The One Thing You Need to Know About the Relaunch of Digg

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The site is already trying to surprise -- and delight -- its users.

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Here, in case you haven't been following it, is Digg's story in a nutshell: The social news site was big in the early days of the web, and then it declined, and then what remained of it was bought by Betaworks, which promised to rebuild it. Betaworks gave itself six weeks to retool the Digg tool, announcing that it would roll out The New Digg on August 1.

But: surprise! The New Digg launched last night. A day early! With the image-heavy, ad-free design as Betaworks had hinted at previously

It's impossible to know, at this point, whether Digg's new design -- and Digg's new back-end infrastructure, and Digg's kind-of-new brand -- will make for a truly new Digg. Which is to say, a successful Digg. That the service celebrated its impending relaunch by treating its staff to an Arrested Development-style banana stand is a good sign, certainly (there's always money in there, after all!) ... beyond that, though, it would be pointless to speculate right now about The New Digg's future.

But that doesn't mean we can't speculate about what we do know about the site! So let's examine one of the things we know for sure about The New Digg at this point: the fact that the service made a point of confounding expectations, just a bit, by launching a day early. Which was a gesture not only to the Digg naysayers out there, but also to the potential Digg users out there: Guys! We will surpass expectations.

That's actually a telling data point -- because the surpassing of expectations, when it comes to social networks, is not the unalloyed good it is in other contexts. Surprise, for a social network, is a cagey kind of currency. On the one hand, surprise is wonderful, leading to the kind of "delight" that Marissa Mayer talks about as one of her goals for Digg's convalescent counterpart, The New Yahoo. But surprise can also be dangerous. Because, in the context of social networking, it can seem, to the user, like a betrayal. I'm not just talking about Facebook's disastrous Beacon, or Twitter's disastrous Quick Bar ... I'm thinking of smaller service-tweaks, too. The new Tweetdeck, for example. Social networks are spaces people live in. Once you've established yourself as a digital environment, it's really, really difficult to surprise people without simultaneously infuriating them. 

And that's because social networks aren't just networks; they're also reflections of their users. People tend to be invested in them even more personally and even more intimately than they are in, say, their tech devices or their favorite websites. And that investment can be, for networks, an incredibly powerful thing. It is the core logic employed not only by Facebook and Twitter, but also by successful social news sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed. Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed's founder, makes a point of saying that social news itself is a function of a particular kind of intimacy: You share stuff not just to share it, but also to share -- and express -- your identity. You share funny stuff to signal your own humor; you share smart stuff to signal your own intelligence. Shared content functions as a kind of digital clothing, selected as much for its ability to convey users' identities as to connect them.

Which means that, if you're in the unenviable position of running a social network, surprising your users can be an incredibly dicey affair. Even -- and especially -- when that surprise is enacted in the name of delight. It's not just that old bromide that people don't like design changes on the Internet, which is an outgrowth of the even older bromide that people don't like changes in general. Untrue, on both counts. But when you're talking about social networks, making changes that you haven't announced -- painstakingly, in advance of their implementation -- is pretty much the equivalent of picking out a new shirt for your users and then forcing them all to wear it. In the context of the social network, gift and guile can seem surprisingly similar. Because whatever you do, you're not just doing it for users; you're also doing it to them.

So then: Back to Digg. The fact that the network chose to confound expectations through the timing of its launch is a small thing but a good thing, a signal that the new-again network has surprise -- and, with it, delight -- on its mind. And yet the confound-expectations approach also signals the end of Digg's beta phase, the end of the time when Digg can, with full impunity, surprise us with something. The more established the new Digg becomes, the less it will be able to delight us with newness itself. And the more it'll have to learn the lesson that all successful social networks learn eventually: On their platforms, the best sources of delight are users themselves.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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