Digg v4 and lessons not learned

Digg was a high flying news aggregation site from the early web 2.0 era that still exists today, but really in name only. It serves as a cautionary too for why high profile websites tend not to make major changes overnight. A major update, Digg v4, caused the site to implode over the course of about 6 weeks during the late summer of 2010. A certain tech CEO would do well to read up on it lest he repeat history.

Digg went from concept to being worth $200 million in about three years and was more popular than Reddit, which is now a $15 billion company. One ill fated change wiped out 90% of its value and its user base in a matter of six weeks.

What Digg was

digg v4's fallout
Reading about Twitter’s problems on the remnants of a site that imploded in six months in 2010 feels appropriate.

If you ask me to define Digg in six words or less, here’s what I would say. The thing we used before Reddit.

But maybe I shouldn’t say we. Digg and Reddit were not completely interchangeable. The overall concept was very similar. News aggregation sites had existed nearly as long as the web did. They were essential. Before Yahoo was the thing old people use for email, Yahoo was a curated collection of links to help people find new stuff on the web.

And then there was Slashdot, which was a curated collection of new links, to help people find stories rather than just sites.

Digg turned that model on its head, taking user submissions and letting its users vote on those submissions. An upvote was called a “digg.” A combination of newness and diggs determined what would be on the front page at any given time.

Democratizing Web 2.0

Early Digg was a good place to find what was new and interesting. I can’t speak for the 236 million other people who used it, but it completely changed how I found new stuff to read.

I heard about the site sometime in 2005 and took to it immediately. It wasn’t perfect, but it was great. One of the reasons I was super slow to adopt any other form of social media was because I could get everything I wanted on Digg. For that matter, I used Digg an awful lot like I use Twitter now.

The original use case was to find stories to read and comment on them, or read other people’s comments on them. Occasionally I would find comments that seemed insightful, click on the screen name of the person who wrote it, and see what else they had said or what stories they had liked.

This helped me avoid some problems but not others.

Trouble in paradise?

Eventually Digg introduced a feature to suggest people to follow, based on who other people you followed were following. That worked fairly well, but I found a glitch. A lot of people I was following followed a minor celebrity. I didn’t want to follow that particular minor celebrity, so the algorithm got hung up there, and just kept suggesting that same person over and over.

Digg’s algorithm was much less intrusive than modern social media algorithms, since it didn’t require them to build up multi-hundred page dossiers on you, but I think it says something that 12 years later, I can remember a feature on a website getting hung up and becoming useless to me because I didn’t want to follow Leo Laporte. Yes, Leo Laporte specifically.

It wasn’t all perfect in paradise. Digg tried to democratize user submissions but some users had more power than others. This group of power users had enough influence to organize to get their followers to upvote their submissions, which meant if someone like me submitted a story, its chances of spending time on the homepage weren’t great.

Digg tried a few things to curb this oligarchy. They discontinued their messaging functionality, which opened the door for other social networks. And then they tried a big site revamp, a cure that ended up being much worse than the disease.

Digg v4: Where it all went wrong

The problem seemed weird at the time, and slightly humorous now. But it wasn’t a showstopper. The showstopper happened in September 2010. Digg rolled out a complete revamp called Digg v4. It changed the backend database, as well as some front end functionality. And there were two major problems. First, there was no going back. The migration to version 4 was sink or swim. The other big problem was reliability. When you visited the site, you just didn’t know if you’d get content, or an error message.

With too many sudden changes too soon in the way the site worked, on top of the speed and reliability issues, the user base revolted. Not only did users migrate to Reddit in droves, but they also turned the Digg front page into a front end for Reddit. What I see on Twitter in November 2022, with people posting to Twitter from their Mastodon accounts, looks very much like Digg in September 2010.

Digg spent 6 weeks at the end of the summer circling the drain. And two years later it sold itself off in pieces to three different companies, netting an estimated total of $16.5 million. In 2008, at their peak, they’d been in talks with Google for a reported $200 million.

The shadow of Digg that remains

The domain and the brand name are still live and functioning, but as a shadow of what it once was. The current incarnation of Digg has an estimated 3.8 million users, but that’s less than two percent of what it had at its peak. Reddit, by contrast, went IPO in December 2021 with a valuation of $15 billion and is the 9th most visited site on the Web, period.

There was a time when Digg was bigger than Reddit. Whether it would have stayed bigger than Reddit is anyone’s guess. But there’s every reason to believe Digg could have also been a multibillion dollar company if it had avoided the Digg v4 misstep.

So if your favorite technology company today seems to be a bit slow to implement something new, one of the reasons for that may be that certain people remember the disaster of Digg v4. They saw how one of the most popular sites on the Internet became irrelevant in six short weeks and had to sell itself in pieces at fire sale prices.

I’m not saying a certain social media site that just sold itself to a certain loudmouth billionaire is going to evaporate in 6 weeks. But if I were a loudmouth billionaire who wanted to destroy a popular social media site in 6 weeks, coming in and slashing staff and budgets while simultaneously setting short deadlines for new features and taking a move-fast-and-break-things approach to everything is as good as any plan I’d come up with.

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