Has Digg become a victim of its own Digg-effect?

There was a time where social news website Digg appeared to have the world at its feet. Back in 2006 social was the next big thing and a service that floated stories to the front page of a site based on their popularity appeared remarkably democratic. Yet last week, faced with a user revolt, Digg founder Kevin Rose stepped down as CEO – the second CEO at Digg to do so this year.

Inevitably Rose, who has become somewhat of an Internet celebrity off of the back of his involvement with Digg and podcasting network Revision3, will remain heavily involved in Digg even after his replacement Matt Williams (formerly of Amazon) takes over.

Yet Digg seems to have faced challenges and controversy left, right and centre over the past few years. First of all there was the controversy over self-censorship when Digg removed links to the encryption key for copy protection on Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.  Following this Rose’s predecessor as CEO, Jay Adelson, launched the Diggbar, a frame that placed a Digg tool bar above Digg links. Many users claimed this represented a poor user experience (and alleged it had a negative SEO impact) and the gradual backlash was enough that it in all likelihood contributed to Adelson’s exit, particular as this was followed by the swift removal of the feature. Then last month news leaked that a group of individuals calling themselves the Digg Patriots were gaming the system to systematically ‘bury’ liberal stories from view so they never made the front page.

Ultimately the work of the Patriots lead to Rose’s downfall, since it was in reaction to this he released of the latest evolution of Digg, dubbed Digg v4. Digg v4 was so controversial on launch that users deliberately gamed the system to ensure every front page story linked to competitor site Reddit. And so after a brief attempt to calm the masses via his blog and some promised changes, Rose stood down.

So what went wrong?

Ultimately Digg looks to have been a victim of its own success, or as users of the site may call it, the Digg-effect.

There is almost always an internal friction at play between the users of a free website and those that actually run it. More often than not  users of a website would be happy for the site to be the same forever more, yet the website itself needs to change if it is to continue to grow, broaden its appeal and compete with new competitors and emerging technologies. Whenever Facebook release a change to their layout you can pretty much take it for granted that a portion of users will complain about it (very) vocally.

And yet Digg v4 arguably had to happen. The constant gaming of the site demonstrated that the reliance of the masses to filter the news was simply too open to abuse and Digg’s increased popularity only made it worse. Facebook used to be a closed system for sharing status updates and photos – with the introduction of the like button it evolved, becoming a convenient way to share and consume content. The same goes for Twitter and anyone who has used Flipboard on the iPad can vouch for the relevance of consuming news from the specific sources you have chosen. All Digg v4 really does is apply that same approach – what is more relevant that news shared by thousands of strangers? News shared by five of your friends.

The implementation may not have been perfect, and the roll-out rushed, but the problem was not a conceptual one. The problem is the users, and the fact that a small minority of users can hold properties to ransom. You don’t hear about the thousands of users that like Digg v4 or the hundreds of millions of users who are okay with a Facebook refresh because they don’t feel compelled to stand up and shout about it. Digg’s recent undoing has been the fact that it’s hardcore users care so much about the site that they cannot bear to see it evolve. If the site is to avoid becoming a footnote in history new CEO Williams may need to develop some thicker skin and learn to turn the other cheek.

Adam Russell is a Digital Account Director at LBi.