In July 2008, Google was in final negotiations to acquire the news sharing website Digg for around $200 million. Founded only four years prior, Digg allowed users to submit, read, and vote on links to news and content. Digg displayed these links in order of popularity with a front page that showcased the top-voted stories. Driven by the collective intelligence of its user base, Digg positioned itself as a democratically curated alternative to the oligarchy of traditional news sites and mainstream media outlets. As one of the world’s first social media sites, Digg drew over 1 million daily visitors — nearly as many as the New York Times website — and seemed poised for continued rapid growth.
But four years later, Digg was sold for only $0.5 million to Betaworks. Digg’s content no longer reflected the votes of a broad user base, and the site had lost most of its traffic despite multiple site redesigns that attempted to retain users. Just as quickly as it had risen to prominence, Digg had become obsolete. How did this once-promising goliath of social media lose nearly all of its value?
The key factor in Digg’s demise was a flawed design that was too easily abused by users. Digg had no controls over user verification, so individuals could game the system by creating multiple accounts to artificially inflate the number of votes for their own content. Because Digg displayed content in order of popularity, most visitors saw and voted only on content that was already popular. This system created a vicious cycle in which a small number of dedicated users could push their own content to the front page and thereby gain more followers, allowing them to more easily repeat the process. As Digg grew, so too did its problems related to power-hungry users cheating and gaining undue influence over content.
Eventually, the biggest headlines on Digg came to be decided by groups of users who operated under various aliases to promote their own agendas. Anti-Republican content frequently dominated Digg’s front page whereas conservative headlines were typically voted down into obscurity. The most influential Digg users were even offered payments from websites interested in referral traffic. While hundreds of thousands of users submitted content to Digg each month, only the top 70 “power users” made it to the front page regularly. As the phenomenon of Digg’s power users became noticed and publicized, regular visitors began to feel disenchanted with the site’s increasingly empty promise of democratically determined news.
In August 2010, Digg attempted to wrest control back from its power users by migrating to a new system (Digg v4) that deemphasized user-contributed content in favor of publisher-contributed content. The change incited an uproar among power users and regular visitors alike, who felt the company was selling out to the mainstream media it had originally sought to replace. Digg experienced a mass exodus of users, many of whom turned to rival site Reddit. While Digg’s traffic fell by a quarter in the following month, Reddit’s traffic grew by 230% in 2010. Digg never recovered from its transition to Digg v4, and the site continued to bleed users and traffic over the next two years. By July 2012, the time of its sale to Betaworks, Digg’s monthly unique visitor count had fallen 90% from its peak.
The implosion of Digg, once an internet powerhouse, illustrates the importance of having effective controls when relying on a crowdsourced model. In Digg’s case, the inability to prevent fraudulent voting and abuse created a class of power users who held disproportionate control over the site’s content and community. When Digg attempted to solve the problem, it ended up destroying everything it had built. Other crowdsourced businesses can avoid Digg’s mistakes by ensuring that user contributions and interactions present fewer opportunities for abuse — and by getting things right the first time.