Can Digg Apologize Its Way Back to Popularity?

It’s hard not to feel sorry for new Digg CEO Matt Williams. The poor guy has only been on the job for a little over a month, after replacing founder Kevin Rose as chief executive in August, and his first major appearance is on a blog post in which he apologizes for all the flaws and missteps in the recent Digg redesign (none of which he was responsible for, of course) and promises to roll back the changes and restore almost all of the various features that die-hard Digg fans complained about losing. But can all of this apologizing bring back those frustrated users, or have they moved on for good?

Just to recap, Digg launched the new version of the site in late August. Almost immediately, there was a backlash from long-time Digg users. Many were concerned that too much content from mainstream media outlets was making its way to the site’s front page, instead of the quirky or off-beat content that Digg became famous for. They also criticized the removal of the so-called “bury” button, which users could click in order to vote a story off the site.

While he was still CEO, Rose wrote a blog post in which he agreed that some of the criticisms from users were well placed, and said the site would bring back certain features such as the “Upcoming” page, as well as allowing users to change the default view of the site to a list of most-voted for stories, rather than the new “My News” view, which featured links posted by a user’s friends and accounts they had chosen to subscribe to or “follow.” But the Digg founder remained adamant about some changes, including the removal of the bury button, which he said was necessary to “put a stop to the bury brigades” who would target content and try to get it removed by working as a group.

[inline-pro-content] The new CEO, however, says in his blog post that the bury button is being restored, and that user profiles are also returning, along with better navigation for videos and images, a tool for users to report comment violations and an update to the front-page algorithm. Williams also admits that the launch “didn’t go smoothly” and that the company is “deeply sorry that we disappointed our Digg community in the process,” and thanks the site’s users for “your patience and your extremely candid feedback.” He notes in passing that Digg still has 23 million unique visitors a month, a comment that appears aimed at reports of plummeting traffic at the site since the redesign.

On the one hand, responding to criticisms from users is clearly a good thing for a site like Digg to do, since — as the new CEO points out — without that community the site is nothing, and without a loyal user base it isn’t going to be able to compete with other social tools such as Twitter and Facebook that have stolen a lot of its thunder. But what about the reasoning behind those changes? Rose argued that the disappearance of the bury button and other changes were necessary because “power” users of the site had too much influence, a view supported by some prominent Digg users such as former Engadget editor Ryan Block, who said that the redesign “realigns interests and does a lot to remove the incentives to game the system.”

As I argued in a GigaOM Pro piece after the backlash (subscription required), the upheaval at Digg shows just how difficult it is for a social network to change the way it functions on a fundamental level. Many of the changes were clearly designed to blunt the power of hard-core users and make the service more appealing to a broader range of users, but the revolt made it obvious that the changes had seriously alienated some of the site’s loyal fan base. This kind of strategy only works, however, if enough new users arrive to justify the loss of that traditional fan base. By apologizing for and unwinding most of its recent changes, Digg appears to be admitting that it backed the wrong horse.

Will simply restoring the site to the way it worked before be enough to pacify those irritated users — and more importantly, will backtracking so publicly make it even harder for Digg to change and evolve in the future?

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