Last week, Digg CEO Jay Adelson sat in a crowded room in Denver holding a stack of papers while facing a camera and trying to project his voice over the cacophony around him. Next to him sat a tired-looking U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who had taken a break from the Democratic National Convention to meet with Adelson.
The two were participating in a new project launched by Digg in conjunction with CNN’s iReport called Digg Dialogg. After a brief introduction, Adelson asked Pelosi, “Please describe what Net Neutrality is and your position on the issue.” The question had been written by Digg user maverick999 and was one of thousands that had been submitted in prior days.
True to its democratic form, Digg allowed users to give a thumbs-up or -down on each question, essentially permitting the community to choose which questions to ask the Speaker. For approximately 20 minutes, the Digg CEO read one question after the next — on issues ranging from medicinal marijuana use to the Democratic Congress’ opposition to the Bush Administration — pausing for a few moments between each one to allow Pelosi to offer a response.
Such a high profile interview is indicative of Digg’s growing role in U.S. politics. Originally a site that focused almost solely on technology issues, in June 2006 Digg launched a new version that allowed users to submit stories in a much broader range of categories (Technology, Science, World & Business, Videos, Entertainment and Gaming). Since that time, its political section has become among its most popular, but has also caused complaints from users who liked the old technology focus and from those that believe the site is biased toward a liberal point of view.
With over 3 million registered users, Digg has been a driving force in online media, sometimes able to propel stories into the national spotlight. The site is responsible for creating a barrage of early buzz and massive online fundraising for former presidential candidate Ron Paul. It has also been heavily utilized by Obama supporters to promote the campaign’s social network, YouTube videos and email newsletter. And this year Digg has sponsored events at both political party conventions, including the Big Tent in Denver that hosted hundreds of bloggers and new media journalists.
In a phone interview last week, Adelson told me that within three months of opening up its submissions categories, non-tech stories were being dugg more than tech items. Now, more than two years later, he said that tech stories make up only 10 percent of the links that are submitted to the site every day.
“I would say we have kept our flavor,” he said. “We kept our early adopters’ useful energy, even across the other sections of the site. It’s pretty clear it has become an important medium for these micro-communities that have sprouted up, including one for technology.”
He explained that the site is becoming more and more compartmentalized, with many users customizing the front page so that only the categories that interest them are shown. And with the beta launch of a new “recommendations” section, Digg administrators are attempting to modify each user’s experience based on his or her past digging history.
Building Hype Online
Though Digg offers literally dozens of sub-categories under which to submit stories, political items have often dominated the highly trafficked front page in recent months, usually driving tens of thousands of readers to campaign articles in major newspapers and blogs. Over the Labor Day weekend, for instance, more than 40 stories about Sarah Palin, John McCain’s VP pick, received enough diggs to become popular.
But with that sharpened political focus has come accusations of bias, leaving some of the site’s more conservative users frustrated. A review of the front page stories from the last seven days shows that liberal sites like Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Think Progress have had multiple articles a day on the front page while weeks will go by without a single major conservative blog achieving popular status.
This homogeneous group of frequently-dugg sites has fueled no small amount of animosity from Digg users, both within the comments sections of the stories and in critical blog posts outside the site. Conspiracy theories about Digg “bury brigades” — groups of users that try to swat down any stories that don’t favor their particular political leanings — have sprung up and some users have complained of a feeling of “Digg fatigue” when a particular candidate — Ron Paul, for instance — has received too much coverage on the site.
AJ Wysocki, 27, has only been a member and reader of Digg since June. He opened his account because a liberal political radio show he frequently listens to, The Young Turks, enlisted him as a “web soldier” and charged him with promoting the content of the show online.
“They were looking for people to do stuff on Digg and Facebook and MySpace,” he told me in a phone interview. “So I basically took Digg. What that meant is that every day I go on and submit video clips they do on Digg, and I also submit all the blog posts they write. That’s how I got started on the site really.”
Wysocki became a heavy listener of “The Young Turks” after the 2004 election; it was then that he grew increasingly interested in politics, and he followed the hosts as the program traveled from Sirius Satellite Radio to Air America and then later when it was dropped from the liberal radio network and became an independent entity. When they asked him to help them promote content on the social news site, he only had a vague idea of what it was.
“I’ve seen the little icon, because I read Huffington Post a lot, and I saw that little Digg icon but I never really looked at it,” Wysocki said. “And then I visited it and I thought this is a good idea because you can really build hype. If someone has an interesting story and you have enough friends to vote on it, it’s kind of like democracy. If you really like it then a lot of people see it and then it gets to the front page and a whole bunch more people see it.”
In the short time that he’s been a user of the site he has become a heavy reader, eventually expanding his submissions to include content not created by the Young Turks. In the process, a few of his submissions have ended up on the coveted front page.
“I read Huffington Post a lot and Daily Kos,” he said. “If I see an article and if I agree with it, I’ll wonder if other people will agree with it. Then I’ll definitely submit it; it’s just a way of broadcasting an idea.”
More Liberal Submissions
Daniel Joel is a 16-year-old living in Pennsylvania whose family has been heavily involved with Republican politics; his father has helped manage several local campaigns and Daniel has even been to a few Republican National Conventions. The teenager has been active on Digg for about a year and said that his involvement in politics helped fuel his interest in the site.
“Digg has really the power to push stories into the mainstream media,” he told me. “Because it’s user-based, there’s over 3 million registered users, so people can find something they think is interesting, put it up on there, send it to a few friends, and then it makes it out to a bigger audience…And its influence reaches outside of the Internet.”
I asked Joel if he felt that his conservative views were represented on the front page, and whether he felt Digg had a liberal bias. He explained that the perceived bias likely stems from the fact that articles from liberal sites are being submitted more often than items from conservative outlets, thereby increasing the chances of liberal-leaning articles making it to the front page.
“There aren’t as many conservatives submitting stuff to Digg as there are conservative people in the comments section discussing it,” he said. “Even though you aren’t getting that balance in the story…I think it is helping all-around sometimes. For example stories are sometimes up there about the election that don’t involve one specific party or campaign. A story was on just the other day that Xbox would give its users the ability to register online to vote, and I think some people on Digg might see that and it might get more voters out there from possibly both sides.”
When I pressed him for why there weren’t more conservative users submitting content, he admitted that the tech community that still dominates Digg leans decidedly to the left; he essentially felt that conservatives were slow to adopt social news sites.
This point was echoed to me by Neal Rodriguez, one of the power users on Digg who has been able to drive several posts a day to the front page (his username is numberneal). He joined Digg in 2006, and he said that though it may appear that the site has fallen away from its tech roots, the technology crowd is still incredibly powerful.
“I believe predominantly that group is [mainly] technologists,” Rodriguez said. “But they’re human like everyone else, which means they’re interested in a lot of broader topics. You still have to format a story in a way that a technologist will like it. Everybody that’s attracted to technology, they grew up with GI Joe, Transformers, all those sci-fi movies, all that stuff gets more front page exposure. All that outrageous stuff, the top 10 lists, that comes from what [Digg founder] Kevin Rose refers to as geek culture.”
That very geek culture, he said, is largely comprised of left-of-center folks. The fact that many within the Democratic Party have embraced Net neutrality — a major issue among technology issues — has certainly fueled this liberal enthusiasm.
When I spoke to Adelson last week, I brought up the complaints that often show up in the comments section of front page stories, especially ones that link to articles in places like Huffington Post and Daily Kos. He again focused on the compartmentalization of Digg, saying that they hoped to eventually filter out unwanted stories based on a digger’s individual experience.
“I would like to get to the point where I can intuit what’s personalization for you, rather than expect you to make those decisions proactively,” he said. “With your permission of course. And I’d like to engage you in that way, and not make it such a large amount of work for you to go through for that process of customization.”
What do you think? Do you like Digg’s new focus on politics or do you think the site should remain true to its roots in technology? Do you think it is biased and how could that change? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Simon Owens is an associate blogger for MediaShift. He also writes the Bloggasm blog, launched in late 2005 and focusing on the intersection of new and old media. It often includes in-depth feature articles on a variety of media subjects.
UPDATE: I referred to Kevin Rose in the article as “Digg co-founder” when I should have used the title “Digg founder.” That correction to the story has been made, above.
Many of the commenters both in this comments thread and in the Digg submission have pointed out that Digg isn’t biased, but its community is. Their reasoning is that a story only makes it to the front page if enough users Digg it. This point is underscored by the responses from both Daniel Joel and Neal Rodriguez, who said that the tech community that still dominates Digg is largely left of center.
I agree with these opinions, but I should note that not all votes are created equal on Digg. There are a number of power users on Digg who drive most the stories to the front page; they serve as almost unofficial editors. However, it could be argued that they wouldn’t have become power users if their views didn’t conform with large portions of the community.
There has also been a number of conservative commenters who have voiced their frustration with the dozens of stories that appear on the front page every day that they consider left-leaning. I’m not sure what the alternative could be though; would it be possible to create a conservative version of Digg, just as Conservapedia is a conservative version of Wikipedia? Unless the moderators of such a site intentionally deleted the accounts of liberals or vetoed left-of-center stories from the front page, it would be hard to pull off. And once you start adding in an editor to deny the community’s submissions, it’s no longer social news.
Mark Glaser adds: Right now Digg seems like it wants to have it both ways: It wants to be a user-edited news site, where the users decide what should go on its home page; but it also wants to be respected as a traffic driver that helps pick up stories we haven’t heard about. The problem happens when Digg tries to compare itself to editor-driven news sites, which often try to provide balance in their coverage on political issues. Whether those mainstream sites succeed or not is an open question, but if Digg’s community weighs one way or the other on the political scale, it is bound to turn off the other side. That is an issue if they want to attract a larger, scalable audience.