Yesterday's big tech story was that social media pioneer Digg, in its dying breath after a painfully drawn out two-year decline, sold to technology developers Betaworks for a paltry half a million dollars:
The precise value of the deal was not clear, but it was no doubt far less than what Digg was once worth. An investment round in 2008 valued it at more than $150 million, and at one point Google was said to have been interested in buying the site for around $200 million.
More details are coming to light today, and it appears that the total value of the deal, including other assets sold to the Washington Post and LinkedIn, might be worth closer to $16 million. But the meaning of the moment is the same: a website that once ruled the Internet is now in its death throes.
It's easy to forget that Digg was one of the very first to introduce three of the features that are now indispensable for sites with social functionality: friends, followers, and the ability to upvote or downvote content. But Digg took a great thing and ruined it, in large part by making its own site shittier at the same time that other sites began to do the same thing better.
First, Facebook and Twitter came onto the scene, offering a richer social experience than Digg has. But Reddit, which copied the Digg model and improved upon it, was probably an even more important factor. Reddit embodied the kind of responsiveness to community feedback which, by 2010, Digg had begun to eschew completely. The increasingly greedy and thick-headed Digg's launch of Version 4 that year—which removed the "bury" button that let you vote links down, and introduced "Sponsored Links" to the homepage, among other incredibly unpopular changes—sparked a mass exodus of Diggers to Reddit in an event known as "Quit Digg Day," which took place a mere five days later.
But competitive pressure from better websites wasn't the only problem. As Alexis Madrigal observed yesterday, the ability of savvy content companies to "game" the Digg algorithm en masse made it essentially impossible for the average user to have any success after submitting a link, even if it was high quality.
I used to work for such a company. Digg had already been on the decline for some time before I started there, but "popping" links—that is, getting them to the front page by securing a certain amount of upvotes within a certain period of time after the link's submission—was a central weapon in the marketing department's arsenal. And they were very good at it. It wasn't a sure bet, as some community interest was always necessary (crappy links were still impossible to pop), but their scientific approach was surprisingly effective. Digg's traffic was dwindling, and the ease with which the marketing department could make it happen was a testament to how broken Digg had become. The fact that Reddit has proven so hard to game has been a big contributor to its enduring popularity.
The Digg saga is complex and fascinating, but one thing is absolutely clear: everyone on the Internet is happy about this. Digg represented the very worst instance of a user-centric website going corporate, implementing monetization strategies that degraded the community and ruined the experience, all while completely alienating the users that were the sole reason for the site's success in the first place. So, hooray.