Will Power Users Bury Digg.com?

Diggers digging a hole for Digg?

Diggers digging a hole for Digg?

Is Digg.com, one of the most popular news aggregation sites, ultimately going to fail because of its power users? Digg recently tinkered with its algorithm to lessen the impact of its power users, but it’s unclear if this strategy will work.

Social media observer Brent Csutorias writes a detailed blog posting about the changes and the visceral response to Digg’s actions by the power users (known as Diggers). However, Brent seems to side with the Diggers who complain about their diminished power. HighTalk takes the contrary position, although we question whether Digg’s changes will actually deflate the ability of power users to control the flow of content on the site.

This is a critical issue for Digg because if they don’t weaken the grip of its most powerful Diggers, the company could struggle to attract enough new users to make it a viable mainstream destination for everyone. Given the state of the economy and Digg’s recent lay-offs, this is a crucial year for the company.

For those unfamiliar with Digg, here’s how it works. Users find content on the Web – from a blog post to a New York Times article – and upload the link to Digg. They write a headline, a brief description of the content, tag it and release it to the rest of the Digg population. Other Digg users can do one of three things with it: ignore it, vote for it (a digg) or vote against it (burying it). The more votes a story gets the better the placement on the site.

Digg describes the process this way:

“Digg is a place for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the web. From the biggest online destinations to the most obscure blog, Digg surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users. You won’t find editors at Digg — we’re here to provide a place where people can collectively determine the value of content and we’re changing the way people consume information online.”

Any blogger who has had a post receive hundreds of diggs can tell you first hand about the incredible spike in traffic. Digg.com can be a powerful way to share ideas and get content noticed.

But here’s the problem: content by new users is mostly ignored on Digg. And because of this, new users can easily become frustrated as they watch their content get one or two votes and then disappear, while seeing similar content posted by a power user shoot to the top.

Here’s why this happens. Digg is actually an online community. Users have the ability to add friends or become fans of other users. The more “friends” a user has – the better the chance that his community will vote for the content he has added. Digg also features a dashboard that allows users to see only content from the their friends – and users with large communities often use this feature as their primary interface. So they actually don’t venture into the public spaces of Digg to see what content has been uploaded by new members or members from outside of their cliques.

This practice makes Digg, if not a closed community, at least a gated one. Or as many others have described: like a high school. Power users (the popular kids) focus on voting for content submitted by their friends (the other popular kids). The unspoken practice on Digg is that if you vote for my content – I’ll vote for yours. The more friends you have – the more votes you get. A feature called a “shout-out” also enables Diggers to solicite their friends for votes.

This is why the content submitted by power users is the majority of the content that gets popular — and why content from new users often falls off the board.

You don’t have to be a software engineer to see how this kind of system is ripe for exploitation and corruption. But it also places Digg in a terrible position. As the company tries to democratize the voting process, it ends up offending its biggest users (it has already banned some of its abusive power users). Yet if Digg doesn’t try to limit the authority of power users, the company ends up alienating new users, which it needs to reach profitability.

What’s that book called? Oh, yeah, “Catch-22.”

In this light, maybe Facebook’s decision to limit users to 4,999 friends isn’t such a bad idea.

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