Can You Digg It?

The Digg Bang Theory: Can Betaworks Make a Run on Reddit?

The NYC startup factory takes a gamble, with the hopes it won't get buried.

image1327102699 The Digg Bang Theory: Can Betaworks Make a Run on Reddit?

Mr. Levine (Photo: Twitter)

Digg’s rebirth will also happen in a very different media environment. “It’s 2012, it’s not 2004,” emphasized Mr. Borthwick. “So what Digg needs is to change a little bit.” By scrapping the old code and rebuilding the infrastructure, Mr. Borthwick said that the new Digg will operate at 1/15th of the cost that the old Digg was running at just last month.

Additionally, now media companies that previously mocked the power of online communities are clamoring to plaster their links all over social news sites. Conde Nast snapped Reddit up back in 2006, hoping to expand its web properties, but its DNA never really fit the Conde mold, due to the site’s unwavering dedication to its community and refusal to cater to publishers. Social news communities like Reddit have grown from a barnacle on the side of the Internet to one of its primary content generators. Traffic-hungry blogs like BuzzFeed source a substantial amount of their content right from the trenches of Reddit. And with 2.5 billion pageviews a month, the amount of traffic Reddit can drive to a site in a single day could trounce pageview targets for an entire quarter. (Previously: Loving the Alien: How Erik Martin, King Bee of Reddit’s Hivemind, Harnessed the Buzz)

For its part, Digg may have spread itself too thin, attempting to simultaneously placate disparate groups with competing interests. “I feel like when they moved to version 4, they were trying to serve too many constituencies: publishers, the users and the advertisers,” Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, told Betabeat by phone. That 4th version, which launched in 2010 and introduced publishers to the site, was so buggy that it crippled Digg’s functionality for weeks. “Many people will tell you that v4 of Digg was the tipping point, and I agree, for a simple reason,” Miguel Lopez, a former Digg power user, told Betabeat by email. “It alienated the hardcore users and the community that had formed around the site…. They drove their most loyal users away, and for any ‘social’ site that is plain suicide.”

“The front page went from interesting, to a bunch of corporate sponsored ads and a few threads that managed to squeak through,” wrote one Reddit user in a recent post about what killed Digg. “I didn’t come to Reddit because it was better or because it replaced digg for me, I came here because digg had a sudden heart attack and died.”

So how did Reddit avoid the same tragic fate as Digg? Its algorithms don’t allow users to collaborate and game the system, for one. “The frontpage we designed was a constantly rising and falling list of links (not like how digg and all of its clones just had a chronological format where once something got enough diggs it became #1 on the frontpage–an easily exploitable way to get a ton of traffic),” said Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian in an email. “It’s not perfect, as we’re always fighting cheaters, but we’ve also had to explain to an unsettling number of publishers that reddit, unlike its past competition, is not designed to be ‘gamed.’ We’ve had to reprimand quite a bit of bad behavior that used to be the status quo.”

In a way, Reddit is immune from many of the pressures that Silicon Alley startups are forced to contend with. Being scooped up by Conde did have its privileges. Unlike Digg, Reddit didn’t have to rely solely on ad revenue to sustain itself. Had Digg curbed its hubris and accepted Google’s offer of $200 million for an acquisition in 2008, it may not have had to roll out so many of the premium features–like “Diggable ads”–that drove users away. “We’ve been lucky in a sense with the Conde Nast situation,” admitted Mr. Martin. “It did protect us from having to quickly monetize.”

The new Digg, which will be tweaked with scientific precision at the lab-like Betaworks, won’t have any ads at all–at least not in version one. It will also be free of the clutter that has bloated Digg for years: with no Digg navigation bar and no “Newsroom” feature, it will be image-friendly, lightweight and easy to use on your cell phone. The interface looks a lot like a typical news blog, with a large image and headline dominating the top half of the screen, while other stories collect in neat boxes beneath it.

In a nod to the dominant forces of social media, the number of “Diggs” on a story will also account for the times it’s been shared on Facebook and Twitter, in order to provide a more holistic portrait of what’s popular across the web. This move also has the added benefit of making it much harder for power users to game the system. For version 1, users will have to login using Facebook Connect in order to “Digg” a story, a temporary move that already has some legacy users riled up.

“There’s a lot of attention and pressure and visibility for tomorrow,” Mr. Levine told us of the version 1 launch. “But what we care about is not launch day, it’s the 14 days or 28 days after launch and the iterations that follow.”

“We could have spent six months on it or a year, but we realized that if this was going to be a good product then we needed to get it out the door as quickly as possible,” he added. “The six week time frame forced really hard decisions, to focus on what is the single thing that Digg does well and that users expect from Digg, and how we could do that well.”

***

A few weeks prior to the launch of the new Digg, the Betaworks team published a survey to their blog soliciting user feedback. The consensus was unanimous: 92 percent of those surveyed would not recommend the old version of Digg to a friend. Users wanted the simpler Digg back, the one that surfaced interesting content and enabled a community of diverse individuals to post and respond to stories they cared about.

“I spent a weekend reading through all of the responses, and time and time again they said, ‘I came to Digg to find great stories. I came to Digg to find stories I couldn’t find elsewhere, the weird and the funny and the geeky,’” said Mr. Levine. That’s where the new Digg will start. From the belly of Betaworks, it will eschew revenue models and investor interests and focus on remaking Digg into the kind of site Internet users used to love.

Digg once went in search of monetization, but now the new team behind it wants what the platform was offering all along: a snapshot of the hivemind, a place capable of measuring the Internet’s pulse. Now, the new Digg team has the same advantage that Reddit obtained when it sold to Conde.

“Part of what we want to do is stay as small as possible for as long as possible,” said Mr. Levine. “So that we can continue to be beholden to just our users, and not incentives for monetization.”

On the back of his iPhone case, a black and white “Fuck it Ship it” sticker caught the lamplight just right.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com

Comments

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