Digg launches Newswire, but will anyone care?

Digg, the link-sharing site that was once the top of the social-news heap, has launched a new feature it hopes will bring users back to the service: Newswire allows readers to create their own filtered view of the links that are being submitted to Digg in real time, which the site calls “sifting for diamonds.”┬áBut after a disastrous redesign that caused many users to flee the network, and the departure of founder and chief visionary Kevin Rose — not to mention the rise of Twitter and newer sharing platforms like Google+ — can new features such as Newswire help the site recapture any of its faded glory?

As Digg staffer Will Larson describes on the company blog, the Newswire allows users to not only see posts appear in real time as they are submitted to the site, but to filter that stream based on a number of factors — including the number of Diggs they have received, what topic they are related to, and whether they contain video or images. There’s also a “trending” view that ranks the posts coming in by how quickly they are receiving Digg votes. In a break with Digg tradition, the Newswire also shows who “buried” or voted down a post or link, which the site hopes will increase transparency.

Filtering incoming links and watching them appear in real time is a handy thing to have. But is the new Digg feature anything revolutionary? Not really. Some reviewers have called it a “radical experiment” in social news, but it’s anything but radical. Many users already get a similar blend of trending links and commentary from Twitter and related services such as Topsy and Tweetmeme that show popularity — and a number of apps like Flipboard and Zite provide a curated, real-time newswire-style experience. Does Digg bring something dramatically different to the table? Not that I can see.

Even a Digg staffer notes in a comment on the thread about the Newswire launch that “making upcoming real time with Newswire is simply catching up with the general trends,” while one long-time Digg user described it as being little more than an updated version of an earlier feature called Digg Spy, which was launched in 2005. While the Digg users commenting on the launch seem to think the Newswire is a great addition, it’s not clear whether it will be enough to draw in new users or bring back old ones.

Digg Version 4 repelled users

Many of those departed users, who in some cases were Digg’s most devoted fans, fled the service after a mammoth redesign, known internally as Version 4. The redesign was in the works for more than a year, but when it launched last summer, it sparked widespread criticism and outrage from existing users — in part because it was seen as altering the independent culture of the site by appealing too much to mainstream media sites. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Digg competitor Reddit, said in an open letter to Kevin Rose that the redesign “reeks of VC meddling” and was little more than “cobbling together features from more popular sites,” and many users seemed to agree.

In the months following the launch of the new design, Rose stepped down as CEO to be replaced by Matt Williams, who almost immediately apologized for the flaws in the redesign — and the site proceeded to undo or roll-back almost all of the changes that had been made (and laid off about 40 percent of its staff at the same time). But the damage had already been done: Digg’s user base continued to decline, to the point where Compete.com says it is now only slightly larger than Reddit with about 3 million unique visitors a month, down from more than 8 million a year ago.

In terms of overall traffic, Compete says that Reddit is now about twice as large as Digg, with 14 million page views a month to Digg’s 7 million, while Quantcast shows Reddit as being almost three times larger in unique visitors and four times the size of Digg in terms of monthly page views with about 44 million to Digg’s 9 million.

In a move that seemed to cement the network’s decline in popularity, founder Kevin Rose left Digg earlier this year, and has started a new incubator for mobile apps and services called Milk. Matt Williams said earlier this year that the site’s traffic had “stabilized” and that he continues to believe Digg can be a major player when it comes to filtering the news that continues to bombard web users from multiple sources.

But while features like Newswire may be positive additions to the former superstar’s bag of tricks, it’s going to take a lot more than me-too services to bring back its faded glory. The harsh truth is that Digg’s time may have come and gone.

Disclosure: Milk is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.