Kevin Rose, founder of Digg.com, talks about why it’s good that the site is out of control.
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.
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 actually 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 [Digg] 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 of the front page. Already you can get recommendations from friends, but soon the system will start recommending stories that you might have missed or that you might find interesting, based on what you’ve dug in the past.
TR: You had a small scandal recently, where you published the encryption key for the digital-rights management protection of high-definition video discs. First, under industry pressure, you took down the post; then, under pressure from your users, you put it back up. What is your policy?
KR: Well, we sort of take everything on a case-by-case basis. If there’s a link to a copy of Adobe Photoshop and we receive a notice about it, we will definitely pull it down. 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: Digg watchers say that 100 users are responsible for more than half the stories on Digg’s home page. 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 news and videos to the front page 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.
TR: Would it surprise you to learn that publishers are ambivalent about the traffic they get from Digg? It’s hard to sell it to advertisers because it’s unpredictable and the quality of the audience is immeasurable.
KR: 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 groups of friends. Also, this trend is much bigger than us. I mean, you’re going to start seeing a lot of different sources of big quantities of traffic coming into websites. Digg isn’t the only social platform that produces a serious hit and crunch on servers that results in a huge spike and then a drop-off. If a story is popular, it’s going to spread. We often see a chain reaction occur, you know. A story will hit Del.icio.us, and then it’s on Digg and then it’s on Boing Boing. I think publishers will have to deal with that reality.
TR: Historically, Digg has been a haven for geeks interested in science and technology. Can you imagine a day when Digg will truly be a general-interest site?
KR: Yeah, definitely. Politics is one of our most popular sections and will soon overtake technology. We started off with that large tech base; we were 100 percent technology for, like, the first year. So that was kind of our roots. But we’re quickly expanding outside of that.