LONDON--Digg founder Kevin Rose had a message for the audience at the Future of Web Apps conference on Thursday: It's time to grow up.
"We have to do better," he said in his talk, called "The Future of News," and said that it's time for the social news site that he founded in 2004 to to expand beyond the geek set and get some real-world relevance. "Why click a button and make the number go up by one? Why does that matter?"
Digg, after all, gets more than 30 million monthly visitors, but Rose said that the site only has slightly over three million registered user accounts--those are the people actually "Digging." That indirectly confirmed what Digg critics hve been saying all along: that it's reflective of only a tiny and vocal subset of the Web, resulting in a heavy bias toward anything iPhone, anything Linux, anything Barack Obama, and plenty of wacky local news stories.
As a result, Rose explained, Digg's strategy going forward--one of the reasons why it raised $28.7 million in a Series C round last month--is to make the service more relevant to the average user. Digg has started to experiment with personalization and recommendation, something that Rose frequently discusses in his town hall Webcasts with the company's CEO, Jay Adelson. Introducing a "similar users" feature on the "upcoming" page of Digg increased friend adding fourfold and Digging by 40 percent.
Rose, who has ditched his trademark shaggy coif for a more mature buzz cut, didn't actually talk much about the future of news beyond Digg, but implied that he hopes Digg will be an industry example for the ongoing evolution of something much broader. He also didn't say anything about the pressures of an unfriendly economic climate, but his down-to-business attitude suggested that he realizes things aren't just fun-and-games for Web 2.0 anymore.
The impetus right now, he kept stressing, is to make a social news site personally relevant.
Digg has a lot of data that it hasn't opened up yet, and that it will start rolling out to the public to make the site more relevant for average people. Pooling users into "dynamic" groups by interest is paramount, as is customizing the site for people who might not want all those stories about iPhones and Barack Obama. Beyond that, there's more: Digg has used internal algorithms to identify what Rose calls "prescient users," or tastemakers who have a high probability of Digging something early on that will eventually become very popular.
One person in the audience asked Rose whether catering to uber-niche interests will actually be a negative force for Digg's young users, narrowing their worldview. Again, Rose said that the expansion of the site will provide all kinds of opportunities: filtering Diggs by regions of the world, for example. Internationalizing the site, on that note, is also a big goal, and should start to roll out late next year. And though the site now relies on its display ad contract with Microsoft, "Diggable ads" in some form will eventually help Rose's company make a few extra bucks.
But Rose, a bona fide geek hero, assured the audience--a crowd of developers mostly from the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, many of whom looked like they were young enough to be skipping school for the conference--that Digg won't lose its wacky-news cachet as it matures and expands.
"We truly believe the front page of Digg will always be that random (and) crazy," Rose said. "We don't want to get rid of that."