Social lessons from Digg's demise

Digg's journey from a social media darling to a footnote in internet history should be watched by Facebook and Twitter as an example of how not to treat your users.

A couple of years ago news sharing site Digg was one of the hottest properties on the internet.

The social news website - once valued at $164 million - pioneered the idea of registered users posting links to stories and voting them up or down. The practice of “digging and burying” links revolutionised the concept of social engagement and online news.

Launched in 2004, Digg was the outfit that successfully turned aggregation of online content into a business. It showed us all the power of viral stories – with the site at one point tallying unique visits in the vicinity of 20 to 30 million.

Unfortunately, Digg’s journey came to a rather ignominious end over the weekend with the business - or what was left of it - sold to Betaworks for $500,000.

So, is Digg’s demise a timely reminder of the vicissitudes of online companies and social media? And will the likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn meet a similar fate. 

In hindsight, Digg was always on the back foot once Facebook and Twitter took over the social media mantle. When similarly-themed Reddit came into the equation it only served to increase the competitive tension.

While Facebook and Twitter didn’t technically intrude into Digg’s domain, they certainly competed for user consciousness. Meanwhile, Reddit was essentially designed to replicate the functionality of Digg. All of this inexorably eroded away Digg’s massive user base.

However, the pressures of a changing environment were further magnified by two factors: overreach and losing connection with the users. Both which proved to be far more integral in dismantling the company.

For all the tech acumen on display at Digg, the company’s pain was largely self-inflicted. While new challengers loomed over the horizon, Digg chose to pursue a path of reinvention that progressively alienated its strongest asset- the users. 

The first modification to the interface came in August 2007, which immediately threw users into confusion as the profile changes underwent a change.

Radical surgery of this sort is always unnerving for users, who almost always react badly to it. This is a lesson that Facebook is also learning the hard way and the social network’s future as a listed company will no doubt tackle the issue in the future. Facebook users will fervently hope that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t take any pointers from Digg.

As it turns out, rather than listening to its users Digg changed its interface again in 2010, which by all accounts was an unmitigated disaster. Digg not only got rid of the popular features (Bury, Shouts) but also effectively destroyed the tools that made it so successful, user engagement.

This utter disregard for the community is a cardinal sin for a social media site and with Facebook and Twitter now well and truly past the start-up phase their future diversification ambitions will also no a doubt bend quite a few noses out of shape for its user base.

Yet the lesson to be learnt from Digg is that as long as social media giants can ensure that the input of its users in deciding future changes is valued, they should be able to implement its plans without endangering their customer base. 

That brings us the second point, which is: when does a business start moving out of its comfort zone and start spreading its wings? 

In the case of Digg, the departure of co-founders Kevin Rose and Jay Adelson in 2010 pretty much killed any aspirations of developing it into something bigger.

It never launched a successful mobile format or figured out a way to turn its reach into serious money.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  

The profit over purpose paradigm will continue to cause plenty of headaches for Facebook and Twitter. In fact Twitter's recent moves have already sparked concerns among technologists that a trend for greater content control will compromise both innovation and Twitter's future in favour of short-term profits.

The problem for Digg was that it really only did one thing: it aggregated news stories and let users vote on them. It really was that simple and for a little while it was an irresistible force on the net.

However, by the time Betaworks picked it up the company was pretty much a shell of its former glory.

Most of the talent had already flown the coop to end up at Washington Post and LinkedIn had picked up important patents. Betaworks essentially moped up what was left over.

Digg is now a footnote in social media history, an object lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry.

It’s a pretty simple lesson too- always listen to your customers, no matter how intractable they may be to change, because at the end of the day user experience is paramount and its their opinion that really matters.