The Great Social News Experiment

posted by on 21st November 2014, at 10:00am

10 years ago in late November 2004 the seeds were planted for what would become the greatest social news experiment. Digg was shown off to the world a little bit later in December. It remained relatively niche throughout ’04, ’05, and ’06 picking up steam in 2007 when talk of the 2008 US Elections began. For anyone who’s been under a rock Digg served the purpose of curating the most popular news online in various categories. To make a long story short Digg was incredibly successful for what it sought out to do. The idea still holds merit but must be well formed to deal with the nature of the internet.

Digg’s run took place before the entire world embraced social media on Twitter and Facebook. It’s fairly obvious now that Twitter and Facebook are very important signals as to what is popular online. Through missing the boat on how important Twitter and Facebook were becoming Digg became less relevant. This effect was amplified when the vast majority of users failed to understand the purpose and meaning of Digg v4. Digg v4 allowed websites to have items automatically submitted and trumpeted what “your friends” were digging rather than what the website as a whole was interested in. As a result of Digg v4 many users up and left in a similar fashion to the original Thirteen Colonies rebellion against Great Britain.

Digg spurred many copy cats, successful and otherwise. The one that still remains to this date that took the majority of disgruntled Digg users is Reddit. Reddit is what the original Digg community loved, a place on the internet where interesting websites and discussions are shared around any number of areas. Reddit can be thought of as an internet forum where popular postings are featured prominently (by default) and users are encouraged to upvote posts based on merit rather than who or what the posting is about. But does this actually happen? Of course not! (Yes, this was an issue with Digg as well, see Digg Patriots).

Back in September The Verge wrote a nice piece entitled, “Reddit is a failed state”. The piece highlights what happens when things go bad on Reddit, in particular nude photos being stolen and then circulated on the website. In a nutshell the perpetrators were allowed to run free while the individual whose photos were stolen had little to no recourse aside from a DMCA take down (requiring a lawyer which on its own is tremendously expensive). I invite everyone to read the full piece by The Verge as it clearly details what the former CEO (as of 5 days ago due to a board disagreement) viewed Reddit as a means to accomplish. “‘Family-friendly’ is out, ‘edgy’ is in.”

As if the moral objections to a policy as shown previously weren’t enough to dissuade people from using Reddit the collective wisdom of online crowds triumphs everywhere, that should be a reason to avoid a website like Reddit. Even if one avoids the cesspit known as r/politics (it doesn’t even deserve a hyperlink) it’s hard to get promoted in any popular sub-reddit unless your posting is in line with the collective consciousness. Oh but that used to happen on Digg too! I know! It’s why Digg v4 was great, it relied on your friends rather than the collective consciousness. What about going to a more specialized sub-reddit? Sure, that works, but it’s likely to be smaller receiving a smaller audience and it still suffers from the same collective group think. It’s for this reason that I view Reddit as worse than the old fashioned online discussion forums.

Digg rebranded and launched a new product in summer 2012. It corrected what the original Digg got wrong, the lack of social input from Twitter and Facebook. The new Digg also struck a nice balance between social news as we had in the old Digg and what exists on Reddit. Digg does a great job of showing what is popular and relevant online without the collective consciousness of Reddit and the internet in general. This was accomplished with a group of editors that ultimately decide what stories get featured based on social impulses. This is great, it is what social news should be. Digg has even linked directly to Fox News and showcased stories that provide an alternate viewpoint to the accepted norm online. The only downside is that editors have biases and this can not be avoided but in general the new Digg is no worse than any major newspaper for bias. I will take a Digg with editors over a Digg with no editors any day.

Now where does this leave us? You could simply rely on nightly news to tell you what’s going but that often leaves interesting or important things out. Digg shows daily news and interesting things that you won’t find on a TV newscast. But, what about local? What about issues that are important to you? Recently I asked our community what social networking services they use. The respondents use Facebook and Twitter regularly but not primarily as a news source. This is where I come in. Over the last year my primary news source has been a Twitter feed. This provides the most granular news as I can tailor it specifically to my needs.

At the end of the day news generated by those around us, those that we trust, is going to be the best source of news. Right now this can be accomplished with Twitter and Facebook combined with a service called sends you a daily digest to your inbox which shows what was popular in your Twitter and Facebook feeds. Digg also allows for Twitter integration with Digg Deeper, a service that shows popular links shared on your twitter timeline. This is the ultimate in terms of personal social news as it cuts out the collective consciousness of the internet and is based purely on your interests.

Whether or not Reddit realizes that their form of “popular news” is actually limiting freedom. Reddit needs to adopt some form of wider social impulses if it is to ever move beyond an online collective consciousness. Digg has already adopted (with Digg Deeper) technology but only at a basic level. This leads to the conclusion that raw social news (original Digg and now Reddit) was at best an experiment that tried to reform news in the early 21st century. Reddit should be relegated to what it is, a glorified discussion forum where cunning posters can become popular in their own little areas. Nothing beats a Twitter feed of followers that you trust.

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