Digg Backlash Reinforces the Risks of Social Media

Digg has undergone a number of revisions and feature additions over the years, but nothing approaching the magnitude of the relaunch that took place recently, a comprehensive redesign and restructuring that had been in the works for over a year. The launch triggered a wave of dissent from Digg users that founder Kevin Rose — who recently stepped down as CEO in favor of former Amazon (s amzn) executive Matt Williams — continues to try and subdue.

Some see the revolt by hard-core users of the service as yet another sign of how fickle social-media users can be, or how poorly many people tolerate change. But there are two even more important points worth looking at: one is just how vital it is that user-driven services such as Digg communicate with their users when undertaking fundamental changes on the scale of this relaunch. And the second is that the Digg backlash has forced the company to confront the same critical question many other similar networks have struggled with, including Facebook — namely: how do you expand your reach and appeal to new users without irritating your existing fans and losing their support? I looked at some of the implications of these two points in a recent report I wrote for GigaOM Pro (sub req’d).

The negative reaction to Digg’s changes occurred in part because of the loss of some traditional features (such as the “bury” button, which users could click on to vote a post down) as well as some other irritations, like changes to the commenting system and the loss of the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” icons. But those weren’t the only things that irritated die-hard Digg users — many were upset with what they saw as changes to the Digg ranking algorithm, and other new features for professional publishers (i.e., mainstream websites such as Mashable and those from Time Warner and other media companies), such as the ability to publish straight to the site via RSS feeds.

A number of users said that they felt these changes amounted to the site turning its back on its core user-base. From Digg’s point of view, however, most of these changes were deliberate — even necessary — in order to make the site more appealing to mainstream users, and reduce the influence that “power users” exerted through the bury button and other group-voting behavior. In a world where Twitter and Facebook are now the social-media tools of choice, Digg had to change, or risk becoming irrelevant.

Kevin Rose eventually responded on Twitter to some complaints, as well as in a blog post, saying many of the lost features would be restored and apologizing for bugs and other site problems. He also said the changes were designed in part to “remove the popularity contest and put the focus on quality diggers.” In other words, to try and defuse some of the influence that “power users” of the site had managed to accumulate. The biggest problem with Rose’s response, however, is that it only appeared after the revolt was well under way. For more analysis, please see the full report.