Digg, Reddit, and activists

Anyone who seeks to build an online following should pay close attention to the hot steaming mess that Digg stepped in this week.

The social news site announced changes which sounded like a good idea (at least I thought so) a few weeks ago, changes which promised to expand Digg’s following by making it more accessible to outsiders.  The one problem was Digg’s existing audience, which liked the way the site worked just fine.

Over the past 12 hours, Digg’s main news page has been riddled with submissions from competitor site Reddit – and it looks like Diggers offended by the site renovation are more than happy to help the enemy game the system, given the amount of complaints that have been flying about the redesign.

Digg’s mistake lies in not understanding what their community was passionate about.  Diggers liked a community that worked on certain rules and had certain values, and changing those rules and values to let others in diluted what they held dear.  Put another way, you can get more people at the Star Wars club meeting if you let the Star Trek people in; but the people who started coming to the meetings in the first place may not want more people if it means half the room will be wearing Spock ears.

Any membership organization runs a similar risk.  People join groups – whether it’s a social news site, a political party, a club, or a gang – because of some common ground.  When you peck away at that boundary, you risk alienating your members.

New Diggs

Digg got a lot more relevant after announcing upgrades that make it a true social news service this week.

The old Digg was pretty straightforward: people submit stories, everyone votes, the top links appear on the home page and drive thousands of hits worth of traffic.  The problem is that the top stories for one user are the top stories for every user – and means that the site experience is a reflection of the aggregated community, rather than a user.

Breaking into a system like that means joining with like-minded users to promote content more favorable to your side.  Alternet called that “censorship” a few weeks back, but is really just a form of political organizing.  It was an attracting but ultimately useless expenditure of time; while Digg could drive traffic, it’s probably not going to be an important front in the war on ideas.

A more user-oriented model downplays the need for such a strategy (while promoting further social engagement) because the front page is no longer the Holy Grail.  It opens up the possibility of niche communities.  In politics and advocacy circles, it means you no longer need to have a high-profile race for Digg to be a viable part of your social strategy.