Why It Might Not Be Easy to Fix Digg

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The social news site, Digg, which experienced a user backlash after a recent redesign, is trying to win users back by returning some of their beloved features.

It may work, but as a long-time observer of the site's mechanics, I think Digg's got a tough road ahead, structurally. For the site's casual users, Digg is a way of finding interesting stories. But for the site's hardcore users, the site is an elaborate social game in which the stakes are actually quite high. By working in teams to vote up stories, they could virtually ensure that a story submitted by one of the teammates would make it to the front page of the site.

The process is mindnumbing, but because the site can (or could?) drive a lot of traffic to other websites, these power users were sought after by media companies and aspiring bloggers alike. Traffic is practically a form of currency in the online media space, and power Diggers (as they are known) were like the mint. Some power diggers made businesses out of "social media consulting." But the ones I knew also did it because they liked being the de facto editors of the Internet.

I think the site's gameability, though, generated what our own John Gould calls "microhate." Casual users still visited the site but they were frequently mildly annoyed. Users knew that they were practically excluded from participating actively in the site. Or worse, their contributions were worthless, despite the site's nominal "democratic" voting methods.

And that's ultimately the problem: technology companies love to talk about "serving their users," but users are not a unitary population. Sometimes, one group of users wants something fundamentally different from another. And yet Digg needs both of them to succeed as a service. The power users deliver a steady stream of content while the casual browsers are the traffic that assures the site's importance to advertisers and publishers.

Can the site strike the right balance with design tweaks? I don't know, but the hardcore users' opposition to any serious changes is going to make it tough.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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