LIVEBLOG: The Secret Masters of Digg

Posted on May 1, 2010 by Alex Leavitt
Categories: Alex, Liveblog

The Secret Masters of Digg

Muhammad Saleem (msaleem)
Andrew Sorcini (MrBabyMan)
JD Rucker (OBoy)
Amy Vernon (AmyVernon) [Moderator]

Few subgroups online have been as rumored about, hated on, or wrangled with as the elite power users of Digg. But what’s this world actually like? Join the leading users of Digg as they discuss the often hidden culture of poweruserhood, their relationship with the site, the various intrigues that go on, the experiences in rising to the top, and the broader questions about the future of these platforms.

Recorded by: @flourish & @devanjedi
Edited by: @alexleavitt

NOTE: This is not a full transcription of the panel. If you have any corrections, please contact alex@roflcon.org.

Amy: I’m known on Digg as amyvernon. I’m the top female Digger of all time, which means I’m in the top 20. Just need a shirt that says “top vagina.” To my left is Andrew 4300+ front pages, Muhammad Saleem 2000+, JD has about 500.

Mo: Hi, I’m msaleem on Digg, Twitter, other social media sites. I work at the Chicago Tribune helping them form some sort of digital media strategy.

Andy: I’m Andy Sorcini, a film editor by trade, and when I’m not doing that I spend my time finding cool things and trying to get as many people to see them as possible.

JD: JD Rucker, I work for a company does social media promotion on Twitter, Digg, so on.

Amy: The three also host a show called The Drill Down and have a long and sordid history together. We’ll start off talking about how we got in to Digg.

Andy: Why don’t we share the video first? This is a video I made for – Digg had a party to celebrate their millionth user. So they called for submissions for people to make their own video describing what Digg means to them, so this is a video I made for that competition, the life of a Digger.

(showing video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhLoghrZ9vE)

Amy: Basically a lot of people are wondering ROFLcon is about the meme, so why are we here? Every meme that is on the internet will be here, and us. Every meme that exists comes to Digg. Some birth on Digg, some catch on, brought to life, and we pound them into submission to death. Kanye West fiasco had thousands on Digg, and many hit the front page, by a day later was declared dead when the rest of the world started hearing about it. What brought us to Digg?

JD: I started the goal was to drive traffic to my own site. It’s a challenge. Got to have quality, must hit the pulse. You can still enhance your chances by getting the right submitters, certain techniques. But overall must be high quality content. Recently I’ve only submitted other stuff, not my own.

Amy: So you don’t submit your own stuff?

JD: You can’t just submit your own stuff. You have to have diversity in domains, quality of content. But I don’t submit my own stuff any more. Other people do.

Amy: Andy has had so many front pages, every 4-6 months; someone says he must be banned.

Andy: Somehow I control the front page even though my ratio is about 30% of what I submit gets to the front page. And that is less than 1% on a weekly basis of all the stories that are on the front page of Digg. But somehow I “control the front page” according to these people, and uh, the way that I came across Digg was through DiggNation – I came across the podcast first. And we should probably talk about how Digg – the ingenious way they publicize themselves. You tell that story a little better.

Mo: Kevin Rose, the creator, created the site in opposition to mainstream media where some editor decides “these are the stories we think are important” and we consume it like drones. He decided to flip that around – it’s a democratically created news front page. When he was first creating the site the social media site of the day was Slashdot and delicious to an extent. And these guys at that time were on G4 TechTV and they had their own tech shows and a very geeky audience. And he decided to go onto this show and pretend that he didn’t know what Digg was about, and that was Digg’s coming-out party.

Andy: Digg’s subversive self-promotion coming out party. But we uh -

Andy: I think what kept me there was that I felt like I had this venue where I could find all this cool stuff on the internet. And when something of mine got to the front page – I mean more people look at my submissions on a daily basis than the NY Times. That was a couple years ago, I don’t know if that’s the case anymore, NY Times has kind of shaped up there. But that was fairly impressive to all of a sudden have this audience where I could guide the eyeballs to all of this great stuff on the internet.

Amy: How about you Mo?

Mo: The ability to communicate something you’re passionate about to hundreds of thousands of other people – something that everybody wants to do. Let’s say you’re an Apple fanboy, they’re announcing a product, you submit – everyone sees it. The real reason to stick around on Digg though is the reason we’re here and on this panel. We’re trying to figure out how memes are formed and how they spread. We can’t find where they’re formed, but the role that Digg and other social news sites play is actually getting those memes to a mass audience. You do a search on any meme, and you can see not only are those stories are getting thousands of Diggs/millions of plays, they get remixed and those go through the same system and get similar exposure.

[show screen with a simple search for 'keyboard cat' on Digg]

Andy: If memes are viral then we’re like the sneezers.

Amy: The top one here is a mashup of 3 Wolf Moon and Keyboard Cat. The 3 Keyboard Cat Moon.

Amy: How people get really pissy with each other on Digg. Sites getting angry at each other. For burying them. Or sniping, Diggers camping out to submit the first picture of the day.

Mo: For being a site that’s all about giving power back to small publishers, Digg is a little confused when it comes to implementation. And you’ll see sites that are more mainstream (NY Times, Cracked.com) have an easier time getting more exposure on Digg. As a result of that community members within Digg, when they’re starting out, they want to submit the stories they think have an easier chance of getting to the front page. Rather than trying to submit stuff that they think /should/ get noticed, they submit stuff that would already get noticed. You see Digg users competing with each other to submit from these sources, so they can become the “secret masters of Digg.”

Andy: Digg has kind of put a stop to that recently because they’ve basically locked it down so you can only submit one URL to the site at a time, you can’t duplicate the URL.

Amy: But we were talking about car sites that would accuse the other of sniping the others submission and threatening to call out lawyers.

Mo: So in addition to this you have Digg users fighting and mystery created around people who are able to get to the front page, because a lot of people believe that there’s a handful of people who control the front page of Digg.

Amy: The auto space is brutal on Digg.

Mo: So in the auto space you have only a certain number of stories in certain topics be on the front page. When you’re competing for that one space on the front page you have publishers and they’re fighting with each other. The incident I was talking about this one company thought the other company was maliciously attacking their content, and they actually got lawyers involved.

JD: It’s competitive because like Mo said there is a limited number of slots on the front page. It’s about getting the links, credibility. Google uses the front page as credibility. Very few stories make it to the front page out of thousands. Among automotive stories only 2-3 will make it in a day, it does get ugly. When we’re at these panels we try to convey these things and lawyers get involved friends and enemies get formed. I’m talking in code now.

Andy: It gets fierce! Y’know there’s kind of a secret subculture too – when enough users reach a certain level where they become popular and they’ve submitted so many things that they’re frequent popular submitters on Digg, they tend to find each other and clump together, and we form cliques naturally, organically. We don’t actually go out trying to form cliques, but it happens as a matter of course as you become successful doing it [Digging] on a daily basis. A lot of it used to be through IM but we discovered IM got really spammy and we got inundated by people who just wanted us to put their stuff on Digg. So we had to come up with secret backchannel ways to talk to each other. You guys want to talk about some of the ways we communicate within, at the risk of – ?

Amy: Mental telepathy? Don’t tell anyone.

JD: There are sites like xkcd that allow you to get to the front page easily. If you can get to the front page, it’s a flag that you will Digg other people’s stuff.

Mo: The description of the panel specifically said there would be no sharing of secrets! But – you guys have seen how there’s hesitation on certain topics… Digg has a love/hate relationship with publishers/readers and there’s a tension there. If you seem to be manipulating things, boom, you’re banned. So people tend to be very guarded about it. You get thrown out of the community and you’re out forever.

Amy: I have heard of people changing their IP address, but I don’t know them personally. From the questions “I saw this panel on Reddit yesterday.”

Mo: So… social news and social bookmarking, it’s the biggest. They’re talking about Digg. Digg’s not the only game in town – Reddit’s really good, Stumbleupon’s really good, and then you get into some niche sites. Redditors will regularly say “Digg users – all they do is see what’s popular on Reddit, submit it to Digg and it becomes famous a day late,” which is why there’s a comment up there saying “I saw this panel on Reddit yesterday.”

Amy: Some of the funniest comments on Digg are “I saw this on Digg yesterday”

Andy: There’s a reason for that! There’s a difference in the lag time between when something is submitted and front pages on Digg and Reddit, because of their user bases and size.

Amy: On Digg I rarely hit the front page until 15-20 hours of submission. Some people take just 5 hours, it seems like an accident to me. Some interesting questions: Are we cultural anthropologists or asshole bouncers (throwback to Ethan Z’s keynote). An interesting question. By submitting the things we do, we are those bouncers.

JD: When you get to the level where you can get to the front page, you have great responsibility like Peter Parker. You can take a white rabbit in a snow storm and get it to the front page. If top Digger submits it to Digg, you can get it to the front page of Digg. You have to make sure you’re not submitting shit.

Andy: Exactly. With the status that we’ve accumulated there’s a responsibility we have as well to our followers to – not! We have to make sure not to submit crap, basically.

Mo: There’s a question about Digg and the NY Times, that sometimes Digg is fun and funny but NY Times is probably more valuable – but you have to remember that Digg is a product of its community. Maybe the stuff on the front page isn’t “quality” to your definition of it but it is what the community wants. There’s another site called NewsTrust that rates news – you’re not voting it up or down – is this story a good story, or is it biased? Is it timely?

Andy: But do they do breaking news?

Mo: That’s not really the point – I mean, they’re a community judged news site, not community curated.

Amy: I would like to address Nick Douglas. ROFLCon was not an inside job.

Amy: A whole bunch of people are really happy that we are not online, and submitting to Digg. There is Missbabyman, mrbabylean, oldboy. People copy names. If the avatar looks the same as one of them, someone. No one ever Diggs without reading a story, ever .

Amy: Why do you spend so much time working for a website that profits off your labor? Does Digg profit?

Mo: That alone is a very interesting question. The thing you need to know about Digg is that when it was first launched it was a very innovative idea – nobody was doing social news, there was delicious but it was about bookmarks, not creating a social news front page. So Digg took that to its logical end and it was really hot for the first three years and it was the darling of Silicon Valley – maybe Google was gonna buy them for millions. You gotta remember they didn’t capitalize on that. Digg just broke even 5 months ago – it took 5 years and 35 million dollars in venture capital for them to break even.

Amy: So that’s all you need. 5 years and 35 million dollars and a really good idea.

Amy: How many of you are interested in the future of Digg?

Mo: How many of you are interested in the future of Digg?

Amy: Also, I do feel our heads are beautifully shaped (reading from backchannel)

Andy: some of us have had the privilege of getting a sneak peek into the future of Digg and I actually can’t talk about that.

Amy: if you talk about that, they will take your children away.

Mo: It was like that white bunny in a snowstorm.

Andy: But what’s interesting is that in the context of what Facebook is doing.

Mo: Well yeah. Digg’s main innovation was the ‘Digg’ button and the algorithm. A couple years ago they announced “We’re gonna make a Digg button for the web.” They were going to put the Digg button across the web, and we have yet to see it.

Andy: And that’s basically what Facebook announced with their ‘like’ button.

Amy: If you’re unfamiliar with Facebook, you have to leave now.

Mo: Yeah, problem is their new set of social plug-ins makes Facebook the fabric of the social web. Like buttons, etc – the next step of the Facebook Connect. So the hopes and dreams that Digg had of becoming that social platform for the entire web have been crushed by Facebook.

Amy: Is there really an Austrian general in the back left of the room. There is a request for you to march back and forth in the room.

Amy: Another question about groupthink. How do the structures of Digg and Reddit lead to different ways of thinking and differences in the community?

Andy: The main difference between Digg and Reddit is the size.

Mo: Digg is 5-6 million. And Reddit is what, 5-600?

Andy: And what Reddit doesn’t realize is that as their community gets bigger they’re going to look more like Digg.

Mo: I think the easiest way to explain what’s working and what’s not working on Digg is to compare it to our current political system. It’s a bit commercialized, it’s big.

JD: It’s a slow process. Reddit is much more nimble. You can get thousands of visits in minutes. Digg takes longer. Reddit is self-moderated, Digg is not. That might be changing. Self-moderation will change in Digg. Reddit uses moderation who are users who have the ability to get rid of spam. Digg does not, they use their staff and rely on bury.

Amy: Why do you spend so much of your free time on Digg. It’s really addictive. I post what I find amusing on Facebook. I have friends who tell me “You find the funniest stuff.” It’s good to have people tell me “You’re awesome.” I’ve made really good friends, and I see way more stuff than I could.

Andy: Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, a little validation?

JD: Why do people watch TV or WoW? They enjoy it. Digg is a recreational thing. They want to get that rush, that a story they selected has so many people reading it. It’s a power trip.

Amy: You have 4300 Diggs, do you still get that tingle when you get that email from Digg?

Andy: Absolutely. Absolutely. Every – it’s definitely a bipolar reaction for me. When I get the SMS alert there’s that thrill, then I go to the site and check out the comments, and if I’ve gone for a day without a story on the front page I get depressed. “Why doesn’t anybody love me and my stories?!”

Amy: My husband is like “Go submit something because you’re really bitchy” I haven’t had a front page for TWO DAYS!!

JD: Nobody else in the world gets an SMS when they front page.

Amy: How do you like the new format for ads that look like submissions?

Mo: Let’s talk about the ads a little bit. Digg has an inherent problem: Their community started off tech-savvy and web-savvy and they are built on a CPM advertising model. Problem is a majority of their users have adblock and they don’t see those ads, so Digg doesn’t make money off their heaviest users. So recently they created a new ad unit where the ad looks like a story and goes through like it was a sponsored story.

Amy: And you can vote it up or bury it.

Mo: You can’t comment on it because the brand wouldn’t like that if you started bashing them in a comment thread on Digg.

Amy: When they first did it, when they tested it they made sure that it worked with AdBlock Plus. So you would not see the ad, if you had AdBlock.

Andy: I have a couple Reddit accounts and the real mrbabyman is me on Reddit, I also have another one which I started a couple years ago just to test the waters to see if the magic was still there, if I could still find and spread good content irrespective of my status on Digg. And the answer is ‘yes,’ that other account is doing quite well and nobody is able to connect that with me.

Amy: What’s the name of that account?

Andy: I’m not going to tell you.

Amy: Do the people on the panel make a living off Digg? It’s complicated. I personally am making a living because I made a name on Digg. I help some sites with their social media strategy, as a journalist for news sites. I am not paid for submitting things to Digg.

Andy: Yeah, I make my money as a film editor. That’s how I – I don’t get any monetization from Digg at all.

Mo: I wish I did, God knows I’ve spent a lot of time on that site. In a sense, I work for the Chicago Tribune and they make money off of Digg via page views, but again, it’s an insubstantial amount. Short answer’s no but I wish I did.

Amy: It’s an indirect thing. Did you get the job because of the profile you built on Digg? Part of your entire in to social media.

JD: You can help sites get on to the front page. They don’t want you to accept money for Diggs, etc. People have offered to send us t-shirts, or pay us $1000. I’ve always said no, let’s face it. I make money through social media, but not directly through Digg.

Andy: There’s a difference – there’s things that are absolutely not allowed because of the Terms of Use, like you can’t accept money to submit anything to Digg. However, you can work with publishers in helping to create content that they themselves can submit to Digg, in other words, as a consultant help them get on Digg or other social news sites by optimizing their content to what you feel would work best.

Mo: And that’s not something that’s a standard ToS violation across all sites – for example, Netscape: AOL’s attempt to bury Digg – they hired 30 top Digg users to get that site up and running. Digg users were upset and so were the founders of Digg, because they thought “Huh, we don’t compensate our users… what if it’s successful?” Fortunately for them it wasn’t successful, but some sites feel like it’s appropriate for people to pay to submit.

JD: Digg encourages and is going to encourage site owners. If you’re sitting there from a decent sized publication, you can get yourself on the front page of Digg. If the people who come here have a vested interest in getting on the front page, Digg is a great venue.

Mo: And their ToU is more or less “We’re going to try to monetize your participation, and the publishers will make money off the traffic, but you’re not allowed to make money for being the go-between.”

Amy: If you started a new Digg account today, could you get the same submissions front-paged easily?

Andy: The Digg algorithm has changed quite a bit. I can only theoretically broach that question because you can only have one username on Digg, and that’s why I did the thing with Reddit. But – the way the Digg promotion algorithm works the more successful you are the harder it is to get stuff to the front page and the more sensational the submissions have to be to get to the front page.

Mo: Wait. it’s not just that. The more successful you are the bigger following you have so the moment you submit anything to the community you’ll get a certain number of votes almost automatically.

Amy: after they read the article, of course. And those votes tend to be from the same people over and over again. So to try to level the playing field they make it harder for you, so that you aren’t seeing the same thing again and again.

JD: The short answer is yes. It will take a certain period of time to get known. It would take Andy about 2 weeks to get back to the front page. His newer account could get to the front page more often for the first month than his real mrbabyman account.

Amy: Do you disagree about anything? JD disagrees with anything anyone says. Mo smokes menthol, and I hate that.

Andy: Mo likes the RIAA.

Mo: That’s entirely inaccurate. I agree, go EFF and all that stuff, I just don’t like piracy, that’s it, and one would think that this guy being a film editor doesn’t want people stealing his films.

Andy: But I’d say the metrics that say piracy is bad for the film industry are fallacious.

Mo: That’s an argument for a separate panel.

Amy: With the introduction of Tumblr or Stumbleupon, does the elitist culture of Digg have a face new challenges?

Andy: Do you feel like that’s an accurate characterization?

JD: Digg is an elitist community. The front page is controlled by 1% of the community.

Andy: But that percentage of the community is active.

JD: 1% of the active community.

Andy: But I think if you’re active at all on the site that you begin to build the kind of cache that you can actually get stuff popular.

JD: You can go on Reddit right now, if you have a solid piece of content you can get it to the front page without a problem. If you have Obama kissing Marilyn Monroe, you will not hit the front page of Digg. The chance is infinitesimal.

Andy: The question is about super personalized curation platforms.

Mo: One, nobody’s really figured out personalizing news to that level; it’s not really super-personalized. Two, these sites have needed recommender engines for a very long time. It’s just a matter of somebody figuring out how to look at your activity on a site and give you the most relevant stories for you and nobody’s really figured it out. I don’t think the social news sites compete with Tumblr on any level.

Amy: How much do you know about the algorithm, and what does you know change how you submit on Digg? Every time you figure it out it changes.

Andy: They don’t change it they tweak it but you know what we have figured out how it works, we don’t know the specifics, but we know what aspects are responsible for what is successful or not on Digg. But unfortunately that doesn’t change how we are able to submit anything.

Amy: There was one period of time when the algorithm would allow multiple front pagers for a single user.

Andy: They’re just tweaking certain values. We can’t control whether a story gets on the front page or not, all we can do is best-fit what we submit.

Mo: I think at the end of the day you can even manipulate the Google algorithm. There are certain things you know.

Amy: mrbabyman is a liar, he does not have a wife. He has a girlfriend.

Andy: How big is the core group of power users?

Mo: Define core.

Andy: JD, you’d know better than anybody else.

JD: There are approx 70 or so Digg users who are consistently on Digg. There are 130 or so who are front pagers for a while. Some are part-timers. These are the people who provide the passion of the Digg. They haven’t played the game so they don’t get to the front page.

Amy: Vast majority are reading. A smaller group are submitting. An even smaller is actively submitting.

Amy: Thoughts on the gender imbalance on Digg. I think that it’s changed a lot. There are a lot more women on Digg who are regularly hitting the front page. The site started out as a tech news site, which has a gender imbalance. That’s where it’s root is from.

Mo: Facebook and Twitter tend to skew in women’s favor.

Amy: Yeah, more female users on those sites. There are more and more women who are on the top 100 Diggers of all time and on the site. Sometimes I put a troll’ing comment on Digg being a whiny women, just because I want them to tell me to go make a sandwich.

Amy: How do you find interesting content?

Andy: We specifically said that this panel wouldn’t be a ‘how to’ but I feel like we should give the last couple minutes for tips. The question is “How do you find interesting content?” You have to be a member of the space, there on a daily basis, because Digg is very much about the zeitgeist.

Mo: Give them the short answer: Go to Reddit.com.

Andy: But you have to feel what’s going on a regular basis, you build RSS feeds of sites you like that are popular, we joke about the Reddit thing but because Reddit is so quick to brew – surface content it’s almost like a canary in a coal mine, and Digg is just a bigger audience for that. There are tools that we use – DI66.net -

Amy: There’s a site di66.net where you can see top words and descriptions. e.g. “Obama and Megan Fox eat bacon”. Talks about top 1000 sites over last few days, months.

Andy: Any of those sites are a great starter kid of RSS feeds to start following if you want to get to the front page.

Amy: It has to be something that you like, it becomes obvious if you submit something that you don’t care about. Or if you are paid to submit it.

Andy: Be passionate about what you want to spread out there.

Amy: It’s a lot easier to work it if you like it and are interested in it.

Amy: @amyvernon everywhere.

Andy: thedrilldown.com, and if you Google mrbabyman you’ll find me. The Drilldown podcast’s live Sunday afternoons on ustream.tv.

Mo: I’m msaleem on Digg, Twitter, etc.

Amy: I have no podcast. I would like to say that.

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