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How Twitter Stole Digg’s Thunder

by Sean P. Aune | February 6, 2010February 6, 2010 2:40 am PDT

There was a time where every blog under the Sun had the ubiquitous “Digg” button so that you could vote their stories up on the popular news aggregation site, but seemingly over night those buttons got replaced with the Twitter ReTweet buttons from TweetMeme.  What happened?  What caused this sudden shift in the social landscape, and is there any way that Digg can recover its former glory?

buttonsThe problem for Digg could be chalked up to just how popular the sites that used it became.  The way the system works is that someone enters a blog post or news story in the Digg system, it is then monitored for the next 24 hours for how many other people “Digg” (vote) it up, once the story hits some magical formula that is only to the Digg programmers, the story could make its way to the “front page” (FP) of Digg where every visitor could see it and a flood of people would then visit that story.  Small sites that somehow get to the front page have quite often found their servers crashing under the strain of thousands of visitors hitting them all at once, but it was a glorious way to go.

However, the problem with Digg has become that small sites have little to no hope of getting on to the fabled front page, no matter how good their content is.  Yes, your story is listed on the Digg site, but it is placed in one of the sub-category pages until such time as it is deemed worthy of making it to the FP, meaning that not that many people see it.  In cases such as this, you can place a Digg button on your site for your readers to vote for it.  However, if you don’t have very much traffic to begin with, it won’t matter how good your content is as there won’t be enough people to vote for it.

This is where the power of the Twitter ReTweet started to manifest.  A ReTweet is an action on Twitter where you post the same Tweet, or message, that someone else has so that you can share it with all of your followers also.  This exposes the content of that message to just a few people, or potentially thousands, depending on the person who ReTweeted it.  With the emergence of the ReTweet button that bloggers could put on their sites, the amount of space the Digg button took up on smaller blogs didn’t seem to make much sense any more since so few sites ever saw benefits from it, but even one ReTweet by the right person could mean dozens or hundreds more visitors to your site with just that single action.

It didn’t take a math whiz to figure out which of the buttons was more beneficial to the majority of blogs out there.  Sure it was great if someone put your story on Digg, but unless you had the traffic of a major site, the odds of you getting any real benefit from it were pretty thin.

kevin roseDigg appears to have no intentions of just laying down and dying at the altar of Twitter, though.  In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, said “We’re making some drastic changes, but they’re much-needed drastic changes.” He went on to add, “People are going to be shocked at some of the directions we’re taking. You have to be comfortable with completely tearing down and throwing away a bunch of ideas.”

According to a story on PE Hub, those new directions include launching more niche versions of Digg which will allow people to visit sites that focus only on what interests them.  Mike Maser, Digg’s chief stategy officer, told PE Hub that this move is all about “extending beyond our one-size-fits-all home page and atomizing content.”  There is no word when these new niche sites could roll out, but the idea is that if you are interested in skateboarding, then there will be a Digg for skateboarding with its own “front page” where you could hope to achieve Digg glory.

While this is certainly a move in the right direction for Digg, it isn’t clear if the company still fully grasps what exactly is making the ReTweet buttons so popular.  Jay Adelson, CEO of Digg, seems to think it is about the Trending Topics one can follow on Twitter.  “Digg applies crowd wisdom and collaborative filtering to content that passes through its system,” said Adelson. “On Twitter, there’s a certain random nature to what you might pick up, regardless of who you are following. Some will be links, some will be statements of status or feelings or emotions and there isn’t a filter over that.”

The error in Mr. Adelson’s thinking comes from the fact that ReTweets have little to no impact on the Trending Topics.  If someone clicks the ReTweet button, they have the option to add a hashtag (#word), but that doesn’t mean they do.  The power of the ReTweet is based strictly in the fact that someone chose to share something they felt was worth sharing with their followers.  There is no voting, there is no having to get to the front page, you simply click a button, and instantly there is a chance for thousands of new people to see your content.

The second error in this line of thinking is that no matter how much Digg may be about “filtering” content, the common user doesn’t have much control in how things are filtered.  There is this all-knowing magical algorithm that Digg uses to deduce when a story is popular enough for the FP.  On the other hand, Twitter has no filter beyond the person who decides to do the ReTweet and if the followers choose to go to that story based on who ReTweeted it.  There are certain people that I follow, that I know if they ReTweet something, it is a must read, while I follow others that I long ago stopped paying attention to their ReTweets.  I am the ultimate filter, and not some mystical piece of software that Digg uses that has become like the Wizard of Oz … “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

While Digg is certainly not going to disappear any time soon, it is going to have a heck of a time overcoming that satisfaction of it only taking one click for people to see your content.


Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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