There has never been a social media site that acted more like a meritocracy than the old Digg.com. It required true talent at both finding the content and “gaming the system” to become a power user. Only a few hundred people in the world mastered it.

Today, Digg is a very useful site. I visit it every day ever since Google Reader disappeared.Their front page stories are quite good sometimes and the technology behind the site is lightyears ahead of the duct-taped coding that kept the old Digg together. However, it has no humanity to it anymore. There are no personalities imposing their will, no conflict between power users vying for the homepage, and no websites built on the massive traffic that Digg once sent.

It’s a good website. The old Digg was a way of life for some people.


The Titans of Digg

It’s hard to imagine in today’s social media world that a website with millions of viewers per month could be dominated by a couple hundred people that didn’t work for the company. The Digg “Power Users” might not have been paid by Digg, but it was volunteer work that equated to a full time job for many.

There were two things that were required to become a Digg power user. First and foremost, you had to know how to game the system. This sounds worse than it really is. The Digg algorithm was relatively complex and with thousands of stories submitted daily, trying to get attention to any one at any given point was impossible without knowing how to play the game.

It wasn’t hacking. It didn’t require special insider knowledge. No animal sacrifices were used. The “gaming” of the Digg system meant that you had to get the attention of people by Digging a lot of their content. When you Dugg their content, many of them would Digg your content. Once you got to a tipping point of receiving enough “auto-Diggs” from those who were also trying to game the system, the second part of the equation came into play. You had to submit the right content.

This was the hard part. The Digg algorithm favored certain sites. Cracked, XKCD, The Big Picture, APOD — these were sites that, once submitted by a Power User, had a great chance of reaching the front page regardless of the quality of the story. They posted on a regular schedule and Digg Power Users would wait, refreshing the page constantly in hopes of being the submitter, knowing that there were several others trying to submit it at the same time. Much like sperm trying to penetrate an egg, once one got in, the others were locked out.

Other sites such as ArsTechnica, Wired, TorrentFreak, and TIME could hit the front page regularly because the combination of bulk and content made them a favorite of Power Users. These and others were the go-to sites, the ones that were plugged into feedreaders that updated every few seconds and alerted the Power Users when a new story was ready for their consideration. While there wasn’t as big of a rush on these ones, a Power User would often have to decide in seconds whether or not the story was worth submitting.

At the height of Digg prior to the launch of Version 4 in August, 2010, there were about 70 consistent Power Users who hit the front page regularly and another 200 who could get more than 2 or 3 on the front page in a given month. Tens of thousands of stories were submitted daily. Hundreds of thousands of users tried to get their stories to the front page every month. The Power Users had the market cornered.

This upset parts of the community. It is partially to blame for why Digg was never sold during the height of its reign over social news. The love-hate relationship between Digg staff and the Power Users was palpable at times, particularly when changes were made that hurt the Power Users. It was a formula that had all of the workings of utter failure except for one glaring fact…

It was working.


Quality Over Fairness

To the vast majority of Digg users, this meritocracy was invisible. They didn’t look at the names. They didn’t notice that MrBabyMan or msaleem had their name pop up under stories every few hours. All they knew was that the content they could click to from Digg was really good and the site gave them a place to voice their opinion in the form of a Digg, a bury (downvoting request to remove the content), or a comment.

Here’s a breakdown of the accounts submitting stories that reached the Digg front page in December, 2009. As you can see, the top 100 users accounted for over half of the front page:

10 Power Users accounted for 10% of the stories that hit the front page of Digg in December, 2009.

The site worked because of two things. The algorithm itself made it very challenging for spam to reach the front page and human moderation in the form of community buries or moderator take downs meant that spam didn’t last for long.

Low quality stories, even if they weren’t spam, could get removed as well. When a story got “buried” by enough users, it fell out of the various queues or even off of the front page itself.

The second reason it worked is because the majority of the Power Users had an unspoken pact with the website. Most of them prided themselves as being content curators granted a power through their hard work and discerning eye to drive massive amounts of traffic to the stories they deemed fit. They had a reputation to uphold even if most of the real world had no idea who they were. They were internet celebrities, at least in their own minds.

The system wasn’t fair. So much power was earned by so few. It was, however, a good system in that the majority of stories that made it to the front page deserved to be there and the ones that didn’t got buried off. The Power Users curated while the regular users decided what would rise to the top and what would be removed altogether. Stories that did very well in getting Diggs from the community would be highlighted in the “Top in All Topics” section through which hundreds of thousands of clicks could be achieved.

Unfortunately, this gave rise to the problem that prompted the switch to Digg Version 4. There were corporate-owned publications to impress and a system that relied on self-made titans had to be destroyed.


Traffic Greed

Three things forced Digg’s hand to try something risky and eventually catastrophic. The first was the rise of blogspam. This is different from actual spam. It was the act of hiring Digg Power Users to submit stories from one’s blog. Some blog owners would put in the time and effort to actually become Power Users themselves.

They normally weren’t bad sites nor were they bad stories. They were just small. A Digg front page could send tens, even hundreds of thousands of unique visitors to a single front page story. The “Digg Effect” would often crash servers due to the massive rush of traffic.

In a few cases, blogspam was good. Some very strong websites like Inhabitat and Soshable (my site) were born out of the readership they received from hitting the front page of Digg regularly and still stand strong today despite the death of their initial traffic source. The majority, however, did not have the quality to maintain it and died shortly after Digg did.

The second thing that forced Digg to move to Version 4 was the onslaught of whispers from the bigger sites. While some embraced the Power Users, others despised them. They were big sites that could get to the front page often enough to taste the traffic but not enough to really build on it. People from sites like Mashable and Techcrunch were whispering in the ears of the powers that be at Digg, telling them that the Power User model was broken. How could some of the smaller blogs hit the front page 90% of the time while the bigger sites were getting 1 out of 20?

Finally, there was the money. As is the case with most social sites that fail, Digg had a profit problem. They had good revenue, but they were bloated. For a site like that to have over a hundred employees at their peak was ridiculous when considering that sites like Reddit still hadn’t broken double digit employees at the time. They had to become attractive to suitors soon or risk fading into obscurity before they had their payday.

The suits in corporate America despised the concept of random people controlling the front page. They believed that if Digg would cater more to the mainstream media sites and tastemakers of the world, that they could hit a tipping point and become a common social site for the general population to use. Normal people across America had heard of Leo Laporte or Tony Hawk. They had no idea who Power Users like Louie Baur or Amy Vernon were. The real world celebrities and major publications were the ones that needed control of the homepage, not so-called Power Users without a brand of their own. That, at least, is what corporate advisers told Digg.

Unfortunately, Digg bought into the concept.


It Didn’t Work

Digg Version 4 was a nightmare. As instructed by the talking heads of tech and the corporate advisers who thought that Digg needed to be more mainstream, they turned the site into a publishers’ site rather than a users’ site. The Power Users were dismissed, replaced by big names that people could recognize.

It destroyed the core of Digg. The shift went from the users to the publishers and the front page was dominated by a few celebrities and mainstream media publications rather than content curators.

Six websites and Leo Laporte accounted for 56% of the stories that hit the front page shortly after launch of V4.

Digg tried to recover. They gave it a shot with the new format for a few weeks before changing back to a user-controlled website, but by that time it was too late. Many had already migrated to Reddit or other social news sites. A huge chunk of users simply gave up on Digg and social news altogether.

The rest of their story is too sad to tell, culminating in the site that was once trying to fetch $200+ million getting sold for $500,000.


…and still, we reminisce

This story came into being because I was examining my Facebook news feed this morning and realized that I was still following several former Digg Power Users. Every now and then, one would reach out to me and ask what I was doing since the death of Digg.

I’m still friends with many of them. One of them actually works for me, now. Two others have worked with me in the past. When I look at what many of these people are doing now, I realize that a good chunk of them were extremely talented beyond what they did at Digg and are very successful today taking their content curating skills and applying them to publications, marketing, and other similar careers. Digg had some real power at their fingertips that they had access to for free and they let it go.

In 2006, this is what they said about themselves:

“What’s Digg? Digg is a technology news website that employs non-hierarchical editorial control. With Digg, users submit stories for review, but rather than allowing an editor to decide which stories go on the homepage, the users do.”

When they betrayed their core value of allowing the users to decide which stories should make it to the homepage, they lost their way. Now, all we can do is reminisce.