In its early years, Facebook was about social networking in the strictest sense—status updates, reconnecting with friends, and uploading photographs and links. But as the company has rounded out the user experience in the past year by pushing the power of voicing opinions on those photos and links, through a ubiquitous “Like” button that now rests on other sites, it has increasingly been encroaching on the turf of the user-driven news aggregator that once had people believing it was the future of information: Digg.
Digg will be left playing catchup, unless it figures out a way to integrate users’ pre-existing personal networks.
Over the past 12 months, in lockstep, not coincidentally, with Facebook’s rampaging growth, Digg’s traffic has sputtered.
A quick comparison of the sites’ traffic numbers reveals just how dramatic the situation is. Last month, Facebook attracted more than 123 million unique users a day, up 43 percent from a year ago, according to the tracking website Compete.com. Digg got just under 7.5 million, down more than 19 percent from this time last year. When you compare their traffic on Google Trends, Facebook’s blue line climbs happily upward for the last six months, while Digg’s flat red line could easily be mistaken for the graph’s horizontal axis.
But even though social networking is relatively new, Facebook’s behavior isn’t. It bears a striking resemblance to the Microsoft method of doing business in the early 1990s. Spot a new product that everyone is bound to need—say, screensavers—and do one of two things: Figure out how to build it, or buy it. In terms of Digg’s user-generated aggregation, they choose to build.
“Every time Facebook sees that people are going to some other social-networking site, they try to understand why, and can they just build that into Facebook?” says Ken Marlin, a banker who focuses on Web enterprises. “We’re seeing it with Digg, but we’re also seeing it with photos—Flickr-like applications. We’re seeing it with Twitter-like functionality. Why do you have to go to Twitter if you can do the same thing on Facebook? We think it’s a clever strategy.”
To those in the industry, Digg’s plateau is not entirely a surprise. Once upon a time, back at the dawn of social networking in 2004, Digg was hailed as a model that provided a radical solution to the torrent of information from the Internet, a revolutionary way of determining what was important. Its popularity skyrocketed, especially in tech circles. Its founder, Kevin Rose, was on the cover of BusinessWeek in 2006, complete with headphones, backward cap, a pair of raised thumbs, and the headline, “How This Kid Made $60 Million in 18 Months.” And two years later, it was hot enough to earn a brief courtship from Google—though the search giant ultimately ditched a possible $200 million deal.
Four years later, the industry is realizing that the Digg revolution was actually just the first step in user-driven news aggregation. And the knock-on effect is thoroughly shaking the Digg offices. Upper management is jumping ship—CEO Jay Adelson left the biggest gap when he quit in April—and last month, the company reduced the staff by 10 percent.
“This is one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make recently but we strongly believe that it is the right decision for the long-term health of the company,” Rose wrote in an email to the staff that was later posted on the company’s blog. “In order to achieve our goals, we are putting more emphasis on the engineering and development efforts.”
Those efforts will culminate in a new version of the site to be launched later this year, a major redesign that it hopes will propel it back to relevance. Among the list of new features for Digg Version 4 is one-click sharing, but the site will remain fundamentally the same product—a forum for anonymous recommendations and the wisdom of the masses. But could the whole endeavor be too little too late?
One of the leading criticisms of Digg is the anonymity of the people posting stories. Users don’t know them by anything but their handles. And in the darkness, an entire class of trendmakers was born—users with colossal followings for every link they posted. No one knew who the trendmakers were, but they knew they were important in Digg’s universe. (Some even tried to sell access to their audiences by accepting fees from marketers.)
Facebook offers the opposite. What users see has been filtered by friends. And if that is the direction Facebook is taking news aggregation, then the battle is as good as won. It already holds a critical mass of people’s online networks. Digg will be left playing catchup, unless it figures out a way to integrate users’ pre-existing personal networks. (Because manually transferring one entire network to another site is a project most users would never make time for.)
“Digg’s got a pretty good following, so I’m not sure that the game is yet over,” says Marlin. “But Facebook has a huge advantage. Just a huge advantage.”
Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.