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For more than a year, Digg has been working on a major redesign of the popular link-sharing site, one that makes the social features of the site much more obvious, encouraging users to “follow” their friends and subscribe to preferred sources. It’s more than just a redesign, however — it’s a fairly dramatic change in the way the site functions, and it’s not clear how existing users will respond to it. In some ways, getting more social could actually make it harder for Digg to stand apart from the crowd.
Digg recently opened up the redesign’s alpha site to more users — you can request access by signing up at new.digg.com — and I’ve been using it for a while now to see what has changed, and whether the site is likely to become a more central part of my social networking habits.
When you log in to the alpha, it asks you to subscribe to recommended sources of links, including mainstream sites such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, as well as individual users such as Digg founder Kevin Rose and tech guru Leo Laporte. Many of these publishers push their content directly to the site by importing their RSS feeds (using Superfeedr, which Liz wrote about recently). Then the service asks you to follow your friends from other networks, including Facebook, Twitter and Google’s Gmail — in much the same way that virtually every other social service or application does.
After you do this, Digg then shows you what it calls the “My News” view, with headlines submitted by the sources you chose and the users you decided to follow, instead of the top-most links from the entire universe of Digg users (although you can choose the “Top News” link at the top of the site to see the traditional view). There’s a list of top links from the people you follow on the right, and the main chunk of submitted stories in the middle, with the usual voting buttons and comments.
The obvious intention of the redesign is to make the service more social, something that many Digg-watchers have recommended in order to bring the site into the social-media age. Users were already able to follow each other on the old Digg, and to see the links that they shared, but the new look of the service puts all of that front and center, and makes it the default view for the site. But based on my use of the new alpha, I think there’s a crucial weakness to Digg adopting the same kind of social interface that other sites already use, and in connecting users automatically to those other networks.
The biggest difference with the new site is that the links you see, are — by definition — from a limited selection of sources and people you already know (otherwise presumably you wouldn’t select or follow them). But if they are sources you read regularly, then you have probably seen those links already, and if they are people you follow on Twitter or Facebook, the same is likely true. So why do you need to see them again when you go to Digg? I found that looking at the “My News” view wasn’t nearly as interesting as the traditional view, because it felt like I had seen most of the content already elsewhere.
Adding more social features is something that virtually every news source and aggregator is trying to do, whether it’s Google News (s goog) with its new social features — which also focus on a stream of links called “News for you” — or the hundreds of publishers that have integrated with Facebook’s new platform, and now use plugins to add “like” buttons to show you which links your friends have also recommended. The expansion of the Facebook platform could also pose a real threat to Digg, since it would be easy to aggregate those likes and create a Digg-style service, which some sites such as Likebutton.me are already trying to do.
It’s not surprising that Digg would try to integrate itself more into the social networking ecosystem, and it makes sense to allow users to follow or connect with their friends. But as Liz noted, becoming “the Twitter of news” is a bit of a problem when there already is one — and duplicating links that users have already seen on Twitter and elsewhere doesn’t sound like a great recipe for growth. Digg is going to have to provide something extra in order to make itself stand out from the rest of the social crowd.
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