Will the Digg Effect make a comeback?

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During the latter half of the naughties (2000s), Digg was one of the premier destinations on the web. If your story ended up on the front page of Digg, then you were rewarded by hundreds of thousands of page views, quite a bounty considering publishers big and small made (and still make money) for page-view based advertising. The traffic bump came to be known as the Digg effect (much like being Slashdotted.) Digg, obviously fell on hard times and it was just over a year ago, it was acquired by New York-based technology and media company, Betaworks.

Johnborthwick

John Borthwick, chief executive of Betaworks, had a plan  — Digg still was a good brand and was an ideal vehicle for his vision of a social-data powered recommendation service and news reader. The early attempt at that social news reader, News.me, hadn’t really gone anywhere and they were ready to shut it down. Digg, however was a chance to restart.

The group would later buy read-it-later app Instapaper, and suddenly Borthwick’s plan of a quality reading destination that took its cue from the web and social networks made sense. But before that happened, Borthwick’s plan was to build an editorial team that picked out the very best from around the web and build a front page worth visiting. Since I have seen many similarly logical plans come apart at the seams, I have tempered myself with a healthy dose of skepticism.

My skepticism has started to erode a little, however. Pretty well twice a day, I end up on Digg’s homepage, and end up clicking and reading articles shared by Digg’s team. The quality hasn’t disappointed and someone clearly is doing their job — and doing it well. I thought maybe it was just me, since I love to read on the web, as often as I can, as much as I can. But last Sunday that notion of “just me” was dispelled. My colleague Signe Brewster wrote about the science of Breaking Bad. It was picked up by Digg and by end of the day it was the top referring site for that story — higher than Google, which apparently had “Breaking Bad” as one of its top trending terms.

I checked on Compete.com and Quantcast, two popular web measurement services, and they are both in agreement – after sinking for most of 2012 and early 2013, things have improved and around 300,000 people are coming to the site every day.  And while the veracity of their data can be questionable, the uptick which started after the relaunch in June 2013 at least gives us an idea that things are trending up.

So what’s the update?

All this made me wonder — how big has Digg become? Is it gaining steam? I picked up the phone and called Andrew McLaughlin, who till recently worked for Tumblr and joined Betaworks earlier this year. As senior vice president at Betaworks, he has been running Digg in recent days. And my question to Andrew was pretty simple: what is going on at Digg and how big is the service now.

The company has about three million unique visitors a month and many are dedicated enough to come back once a day, McLaughlin said. “Our plan for Digg is to not hoard your attention, but to send people away to read stuff.” And the way to do it is by featuring quality on the front page, the sole task of the the editorial team which highlights between 60-to-70 posts a day. “John wanted a calm and clear place that is not noisy,” he added.

Mobile Web

McLaughlin believes that things are stable and moving in the right direction for Digg, but the long term vision is to grow the user base of Digg Reader and “build out more features to sort and filter.” The concept of new Digg is build a reading experience that goes beyond the “Netflix style of recommendations” and instead “build a real playlist of what is more interesting and could be interesting, one that can be shared with friends and family,” much like the Spotify playlists. McLaughlin doesn’t think Flipboard’s magazine metaphor is the answer and neither is the Prismatic approach, which is why they are building the new Digg.

And while the long term goal is to charge people subscription fees for the service, for now the focus is on building the user base for Digg Reader. So far, Digg Reader has been an iOS only app, but a new Android app could come relatively soon and that is going to help the company expand their user-base. And like me, many of those newcomers are going to be pleasantly surprised by what they find on Digg. Who knows, we might soon see the return of the Digg Effect!

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