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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?

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

8 Responses to “Can Digg Apologize Its Way Back to Popularity?”

  1. An here lies the conundrum with the technology. Everyone wants something new. The latest and greatest to match or beat their friends to the next cool thing. But in most cases there is a learning curve with the new technology. Once you learn it you don’t want to have to invest more time re-learning every time significant updates occur. Why is this the case? Because most technology consumers are lazy. Unfortunately, the more you drive towards the general consumer the lazier they are as well as the less technically competent so it takes them longer to learn. This is not a hit against the general public but rather a reality. The problem is that to stay relevant the technology needs to change in order to meet and/or beat their competition. We have seen many instances where great technology falls into disuse because it never evolved. So somehow you need to implement these changes in frequent but small steps so that the learning curve stays low. Digg didn’t do this. They waited too long and therefore the refresh and subsequent learning curve was too steep. Also, they did the unforgivable and took functionality away. In general, MS gets it right. If you want to see your Control Panel in the old format that you are familiar with then fine they will allow you to do so. Ultimately, Digg is going to have to decide if they want to change and obtain new customers or stay the same and slowly die with their existing fan base. It sounds like they are picking the latter but safer approach into oblivion.

  2. Thank you for the brilliant analysis – I saw this news on another website but it didn’t evoke so many thoughts as your article. Indeed, Bing actually apologized for trying to make their service more open and first user-friendly, and it’s disputable whether a service needs to apologize for this. A perfect solution will, as always, be combination of the new and old interfaces and schemes, with the new features being introduced carefully and removed as soon as they prove to be useless.

  3. I personally think that digg has been too dependent on the early ‘digg community’ way too much and has not done enough to grow that community of power users beyond just a bunch of geeks digging from their living room wearing boxers.

    Front page stories was all submitted by a bunch of so called ‘power users’. Nobody new could actually come in and get something popular, unless it has a significant amount of media attention or the submitter has a strong internal network with other diggers.

    So if you think about it, digg was never really a place to ‘discover’ stories, it was more like a general curation of stories in categories and come on even my RSS does that. A plugin like feedly or even the new Google reader (With social integration) works even better at that.

    The only additional thing that digg had was the “comments” (200-300 comments) per story. But if you go and read any thread randomly you will find 99% of the comments to be bogus. Its like someone would just write “bleh” and that would get 200+ upvotes… so where is the value in that?

    I feel sorry for kevin, he is a great guy and I think he should have sold this company a lot early. Now things might be a little too late.

    • Agreed.
      I was almost impossible to get to the front page without techcrunch, mashable, or lifehacker.

      I always thought that they could do a little curation. You know, go through all the submissions to make sure something important/cool is not being lost. Reduce the power of the “power users”, which are the ones that used to control digg — now they are on reddit.

      Also, they made tons of errors in the past… dont forget the digg url shortener… I stop using digg for a while because of that. Also, the HDDVD problem they had, and the bittorrent-Scientology-DOS story that got to the first page.

    • The thing is, sure a newbie couldn’t get something to the front page. It took me 6 weeks from signing up before that happened for me. After that about half of everything I submitted went popular.

      If that is the extent of the grand conspiracy of digg power users, then they were practically an open book – hardly as sinister as folks like to think.