q&a MIAMI--Kevin Rose, founder of social-news site Digg, has a lot to say about the evolution of the social Web. So much, in fact, that when I caught up with him at a sidewalk cafe in Miami's South Beach neighborhood while in town for the Future of Web Apps conference, I had to split the interview transcript into two parts.
Here's part 1, in which Rose talks about open standards, dodges those pesky acquisition rumors, waxes philosophical on the site's active community, and declines suggestions from the restaurant staff to check out the cocktail menu, because lunchtime is apparently the new happy hour.
So we're here in Miami for the Future of Web Apps conference, and tomorrow (Friday), you're on a panel called "How to Build a Web App in 40 Minutes"?
Kevin Rose: 45 minutes.
How's that going to go?
Rose: Oh, it's going to be awesome. It's probably going to be the best panel of all time. I've got so many ideas for Web apps. I'm going to freaking rock this panel. I've got a few really good ideas that I'm going to pitch out to the crowd. It's going to be fun.
So one of the big topics at FOWA will be this "open standards" stuff. Google's OpenSocial, OpenID, DataPortability, and the like. How's Digg involved in that?
Rose: Well, we do some stuff with OpenSocial. We're working on some stuff, but I don't think anything's been announced...We just joined the DataPortability group, so we're working with them to really free up a lot of the content we have on our site. That's something that you'll see us rolling out through a whole series of different moves to really open up our data to everyone.
What's the first thing we'll likely see?
Rose: Well, I've talked about OpenID in the past, and it's been a while, but you'll see it eventually. The problem is, I always get in trouble when I talk about this stuff because we have so much stuff going on in development that I mention it, it goes out, the community gets really excited, and then we don't do anything about it for six months, and people get really pissed off. So I'm kind of hesitant to say what's going to be coming first. You'll see us doing a bunch of different stuff.
You mentioned Digg's community, which tends to be very tech-savvy, and how anytime somebody says something forward-thinking, it gets really excited. Do they demand a lot of you, keep you on your toes, that sort of thing?
Rose: It really depends on what they want. I don't think they've ever really been demanding about us opening up our data like that. That's something that our own internal developers are really into, and the community will get really excited when we mention it.
I think that you have some people who are very passionate about our feature set and where we're going, productwise. A good example is when, before we rolled out Images (a section where members can "Digg" images as opposed to links) there were several stories on the front page of Digg saying, "give us a dedicated images section," and they all had thousands of people Digging them.
Our comments system is going to have a major revamp in the next couple of months, and there have been a lot of stories about that, like, "Comments are broken; here's what you can improve."
It's been a really fun learning experience. I wouldn't have said that six months ago. Six months ago, I wouldn't have called it fun, because I really just couldn't figure out how to best work with the community, and there were a lot of stories that were coming like, "Your comments suck--fix them," and it was always like, "fix them, fix them, fix them," and that's all we were getting back from the community.
For us internally, we were all having debates about which feature set to fix and what we perceived as the most broken features and functionality, and where to go from there, and we finally just sat down and said, "Well, let's ask the community," and go back to them, and provide some structure around what we were asking...once we did that, rather than the community saying, "You suck, Digg--fix your comments," it was a lot more structured. We got a lot more valuable input from the community.
Do you ever feel that there's any kind of tension between growing and turning Digg into something legitimately mass-market, when you've obviously got this core community that's very passionate about certain issues? As you expand, will there be any kind of conflict?
Rose: You know, it's been a really interesting evolution of the site over the last few years. Outside of just adding categories to the site so that people can talk about their favorite stories and submit their favorite stories, it's really the community that's been evolving.
Politics, obviously because of what's been going on, is just a huge and amazingly active section on Digg. For us, it's really about providing the community with the tools to customize the experience so they can get that same version of Digg that they really enjoy.
So are we going to see recommendations and personalized news?
Rose: Absolutely. That's something that is very close to being rolled out. Again, I can't really attach a date to it, but I play with it every day on our own staging servers. We've written a recommendation engine that essentially looks at every story that you've "Dugg" and compares them to everyone else's stories in real time, and we'll make recommendations to you based on what those other people whom you're always agreeing with are Digging.
So it's pretty crazy, and it was quite an engineering feat to pull off. The fact that you can Digg something, and that would be refactored into everyone else's Diggs in just a second or two is really impressive and took us a while, but it's working.
You'll see that applied to our Upcoming stories section initially. Because I think when you think about Digg, you think about the front page. But one of the things that I think sucks is the fact that there are 10,000 submissions in the Upcoming section every day, and not only is it impossible to sort through that many and find the good content, but it's boring, and who wants to spend their time doing that? You know, looking through spam and things like that.
Recommendations will go a long way to suggest to you content very early on that will eventually become popular, that you may find interesting.
What do you think of all these new competitors in the social-news sector? Mixx just got funded, and a few other companies have created in-house news-voting systems.
Rose: None of them really keep me up at night. The thing that most worries me is the ones I haven't seen yet, the ones that are doing something different and innovating in our space. The same old "click a button, and the number goes up"--that's been done time and time again. We've seen hundreds of Digg clones that fashion themselves in that manner.
So what about Yahoo Buzz?
Rose: I've "Buzzed" a few stories. I think that a lot of people like the idea of potentially getting their articles in front of a lot of people on Yahoo's Web site, and that's a huge carrot to hold in front of people. But functionality-wise, it's really lacking on the community side...they've really taken the safe approach, with no comments and really no interaction there. Somebody told me last night that (Yahoo) gave it 90 days to sink or swim. I don't know.
Speaking of big companies, I'm not even going to bother asking if you're getting bought, because I know exactly what you'll say, but how many acquisition offers have you turned down over the past couple of years?
Rose: We've had various companies approach us all the time to talk about deeper partnerships, but I don't know, that's something we never really comment on. The thing is that at Digg, if you were to talk to the other employees and look at what we're doing, we're very much focused on being independent and creating a quality product.
Does it factor in at all how the community would react if you got bought? They've gotten a reputation for being a pretty independent-minded bunch, too.
Rose: Well, you don't have to worry about that stuff if you're just focused on creating the site and not worrying about acquisitions. For us, we have a fully funded business model, and we have a great ad relationship with Microsoft, and it feels really good to be able to react quickly and not have to worry about some of the problems that come with working with a larger company.
I've had several friends that have been acquired by the Yahoos and Googles of the world, and while there is some upside in certain things, for the most part, it slows things down. You can't get a product out the door fast enough.
Continue reading at part 2 of the Kevin Rose interview.