In 2004, Kevin Rose set out to transform the way people read news. The result, Digg, mixes blogging, online syndication, social networking, and “crowdsourcing”–which combines the knowledge and opinions of many individuals–to create an online newspaper of stories selected by the masses. The principles behind Digg are simple. Users can submit stories; if other users like a story, they can “digg,” or praise, it; if not, they can “bury,” or condemn, it. A new visitor sees a ceaseless scroll of stories accompanied by a flurry of comments. Digg’s straightforward rules have made it hugely popular: less than three years after its launch, more than 17 million users visit the site each month. But with success, Digg has also attracted controversy. Some observers decry the inanity of the site’s top stories, and even habitual users admit that the comments are mostly puerile. Rose, who acts as the site’s chief architect, must increasingly weigh the anarchic free speech that characterized Digg’s early days against a more responsible approach to publishing that protects intellectual property and other institutional interests.
TR: Digg is a testament to collective wisdom–but I wonder if at any point you’ve felt embarrassed, either by the top stories or by the comments about the stories.
Kevin Rose: Not really. 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: What about the common criticism of Digg, that what tends to be “dugg” is often superficial? Are the most popular stories on Digg really the best stories?
KR: 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.
TR: Stories appear and disappear on Digg’s main pages with tremendous speed. Does Digg move too quickly for most people to usefully understand what’s there?
KR: We try to make sure there isn’t too much information flowing through the system. We are constantly tweaking our promotion algorithm to make sure that it doesn’t become overwhelming. As we grow, we also have to continue to raise the bar required for stories to get promoted to the front page. One of the things that I’m really focused on is improving the experience that’s off the front page. Already you can get recommendations from friends; soon the system will start recommending stories that you might have missed or that you might find interesting, based on what you’ve dugg in the past.
TR: You had a small scandal recently, when you published the encryption key that protects high-definition video discs (HD-DVD). First, under industry pressure, you took down the post; then, under pressure from your users, you put it back. What is your policy on censorship?
KR: We sort of take everything on a case-by-case basis. Things that are very clear violations of our terms of service come off the site; we don’t allow pornography or pirated software, for instance. But when it’s in one of the gray areas, it gets tricky.
TR: I’m curious about your feelings about the power of the Digg community. Do you think it can be controlled or directed?
KR: It resists being directed, that’s for sure. It was very clear when the HD-DVD story broke, and then again, during the aftermath. I was watching the Digg community saying, “You can’t censor us; this is free speech.” The home page reflected those comments, and there was really nothing that we could do. 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’re saying that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t control what appears on Digg–except by removing a story ex post facto.
KR: Yeah. Behind the scenes, what you don’t see is that we have these servers that are just going crazy. I mean, you have thousands and thousands of people digging stories and submitting stories and commenting and posting–and we can’t write code that would keep up with that. The HD-DVD business was absolutely fascinating. I sat there, and I was kind of in shock and spellbound at the same time. It was quite the evening.
TR: Digg watchers say that 100 users are responsible for more than half the stories on the site’s home page, a phenomenon that creates the potential for abuse. How do you know when someone is gaming Digg? And what can the company do to stop them?
KR: The system knows. Our main job is to evolve the platform so that it promotes to the front page news and videos that have a diverse crowd of people digging them. We have to make sure that when a story does make the front page, it was actually chosen by individuals who wanted to see it on the front page–and not spammers trying to promote their own stories.
Have you heard that media companies are ambivalent about the traffic Digg sends them? It’s hard to sell it to advertisers, because it’s unpredictable, and the quality of the audience isn’t measurable.
I think that’s probably true. But I find it a little hard to think of Digg as a source of traffic; it was designed as just a way for people to share things with their friends. Also, this trend is much bigger than us. If a story is popular, it’s going to spread. We often see a chain reaction occur: a story will hit Del.icio.us, and then it’s on Digg, and then it’s on Boing Boing.
TR: To date, Digg has been a haven for science and technology geeks. Can you imagine a day when Digg will truly be a general-interest site?
KR: Definitely. Politics is one of our most popular sections and will soon overtake technology. We started off with a large tech base; we were 100 percent technology for the first year, so that’s our roots. But we’re quickly expanding beyond that.