Live by the Digg, Die by the Digg

On Wednesday, May 2, users of the site Digg.com, a social news site, did something remarkable in the history of the Social Web. What they did was seize editorial control of the site: what content appeared on the home page of Digg, for the first time, was truly decided by its users.

If you aren’t familiar with the details, here is a quick recap. ReadWriteWeb also had a nice timeline of events.

There are two ways you can look at this incident whereby Diggers overwhelmed the site by repeatedly (up to two per second) digging stories containing an HD-DVD crack code.

One is as described by Mike Arrington of Techcrunch: Digg Surrenders to Mob. Simply using the word “Mob” makes for great press. We gravitate to mobs because we know they’re messing with the Man. They’re anti-authority, they’re doing what they’re not supposed to, they’re pissed and fighting for their rights. We think of the French or Russian or American Revolution, and we like it.

But maybe, just maybe, mobs aren’t that bad. Terry Heaton had an insightful observation: “What I find most fascinating here is the automatic assumption that chaos is evil. This is a purely modernist perspective, but life itself proves it to be false.” He argues that the so-called Mob was more like the site at its finest…that a Mob is nothing more than democracy at high speed. I tend to agree with this.

The other way to look at the situation is as I described it: Digg Surrenders to Community. The difference is in those two words: Mob and Community. Now, I wasn’t being as calculated as Mike was being, I’m sure, but when realizing the stark contrast afterward it occurred to me that you either acknowledge the voice of the people on Digg as a group, or you do not. You either view them as a passionate Community, or you view them as a anarchic Mob.

On Wednesday, May 2, users of the site Digg.com, a social news site, did something remarkable in the history of the Social Web. What they did was seize editorial control of the site: what content appeared on the home page of Digg, for the first time, was truly decided by its users.

If you aren’t familiar with the details, here is a quick recap. ReadWriteWeb also had a nice timeline of events.

There are two ways you can look at this incident whereby Diggers overwhelmed the site by repeatedly (up to two per second) digging stories containing an HD-DVD crack code.

One is as described by Mike Arrington of Techcrunch: Digg Surrenders to Mob. Simply using the word “Mob” makes for great press. We gravitate to mobs because we know they’re messing with the Man. They’re anti-authority, they’re doing what they’re not supposed to, they’re pissed and fighting for their rights. We think of the French or Russian or American Revolution, and we like it.

But maybe, just maybe, mobs aren’t that bad. Terry Heaton had an insightful observation: “What I find most fascinating here is the automatic assumption that chaos is evil. This is a purely modernist perspective, but life itself proves it to be false.” He argues that the so-called Mob was more like the site at its finest…that a Mob is nothing more than democracy at high speed. I tend to agree with this.

The other way to look at the situation is as I described it: Digg Surrenders to Community. The difference is in those two words: Mob and Community. Now, I wasn’t being as calculated as Mike was being, I’m sure, but when realizing the stark contrast afterward it occurred to me that you either acknowledge the voice of the people on Digg as a group, or you do not. You either view them as a passionate Community, or you view them as a anarchic Mob.

In the subsequent days we have learned more about what happened. Digg CEO Jay Adelson was interviewed by Jason Calacanis (well worth the listen) and explained the incident from their view. He says: “”what we saw on Tuesday night was how far you can go…what the limitations of a democratic site can be and in this case it was pretty clear that no technology I could come up with and no amount of people I could hire could solve the problem”.

This story is amazing on several levels. It can teach us a lot about designing for community in an age when that community is completely dispersed around the Web.

A Community Protecting Itself

The digg community practiced what only relatively mature groups can: they acted to protect the group. The group they acted to protect was the one whose members have votes that are not censored, but counted. Clay Shirky, in his classic piece “A Group is its own worst enemy”, explains the phenomenon:

“here’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.”

The group effects in this case, of course, was overwhelming the site with diggs. This hadn’t happened before and was remarkable because all of the members were acting together…separately.

Setting Legal Precedent

Despite its incredible growth and fame, Digg is a very young company in an undefined space. We do not yet know how user submitted content will fare in the legal system, as there are few precedents to work from. The biggest question in the Digg case is this: Is Digg responsible for the content submitted by its users? Can Digg be held legally responsible for the crack code on their servers?

The easiest way for Digg to escape their situation would have been to kill it, shutting down the site until the wave of protest died down. Adelson explains their thinking…(we) “would remove it to protect ourselves, taking the safe way out”. Undoubtedly, this is what the vast majority of site owners will first think or be recommended by their legal team. They don’t want any trouble if they can help it.

But on second thought Digg realized that their adherence to the cease-and-desist was lame given the nature of their site. They run a so-called “democratic” site whose content is dictated by the will of the people. If the people want a certain crack code on the home page, who is the site to change that? In their case censorship is as bad as, if not worse than, blindly following a cease-and-desist, especially one concerning DRM.

But if there is legal action in this case, it will set an early precedent for all future decisions concerning user-generated content.

Overcoming Software Limitations

99% of the time we accept the limitations imposed on us by the software we use. We accept that we can only have so many programs running, that we can only share iTunes songs on 5 machines, that we can’t talk between IM services easily. For the most part, we’re just glad to be able to do what is offered because it is better than what we had before. In other words, the design of a web site usually dictates the behavior that happens there.

But there is a small population of people, entrepreneurs and hackers, who routinely fight these limitations. These people are incredibly important because despite their small numbers they lead a much larger community to water.

In the case of Digg, however, the community as a larger whole challenged their limitations. That’s what revolutions are all about…they are magnificent because they don’t happen all the time and they usually happen for a very good reason. In this case the Digg community needed to remind Kevin Rose and Co. that they were the valuable editor, not whomever was taking down the code posts.

For the first time, Digg users fought through the technical and editorial restrictions to take full control of the site, if only for a short time, overriding the site owner’s ability to do anything other than shut down the service or let it go on unchecked. There was no way to slow down or stop the submissions without shutting down the site…there were just too many of them. For a short time on May 1, 2007, Digg users fought for and won the Digg.com domain.

What are the Design Implications?

One thing became very clear in the Digg incident: very few people who posted the HD-DVD code knows how to use it to crack a DVD. And that’s an important point because this wasn’t about the necessity of posting a particular code…this was about the community’s insistence that they not be told what they could or could not post. Once you give democratic power, once the community has had a taste of voting, they will not give it back. If you live by the digg, you die by the digg.

Now, there are two things we can potentially learn from this event. One is that you need tighter controls over the content people submit to a site, increasing the limitations imposed by software. We could design our social software with throttling, for example, so that in times of crisis we can slow down submissions in order to filter them easier. This would make it easy for developers to write tools that allow editors to simply remove any submission with a certain string, for example, and it would have time to work.

The other thing we could learn is that this behavior was appropriate and desirable in a healthy community. Imagine if, despite the attempts of thousands of people to submit the hacker code, Digg was able to squash the revolution, so to speak. What would have happened? Well, most of those folks would then have felt like their voice wasn’t being heard, that Digg was in complete control, and that their so-called democratic site wasn’t very democratic at all.

Published: May 15th, 2007

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