Can Digg Really Afford to Alienate its Top Users? I Guess We’ll Find Out

Can Digg really afford to lose its top users and pray that the sheer number of users will eventually compensate for the disgruntled top users that have left?

Although I feel that as a site evolves and grows you will always end up alienating the people who were there when it all started, especially the people who were there for the fun and excitement, but that doesn’t mean that you can live without them.

When Digg launched it had the excitement of a revolution. No longer would front page technology news be dominated by the whims of editors and writers at big media outlets. With Digg anybody could hit the frontpage and experience their 10K pageviews of fame. Digg helped launch many successful blogs or propel existing blogs straight into the stratosphere. This was manifested in the “Digg effect”. Small sites would suddenly burst onto the front page, ill-prepared to get the same attention as any other large media outlet. Some would grow and become a popular site in their own right.

Today, Digg is a major force to reckon with and has more or less become a partner to many of the news outlets out there. Although the site’s performance leaves something to desire, up until the launch of version 3.0, it was constantly adding needed features and updating the design in addition to extending its reach.

Then it deleted the top users list. A lot of people commented on how the user rankings were immaterial. It was nothing but a number. What’s the big deal? Nobody on that list was making money off of it right? There’s no revenue-sharing based on that list. It’s just a little ego stroke. So what’s the big deal?

I think it was simply a case of the “last straw” for some and for others the ranking may have been the only attraction for Digg. I mean, scouring the web for stories and submitting hundreds of them a week knowing that some of them will only be read by a handful of people is not the most fun way to spend your free time. Sure, there’s the satisfaction that you’re helping call attention to stories and sites that you think are of importance but that in itself is not really motivation. If that’s the case go write a blog right?

I think the significance of the top users list was not the numbers themselves but it represented a concrete metric for their contributions to the site. It empowers the users by letting them know, “you made Digg what it is one front page story at a time.” Removing the list without fixing the friends system just comes across as a slap to the face for people who cherished that list.

A lot of people say that even with a massive exodus of top users, life will go on and someone will carry the torch. This indifference on behalf of Digg management is also making the climate against top Digg users much worse where it’s becoming more and more acceptable to bash top users as the scapegoat for story fixing or even declining quality.

In my opinion, the top users are being unfairly picked on for Digg’s flawed friend system. Now that the secret is out, people know to add friends like crazy but in Digg’s infancy people gained friends by being active on the site and promoting good stories. I don’t think Digg’s developers fully thought out the consequences of the friend system on the scale that Digg represents today.

The most amusing commentary on this fiasco comes from ValleyWag and sure enough it reached Digg’s front page with close to 1000 diggs.

And what of the top users? Well, Rose says that Digg staff discussed the change with some of them. Digg user #10 says that while some other top users may leave the site, he won’t. Besides, the real glory hogs can still point to the top Digger list run by an outside blogger (who works for Digg competitor Netscape but says he did this on his own time). Netscape founder Jason Calacanis, who tried to lure away top Digg users by offering them money to contribute to Netscape, criticizes the deal but misses the point. Ever hear of a “top Yahoo user” or a “top Google contributor”? Ever wanted to meet the top Amazon buyer or most active reader? Nope. At the biggest sites on the web, it’s not about the top users. It’s about all of them.

DIGG: How Digg outgrew its top users – Valleywag

You just have to laugh at how hypocritical and wrong-headed this commentary is. Digg’s top users act as the joint editors of Digg. Unlike most sites, the door is open for anybody to become one of the editors with enough hard work and dedication.

ValleyWag saying that top users don’t matter sounds like a big joke to me because Gawker Media (the parent company) lost Peter Rojas (who used to run their Gizmodo property) who went on to start up Engadget. Now Engadget is probably bigger than all of Gawker Media’s properties combined and multiplied by three. Peter was and is still known for the furious pace of quality work he cranks out. As a result, he’s a millionaire and Engadget is a monster blog. Is the memory of this so painful that they blocked it out of their mind when they wrote the article?

In closing, I’ll leave you with a comment left on a previous article from someone who claims to be a top 50 user. To be honest, I haven’t heard any evidence to back up his claim that Digg is deleting the accounts of dissenters but everything else he says more or less echoes the consensus I’ve seen expressed by top Digg users in various comments:

Digg is a complete mess now, they’ve deleted a lot of top user accounts after they complained about new changes. I (as one of the top 50 digg users) am going to leave Digg soon, it’s now a waste of time – the very fruits of our labor are being spoiled and exploited to profit Kevin Rose and Company. TechCrunch and other sites are being given emphasis, while the average peon Digg user who submits their own blog or site is seemingly discouraged from submitting their own site, regardless of its relevancy and content.

Digg was never a democracy, it used to be more egalitarian but now it’s just complete and utter chaos. Where it ONCE had a strong emphasis on technology, it now has a strong focus on terrorism, celebrity gossip and other news that we could otherwise find on any other site.

Digg was meant to be a site for technology and news/items of interest that weren’t solely from the large content providers (CNN/ABC/NBC) but it’s become exactly that. They wanted a bigger audience and now every day stories from CNN, ABC, Celebrity Gossip Sites, TechCrunch, Gizmodo make the frontpage – if we wanted the info from those big sites, we’d just visit them (Digg now bans a lot of non-popular sites that make it to the frontpage).

A Cursory Comparison of the Big Three Social Media at Baron VC

Maybe we’ll all look back on this one year from now and find out that life goes on and nothing’s really changed. Maybe Digg will fix what’s really wrong and find a way to recognize those that contribute the most (however that is measured). One thing both sides can agree to is nobody wants to see Digg go down hill and this is something that only Digg management can effectively deal with or not.