What Are (Digg) Friends For?

July 21, 2006

Until recently, I was a passive reader of digg.com. Oh, sure, I subscribed to the front page RSS feed in Firefox, and every few days I might check for interesting stories. However, all that changed a few weeks ago when I subscribed and started digging stories.

Digg homepageIn case you’re one of those who don’t yet know what all the fuss is about, Digg is one of the most popular of the new wave of user-driven news sites. Initially it focussed solely on tech news, but it has recently expanded to include a range of more traditional news topics: current affairs, science, entertainment, financial news, etc.

What sets digg apart from other news sites is user-driven content. The idea is simple: users submit stories and other users vote up (digg) all the stories they’ve enjoyed reading. The most “dugg” stories rise to the top and appear on the homepage, where they receive a massive amount of traffic.

To be honest, I joined digg because it added to my ever-increasing arsenal of advanced work-avoidance strategies. I’m a gamer, and digg appealed to me partly because it reminded me of gaming. For example, there’s competition to see who can submit a hot story first, and there’s the ensuing rivalry between digg users to see if their stories can get the most diggs. In a way, digg is like an abstract MMORPG, with the number of stories dugg to the front acting as “level ups”, and digg friends acting as a kind of “guild”. (Yeah, it’s a stretch, but bear with me because it might be relevant later on.)

A couple of weeks ago I started using the “Friends” feature myself. This is a staple of the new breed of “Web 2.0” websites, which are built around the notion that we want to share everything with our online buddies. But what does it mean to be a “friend” of another digger?

This question was highlighted yesterday by this (now super-popular) digg story:

Top 100 Digg Users Control 56% of Digg’s Homepage Content

Like the title says, a relatively small group of “elite” diggers control more than half of the stories which appear on digg’s homepage. One of the allegations in the comments (though not in the article itself) is that the friends networks of top diggers allows them to maintain a stranglehold on front page content.

The strangest thing about digg friendship is that, unlike the real world, it is not reciprocal; it’s not a relationship. You can add as many friends as you like, but they are under no obligation to add you. This is unlike myspace, for example, where friends must be mutual or not at all. Mutual friendships can be formed on digg, but you’re never notified if someone adds you as a friend (you have to check your account manually).

So what benefits does digg friendship bring? If you befriend someone else you can see at a glance all the stories they have dugg. Theoretically, I guess this is supposed to work like a recommendation system: there are far too many stories on digg to trawl through each one (although some of the elite users give it a pretty good shot). Ideally, the friend system should work like a filter. You befriend someone who shares your interests, or whose submitted stories you’ve dugg in the past, and this acts as a sort of guarantee; most stories dugg by that user should be interesting to you also.

How does all this relate to elite digg users? Well, a story needs only around 30-40 diggs within Digg's top usersa short space of time to rise to the front page. If the friends of top users constantly cross-digg each others’ stories, this ensures that their stories will always (or almost always) rise to the top. The claim is that they are acting as de facto editors of the digg.com homepage. The question then becomes: is digg really any different from a traditional news site (apart from the fact that it’s not paying the editors)?

But the idea that this is a bad thing is based on the myth that Digg is (or should be) fundamentally democratic, when in actual fact it is a meritocracy. This was pointed out in the comments section of the digg article, but it’s self-evident: the concept of “digging” is essentially meritocratic. The idea is that some stories will rise to the top of the pile while others will sink. Of course, digg is a democracy in the sense that one user’s digg is worth exactly the same as any other. But, as with any social network, those with more time on their hands are able to make their votes go further. Moreover, like most modern MMORPGs, a “guild” of friends is more powerful than a single user digging alone. (Okay, so the analogy is still a stretch, but you get the idea…)

In any case, would the supposed utopia of a “truly free” and democratic digg actually be interesting to read? Taken to its logical conclusion, this simply means turning digg into another news aggregator, with stories submitted by users instead of newswire. But this wouldn’t be digg, and it wouldn’t be possible to sort the wheat from the chaff. The bottom line is that many of the stories suggested by the top users are in fact interesting; they wouldn’t be dugg so highly if they weren’t.

Still, there are some less radical and more interesting suggestions in the comments section which are aimed at redressing the balance. For example, discarding the “friends” feature altogether; or hiding the identity of the submitter until the story rises to the homepage. I like the last idea in particular, since it emphasizes the stories over the users, but still allows users to be identified with their stories once the best ones have come to the front.

Equally, though, there are some awful suggestions which would, to my mind, only make things worse: more points-based systems, in particular, are a no-go as far as I’m concerned. If a user gets minus points for digging poorly performing articles, that means only the big name articles will ever be dugg, so you’d get an even more powerful elite editing cabal.

What I think is most interesting about this story is that it highlights the more general issue of online communication in the Web 2.0 age. If digg friendship is not necessarily reciprocal, how will this affect our online communication in the future? Web 2.0 social networking sites have the capacity to connect us to more people than ever. But are we actually “connecting” in any meaningful sense of the word? Or is it rather the case that we’re all in one big room shouting at each other? “This link is cool!” “Read this blog!” “Check out this weird news story!” As Mike Shea asked recently in his blog, just how much unactionable content can we process?

Faced with this onslaught of information competing for our attention, are we just paying attention to whoever shouts the loudest?


One Response to “What Are (Digg) Friends For?”

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