Social mechanisms of the Digg user revolt

People who know me know that I am fascinated by Digg as an example of a flawed but very effective social system. That effectiveness of Digg was evident yesterday as the users revolted against the censoring of some stories on HD-DVD by Digg. Enough has been said about the censoring by Digg, the response by users, so let me focus on the social mechanics of the situation. Digg has always been particularly effective in funneling a lot of user energy into a few stories that drive a lot of traffic and energy. There are a number of ways Digg achieves that.

a) There is only one metric that matters on Digg – the number of Diggs. Contrast that with the many metrics on a site like YouTube or SlideShare (number of views, comments, favorites, embeds, downloads). The primary self-expression on Digg however, is the number of Diggs. That’s what users focus on and that’s what the system responds to.

b) All the user activity is concentrated within a limited period of time. Stories generally rise and fall within a short time period. Once they get posted, most stories get buried. Some get dugg enough to start gaining momentum. The timing element is very important here – a story that gained 1000 diggs in an hour would gain a lot more momentum than 1000 in a week.

c) The front page is the hub. Once again contrast that with other social systems, e.g., Flickr where the front page is personalized if you are not logged in. Even if you are logged in, the front page really serves as a jumping off point into exploring other types of content. In contrast, Digg is much more about exploring the top stories from the front page at any given moment of time.

d) In terms of the traffic impact, its more of a all or nothing effect. If you get on a front page of Digg, you get a lot of traffic. If you get a few diggs, you don’t even notice it. Once again, Digg is good at funneling the attention and energy of a lot of people into relatively few stories.

e) Finally, Digg appeals to a specific type of user. Young, male, technology-focused. Of course there are exceptions (I read Digg regularly and don’t fit into its target demographic). I like reading technology stories there, but I do recognize (on every visit) that the site is not really for people like me. Anyway, this post is not to complain about the lack of women on Digg. The point here is that this is another reason that Digg has such a concentrated effect. Stories get a strong negative or positive reaction because there is a dominant point of view.

What happened yesterday on Digg is not out of the blue. Diggers used the very social mechanics that the site has given them, and turned it against Digg. It was a strong, concentrated user reaction, very typical of Digg – turned inwards. Did it show the wisdom of crowds? It was definitely crowd behavior – large groups of people responding to an issue, egged on by each other. As I have said earlier, Digg fits the Wisdom of Crowds on certain parameters and not on others. Most noticeably, it fails the independence of members from one another test. According to Suroweicki, to harness the wisdom of crowds, you need people to be making decisions relatively independently of each other. On Digg, people are much more driven by social influence. In order to understand what happens on Digg, read Duncan Watts experiments on how social influence operates in web-based systems.

Should Digg change? I used to think that it needs to do something to become a more balanced social system that is less prone to mob behavior, but I am no longer sure. I think Digg is effective because it channels user energy in a particular manner (i.e., driving large amounts of attention to particular sites that get Dugg). If it changed that and tried to become more broad-based in terms of users, topics and social mechanisms, then it might reduce its overall effectiveness. Do I see it as an alternative to traditional sites like New York Times? Not by a long shot. I think the Digg model is brilliant, but a site would need to be much more broad-based to ever serve as an alternative to news sites.

3 responses to “Social mechanisms of the Digg user revolt

  1. Any thoughts on parallels / divergences in the behavior and mechanisms at Digg vs. Slashdot?

    Slashdot is obviously an older community – and thus perhaps more mature (in terms of lifecycle for the community, not necessarily the character of its members) – but the core traits “Young, male, technology-focused” seem common across the two.

    In terms of the evolution of the two sites, what sorts of relationships (if any) do you see between behavior and social mechanisms at Digg and Slashdot?