This is a love story with a happy ending--and a little heartbreak along the way.
My love affair with Digg began in 2005, about a year after the site launched and roughly two years before I started working at CNET. At the time, I was printing out marketing materials for a tiny company about an hour outside of San Francisco that was on its way to certain doom.
Things there were bleak, and everybody knew it. My days were spent as an office drone, doing menial tasks with long breaks between the action--a workday that made Digg an appealing place. In fact, I was its target audience.
Back then, Digg felt groundbreaking. The front page of user-submitted and voted-on sites and stories was fresh and dynamic compared with most Web sites at the time; user comment threads were unfiltered and frequented by some highly insightful posters. There was also a sense of personal power, as stories you submitted would end up before an ever-growing number of readers. This was long before the site had features like "power users" or groups trying to game its front page.
On top of all this, I had a long daily commute, and one of the few things that got me through the drive was tuning in to the Diggnation podcast. Podcasting then was just beginning to become mainstream, and there were few other programs around that put a personality on an Internet destination.
But soon after, the honeymoon would end.
About a year ago, I stopped using Digg almost entirely. It wasn't because I didn't have time to tool around the site; it's just that it no longer felt like the same place I had grown to love--and sink hours into.
One of the first warning signs came when the site began to add more social hooks in its third iteration. It's not that I was averse to change, but these moves didn't seem well thought-out. The crowning feature was something called "shouts," which let users promote stories they'd submitted--or stories they'd found--through Digg's messaging system.
Shouts seemed innocent enough, but people quickly started abusing the system. Pretty soon I had an in-box full of junk from people I was friends with, and I eventually turned off the feature entirely. Did I miss some interesting stories because of this? Probably. But I certainly didn't have time to cull through all those items every time I visited the site.
There was also a noticeable chasm between casual users who were Digging and sending only an occasional--and perhaps more considered--shout and heavy submitters who would send a shout to all their friends with each and every submission. With no way to really sort through it all, I simply ignored the feature. Digg would later nix shouts in favor of having users share a story through Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail.
But that wasn't what most turned me off. What really did it was an almost imperceptible change in the content that filled the front page. Items I wasn't interested in seemed to get more prevalent. Weekly columns or regular series that other users really enjoyed--but I didn't--kept filling up that page. This kind of freedom, of course, is what the site is all about. But I found it frustrating that I couldn't simply opt out of seeing those returning items from a particular domain or publisher.
One thing that alleviated this--at least to some degree--was subcategorization. Digg had categories that would filter stories into buckets, and then sub-buckets. This way, if I wanted to read tech stories about Apple, I could hit the Apple section within the technology category, or if I wanted to see news about the Xbox, I could do the same within gaming. This still didn't address the issue of blocking individual publications from view. But for a site with a nonstop onslaught of links coming in, it was one of a few practical ways to find the types of content I was most interested in.
Eventually, though, even that categorization lost its usefulness. About a month ago, the site underwent a pretty major overhaul, but that has done little to rekindle what I used to love about it. Categories were dramatically dumbed down in the latest redesign. Gone now are the subsections, and in their place are just 10 topics total. In all likelihood, the aim of this change was making the submission process easier, but the result is that it made the main category pages far too broad to be helpful.
This didn't make things unusable by any stretch, but it was a clear message from Digg that I was going to have to work a lot harder to find the stuff I wanted.
Rumor had it that a feature was in the works for the fourth version of Digg that would have solved this subcategory problem with the inclusion of user-made tags. But the redesign rolled out without those tags, and it appears the idea has either been scrapped or saved for a future update.
I could go on here, but let's skip to the part where I jumped ship and hopped aboard a site that does a lot of things better. That other ship is Reddit.
Tempted by the fruit of another
Reddit's been enjoying a wave of positive press lately--and with good reason. It does a lot of the same things Digg does, only better. I began casually using the site about three years ago, and have been going there daily for the past nine months.
Like Digg, Reddit revolves around users submitting and voting on stories. But there are a number of reasons it's different, and in many ways superior. Here are five big ones:
If you like controlling what you see on a social news site, it doesn't get more granular than Reddit. Unlike on Digg, where the categories have been picked for you, you or anyone else can create a subtopic where links can go when submitted. On top of this, users actually have the power to be moderators of these categories, so if you get a few schlubs submitting the wrong content for that bucket, it's taken care of pronto. In fact, earlier this week, one of the top stories on Digg was someone complaining that nobody was policing the site, since a spammy link had stayed on the front page for 10 minutes before being taken down.
More important than browsing categories is how you can use them to affect what shows up on the front page of Reddit. As a registered user, you can add or remove categories you like (or don't like) from showing up on the front page you see when you sign in. Digg's done something similar with its new "My News" section, but it's a far cry from a system it had in place for years (that's gone now), which would let you pick out specific topics and subtopics you didn't want to see.
2. Expert opinions
One of the things I really love about Reddit over Digg is that you are encouraged to share not just links and votes, but also information with the community. Most of the time this happens within the site's "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) category, where users can offer themselves up as experts in any given field.
In the past year or so, some of these AMAs have included well-known names like Noam Chomsky, Roger Ebert, and Sumit Agarwal--but have also included a local sanitation engineer and someone who woke up from a coma after a year and a half.
There's an equivalent over at Digg called the Digg Dialogg, though it's not as spontaneous nor is it updated as often. Digg asks its users who they want to get in contact with, then tries to track that person down. The company will then sit the person down with an interviewer who asks the questions that have been upvoted most by its users. Reddit has done the same thing on a number of occasions, but its AMA section lets anyone in the door without any prerequisites or vetting. In that sense, it tends to feel far more organic.
3. Karma and trophies
Karma and trophies are two of the biggest winning features Reddit has over Digg, two of the many things that keep me coming back daily and participating in conversations.
Karma can be given or taken back by other users who vote your submitted links and comments up or down. Users get one vote that they can use either way, and change anytime they please. The higher the karma on a given comment, the better it tends to be (though that's not always the case). Karma points on Reddit can give someone a very quick way of seeing how active another user is on the site. Reddit splits karma up by submitted links and submitted comments. From time to time, the site also doles out awards for top karma getters.
This basic mechanism is available on Digg with its votes, but there's less semblance of worth for the points you accrue there. Your comment can rise to the top of the heap in a link's discussion, but that's as far as they go.
These karma trophies on Reddit stay in your user profile and are public to other users. While seemingly useless as a feature, like Foursquare badges for location check-ins, they do provide incentive to stay involved. Reddit also offers a number of extra badges for people who get involved in making the site better--be it for contributing code or participating in a community events.
4. More knobs and buttons
Reddit's preferences pane is similar to the one on the back end of Google. Ever visited it and been greeted to something that looks like an airplane cockpit? I secretly love this.
Reddit lets you tweak just about every part of the experience, and if you're a member of the site's recently introduced Gold paid membership, you can do things like turn off advertising and highlight all the comments that have shown up since you were last on the site. This is in addition to the aforementioned options that let you control what you see--and don't see--on the front page.
By comparison, Digg has some very simple but limited options for controlling what page you start on and how user comments are presented. This is probably friendlier to the masses who don't want to change more than that, but it does little justice to people who frequent the site several times a day and want to fine-tune their experience.
5. The underdog factor
Up until a couple of months ago, Reddit had been in trouble, and it made no secret of that fact. The site, which is now owned by publisher Conde Nast, said it was getting less money than it needed to keep things running. So it turned to users for help hiring more people and getting more servers.
The answer was the Reddit Gold membership, an idea that had been kicked around by users as a joke at several points during Reddit's lifetime. Reddit asked users how much they'd be willing to spend on such a paid membership, and the answer ended up being $4 a month, or $30 a year. The latest figure, taken from the company's blog late last month, pegs active Reddit Gold subscriptions at north of 10,000 users.
That same level of transparency has come through during the many times the site has gone down, experienced dramatic high-traffic days, or nixed a bad advertisement. The company also attempted to prove to naysayers (including CNET) that it was pulling in more traffic than it had previously let on, publicly sharing the most recent numbers from its Google Analytics charts.
Then there's Digg, which I suppose may be a bit of an underdog again, given the most recent numbers by Hitwise that showed a significant downtrend in traffic both from U.S. and U.K. visitors. They, too, have a company blog, Twitter accounts, and an outspoken leader--in the form of Kevin Rose, who is both smart and articulate.
The problem, for me, is that I just don't believe in Digg's long-term vision--if there is one. The latest redesign put the power of submission largely in the hands of publishers. And though this very same process made it faster and easier to get content onto the site in the first place, it turned users into little more than voting and commenting machines. That might make sense to the Digg team. But I'm looking for something more.
There's a significant group of Digg users--the ones who haven't left--who say they don't like what the site's become since its latest reorganization. From an outsider's perspective, it looks like those voices are being tolerated but not necessarily heard. Between that, and the way changes have been made, it's become a place I feel less interested in.
Is it still good for some great links? Undoubtedly. But is it a place I can go and make my own? I'm not so sure anymore. And that's why it's time for me to let go of the past and move on.