Technical glitches and software bugs in the system ran rampant at launch; the type of glitches that made you feel like the release was rushed or pushed out the door for some reason. Besides the hiccups I ran into, I saw a few emails from friends echoing much the same results. One of the more interesting issues in the Friend system that caused you to be friends with someone multiple times.
Digg v4 was also suffering from a surprisingly amount of down time. In the first few weeks of launch, it wasn’t that uncommon to visit Digg.com and see their Oregon Trail throw-back graphic saying that the site was down and should be back shortly:
Shortly after Digg v4 launched Kevin Rose announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Digg and being replaced by Amazon’s Matt Williams. Rose had only served as the CEO of Digg for 6 months and was quoted as saying it was a job he “would not wish on his worst enemy“.
My take on why you hear about Digg’s hard knocks so much in the news is because its community wants it to be the “powered by the people” site it was when it launched. Instead, Digg continually moves more and more towards and advertising/media/corporate site they don’t want, but makes Digg more money. The reality is that Digg hasn’t been “powered by the people” for a while now, but its domination by a relatively small group was much more subversive than it is now. Now, with Digg v4, the publisher friendly “Feed Auto-Publish” functionality floods the network with content from the leading publishers, drowning out what little attention individual bloggers could have gotten before.
In addition to the movement of Digg’s CEO, it was just announced that Digg has fired long time VP of Engineering, John Quinn.
If you choose to read through the comments section of that TechCrunch post, you have to filter through a lot people postulating that the firing was about Quinn’s choice to move Digg to a NoSQL-backed (Cassandra) data store and the technical hiccups Digg is experience as a result of that. I am saying this is incorrect. Even Kevin Rose was excited by the Cassandra backend (specifically called out in his interview here at 3:45).
I don’t think anyone at Digg had the illusion that this almost rewrite would roll out smoothly, and given that the NoSQL rewrite even had Kevin’s support, the firing of Quinn is that much more suspect. I will say again that the technical issues the site has experienced since launch was not why Quinn was let go; I don’t know why he was, but the “software bugs” argument doesn’t hold up from what I see.
Firing the VP of Engineering, the architect behind the entire rewrite of your site, that has been eating/breathing/sleeping your technical concerns for the last 3 years and is the only one that likely knows how every part of the site works just because of a rocky launch and 2 weeks of questionable up time is stupid; Digg is not that stupid; no one is that stupid.
As one commenter quipped, if Twitter had fired engineers because of rocky launches and questionable code in the first few months of getting popular, there would be no one working at the company. (Ha!)
The reason Quinn was let go has to have something to do with the corporate culture at Digg and what is going on over there. TC had an interesting story on the reaction from Digg employees who found out that John Quinn was being fired via TechCrunch and not from their internal team members. That is insulting and alienating, but it also says a lot about Digg and how that team is running right now.
Given that Danny Trinh (the employee that tweeted about Quinn’s firing) felt comfortable enough to air that grievance, tells me that Digg doesn’t normally operate in this stealth mode where nothing is communicated with the other teams. If they did typically operate in an oppressive manner, I doubt Danny would have so nonchalantly quipped about internal company policy publicly for fear of losing his job.
The only time I’ve ever seen companies suddenly decide to operate in stealth mode at the highest levels is when they are in disaster-recovery mode; scrambling to put pieces back together and get a strategy together. The firing of Quinn (a major player behind the Digg technology stack) at the time he was fired (when most needed) suggests that Digg is in crazy-disaster-recovery mode and are desperately trying to find the right direction to point.
My guess is that Digg is franticly dealing with two crisis that they are trying to find answers to:
- Shrinking user base leaving because of the “publisher dominated” environment Digg v4 has created.
- Persistent technical problems
Users Leaving Digg
If you doubt the first point (shrinking user base) is happening, look at the type of site Digg was when it started: Mass story submissions, Mass voting, most popular stories bubble to the top. It was simple and brilliant at the time.
As the “social”-obsessed engineering continued, it became more about leveling up your Digg profile than the content itself and that has not changed. The MMORPG-esque nature of your Digg profile is intentionally engineered into the site to get you to return, this isn’t some elaborate anti-SPAM technique to establish “trusted” sourced (it does serve that purpose tangentially in some cases though). Kevin acknowledges this around 5:35 in his interview here.
I am not saying an RPG approach to profiles is bad, but it is clear there is a advertising incentive here to get users to return that is paramount over the concern of surfacing the best content.
With Digg v4, the idea is that you have your own personal Digg-view of the world, and the content you look at consists of all the content from the people you follow… directly. While they may open that up in the future and allow you to see content from friends-of-friends (a la Twitter re-tweets) the point is that now you have the burden of building a valuable circle so you can read valuable content and aren’t stuck reading garbage all day.
The cost associated with this, to users, that I don’t know Digg really thought through, is how much time it takes to build out a trustworthy network of people to follow and listen to. How am I suppose to create a content network as generally valuable as the millions of people that were submitting to Digg in the pre-bullshit days? On Twitter it has taken me about a year to find 80 people that I value following, I can’t imagine how long it will take on Digg or what the mechanism for me to discover additional people is going to look like.
Digg v4 allows me to import my contacts from Twitter, Facebook and Google, but the value-assumption here is wrong. When I imported my valuable Twitter followers, 6 of them had Digg accounts, and I think 2 of them were active and not necessarily posting the same valuable content I liked from their Twitter feed. My Facebook contacts are a cluster fuck of old high school classmates and relatives; I am hardly interested in seeing a Digg stream from these people nor do I think 1/100th of them use Digg. Lastly, my Google contacts… that would be a Digg stream to end all Digg streams. Content from half the planet, almost none of which I would want to read nor do I think most are Digg users.
Update #8: Jason Keirstead makes the point below, that without a giant vetted personal network of friends to pull your news from (something we doubt most people will take the time to create), Digg v4 will essentially become a giant RSS feed reader.
Because of this “What the hell do I do now?” moment, people do exactly what I did after signing into Digg v4… they follow the most recognizable names they can think of: Engadget, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, etc. and now when I log into Digg, “My News” is nothing more than the front page of those sites… sites that I read already except now it’s all I see in my little world.
The result of this is that I am no long even exposed to individual written content; I have no idea how to reliably find that content anymore. Instead I just fall back to “Plan B” which is to follow names I recognize. Naturally, publishers love this because they have shaken the small-time writers out of the Digg tree, and Digg hopes to get more advertising revenue and publisher love for this.
It seems like the readers and users of the site that like the ideal of “social news” are the only ones that lose here and most people are voting by trailing off and finding other sites that itch that scratch better than Digg v4 does.
Update #9: ReadWriteWeb has confirmed traffic numbers from HitWise that Digg’s traffic has fallen 26% since the v4 launch:
Digg’s Technical Problems
Given the second point (persistent technical problems), I am still surprised that they let Quinn go. A few commentors in the TechCrunch thread said they had worked with Quinn and he was a person of the highest caliber; which only makes his firing from Digg even stranger at a time like this.
One thing that pops into my head as a reason for firing Quinn at such a bad time AND gives fuel to the fire that is #1 is a fundamental shift of focus for the site at the highest level: Focus on publishers, Focus on advertising income.
There may be movement afoot to make Digg go head to head with Google News, Huffington Post, CNN or any other mass-news-aggregation source for the big advertising dollar income. An environment generated by publishers and managed by the community for free while Digg collects advertising revenue.
Unfortunately, I think Digg underestimated how badly the community wants their own site that they run and aren’t willing to effectively editorialize the content mill that is Digg.com for free anymore.
If anyone doubts that Digg is shedding customers like fleas, since Digg v4′s launch, reddit’s traffic has been up as people look for more community driven sites.
Social News without Advertisement Interests?
From what I’m seeing, it doesn’t seem to work. Hacker News does a good job of this because it’s bankrolled by Y Combinator, reddit is a great source of content, but their financial woes persist and Slashdot has done an admirable job with a Social+Editor approach to news and a handful of editors to vet the highest bubbled stories; I also think the culture behind Slashdot allows it to continue operating mostly un-molested by business interests.
I am sure the readers have other recommendations here for social news sites that they enjoy, but in my limited view of the social news sites that have exploded, failed and persisted through the Hype Cycle, it seems to me the only ones that have become profitable and sustainable on their own, are the ones that have pandered to the almighty dollar, content be damned.
DISCLAIMER: I have nothing against Digg, Kevin Rose or his team. I, like many people, miss having a solution to the problem of “How do you surface good content online easily?” that Digg did relatively well before Digg v3 even. As a consumer of content online, I’m back to hunting through multiple sites, lists and Twitter feeds to find my own “most valuable content“.
Update #1: Fixed some grammar (thanks John) and added an entire section on why Digg v4 is causing a user exodus.
Update #2: Added some clarifying details why Quinn being fired for the “NoSQL debacle” is hog-wash. Even Kevin Rose was excited specifically about this aspect of the new design; Quinn had full support for this and as a result, as the site has stabilized, it is a lot faster.
Update #3: Clarified a bit about how your Digg profile becomes a lot like a World of Warcraft character that you have to work on “leveling” to get noticed and how this is engineered into the Digg system intentionally.
Update #4: Added a new section on social news and bending to the will of money.
Update #5: Added personal experience around importing 3rd party social contacts.
Update #6: A very interesting post from a self-professed “previous Top 20 Digg Power User” here. Claims the gaming of Digg has been going on for years and a tight-knit group of about the top 20 guys all know each other and use tactics that they only share with each other and no one else. They also get paid to have stories hit the front page. He claims he was making $8-10k a week doing this. He also mentions that the changes in Digg v4 to remove power from the “power users” was the only thing that could save the site. Unfortunately now, “power users” have just been replaced by publishers much to the chagrin of the community. The “gaming” of the site is now out in the open and clearly controlled by publishers. He also claims that Jay (when he was CEO) only wanted to sell Digg and the company is desperately trying to stay afloat and support the 100-employee, multiple-data-center bloat that it has created by targeting high-profit changes with the site.