The Web is so much more than just a place to exchange. It offers more than just ideas, products, information, news, and pleasure. For some of us it is a venue for community.  Some people find more, feel more, and experience more while surfing the infinite void of information. And they become so good at it that these people manage to find each other, they share their likeminded ideas, their relevant information, their similar humor with each other. These people find each other on social news websites. They form communities on these websites, they become committed to these websites, and make them not only part of their daily routine but their lives.  So if these communities formed on social news sites are so important and tight then why do some of them fade into the Internet abyss? Why do some social news sites, ones that were once filled with users that committed themselves to the community of the site leave? Are they just moving on to something better? Or are there other motivations, other outside forces that break the community and disvalue the site?

To answer these questions I decided to look closely at two of the biggest social news sites to have appeared on the Web: Reddit.com and Digg.com. I was aware of the two sites and the communities of each. I realized that the users of each were so committed to their respective site that rivalries formed. These rivalries played out for a few years as both sites were trying to claim the most views, users, and shared content. Most recently though, this cyber battle for best social media news site, for best community, has seemingly come to a close. After some research, looking at site trends, and becoming a borderline site addict myself, I have concluded that the Reddit has come out the victor, that their community has not wavered but only grown. It finds its win in it’s ability to demonstrate a successful community. One in which unique users are high, pageviews are in the billions, and viral content is vast. I had no intention in claiming a winner for this travelogue but when looking at statistics and talking to a number of former diggers it has become clear that Digg has become an internet ghost town, comparable to that of MySpace and Friendsters of cyber past. It has lost its community and therefore lost its success as a viable social news site.

Once I realized that Digg was facing its end in this cyber battle I became more interested in why and how it “lost”. I decided the best place to start was with its history. Where Digg began.

Digg was started in November 2004 (making it older than both Twitter and YouTube) by Kevin Rose, OwenByrne, Ron Gorodetzky, and Jay Adelson. Most basically put, Digg was started to be a social news website that features user-submitted stories that are ranked based on popularity. Upon its launch, Digg’s main and most valuable function allowed users to vote stories up (digging) or down (burying). Such stories covered a variety of topics and range from viral videos, to LOLcats, to political polls. The act of voting is grounded in community. Digging and burying were so important because a community was voting for what was best, they were relying on each other to vote for the best content and to weed out what was not wanted in a group of likeminded people. Within three years, Digg passed the 20 million unique visitors mark, making it even bigger than Facebook was at the time. There community had grown at an enormous rate. But then something changed, Digg stopped growing. There were 22.6 million U.S. visitors in June 2007 compared to 22.8 in August 2008, showing signs of stagnation that put the company in a panic. At the beginning of 2009, Digg laid off 10 percent of its staff and started concentrating on profits. To do so the company revealed Digg Ads, a new system of advertising where users would control how much advertisers pay for ad space on the homepage of Digg and elsewhere.

At first glance, Digg Ads looks as if it would be a great way for a community to act upon what it wants. They get to choose what is advertised to them. Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen. Digg Ads started the initial upset within the Digg community. Ads could now be up-voted and submerged with other real Digg links, “they started disguising ads and inserting them into the middle of the page, it seemed fake, that the community was gone. Even more so when they started giving more prominence to sponsored content than to user-selected links, I was out of there,” said former Digger Keenan Roberts. Ads had begun to change the community of Digg.

Meanwhile, Reddit.com launched only a year after Digg, was not experiencing such an exponential growth as Digg had upon its launch. Reddit took on a similar approach to being a social news website, using the same type of hierarchical voting system that Digg first initiated. The main difference being its comment system, where users can comment on not only the posted links, pics, videos, etc., but also on text based submissions, such as questions, facts, ideas, stories, and jokes. By allowing replies and comments to such submissions Redditors were consequently forming an online community.  Reddit users also have the ability to create sections that are topic oriented. These sections became known among Redditors as subreddits and were seen officially as communities for which to submit respective links and comments, while appealing to a specific niche.

Many Redditors feel as if this feature gave Reddit the upperhand over Digg. Former Digg user and now 4-year Reddit enthusiast, Nick Farina says, ”Reddit is more evolved. On Digg you can’t just post a text and talk about it, you can only comment on links and images. On Reddit you can comment on everything, and then you get more of an intellectual discussion that way, from a community that you feel a part of.” This feature might have added to the Digg migration but it is nothing new, plenty of Diggers were happy with just links. So then why the recent decline in Diggers and increase of Redditors?  The answer seems to come with the most recent Digg design update. On August 25, 2010, Digg launched version 4, the site was unreachable or unstable during the launch day and the weeks following. The new design caused much agitation among users. Many Diggeres felt that their community had been tampered with, that the update was unnecessary and had eliminated a lot of the community aspects such as bury, favorites, friends submissions, upcoming pages, subcategories, and history search. There was so much of an upset among Diggers that August 30, 2010 was declared “Quit Digg Day” with the Reddit community on board, taking advantage of the controversy. Reddit posted a “self-announcement” on its homepage for those “new around here” and even altered its logo to include a shovel as an apparent shot at Digg. This feature let Diggers know that the Reddit community would accept them, even after a rivalrous history. Furthermore, Diggers flooded Digg’s front page with Reddit stories and links and overnight Digg’s traffic plummeted 33 percent, according to Alexa.com.

On the popular subreddit DoesAnybodyElse, former Digg user SlickTheNick discusses this drastic change. ”I remember I use to go to digg everyday and the top stories would have 3-4k diggs, sometimes even around like 10k, and hundreds of comments. Now you go on there are most of the frontpage stories have like 60 diggs and maybe 1 or 2 comments…What happened? Sure glad I discovered reddit.” SlickTheNick isnt the only one. Most recently, for the first time ever Reddit has surpassed Digg in pageviews. After passing the 1 billion monthly pageviews milestone, Reddit’s popularity is up 300% from a year ago and a 20% increase from just last month. Much of this has to do with the convergence of Diggers into Redditors, something that happened dramatically after the Digg version 4 launch.

So other than the redesign of Digg, what caused the great migration of Diggers to Reddit? Some say it is the content, “The comments on there are also atrocious. I went there when Reddit was down to read about the journalist in Egypt who was sexually assaulted and the things that people were saying were disgusting. It wasn’t just the content though the whole quality of writing and intellect was way lower than you get on Reddit. It was resembling some kind of youtube comment anarchy,” says Redditor BlackBright. The community had changed, their success at housing likeminded people was gone, the intellectual conversation and information sharing seemed to have stopped on Digg.

Although Digg has lost a lot of it users and therefore a large part of its community there are still some stragglers out there, dedicated to staying true. Digg matters because “its market positioning, user base, and advertising platform make it a unique website,” says Digger Alex Wilhelm. And although this is true, the success of an online social site comes not from its commercial gains but from its ability to form a community of users. i If they lose their community, they lose their social aspect and it will only be a matter of time until they lose their profits. By concentrating their efforts on commercial success Digg lost a once thriving and dedicated community. Therefore it’s not so much about Reddit being better but more about Reddit having what it takes to house a a growing community and playing towards their needs. Former Digger and now Redditor wont_kill_you says, “The fringes of anonymous, creative, intelligent discourse will always be the most interesting place to be. Reddit is still that, Digg was once that. I get the most enjoyment out of finding the niche communities that share my interests. Really interesting people reside there.”

2 Responses to “Digging the Way to Reddit: The Decline of a Community”

  1. chelseachristensen says:

    I really liked how your topic developed and evolved over the course of your project. It’s really interesting to see how one site can triumph when they are so similar, and your primary research doing interviews with actual users was great. Really good job :)

  2. mdeseriis says:

    Kate I cannot but agree with Chelsea, you did a very good job here and I can tell you got really passionate about the whole battle. I love the way you mix quantitative analysis (relying on secondary sources) with a more qualitative reading based on your interviewees’ preferences and experiences. What is not entirely clear to me is why Reddit became an attractor for a more sophisticated audience. I visited both sites–which by the way you should link from the body of the article–and I agree with you that Reddit’s articles are more interesting because the community seems stronger, more mature, and more passionate about the topics that are posted to the site. However, the two sites have also very different, and very distinctive styles. While Digg’s design is more stylish and resembles in a way a WordPress blog, Reddit look-and-feel is more akin to a Wiki and to an open workshop (i.e. raw text tends to be predominant). It would be interesting to understand whether this design has played a role in attracting a specific kind of users and whether there is a connection between the way these aggregators are designed and the community norms that emerge from them. PS. The tags “upset” and “digging” are not that interesting. Why don’t you add “collaborative filtering” and “news aggregators” instead?

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