 2.0 sites thinking that they can get away with perpetual beta phases and poor performance.

But on the other hand, Digg can't simply look inward because legitimate competitors have begun to surface. One of them, Mixx, just raised several million dollars in venture funding. None of the questions addressed on Monday night dealt with Digg's opinion of its competitors, plan for moving forward in a tough economic climate, or where Rose and Adelson see the site in five years. Granted, that's not their fault; the questions about "super-users" and comment system upgrades were, after all, what the users Dugg. But I sat through question after question about minute upgrades to the Digg comment system when I really wanted to hear about Adelson and Rose's collective vision for the site going forward.

One question did touch upon the constant gossip that Digg will get acquired. For obvious reasons, Adelson and Rose declined to comment. "We get asked this every day," was Adelson's response. "We are laser focused on the features that users want us to do, and frankly that is what we're focused on as a business right now."

Digg does have a great model for social news that, in my opinion, hasn't yet been paralleled by any other site. But it's in a bit of a Catch-22: ignore or deceive its community, and it faces mass backlash; but pander to its community too much, and it hinders its opportunities for growth as it focuses too far inward. I wanted to hear vision. I wanted to hear partnerships and developments and possibilities. What I heard instead was the gradual upgrading of the search algorithm. Maybe, because I'm not a hardcore Digger, I just don't get it.

But I appreciate that Kevin Rose is a fan of Chimay Red ale.