Kevin Rose, the founder and chief architect of Digg.com, started the social bookmarking site as a kind of experiment. At the end of the 1990s, Rose dropped out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he had been studying computer science, in order to pursue dot-com wealth in San Francisco. He didn’t find fortune, despite working at a series of startups; instead, he achieved a kind of small-time, shaming fame as a suitably nerdy presenter on TechTV’s The Screen Savers. With Digg, Rose hoped to do something more interesting and important: he wanted to combine the most disruptive ideas in social networking, blogging, online syndication, and “crowdsourcing” (where, as with Wikipedia, the aggregate wisdom of a group provides an approximate truth) in order to build a website where the democratic preferences of thousands of users would create a constant scroll of stories ranked by popularity. On Digg, users submit stories. If other users like a story, they can “dig,” or praise, the story, or, alternatively, they can “bury,” or condemn, it.
Digg went live in December of 2004. It proved to be hugely popular: less than three years later, it is one of the most powerful forces in online media, driving hundreds of thousands of readers to a wonderful variety of stories every day.
Technology Review: The common criticism of Digg is that what tends to be dug is often superficial. Are the most popular stories that rise to the top of Digg the best stories?
Kevin Rose: As we speak, right now, the top three stories on Digg are do-it-yourself lucid dreaming, an update about the Apple iPhone, and why a former official of the Reagan administration thinks that President Bush should be tried as a war criminal. We get a mixture of all types of news on our front page. In any case, users can customize their home page: if you’re not into technology or you’re not into celebrity gossip, you can remove those sections, and you don’t have to see them.
TR: In one sense, Digg.com is a monument to collective wisdom–but I wonder if at any point you’ve opened up Digg and felt embarrassed, either by the top stories or the comments about the stories.
KR: Not really. There are certain sections within the site that I don’t view. For instance, I’m not a huge sports fan, other than football. But every single day I find something that’s really interesting that I wouldn’t have found on a traditional news outlet–an interesting nugget of information that happens to surface on an unknown blog or a website that I haven’t heard of before. I think if you go on CNN.com or MSNBC.com, you’re going to find the news that you’re used to reading. When you come to Digg, you never know what you’re going to get.
TR: I’m curious about your feelings about the power of the Digg community. Do you think it can be controlled? Is there any way it can be directed?
KR: It resists being directed, that’s for sure. We just built the platform. It’s really up to the users to determine what they want to see on the front page.
TR: You mean that even if you wanted to control which stories rose to the top of Digg, your community of users would make it impossible to do so?
KR: Behind the scenes, what you don’t see when a story is popular or controversial is that our servers are just going crazy. You have hundreds of thousands of people digging these stories, and commenting and posting–and, you know, there’s no way we could even write the code that would keep up with that.