So the new Digg has relaunched — now comes the hard part

Digg holds a special place in the hearts of many web and media geeks, since it was one of the first big “Web 2.0” success stories, at least terms of its influence. But the site lost its way and was eventually broken up and sold in pieces, with New York-based Betaworks picking up the name and the URL — and now the incubator has relaunched the Digg site with all new code under the hood and a brand new paint job. But can it regain anything like the luster it used to have in the social-web sphere? It still has an awful lot of work to do — not only is it missing some key elements that made the old Digg special, but there’s an increasingly crowded field of competitors going after the same brass ring.

One of the main things the new Digg seems to be missing is any sense of community, or even comments. The items on the site have reactions attached to them that come from Facebook (s fb) and Twitter, but that’s it — no ability for users to post a comment the way they could on Digg. For anyone who recalls the original, this is a significant loss: before Reddit or Hacker News built a community around online discussion, and before Twitter popularized the sharing of links to interesting news, there was Digg. And for better or worse (depending on your perspective) the Digg community was a big part of what made the site fascinating.

Pros: The new Digg is clean-looking, fast and mobile

It’s tough to be too hard on the new Digg team about missing features, since they managed to rebuild the entire site in just six weeks. According to Betaworks founder John Borthwick — who is now also the CEO of Digg — the old code base and design of the site was just too expensive to operate, and so the company decided it had to re-engineer the whole network. What it launched on Tuesday is very different from what Digg used to look like, with its long pages of links and comments: the new version is very clean-looking from a design perspective (although that too has its critics), and it makes good use of images.

At least one person has called it a Pinterest for news, which is a pretty apt description so far. And while a number of critics have complained that the new Digg requires users to log in with Facebook, at least the site is trying to take advantge of the network effects of other sharing services. The new Digg has also launched an iPhone app that is just as stripped down as the web version, and moves with impressive speed — a smart choice at a time when an increasing amount of content is being consumed on mobile devices.

That said, however, there are a number of other players targeting the same sandbox that Digg wants to play in, whether it’s the Twitter network itself — with its increasingly curation-driven approach to the content that it distributes — or newcomers like Prismatic, which like the new Digg uses a variety of algorithms based on sharing activity in your social graph to determine what links to show you (Digg also has human editors or curators selecting content as well).

Can Digg create a new community around news?, the Betaworks startup that merged with Digg after the incubator bought the company, was also working on a news-sharing service that started out as an iPad app — originally created by two developers working for the New York Times — and morphed into an iPhone app that founder Jake Levine said he hoped would become like an Instagram for news. Given that building a community around news sharing was one of the things Levine said he was trying to do, there is hope that later versions of Digg might contain more social elements, but for now it is little more than a bulletin board with news items pinned to it.

There’s no question that we need smart aggregators in order to help us filter the vast amounts of information that are coming at us every day online, and the ones that interest me the most (and others such as Clay Shirky, a big fan of and its curated email briefing) are networks or services that take advantage of the connections I’ve made through my social graph and use that to help show me information I am more likely to be interested in. Digg can do that, but what makes it any better than anyone else out there doing the same thing? The power of its algorithms?

In a blog post, Digg says that “experimenting with new commenting features” is one of the things on its to-do list as it develops the service over the coming months, but that’s a long way from building — or even re-engaging with — a community (many of whom have long since left to join Reddit in any case). That’s the part that is arguably the most valuable of all, but it’s also the hardest thing to build.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Montecruz Foto