Digg – Group Think & Failing Through Success

It’s a Web 2.0 world, where the individual user is king, and where users in masses are considered the authoritative voice on any topic they lend their numbers to.  Crowdsourcing, harnessing the collective brainpower of the masses, 10,000 geeks can’t be wrong!

The basic idea is that given enough pairs of eyes, the most correct information and best content will come to the surface, surpassing incorrect or irrelevant content.  It’s a truly democratic system where whoever gets the most votes, wins.  Great in theory, but does it work in practice?

As an example of this well-intentioned system failing, I offer up Digg.com, current darling of the user-driven Web 2.0 world.  Registered users of the site can submit content, and “Digg” items they find interesting.  They can also vote to remove something from the site they feel is spam.

In theory, the idea is great and a fair method for selecting content.  However since it’s largely automated, it is open to abuse.  It is extremely vulnerable to the biases of a limited group of users who can choose to act as a single unit to either promote or remove content from the site.  Digg works on the concept that it is the best content selection system, that what it presents is an accurate and fair cross section of users.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  While Digg dreams of itself as being the aggregator of all Internet news and content that’s the most interesting, true and relevant, I would suggest that it’s free-for-all, unrestricted system is its biggest barrier to that success.

Digg is frequented by a subsection of the overall Internet population, mostly IT enthusiasts who on the balance I would guess to be between 15 and 35 years old.  Oh, and male too.  What do we learn if we look at the average stories that make it to the front page of Digg?  Well, on the whole it looks like Digg users are:

  • Anti:
    • Microsoft
    • DRM
    • Closed Source
    • Conservative Views
    • Christianity
    • Bush
    • Sony
  • Pro:
    • Apple
    • Open Source
    • Piracy
    • Liberal Views
    • Islam/Muslim
    • Ron Paul
    • Nintendo

It’s not a surprise honestly, especially considering who brought the site to popularity.  IT wonks, especially open source advocates are very big on new technology and are almost always the ones to push new services and products to the forefront.  They’re the early adopters who let everyone know about how great something is.  Typically, after a relatively short period of time, the product or service is adopted by the mainstream (or it dies out completely), and the early adopters lose their position of power and prestige.  They tend to move on at that point.

The problem companies have to struggle with is hitting the mainstream before the early adopters ruin things.  Think of it as achieving escape velocity.  If a product doesn’t hit it by a certain point, it will crash back to Earth.  It may not be immediate, but the chances of real success are limited.

Digg may have passed that point already.  The community that brought the site to life is now strangling it from the inside.  A sort of Group Think has emerged that results in a very definite bias being presented on the site.  And it’s such a specific bias that if you don’t fit perfectly in the profile, chances are you will never be truly accepted.  If your stories or site don’t fit that mold, they will be buried or banned from the site.

A story is removed from Digg if it gets “buried” by enough users.  A site is banned from submitting to Digg if enough of its stories are “buried”  This results in a further narrowing of potential content for the Digg engine.  The community actively seeks to narrow the pool of content to sites that reinforce its preconceived notions. 

All it takes is a small dedicated group to systematically sculpt the entire site into something that reflects their own narrow views.  The idea was that Web 2.0 and sites like Digg could provide a viable alternative to Traditional Media that is selective and biased in what it reports.  Unfortunately Digg is as, if not more, biased than even the most left or right-wing media outlet.

Digg, like Slashdot (the darling of Tech News sites before it), is losing its relevance as the bias becomes stronger and more and more sites and content providing a views that oppose the community bias are blocked from participating.  Unless something is done to force the sharing of balanced views, Digg is on a path to obscurity.  Sure it may not happen immediately, but at this rate, Digg will never achieve its desired mainstream success.

Its own success is limiting it to being a bit player in the larger picture.