How Digg Was Saved In Six Weeks

How Digg Was Saved In Six Weeks

The last time Digg was something worth thinking about, Iraq was in the midst of civil war and Justin Timberlake was on the radio. The site went to ruin. It sold for pocket change. And now, with no warning, it’s back — and it’s beautiful. And the team that pulled it off isn’t sure what to do now.

There’s no doubt Digg used to matter — it changed pretty much the whole internet, remember? You can’t visit a single site on this here web — ours included — without tripping over a litany of ways to share and comment and contribute to the story itself. Digg did that.

But that’s an old faded history lesson. And Digg’s decline, rather than its ascension, doesn’t bear much repeating — it just went to hell. And not even loud, violent hell, like Myspace. Digg faded away like a foundering shopping plaza: signs drooping, windows dirtied, parking lot full of imbeciles and drunks. So it came as not the largest surprise when the web destination that had once attracted a (rumoured) multi-hundred million dollar bid from the likes of Google was snapped up wholesale for $US500,000. It went for the 2012 equivalent of pocket change, and for a few hours the day the acquisition was announced, it was an internet laughingstock.

Then, the whole thing went dark. We stopped mocking Digg, assuming it’d never be spoken of again. We were so wrong.

A scant six weeks after the site was dumped for peanuts, it was reborn. But it wasn’t just given a spit shine — Digg is unrecognisable. Digg is foreign. Digg is… really, really pretty? And useful? Where was all of the spam, the lobotomised commenting, and the rehashed Reddit fodder? Gone. Instead you’ll see big, bright, boxy graphics — think Pinterest — and a selection of the day’s most interesting news, with an emphasis on tech — think what Digg was supposed to be before it was horrid. All in six weeks. The truth is, it wasn’t so much determination as much as desperation.

“The liquidators were coming for the servers,” explains John Borthwick, CEO of Betaworks, the firm that snapped up Digg in name only, yanking the domain and brand while leaving the human team behind. We’re seated at the new Digg HQ, moved over a room because its windows are being replaced and the place swirls with cold air and sawdust. Digg needed to be saved before its cords were pulled, and it only had around six weeks to do it. Before the deal was complete, Borthwick had to turn Digg around before it was shut down by the bank — the entire site was down a financial cesspit, with no hope of escape. It cost around $US250,000 per month to keep the lights turned on, and it was only raking in about $US200,000 via “crappy ass” ads. Do the maths. The site had been ruined by readers who fled and — maybe above all — spam. Borthwick minces zero words when it comes to Digg’s formerly godawful state:

It was this scummy, bottomless hole of shit of the internet that you’d stumble into sometimes. Like, this content is just ads, why am I here. It was that kind of stuff. There were a couple million people there that were just honest users that just wanted to find great stories that had this built in habit to visit Digg every day. They were just getting clobbered by our rubbish.

Digg was an embarrassment. And yet, a tiny team of 10 was able to turn it into what you see now in fewer than two months.

A lot of people might find this discouraging. Nobody really wanted Digg to come back. Nobody missed it. And besides, everyone just goes to Reddit anyway — and good luck beating that. But to the team who took on the work, it was a challenge made exciting by its absurdity. You’re going to make Digg cool again? “I was like, oh shit, the chance to do this in front of millions of people was really fascinating,” beams Digg’s new CTO, Michael Young.

David Weiner, another core team member for the relaunch, felt similarly: “My first reaction was like, what, what year am I in? But then I actually quickly kind of got my mind wrapped around it, and I was like, this just hasn’t been done, that was the really exciting thing. The way I described it to my parents is like — imagine we bought Woolworths and brought it back to life. They’re like — oh yeah, Woolworths! That was a great store.” The Herculean nature of making an internet backwater into something worth clicking on became motivation enough, pushing the team through 20-hour days, subsisting on “a lot of coffee [and] a lot of beer”.

And so the team, without even really knowing what they were going to do with the word Digg, asked the couple million stragglers who still clung to the site, through either loyalty or habit. They talked. They asked for advice. They asked what went wrong. They handed out online surveys. They’ve even taken on Kevin Rose — best known for getting rich from Digg and then more or less abandoning it — as an “outside consultant.” Just the person you want to help dream up a rebirth, right? And after all this attempt at playing the Digg Whisperer, the team cranked out a site that looks almost nothing like what the Digg holdouts were used to. Good for them.

But the extent to which New Digg has so little in common with Bad Digg is striking, if not even a little puzzling. One of the few things Digg arguably had going for it was the couple million readers grandfathered in, attracted by the word ‘Digg’ and its connotations, extant or not. So when you see Digg reborn as something that seems to deliberately reject almost everything we’d expect from Digg, you have to wonder — why did they even bother buying the name? The site abandoned the hierarchical “front page,” the climbing of which used to be a beloved fan challenge. Instead, the front page is a giant grid, with no strict order. Numbers are all but stripped away from links, and the classic Digg button seems to be an afterthought — it’s tiny, and its purpose isn’t clear. What are we Digging, exactly, and why? There are no comments. No community. If Old Digg was once plagued by cliquey power users, the new wave is bathed in anonymity.

If you took away the word Digg, you’d probably have no idea it was Digg.

And thank Christ for that. After all the reader feedback and soul searching, the New Digg team decided to reject the soul of Old Digg: the people. At least for now. Borthwick concedes that “the experience and the interactions on the site [are] very light”. Readers are “being downplayed so far,” Borthwick explains. “Within the six-week time span, there were some things that needed to be compromised.” There used to be links flying all over the place, battling for supremacy. But New Digg is peaceful, even if there’s less a reader can do with each story. Now, getting a link on the page is a messy behind-the-scenes process, explains Digg’s Editorial Director, David Weiner:

We get like 25,000 submissions a day. And what essentially happens is, it’s not going to bubble up unless it’s being talked about across other networks [Twitter, Facebook]. Unless we can say this is exactly what people are talking about, and we have proof for that, we can’t actually elevate it [on the page].

It speaks volumes that Digg even has an Editorial Director. He has to manage this blend of algorithm choice, democratic submission, and writerly personal wisdom. Some things deserve to be on the page because they’re popular, but sometimes great things are unpopular. So it’s Weiner who at times bucks the “what’s buzz-y” trend of the internet, ignoring votes and submissions, and manually puts important stories on top, even changing headlines. Digg has moderators who cut through the crap submissions (over 99 per cent of which are spam, by the site’s own count).

This means involving readers less than ever before. Borthwick claims this is temporary — “Digg is a verb, it’s not a f**king magazine, right?” But it’s hard to get any sense of how temporary, and what a less hands-off Digg would even look like. I get the sense the team itself doesn’t know: “We’re only going to figure out by trying things,” explains Weiner:

In our hearts, we want to build something that opens up channels to participation that enables our users to kind of inform what ends up on the pages. At the end of the day, that facilitates human interaction. That’s when you get those magical moments around news, around links, around stories — when you connect over it with a friend, or someone you don’t know.

I ask if talking about and voting on the news will ever be as important as the news itself, like it was in Digg’s heyday. “It could,” Weiner says. Will the iconic Digg button ever be back in its previous form? “I hope so.” Questions about what the site might look like in the future, or what they even want it to look like in the future, are at first met with a collective pause and then some variant of “We’re still experimenting with things.” Are they afraid of Reddit? Another pause, and a mix of dismissal and feint. The entire team very openly states that Digg makes zero money at the moment, and there is no plan whatsoever as to how it’ll make money in the future. That’s a long way from $US250,000 a month, however inadequate that might’ve once been.

Digg’s whole future seems like an equal hybrid of uncertainty and joyful unknown. The team would like to try putting together visual breakdowns of what people are reading and posting, a la Google’s perennially fascinating Zeitgeist report. Maybe they’ll expand their original editorial side, moving away from strict aggregation. Maybe they’ll actually add a comments section. For now, Digg is “just kind of about experimenting and learning,” says Jake Levine, the site’s General Manager. “It’s about just kind of building tools alongside this to try to make the site smarter and more efficient.” He sits beside a drinking glass imprinted with the words, “F**k It, Ship It”, the crew’s self-professed slogan. The MO for now is basically throwing the site against a web wall and seeing what sticks. Luckily for them (and for us as people who like good things on the internet), it’s mostly sticking — in spite of the Digg label, and not because of it.

They won’t admit it, but the skeleton crew behind the project didn’t just get lucky. They sprinted to create something, and maybe they did have to rush, but the haste forced them to think quickly. Rashly, even. But the choice to jettison almost everything Digg-like about Digg is the smartest thing to do, even if it was the quickest. Digg was set up to collapse, even if Reddit had never come along: “Digg was a wonderful product when there were a few thousand people,” notes Levine. Then it all went to shit:

As it grew larger, what emerged was this kind of weird dichotomy between a group of power users who actually saw it as a community and treated it like a community and participated in it as a community, and then an audience. And as the audience grew, the incentives for spam, the incentive for abuse as it was driving more and more traffic to sites like Gizmodo, the incentives for abuse — these became greater than the incentives for meaningful, positive engagement with other community participants.

That version of Digg isn’t coming back. And this new version of Digg might slide into oblivion like its predecessor. But now, even though it’s competing with Reddit, Facebook, and a handful of other superpowers, Digg still has the same appeal — and it’s not simply voting on stories or spiting someone with a thumbs-down. It’s the fact that it was and can be a destination, a place you could find the cool stuff you’d send to someone else. Whether it can get a grip on the internet again is anyone’s guess — but if it does succeed, it’ll be through a clever mix of embracing and rejecting its own soul.