Digg: Just Another Faux Democracy?

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Digg.com is one of the largest websites on the planet. Like many of its competitors in the social media arena, it doesn’t purport to create or provide anything of substance. Digg’s value comes in the community that it organizes and speaks for. In Digg’s case, that community’s function is to vote for the most worthy news stories of the day for more casual visitors to consume.

With the announcement of some prospective changes to its voting rules, is Digg capitulating to big money interests? Or has its slow march to corruption already rendered its original mission moot?

With its massive growth over the last five years, Digg has become a virtual kingmaker. One link from the Digg front page can send massive swaths of internet traffic to any given website at any time. This ‘Digg Effect‘ is one of the more powerful forces known to the internet. It can instantaneously promote stories, videos, or news items into super-viral memes that have the potential to reach millions of users.

With the advent of online ads, web traffic became a very real form of currency, turning Digg from a virtual billboard into a virtual ATM machine. Not surprisingly, the key to the Holy Teat of Internet Traffic became an incredibly valuable commodity. And the holders of such relics are especially susceptible to corrupting influences.

But, let’s not kid ourselves. Digg wasn’t ever a democracy in the truest egalitarian sense of the word. The site runners have always kept their ‘Feature Algorithm’ a secret. In other words, no one knows how many votes it takes to bring a story to Digg’s vaunted home page. No one knows how many down votes it takes to bury a story. No one knows why some stories seem to linger on the front page longer than others. As far as pure democratic processes go, you can rank Digg somewhere in the neighborhood of Iran or Afghanistan.

Even with its flaws, Digg was once a thriving community of diligent news consumers, constantly pouring over incoming submissions and voting especially compelling ones to the front page. This culture is no more. Algorithm changes have discouraged Digg users from being too active in reading and filtering new submissions. A shift in focus on socializing and befriending other users has lead to the creation of virtual Digg Voting Blocks. The results of this new policy has dramatically reduced the diversity of stories that end up on the featured page.
One study concluded that 46% of Digg’s front page is controlled by as few as 50 websites. Not surprisingly, these 50 websites represent some of the biggest, most well-funded players on the internet.

It’s hard to blame founder Kevin Rose and his inner cabal for Digg’s corporate devolution. I mean, if you were a kid who designed a network capable of leveraging insane amounts of traffic on behalf of a rowdy internet throng, wouldn’t you want some measure of control over the thing? Wouldn’t you set up secret features that allowed your staff to counter the rampant Digging of unacceptable content, or allow yourself a backdoor to throw a bone to websites that paid you to feature them? Wouldn’t you set up safeguards to prevent out and out revolt that threatened the livelihood of your virtual property? I think you would.

This is why democracies aren’t generally run by kids fresh out of a computer science program at UNLV. Thriving democracies have transparency; they have checks and balances, they have interest groups working to ensure that the interests of the few are communicated to the many. Digg has never had any of these protections.

Therefore, Digg has never been a true democracy. But it was close, once. Unfortunately it has slowly succumbed to the addictive brew of advertising dollars, strategic partnerships, and celebrity. So don’t bother raising a stink about the new proposed changes. And don’t expect to find this story on Digg’s front page any time soon. Its corporate overlords wouldn’t approve.

Image via MaximumPC

One Response to “Digg: Just Another Faux Democracy?”

  1. [...] user backlash incoming. And hey, did we call it, or did we call [...]

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