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Do Digg Users Read Past the Headlines?

For some of the people who leave comments at Digg, it’s shoot first, ask questions later.
August 18, 2006

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. As an editor and Web writer, I tend to agree. Anything that gets attention for my articles and sends traffic my way is a blessing. That’s why we at Technology Review are always pleased when users of news-aggregator and discussion sites such as Slashdot and Digg post links to our pieces.

It’s an especially lucky day when we get mentioned at Digg. Technology Review articles that win enough diggs to rise to the front page of Digg’s technology section routinely get two to ten times more page views than average.

But while the extra visitors are always welcome, I cringe a little when I read some of the thoughts people express in the comment sections of Digg posts.

Frankly, it’s clear that some users don’t even read the articles they’re digging (or burying) before they spout their opinions. And that makes me wonder whether many of the readers who come to after reading a few comments at Digg have mistaken expectations – and may leave without really engaging with the site.

Case in point: A story I wrote yesterday saying, in essence, that social-networking giant MySpace doesn’t play well with others. I noted that companies like eBay and Google, not to mention Amazon and even Microsoft, make it easy for third-party software developers to create applications that leverage those companies’ databases or software to offer “value-added” services the companies wouldn’t have created on their own. But far from offering the programming interfaces that would facilitate the growth of a mini-economy around its site, MySpace seems to prefer to serve outside startups with cease-and-desist letters.

The story’s headline – “How MySpace Is Antisocial” – was meant to be a play on the fact that MySpace is a leading social-networking site. I’m sorry I have to spell that out. But many of the folks who commented on the story, once it had been dugg, apparently took the headline more literally. They assumed – obviously, without reading the story – that it was about MySpace somehow making its users more antisocial.

The very first comment, from a user named bntphoretwunny, made this mistake: “I completely agree. Kids sit on their computers all day looking for friends and waiting for comments, instead of actually going out and interacting with people.”

I am very thankful to another Digg user called teradome, who posted a response to bntphoretwunny attempting to clear things up: “Interesting opinion, but you might want to actually read the article. It’s not about MySpace users being anti-social with other people, it’s about the business itself being anti-social with other businesses.” I am also grateful to the other diligent Digg users who voted to bury bntphoretwunny’s comment and promote teradome’s. As of 4 p.m. EDT on Friday, the mistaken post had 26 negative diggs while the correction had 29 positive diggs. The fact that Digg users can vote on comments, and not just stories, helps to screen out inane comments, and it’s working in this case, at least to some extent. (Comments with enough negative diggs eventually get buried and appear in the comment list as “hidden.”)

Unfortunately, teradome’s comment didn’t come soon enough to prevent the Digg discussion from going off on a long, rambling tangent about the general merits – well, mostly the demerits – of MySpace. It shouldn’t be a surprise, I guess, that a lot of people get very worked up about MySpace. It’s so big and dominant that criticism is inevitable. But it does surprise me that so many commenters chose to engage with bntphoretwunny’s original comment and argue about whether MySpace is a waste of time, rather than responding to the content of the actual article.

I’m not saying that Digg users are lazy and illiterate. I’m just raising a few questions that ought to concern anyone who takes the trouble to publish substantive articles and essays online, or who cares how readers find their stories. How many Digg users actually follow a link and read an article before they digg it, bury it, or comment on it? How much of the discussion on Digg is about the substance of the dugg articles, and how much of it is froth? Is getting dugg always good publicity – or is it possible that much of the traffic Digg generates is low value, unlikely to lead to more page views or cogent discussion?

If this blog entry gets posted at Digg, maybe we can have a useful discussion about those questions. Or maybe not.

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